It has been a cliché of the COVID era that we are living in “unprecedented times.” But in fact, little in human experience is without precedent. While history never repeats itself exactly, it does present us with endless variations on recurring themes.
Since the dawn of drama, artists have explored those themes on stage. New plays examine who and where we are at this particular time; the classics remind us that we’ve been here before, that our present experience is part of a larger pattern that can be wonderful or profoundly disturbing.
While spanning different centuries, the works on our 2023 playbill all seem to me to reflect in some way the mood of the moment. In particular, they examine an age-old tension highlighted anew by the challenges of the pandemic era: the tension between duty and desire.
That dichotomy is obvious in King Lear and Richard II, both of which feature monarchs whose personal agendas conflict with their responsibilities to the state — just as we today have had to weigh the desire to follow our hearts against our duty toward our community.
Those who put their responsibilities ahead of their own wishes, as the Princess does at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost, win our admiration. But sometimes what society demands is unreasonable, inappropriate and even destructive, as in the segregationist Deep South of Wedding Band, where a perverse interpretation of “duty” is enforced by social stigma. Benedick, in Much Ado About Nothing, rather than dutifully supporting his Prince and his comrades in the unmerited condemnation of Hero, follows his own sense of moral duty, impelled by his desire for justice (and, of course, for Beatrice).
Societal expectations are cheekily and cheerfully flouted in Les Belles-Soeurs and in Women of the Fur Trade, while both Frankenstein Revived and A Wrinkle in Time invite us to ponder the duties attendant upon the scientific pursuit of knowledge. Using the art of illusion as a metaphor, Grand Magic takes a skeptical look at romanticized notions of duty within marriage, while Monty Python’s Spamalot satirizes romanticized notions of knightly duty — along with pretty much anything else it can lay its gauntlets on.
Casey and Diana, a play inspired by the AIDS crisis, speaks directly to the cost borne by the heroic caregivers of today, whose duty once again consists of risking their own lives to care for others. And in our time of housing crisis, the musical Rent once again poses questions about our obligations toward those whose desire is simply for somewhere to live.
Perhaps, as we navigate a world reshaped by the past years of devastation and dislocation, these plays may help clarify for us the importance of finding a balance between pursuing our own wants, needs and dreams and helping others fulfil theirs. Because, to borrow another cliché of our times — and this one surely cannot be denied — we’re all in this together.