Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Death of a Salesman

May 25, 2009

The politics of race remain tricky as made evident by the rise and fall of Jeremiah Wright during the Obama campaign. Now the Yale Repertory Company has staged Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with an all black cast. John Lahr’s review in The New Yorker (May 25, 2009 p.82-3) quotes the venerable August Wilson arguing in 1996 that to try and portray black experience, culture and history as part of ’the human condition’ through a play conceived for white actors is a denial of black experience, culture and history. That makes sense and the review of the Yale Rep production goes on to say why. “Death of a Salesman is about alienation. It shouldn’t be an exercise in it.”

I wonder, however, whether the alienation of what was originally white middle class in mid twentieth century America couldn’t speak to the alienation of other times and cultures if we were seeing the play fresh and with no knowledge of its history. I remember seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II set in Nazi Germany and thinking that if I didn’t already know the play I would have found it unsatisfying as a portrayal of the age in which it was set. It is hard to imagine not knowing a play when I already know it. In the end I don’t think it is a terrible thing to try and reveal something of the human condition through trying to alter historical particularity, but human drama tends to end up being quite particular, and so these productions are generally going to fail to satisfy.

What makes telling the story of faith from age to age so different? Lamin Sanneh has argued in his Disciples of All Nations (2007) That Christianity is the only major world religion that has transcended particular geography and been ‘enculturated’ in many times and places. Some of our current travails both within Anglicanism and ecumenically have to do with what happens when the enculturation of the Christian story leads to differing understandings of the gospel. So the Anglican embrace of the United Nations initiatives on the role and place of women can be enormously threatening to cultures that prefer that women keep their place in the kitchen. One person’s liberation is another person’s idea of ‘following the culture at the expense of the faith once delivered to the saints’. One Christian does not recognize another as being of the same faith and sharing a common humanity.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has thrown his weight and influence behind the idea of an Anglican Covenant in an attempt to articulate some boundaries for world wide Anglicanism and a process for changing those boundaries. He and his allies in this effort are trying to shut the barn door after the horse has made a run for it and the signs thus far suggest that the Covenant idea will not succeed in stopping ‘the wind blowing where it will’. Some Christians will say that they are not ‘in communion’ with others and it was ever thus, and ever should be.

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