Reality check

In Clifford Odets' "Paradise Lost," which opened recently at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Leo Gordon and his family experience firsthand the effects of the Great Depression.

In his final speech — which has defined this play ever since it was first performed in 1935 — Leo expounds about a better world that is dawning on the heels of the present darkness.

"No! There is more to life than this! Everything he said is true, but there is more. That was the past, but there is a future. Now we know. We dare to understand. Truly, truly, the past was a dream. But this is real! To know from this that something must be done. That is real. We searched; we were confused! But we searched, and now the search is ended. For the truth has found us ... Oh, if you could only see with me the greatness of men ... Yes, I want to see that new world. I want to kiss all those future men and women ... Heartbreak and terror are not the heritage of mankind! The world is beautiful ... Let us have air ... Open the windows."

Odets wanted people to feel glad they were alive, in spite of it all. And whenever the economy is on the skids, Odets' play is meant to serve as a reminder that we've been through this before and the "greatness of men" pulled us through again to a hopeful future.

One of the criticisms of Leo Gordon that surfaces within the play and in theater critics' reviews is that he doesn't get it. His speech has no context in reality. He didn't have a clue when the play began, and at the end, for all of his eloquent rhetoric that brings the final curtain down, he is still living in a self-delusional fog.

That assessment presumes that we have been inside Leo's soul, looked around and found that no trace of reality has penetrated its chambers. How do we know?

Thoreau wrote: "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," which would imply that they don't talk about their inmost feelings, yearnings and disappointments. They suffer in silence and wear a different face on the outside.

"But this is real!" Leo said. And why not? "Everything he said is true, but there is more."

It's that "more" that riles people who have a vested interest in our knowing only what they know. Seems like everywhere you look, somebody or some group is trying to convince you that the way they see things is the way things really are.

This might have been easier to manage when we lived someplace where we all practiced the same religion and lived as one nationality united by a common set of beliefs and goals.

But not now. Not with the world getting smaller and closer everyday through all of the advances in communication and education and our embracing diversity.

Science aims to educate us by explaining what things are made of and how they work. Religion sets out to present the moral and less material aspects of that same world that may or may not surface under the scrutiny of science. News media gather accounts of human deeds (mostly misdeeds) and present them to us as the collective record of human history. And the arts imagine how things — including people — could (or should) be.

All of these organizations contribute to our perception of what the world is like. For many of them, the question "what is real?" is frivolous. They already know.

And all of these organizations have their zealots, who virulently deride those who don't see the world the way they do. They contend they are doing so for our own good, to protect us from the unscrupulous charlatans out there who prey on our credulity.

A biologist friend and I went round and round on this one. We finally agreed to disagree on who has the goods on what it means to be human. It's all in how you interpret the data.

Is man's inhumanity to man the norm or an aberration? Was Don Quixote a senile madman or an enlightened visionary? Was Leo Gordon sleepwalking through one of the bleakest periods in our country's history or was he directed by an internal compass that knew no despair?

"Yes, I want to see that new world," Leo said. And if there truly is more in that world than meets the eye, how can we hope to see it if we are looking through the lens of a world view that says it isn't there?

"The world is beautiful ... Let us have air ... Open the windows."

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