José Rivera’s ‘Marisol’ and the warnings we missed

Get up, stand up

There’s seven weeks left in an annus horribilis for the record books, a relentless, daily reminder that the world is not okay, has maybe never been okay, is maybe never going to be okay. The world is not good, but there are still good things in it, and it’s vital that we find them and experience them while we can.

Stand up for your rights. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Remember the '90s?

I saw Villanova University’s production of José Rivera’s Marisol over the weekend, and it’s worth talking about.  For my money, Marisol is one of the greatest U.S. plays of the 20th century and now, in its own way, one of the greatest U.S. plays of the 21st. 

Rivera wrote Marisol in 1992, at the tail end of the vipers' nest of the '80s and right at the threshold of what was sold to us as a new era: an era of welfare reform, economic prosperity, an end to civil and global discord. They were calling it the end of history — a suitably apocalyptic name, in retrospect — and they meant that there was nothing left to figure out but some wrangling over details; the party had finally started, and all we had to do was sit back and enjoy the dividends.

Except it turns out, instead of atoning for its crimes, the United States just went about cleaning up evidence of them. Jackboots kicked the homeless out of Times Square and stomped on kids that smoked weed or hopped turnstiles, de facto labor camps grew and prisoners built the fortunes that fueled our 401(k)s. Bankers were unleashed to scam a dime from whoever would listen. Whole swaths of U.S. undesirables were swept away, locked up, driven to the outskirts of their communities, while we built fortunes on their debt and called it progress.

Bitterness and blood

I can't imagine that the Villanova theater department, when they decided Marisol belonged in their season, had any idea what was going to happen last week, that the chief cannibal of the ‘80s would be swept into office on a wave of bitter blood-and-soil rhetoric, and immediately begin to reinstate the bloodthirsty mountebanks and swivel-eyed ghouls that gorged themselves on human suffering back when he was king of the shitheap. Maybe at the time Marisol looked like a period piece, a death knell for a vicious culture we’d finally put paid by electing the first black president, a harbinger for the end of an era that was long behind us.

Did Rivera know when he wrote this that he wasn't looking back, but forward? That his imagined apocalypse, where water doesn't seek its level and the sun rises in the south, was prescient? When he wrote about eccentric man-children resenting their displacement from the center of the house, about a woman who suddenly doesn't know if her neighbors are predators or criminals or Nazis, did he know he was warning us about what was to come? When he wrote Marisol yearning to return to her well-educated, middle-class life, where she could read about human suffering and then go on about her day, or when he wrote her horrific realization that the angels that have protected her are gone, did he know he was charting our course?

I think he did. A lot of people knew, and shame on the rest of us for not listening. If we listened then to the most vulnerable, the people who suffered the most — the homeless who still had nowhere to go, the people who, like Marisol, mutilated themselves to fit into the smooth, slick spaces of middle-class Manhattan life — we’d have understood what Rivera did. We’d have understood that the world was in the thrall of cruel, unreliable powers, near decay in their senescence, smiling benignly down on some of us only to disguise the fact that they were permitting it all to spin farther and farther out of control. We’d have understood that Marisol wasn’t a chronicle of the past, but a prefiguration of the future: of San Franciscans voting to rob their homeless neighbors, Chicago police disappearing American citizens at Homan Square, wars without scope or end or meaning, violence and cruelty rampant, unchecked but hidden and discreet. 

Tearing off the scab

Much is made of the power of art, during times of trouble, to heal, but I don’t want to be healed.  "Healing" is what got us here. It’s what gave us welfare reform and mass incarceration. It gave us the poor and indigent thrown in jail while we could easily look away. It gave us an unanswerable security state as the tool of an infinite war.

“Healing” was taking the crimes of our shared national history and keeping them from the men who wear suits to work and live surrounded by bulwarks of picket fences and grassy yards, men who huff and chuff about anyone who has the audacity to refuse to accept the place that the senile powers of the earth have allotted them. “Healing” brought us compromise after compromise and left too much of the fight to too few for too long. “Healing” was a relentless drive to normalcy, to equilibrium, to feed our trauma and crimes into our cultural amnesia.

Healing is not what I want, and healing is not the only power art has.  Art is also blood and fury. It’s anguish at how carelessly our lives are treated by the fraudulent, fatuously incompetent administrators of the empire. 

That is Marisol: Not a balm but a battle cry.

We've had enough healing. It's long past time that the world was broken and remade with room enough for everyone in it. It's time for new ideas, new powers, new miracles.

It's time to fight.

To read Mark Cofta's review of this show, click here.

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