Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without Improvement are the roads of genius.
William Blake (ca 1790)
by Jeff Grygny
A sleepy liberal arts college is rocked by scandal; the two professors involved—by some departmental quirk, they are both scholars of the Eighteenth Century poet William Blake—use their final lectures to explain, if not justify, their shocking act. So opens There is a Happiness That Morning Is, Mickle Maher’s fabulously rich comedy of poetry currently playing at Next Act Theatre. English literature has rarely seemed so rambunctiously sexy, riotously funny, and radically essential.
But this is no satire of academic speech. Their transgression is far more earthy and primal than a misuse of pronouns or offending some ethnic identity— though there is perhaps a sly rejoinder here to puritanism of all kinds. And though the play consists entirely of dazzling flights of the spoken word, it isn’t a play about language. It’s the play of language itself, playing about what language is itself about: life and how we live it. In a dizzying high wire act of verbal virtuosity, Maher stretches, teases, jumbles and juggles words and ideas in unstrained iambic couplets that sound sometimes like Shakespeare, sometimes like rap, sometimes like Doctor Seuss, and sometimes just like people talking. Speech is the star player: the supple instrument of human consciousness exploring the cosmos.
Mickle Maher is no ordinary playwright. A co-founder of Chicago’s Theater Oobleck, his playful dramas defy categorization or easy synopsis, though they often engage literary classics: a group of superheroes on a submarine phone bank raising funds for an emergency production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Spirits to Enforce); Doctor Faustus on his last evening on earth, explaining his life, while Mephistopheles sits silently waiting for midnight (An Apology).
But then, William Blake is no ordinary poet either. Artist, visionary, and mystic, he self-published his illustrated writings and was regarded by his contemporaries as a whimsical eccentric, yet he led the way for the blooming of the English Romantic Movement. A stupendously original thinker, he divided human life into the stages of “innocence,” a time of childlike wonder, “experience,” the inevitable grinding down of the world, and, for the lucky, “organized innocence,” where joy and knowledge reunite in true wisdom.
Neil Brookshire brings a rumpled enthusiasm to his role of Bernard. In his lecture on Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” he glows like a cherub in the epiphanic aftermath of his subversive act. His discourse on the absolute joy of morning, beyond mood or happenstance, is perhaps the cheeriest opening speech of any play in all of literature. But if he seems transfigured by his experience, the exact same experience has been a spiritual catastrophe for his partner Ellen, played with spiky intelligence by Cassandra Bissel, Discussing Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose,” she mercilessly dissects the meaning of the “invisible worm” with its “dark secret love.” And she spares no foul words for the college Dean, who has demanded their joint public apology.
Just when you might begin to feel swamped by the floods of brilliant verbiage, Maher throws in cascading developments so unexpected, so outrageous and yet so insanely appropriate, you can only roar with laughter as the events unfold with what we can only call poetic justice. Director Mary Macdonald Kerr wisely stays out of the way and lets her actors bring these two people’s minds and souls to vivid life, while Scenic Designer Lisa Schlenker has brought a beautiful painted tribute to Blake’s illuminated texts into the lecture hall setting.
“It is difficult to get the news from poems,” wrote William Carlos Williams, “though men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” There isn’t much news either in There Is A Happiness That Morning Is. But at a time when the news all seems to be bad, there is something here that could very possibly nourish and sustain you through the dim days of old winter, and beyond.
Next Act Theatre presents
There is a Happiness That Morning Is
by Mickle Maher
playing through March 19