More than “Paradise Lost” in A.R.T.’s Depression drama


ART?s Paradise Lost, featuring David Chandler and Jonathan Epstein

“For neither man nor angel can discern Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks Invisible, except to God alone….”

Unfortunately for theater goers attending the A.R.T.’s latest production, Clifford Odets does not appear to have taken this wisdom from Milton when writing his own Paradise Lost. The heavy-handedness of his writing flattens characters who are struggling through the challenges of the Great Depression and have no need of metaphor and abstraction. And while the A.R.T. has attempted to bring the drama to life with quasi-existentialism and innovative visual techniques, the story is deprived of true significance by its suffocatingly hollow dialogue.

Odets’ Paradise Lost is a tale of the well-intentioned, entrepreneurial Gordon family losing it all as they cling to each other, their dreams, and the right thing to do. Each family member and each character in the Gordons’ extended community is, however, little more than a caricature of an idea that Odets wished to emphasize, or a mere mouth piece for speeches on greed, equality, democracy, or the moral path. The patriarch of the family, Leo Gordon, is a soft dreamer, a philosopher turned business owner whose lofty ideals can’t keep pace with cut-throat capitalism. Mr. Gordon’s character is thrust upon the audience, frequently quoting radical, gentle philosophers.  He is less grating than Pearl, the sole daughter of the family and a reclusive genius concert pianist who never achieved her potential. Mr. Pike, the furnace man living in the Gordons’ basement, is clearly the voice of Odets himself, tirelessly reminding the audience that the patriotic response to a financial crisis is the humane one, and that it is unnatural for humans to starve when the means to feed humanity have remained at hand throughout the economic downturn.

Pearl could have been the most interesting character but was relegated to a constant backseat, both by Odets’ writing and the director’s seclusion of her in the corner of the stage. The most profound social commentary in the play comes in her all too brief words on the individualism of American society. She has been abandoned by her fiancé as he seeks work in a bigger city and robbed of her chance to be the great concert pianist because this path was too expensive. Pearl declares that she is only worried about herself and her own well being. Here we see the tiniest glimmer of the explanation for where America was then, and where it is now. Odets wanted us to focus on the grand competing narratives of greed and profit, of politics and nationhood. What he left out is that most people can’t be bothered to think in those terms and instead mind only their own needs and those of their immediate family. If he could have melded the two forces—individual desperation and the indifference of an American government that has left individuals to fend for themselves—he could have painted a picture of the American character and culture and transcended his sometimes shrill, sometimes disconnected monologues.

It could have been the perfect time for the American Repertory Theater to revive a Depression era play about financial crisis and an American family struggling through foreclosure.  But if the point was to connect modern audiences to the story of Depression era desperation—a narrative that needs little help to be evocative and meaningful in today’s bust cycle economy—the exercise failed.

The American Repertory Theatre placed a quote from Odets on its website: “It is my hope that when people see Paradise Lost they’re going to be glad that they’re alive.  And I hope that after they see it, they’ll turn to strangers sitting next to them and say hello.”  When the curtains closed on the final act, I was too despondent to want to talk.  I was depressed by the subject matter, and by the fact that little has changed in almost 100 years of American prosperity—the boom is still too high, the bust is still too low.  We feel the pain so sharply because of our system that allows us to grab it all without paying back into the community and which keeps corporate giants afloat while consumers founder.  If our wealth went to the construction of strong social safety nets instead of to the insulation of individual’s pockets, we wouldn’t be in a foreclosure crisis right now.

But I was also sad for this missed opportunity of a play.  Without a fully developed family of characters to rally behind, viewing Paradise Lost was about as touching as watching pundits debate on a 24 hour news channel.  And if it’s one thing that is not going to move American culture or economics ahead, it is more one dimensional hot air dressed up as something worth listening to.

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