‘Bridges Across Chaos’

Kate and I went over to San Francisco on Wednesday night to see Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” at the American Conservatory Theater. I’ve enjoyed the few Stoppard things I’ve seen (silly stuff like “On the Razzle” or more serous stuff like “Hapgood”) because of his wordplay. “The Real Thing” is an older piece, from the early ’80s, but it was competently staged and pretty well acted. The basic plot is a struggle about commitment and faithfulness, to people and ideas, acted out between a playwright and his actress lover;/wife. That’s all I’ll say about the substance of the thing, because this is sounding like a bad college newspaper review. But the dialogue had some inspired moments. In the second act, the playwright character, Henry, gets to carry on about the difference between tangible objects — real things — and things that are just the product of how we choose to behave with each other. It’s a good moment:

“… There is, I suppose, a world of objects which have a certain form, like this coffee mug. I turn it, and it has no handle. I tilt it, and it has no cavity. But there is something real here which is always a mug with a handle. I suppose. But politics, justice, patriotism — they aren’t even like coffee mugs. There’s nothing real there separate from our perception of them. So if you try to change them as though there were something there to change, you’ll get frustrated, and frustration will finally make you violent,. If you know this and proceed with humility, you may perhaps alter people’s perceptions so that they behave a little differently at that axis of behavior where we locate politics or justice; but if you don’t know this, then you’re acting on a mistake. Prejudice is the expression of this mistake. ”

And later, he talks about the purity and power of words and the damage that’s done when they’re corrupted:

” … I can’t help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwiing bricks is a demonstration whle building tower blocks is social violence, or that an unpalatable statement is provocation while disruptng the speaker is the exercise of free speech. Words don’t deserve that kind of malarkey. They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more. … I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead. ”

Both passages touch on the moment we’re living in, in our real world, right now.

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