Marissa Skudlarek packs a hankie for the acapella bridge.
Here’s a fun game you can play with me: ask me to read W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” aloud, and see how long I can hold out without bursting into tears. Or play me a recording of “Make Our Garden Grow,” the finale of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, and see how long it takes me to start crying. This past weekend, seeing a live performance of Candide for the first time, my heart started to beat faster and my face grew hot as Candide and Cunegonde sang their solo verses… and when the chorus started singing in soaring harmony and the orchestra dropped out, the tears predictably sprang to my eyes.
I’ve loved the score of Candide since I was in high school, so that song has been making me burst into tears for over ten years. I am both surprised and pleased that its power has not diminished for me. While I love art that makes me feel intense emotions, I always worry that over-indulging in it will ruin it. Besides, is it quite healthy to wallow in melancholy, to become an emotional thrill-seeker? Basically, I feel torn between the Enlightenment and Romantic definitions of art: is it meant to be experienced rationally, or irrationally? Should we value it more for how it makes us think, or how it makes us feel? (Maybe this is one reason I love Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia so much: it deals with the conflict between Enlightenment and Romantic values. And its final scene has the power to make me cry in much the same way as the finale of Candide does: both feature the moral that we must strive to “do the best we know” in a harsh and unforgiving world.)
Still, I’m enough of a Romantic that plenty of works of art make my eyes well up. This might come as a surprise, since people don’t tend to think of me as a weepy person. When, a few months ago, I wrote about a staged reading that left me sobbing in the back courtyard of the EXIT Theatre, several friends expressed surprise that it was me who had cried. I have always admired my blog-colleague Ashley Cowan Leschber for so openly admitting that she is an emotional person, easily moved to laughter and tears. Me, I keep my emotions closer to my chest. When I read or watch Sense and Sensibility (there’s that Enlightenment-versus-Romanticism conflict again!), it is stoic Elinor whom I identify with, not the passionate Marianne.
When it comes to tears, though, no work of art has ever made me cry as much as the movie of The King and I did, when I saw it as a five-year-old. I’d seen death in movies before, but it was the simplified, Disney kind of death, where Gaston dies by falling off a tower and Belle’s love heals and transforms the Beast. Come to think of it, The King and I plays like a live-action version of Beauty and the Beast for most of its running time – but its final scene offers no such salvation.
Consider the parallels: in both movies, a gruff and moody nobleman shuts a woman up in his luxurious palace, where she quickly befriends the other inhabitants. Though the man dislikes the woman’s feistiness at first, he eventually warms to her and gives her property (a house for Anna; a library for Belle) as a token of his esteem. Then comes a gorgeous scene where the man and woman dance together in an otherwise empty ballroom, his big hands on her narrowly corseted waist.
Even as a five-year-old, I had seen enough movies to assume that this indicated that Anna and the King were falling in love and were destined to end up together. Instead, jarringly, the next scene shows the King on his deathbed, and nothing can save him: not Anna’s love, not the love of his wives and children and subjects, not medical science, not the rule that Rodgers and Hammerstein musical comedies need to have uplifting endings. For perhaps the first time, I was witnessing a character die onscreen whom I desperately wanted to live… and when the movie ended, I was inconsolable. Never have I cried so much at a film, and I doubt any film will ever make me cry so much again.
Nowadays, the playwright in me thinks that the ending of The King and I is just bad dramaturgy – sure, Oscar Hammerstein hints that the King is internally tormented, but this foreshadowing wasn’t strong enough for a child to pick up on. (Besides, lots of people are anguished; very few of them die from it.) I cried so hard at the King’s death because it came as such a shock; but now I feel like this shock is a cheap and manipulative way of ending the story.
All the same, The King and I made me cry even though I had never experienced the death of a loved one (or even a beloved pet) in real life. Somehow, this seems like more of an accomplishment than making someone cry who is already susceptible to pain. They say that when you have a child, it means that forevermore you will have a part of your heart walking around outside of your body – and the grief of losing a child may be the worst grief of all. Such is the theme of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole. When I saw this play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I think I was the only person in the audience who wasn’t crying by the end. I could tell it was a good play, the actors were skillful, the story was certainly sad… but it did not touch me at a profound, tear-jerking level. With the arrogance of youth, I decided that you probably have to be a parent in order to cry at Rabbit Hole – and that this indicated a certain weakness in Lindsay-Abaire’s writing. If he were a great playwright instead of a good one, I thought, he’d have been able to make me cry even though I did not have a child.
But these thoughts reflect an ultra-Romantic ideal: that the only real emotions are universal, and anything else is selfishness. If Rabbit Hole makes parents cry because it makes them imagine what they’d do if their own child died, but (because I am not a parent) it does not make me cry, is that so bad? Which are better: the tears we cry for rational reasons, or the tears that arise from emotions we do not understand?
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and emotional thrill-seeker. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.