What William Burroughs once said about guns also goes for stories: Each only has the conscience of the person holding it. Though the therapeutic qualities of story have been thoroughly explored--and exploited--by various media conglomerates since the mid-1980s, nowhere near as much attention has been paid to its darker side.
If stories can heal, they can also harm. Consider the story that ended in the death of Emmett Till, or the story that justifies our presence in Iraq. The religious tales from the Bible, the Torah or the Koran, used in appeals for armistice--and as a stalking-horse for slavery, for war or genocide.
Now consider much smaller-scaled atrocities; the individual genocides of hope. The story by which a woman explains--or has explained for her--why her battery is appropriate and deserved. The understanding a child has reached about why he has no father. The tortured rationale a facile bully of a manager uses to deny the underlings on whom his job and company depends a living wage.
Stories can debilitate, disable and even kill. In our culture they are regularly used to excuse the unspeakable.
Which is why, a week later, I remain deeply disturbed by The Time Traveler's Wife. Wordshed Productions was permitted to perform--but not to advertise--its vision of Audrey Niffenegger's 2003 bestseller after New Line Cinema encountered delays while producing the movie version with director Gus Van Sant.
Though Niffenegger's plot suggests the opposite, at least on its face, the prospect of having this story unleashed on popular culture recalls the words of Patti Smith: "I haven't fucked much with the past, but I've fucked plenty with the future."
In the convoluted plot of this science-fiction tale, Henry DeTamble is a man genetically cursed with the propensity for a singularly curious form of time travel. Though we're told he has no control over how, when or where he suddenly becomes unstuck in time, in this adaptation his travels inevitably take him to mostly earlier moments in his own life, or the lives of three past, present or future loved ones: former girlfriend Ingrid, wife Clare and future daughter Alba.
But an older Henry keeps showing up at suspiciously--and dramaturgically--convenient or significant moments. He's just in time, for example, to salvage his own previous wedding ceremony by standing in for his missing younger self (after that Henry suddenly skids off into time moments before "I do"). And despite his protestations to the contrary--"you really can't change anything about the past"--we keep seeing significant proof to the contrary.
In addition to the example above, he's somehow there to keep his 5-year-old self from freaking out the first time the child time-travels. He later teaches his 9- and 11-year-old counterparts a few necessary skills for frequent fliers off the clock: shoplifting and lock picking. Why? In this form of time travel, one arrives in nothing but one's body; clothes, shoes and wallets are always left behind.
But when his character repeatedly interacts with a Clare decades younger than the woman he will marry, it's this--the apparent necessity of intervention--that is ultimately more disquieting than even the plot-required nudity.
An older Henry apparently has to tell a Clare recovering from her sixth miscarriage to "persevere." If this plot development alone seems somewhat beyond the pale, rest assured, you've heard nothing yet.
Years after he actually meets, dates and marries Clare in his late 20s, a nude, 36-year-old Henry first appears to Clare, alone in a field at age 6, telling her that they're friends in the future. From that point, he irregularly shows up in the young girl's life: a mysterious, secret friend who listens to her, helps her with her homework and tantalizes her with veiled portents of her future--after scrounging around first for clothes, of course.
When Clare reaches age 12, Henry says, "Now she's dangerous ... old and young and different from the other girls ... and now she knows that being different might be hard."
That sinking feeling you're experiencing is likely to be reinforced in episodes where a 37-year-old Henry kisses Clare at 15, and has sex with her, for her first time, when he's 40 and she's 18. She, we're quickly told, has wanted this for years before.
Shakespeare wrote that "Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds." Still, this view remains something of a minority report. The motif of the lover who changes--or, even more conveniently, creates--the beloved is as old as Pygmalion. During at least the initial parts of a relationship, most people wistfully hope to change something about their partner--or to be changed in turn.
But when the power dynamic in a relationship is too one-sided, society tries to protect the disadvantaged one. A 30-something man, we generally say, should not be allowed to program a child of single digits to ultimately become his spouse.
Perhaps something different happens in the novel. But once "necessity"--or its rationalization--is introduced so early in the play, the spectre of it arguably taints everything that follows.
A man goes back and alters the life of a woman he has already been married to for years. Whether Henry admits it or not, he "reluctantly" sets up the past to ensure (or perhaps improve) Clare's future, not only intellectually and socially--but sexually as well.
As in the musical The Last Five Years and a host of speculative fictions, author Niffenegger and adapter Lauren Shouse do make the point that, to some degree, time alienates and separates even the closest of lovers all by itself.
But the play (and coming film) appears in a world where dysfunctions like pedophilia remain viable only through an elaborate structure of rationalizations and fictions.
She asked for it. He loves her. They'll marry, someday. In all likelihood The Time Traveler's Wife will only add to these sick deceptions in some portions of our culture. This precludes any endorsement of a work that is difficult, on one level, not to read as an extensive and exquisitely constructed apologia for intergenerational incest.
****The Front Page , Playmakers Rep--In this refreshing take on the classic 1928 newsroom comedy, veteran Broadway director Gene Saks captures the gallows humor and exquisitely refined cynicism of an odd fraternity of beat reporters pulling the overnight shift before a dawn state execution in dear, corrupt old Chicago. Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht's finely balanced script doesn't ignore the ethical shortcuts, the politics of convenience and neglect, or the insiders' dirty pool practiced at points by these imperfect scribes. At the same time, it perfectly captures the addictive, centripetal force of breaking events, depicting how even newshounds trying to get out of the business get pulled back into the action.
Grant Goodman was winning, but still a little muggy the night we saw him as central character Hildy Johnson, an ace reporter trying to blow town to marry his sweetheart in New York. Mike Genovese's memorable work gave us an irascible editor Walter Burns apparently etched in granite. The pair was surrounded by fine supporting work from newsroom denizens Jeffrey Blair Cornell, Ray Dooley and David zum Brunnen, while Kenneth Strong and John Feltch amused as two dullards from different sides of the law. Rand Bridges and Samuel Maupin represented crooked civic authorities before a comic turn by Ken Jennings as executionee Earl Williams.
Strongly recommended for general populations--and mandatory for members of the press. (Through Oct. 30).
E-mail Byron Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org.