Washington Square Park. “Listen to the birds singing, mommy!” “Yes, it’s spring. The birds are happy.” “Are you happy, mommy?” “Of course! Aren’t you?” “I’m not as happy as the birds.” “Really? Why not?” “Just because.” A pause. “Look at the squirrel, mommy!” “Do you want to feed it this cracker?” “Yes, give it to me.” “Be careful. Hold your hand still. Don’t let the squirrel bite you.” “I’ll be real careful, mommy.” Longer pause. “What will happen if the squirrel bites me?” “Your finger will hurt. You will bleed. The squirrel may be sick. You might get sick. You could die.” The longest pause. “Are you going to die, mommy?” “Everybody dies, one day or other.” “But are you going to die now?” “No, unless the squirrel bites me.” “Am I going to die, mommy?” “Probably.” “Please don’t say that, mommy!” “Then be very careful. Keep your mask on. Don’t feed the squirrel. Put your hands in your pockets. Walk straight ahead. Stop laughing. Stop imagining the birds are singing for you.”
Truths once self-evident are in practice not so. Will homo invictus go down? The cards are on the table. The wheel is turning. The time is now. The question is not, “Will life go on?” The question is: “What kind of life?”
Danes pay about 55% of their personal income in taxes, high compared with Americans. Danes also pay a 25% value-added tax on everything they buy. For their taxes Danes get free health care, free education from kindergarten through college, subsidized high-quality preschool, a strong social safety net, and very low levels of poverty, homelessness, crime, and inequality. A 3-bedroom apartment in Copenhagen city center rents for about $2300, less outside the city. On average, Danes live two years longer than Americans.
That life goes on is no surprise. Question is: What kind of life? If Covid is not the apocalypse (and I don’t think it is), then what kind of existence do we—as individuals, as artists and scholars, and as members of families, communities, and societies—want when the virus subsides? Will the pandemic mean the end to globalization as entities once called “nations” re-erect (note word) borders, bring manufacturing “home,” cut down on international travel, and focus on the close-and-similar? That is a strong impulse, with some good points, but basically, it is defensive. I am no fan of globalization, but I abhor even more nationalism and the furies it has called forth over time, and will again if reinvigorated. Disease is bad, war is worse.
So I would hope that after Covid dawns a world more integrated than before, more cooperative, more focused on the two extremes (if you will allow me): the intimate-familial-local on the one hand and the regional-continental-global on the other. In such a world, nations will turn their swords into ploughshares; pigs, chickens, and cattle will not be raised brutally and then factory slaughtered; corporations will operate for the benefit of all, not just share-holders. For the whole world: 100% free health care; free high-quality education through college; a “maximum wage” to go along with a minimum wage—with the two not being separated by more than a factor of 5. In terms of performance and teaching, two items that have shaped my life, more hybrid performances and classrooms, more site-specific events and site-specific courses. I want zooms and f2f to go hand-in-glove. Yes, Pollyanna Richard is writing this. Still, in this awesome and terrifying hiatus, Pollyanna sings.
One woman, very distressed, came weaving toward me on Broadway near 8th Street. “I am hungry! My children are hungry! No one will help me! Will you help me!!??” She lunged toward me, her cheeks very red, not with happiness but with fever or alcohol, and I was scared, I didn’t want her to come close to me. “Take me to a store, buy me some food!” Almost reading my mind, tears on her cheeks, “Everyone runs away from me! Help me, please please help me!” I took out my wallet and found a $5 bill. I stretched out my arm and fingers as far as they would go. She snatched the bill like a sparrow would a crumb. She looked at the bill. Her black eyes flashed, astounded. Her whole face lit up, so happy. As she plucked the money she touched the tip of my index and third finger with hers. “Oh, thank you, thank you so much!” Oh my god, she touched me. Conflicting thoughts and feelings assailed me instantly. She was infected and has now infected me. She was Jesus, or sent by Jesus, to test me … me! not even a Christian. “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.” I heard “the least of these” over and over. The world is so full of the least of these. Jesus touched the lepers, he was not afraid of them. Me? I leapt from that woman, even as I helped her (slightly). As I went on my way, never turning to see where she had gone, I asked myself, could I embrace her, fold her in a loving hug? No, no! Even the slight touch, like Michelangelo’s God creating Adam, troubled me. But in Michelangelo’s painting, there is a miniscule gap between God’s finger and Adam’s. His power is conveyed across that tiny yet absolute distance. As I walked down Broadway, I decided not to tell anyone about what happened. The tide goes out, the tide comes in.
In some profound way I enjoy the quiet, the isolation, the monastic smell of the situation, if only the underlying circumstance was more … what … “spiritual.” Monks and ascetics retreat from the world, shut themselves off, take care not to intrude. Jains walk with brooms ahead so as not to inadvertently step on an insect. Japanese Yamabushi seek mountains, Indian sadhus simply walk. In this fog of war are we practicing a strategic retreat? If so, may we be the better for it ultimately.
A supernova explodes in (nearly) immeasurable dazzle, a brightness beyond the ability to see it. The what’s left, a corona of star spots, gasses flowing in the firmament, the trace of the collapse and then the expansion of energies, from super-packed to outward thrusting to black hole sucking in all light. The event boundary, which is my remembering, my not being able to remember the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. Not undiscovered but the deeply known. The ancient past that is my intimate past, my infancy before I was even an infant, the supernova being the womb expelling me into daylight.
—New York City, May 16, 2020
Richard Schechner is editor of TDR, author, theatre director, and University Professor Emeritus in Performance Studies at New York University. His books include Environmental Theater, Performance Theory, Between Theater and Anthropology, The End of Humanism, The Future of Ritual, Performed Imaginaries, and Performance Studies: An Introduction. He was a producing director of the Free Southern Theater and founded The Performance Group. He has directed theatre, led workshops, taught, and lectured in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.