So on Sunday I went to the Kennedy Center for a children’s show, “Where Words Once Were.” Cannot confirm the effect on actual children of this fable about totalitarian control of language, since the lad with whom I saw the play was (ironically) disinclined to offer his commentary. But the show offered a window into what our artists and teachers can and can’t imagine.
So here’s the thing: It’s probably a fine show, if heavy on the explanations. The look and feel is very “turquoise-gray dystopia where it rains all the time,” the characters dress exclusively in drab, but it’s fine. The idea is that the government of “The City” controls which words people can use, and limits them to a vocabulary of 1,000 words. (The explanation for this is nonsense about resource wars; fine, whatever, we are all vulgar Marxists now apparently.) If a government-approved word gets added, like the fictional tech term “photosubmissionization,” then a normal word like “beautiful” must be booted.
A lot of my work, as it happens, is based on this idea that losing the word for a thing means losing a source of hope and a form of love. Lots of my work on vocation is about rescuing words: beguinage, covenant friendship, godsibling, bridal mysticism. There’s a terrifying forgetfulness in our culture–and in our churches–an unwillingness to see ways in which people used to understand and organize their lives and their relationship with God. Many of the lost words that interest me are themselves shadowed with structural sin: public penance, usury. But at the very least let’s not pretend we’ve made the world a better place by excising “whipping post” from the dictionary only to replace it with “solitary confinement.”
So, okay, I was sympathetic to the basic idea of the show. But in a grimly ironic twist, the show’s most memorable elements for me turned out to be the limits of its own imagination.
This is just a relentlessly heterosexual and romance-minded play. The two relationships which most clearly spark resistance to tyranny are both relationships where a man and a woman are mysteriously drawn to one another by the one power which is acknowledged to be stronger than that of the state. Every main character is paired off, and paired off in a specifically romantic way. The idea that same-sex friendship (for example) could be an equally strong bond between people is just nowhere. “Where Words Once Were” isn’t as egregious about this as “Lava“–its human ecology includes filial love, and eventually the bond between uncle and niece. But the phantom hero of this show–the motive, the engine of resistance–is heterosexuality.
I don’t know that I wanted the Kennedy Center to make up some fake religion. (Could they all just be Jews, though? I think I would’ve made them all Jews.) But when you lose the relationship to God–probably the single type of relationship that has inspired the most, and the most uncompromising, resistance to state tyranny–you also lose a compelling alternative to heteronormativity. If somebody in this play was motivated by love of God it would be by far the queerest relationship in the show.
The message of “Where Words Once Were” is, “Heterosexuality and anagrams will save us from dictatorship!” I suspect that only works when the Czechs do it.