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To Prevent Our Falling into Greater Disasters

Can remembering the past save the present or the future?

Phil Christman
Phil Christman
Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing. His work has appeared in The Christian Century, Paste, Books & Culture, the Hedgehog Review, and other publications.

At one point in Adrienne Kennedy’s superb short play He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, we hear a quotation that, in another context, might seem tailor-made for the tumult of this year. Here it is: “We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters.” Slightly too long for a needlepoint sampler, but you can just see it on a plaque in some coach’s office. The speaker of these words is Robert E. Lee; Kennedy has cunningly appropriated them for a play that is about, among other things, the impossibility of gaining any real grip on disaster, especially not the disaster that is white supremacy.

Kennedy is eighty-eight. Her best-known work is probably Funnyhouse of a Negro in 1964, but her consistent excellence and productivity over the decades since is staggering. He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, published this summer with several other recent pieces, was first performed last year. It is like one of those perfect fragments we find in Kafka, mystifying precisely because it illuminates so much. Set in Georgia in 1941, it concerns Chris and Kay, an interracial couple. Chris is the son of the town magnate, a man so good at building segregated institutions that the Nazis sought him out for advice. He has also paid for the only headstones in the black cemetery – they memorialize the mothers of Chris’s black half-siblings. Kay doesn’t know much about her parents, though her father was white. Perhaps her mother killed herself; perhaps the father killed her and, well, see the title of the play. At the beginning, they watch the children in the town’s black school act out Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris, as Chris’s father, who wrote the school’s curriculum, requires that they do. This deeply Protestant play, which memorializes a moment in Reformation history that has become part of the story (story) of the growth of freedom and human rights, sounds like nonsense in the mouths of these schoolchildren. Kennedy specifies that they “do not try to make sense of this play.”

Continue reading at Plough Quarterly.