Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window: A Play by Lorraine Hansberry

Hardcover, 204 pgs, Pub 1965 by Random House

How the world turns. Lorraine Hansberry’s second play featuring a loose gang of liberal strivers and losers who struggle to make their voices heard politically, just might be, if viewed through a reducing lens, the grudging voices of enlightened conservatives in a disintegrating GOP. A creative conservative playwright—if such a person existed (how would we know, there is no proof)—could adapt this quietly devastating but ultimately fierce and brave and humane play to reflect conservative’s acknowledgement that their adherents are composed of just this diverse band of individuals working together for governance that works within law and without corruption or favor.

It is Black History Month and PBS recently aired an American Masters special retrospective on the life of Lorraine Hansberry, playwright forever famous for her universally-loved play, A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry was friends with James Baldwin and Nina Simone, and suffered along with them the ignorance and backwardness of the stodgy thinking among white Americans, both liberals and conservatives, at the time.

Hansberry was only thirty-four years old when she died, shortly after her second play opened to mixed reviews on Broadway October 14, 1964 for one-hundred-and-one performances. Earlier that same year Hansberry had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she was struggling to write and revise the play through her disorientation and pain. Within a few short months of the October opening she would be dead, on January 12, 1965, and that day her play closed on Broadway for good.

When I picked this play up recently, I struggled with the 1960s-scent of it, despite its superficial relevance to now: a diverse and politically active group of people agitate to find, field, and elect the candidate of their choice in an important local election. Sounds like a play that could live forever, right? Hansberry’s instincts were so spot-on. My initial recoil from the datedness of the play began to change near the end of Act Two when things start to unravel for real, paying bare the true heart of things and the work’s universality. Act Three is icing on the cake. So it is that first act that was the problem all along, I guess.

The play has three acts and a cast of nine. Each of the characters seems to represent a larger group; there is a mixed race man, a prostitute, a gay man, a Jewish man, a Republican…you get the picture. Each of their difficulties in society needs addressing, and is the reason some of them band together politically to elect someone they believe will look after them. Each of the characters has high ideals but don’t necessarily treat others within their diverse group with the dignity they demand for themselves. The person they elect to represent them politically uses their support to get elected and then sells them out to monied interests.

The play could be a total bummer, but it is strangely lit from within by the na├»ve voice of a failed actress who, despite her lack of education and her inability to act, can see beyond what people say to what they do. She can see, for instance, that her husband cares more about helping people he doesn’t personally know rather than caring about the woman he is married to. To her he is dismissive, condescending, paternal. The mixed-race character has attitudes every bit as narrow, prejudiced, and cruel as those that had persecuted him his entire life. There is a supporter of Goldwater in the mix: she is intelligent, compassionate, and brave but also an anti-Semite and racist. In other words, people are complicated, and Hansberry allows us some time to digest that before suggesting we get up because we have work to do:
“Yes…weep now, darling, weep. Let us both weep. That is the first thing: to let ourselves feel again…Then, tomorrow, we shall make something strong of this sorrow…”
We can’t just lie around bemoaning our foolishness and inadequacies but must make something of the hurt it causes us.
“…people wanna be better than they are…and I hurt terribly today, and that hurt is desperation and desperation is—energy and energy can move things.”
I am not a believer in the conservative political or social platform. However, I am not wholly on board with liberal political groups either because they appear to be tone deaf and righteous and sometimes wrong. I believe the best solutions for government are often forged in the fire of differing opinions. We need a strong confident conservative voice in this country, not crazy far right closed-mindedness, to keep the left from blowing up their own side. Therefore I hope conservatives pull themselves together and remember what they believe.

The edition of this play I am reading has a Foreword written by a show-goer at the time the show played Broadway, John Braine, and an Introduction written by Hansberry’s former husband, the Jewish song writer Robert Nemiroff. I could not read these sections first—I had to go directly to the play, of course, or I wouldn’t know whereof they spoke. It is with some frustration I ask publishers to explain why these detailed examinations and discussions of the play are not placed at the end of the book in an Afterword or an Epilogue. That is where we want to read them. Those later sections are generally written by the play’s author, I realize, but convention sometimes needs to be shaken up. Anyway, I read them after the play and was glad for them.

Braine is convinced the play is a great one which was damned, not because of Act One which I have suggested, but because of the ending: the play acknowledges the inadequacies of each of the characters and does not condemn nor moralize. The affirmation and acceptance of man’s failures was its greatest sin, no matter that the idea was to do better tomorrow. Braine suggests a different age or a different country, perhaps, would find a public more at ease with what the brilliant and forward-thinking Hansberry had given us.

I felt similarly, my mind going directly to moderate conservatives who are being pushed around so they no longer know what they believe. Principled conservatives have gay people and black people and Jews in their ranks and somehow still manage to classify themselves as conservatives first. Hansberry’s friend James Baldwin tried to explain his ‘troubling ambivalence’ after seeing it—until he realized that what made him uncomfortable was Brustein’s ‘particular quality of commitment.’ In other words, Brustein continued to believe in commitment to our ideals, even when people let him down. For Baldwin, the play became an experience in soul-searching.

Ex-husband Nemiroff, for his part, thought the play brilliant, so full of ideas it couldn’t be easily classified or digested. Apparently the play’s only ‘rave’ review was from the Wall Street Journal correspondent: “…The taste left in the mouth after then final curtain is both bitter and good. For the playwright herself has taste, of the best kind.” But Hansberry never counted on plaudits. “…if there was one thing Lorraine Hansberry did not believe, it was that talent will ‘out’ in the end.” She herself thought the play was good, with lots of funny lines of which she was inordinately proud. Her life played out as tragedy, but she gave us comedy, and with that...responsibility.



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