Thursday, May 22, 2014

Once On This Island--Death Wins, You Guys! Open Your Eyes!

Saw my younger daughter's production of Once On This Island over the weekend, and guys--how does storytelling get this bad? It's a gloss on Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, but set on land with added Haitian/vodoun flavor. The music is catchy, the lyrics less so, the plot--uff da!

Shall we? First, I think we can all assume we know the basic plot of Little Mermaid, so now just make it on an island. Instead of living in the sea and looking up onto land, Our Heroine Ti Moune is a lowly peasant looking up the socio-economic ladder to a wealthy boy-man. Instead of a boat, she sees him in a car. As when the boat sinks, the car crashes in a storm and she saves the wealthy son of the island, Daniel. She goes to him, only to find that while he's happy to keep her in his room (where she makes him "rise like yeast" and she "heals" him), he's going to marry the socially appropriate woman he has been betrothed to since childhood. When offered her former life back if she kills the boy, she can't bring herself to plunge the dagger and dies instead. She gains an afterlife of sorts, as a tree.

When Andersen did it, it was a romance deeply enmeshed with questions of soul and salvation. The mermaids had no immortal soul, and turned into foam on the shore when they died. By becoming human, The Mermaid (did she even have a name?) could earn a soul, but she died before then. Instead, she became a spirit of the air, living in a sort of purgatory of good works, with the promise of earning her way to salvation. This is complicated stuff.

Ti Moune sees a boy in a fast car and falls in "love."

Oh, but wait! He's unconscious for days, and she watches over him, never eating or sleeping. So again, what about him is lovable? Is it the drool seeping from the corner of his mouth? The way he has to be cleaned up after, since he's unconscious and can't use a bedpan? Because that doesn't sound all that attractive to me. Unless she likes the power differential, where he's essential a baby or a doll, with no agency of his own? The more I try to figure out what there is that makes this "love" the more disturbing the story becomes.

Oh, but there is a Broadway Explanation! See, there are gods who rule this island, and Erzulie, the Goddess of Love, has intervened. She has (arguably) caused Ti Moune to fall in love, and then she makes Daniel fall in love--for a given value of "love." Because Ti Moune knows nothing about Daniel and doesn't get a chance to, because "unconscious" and Daniel doesn't love her enough to marry her. Okay.

Also, the gods have a bet that Love can conquer Death. So the whole car accident thing is a set up so the two meet and they can test which is stronger. It's like a Immortal version of arm wrestling?

So "love" here is "seeing a guy in a car" then "cleaning his butt"? To be fair, there is a short duet they sing before he goes back to his big mansion. She decides she needs to go with him, saying "he is in my blood and I am in his." Not sure why she's so sure of this, as most of the time, he's been UNCONSCIOUS.  Maybe she's invented blood transfusions?

Anyway, she is convinced that if she goes to him, he will marry her (why?) and she leaves. As a grumpy old soul with a cold dead heart, I look at this and I see "oh! She's young, so she is stupid." But the play doesn't really back this up, and it doesn't ever ask her to stop and see if she is making good choices. In fact, the play barrels on, encouraging her to chase this boy (but--if he was really interested, he could come to her. He knows where she lives!) to the degree that the Earth Goddess actually leads her to him, while the trees and frogs and breezes etc. sing along. Very lovely musically, but seriously messed up. She is making a bad decision for herself, and nothing in the play really acknowledges it.

Once in the Hotel Beauxhommes, she finds Daniel, and he doesn't remember her. At all. In fact, he threatens to call security on her. "But, I'm the one who made you well," she says. "The gods sent me to you!" Yeah, well, maybe they did, or maybe they didn't, but Daniel has a beautiful young woman throwing herself at him. A peasant, in fact, so not even a "real" person--not someone he has any responsibility to, because of class and/or racial lines. In fact, there is a history of his ancestors who came to the island and took their pleasure from the women who served them, before going back to France, leaving the mixed race offspring trapped on the island. So--we don't think this is marriage plot still, do we? Why does Ti Moune?

(Because she is young and stupid--even if nobody on stage really knows that.)

Then comes the slut shaming. "What does he want with a woman like THAT" is a song, in which the gossips make demeaning sexual innuendoes about how she is "healing"him. Daniel's father makes a short cameo, sympathizing that he understands the appeal of a peasant girl, but making clear that Daniel will be expected to do the right things when the time comes--which is not going to be marrying Ti Moune. Obviously.

Well, so far not so good. We have sexual opportunism, we have slut shaming of Ti Moune (not so much of Daniel, because the Double Standard is alive and well and living On This Island), and we have major social barriers between them that Daniel understands and that Ti Moune apparently does not. But--there might be hope, right? I mean, perhaps they are like Romeo and Juliet, who stand together against the artificial barriers placed against them, and by their example change the social mores. That could happen, and that would be a way for this play to comment on the deeply misogynistic and classist assumptions and critique them.

Or, there could be this "love" song instead. Daniel wraps his arms around Ti Moune and sings this:

Some girls take hours to paint every perfect nailFragrant as flowers, all powdered and prim and pale.But you are as wild as that wind-blown tree,As dark and as deep as the midnight sea.While they're busy dressing, you lie here, warm and bold.Some girls you picture, some you hold.
Some girls take courses at all the best schools in FranceRiding their horses and learning their modern dance.They're clever and cultured and worldly wise.But you see the world through a child's wide eyes.Their dreams are grand ones, you want what's just in reach.Some girls you learn from, some you teach.
You are not small talk or shiny carsOr mirrors or French cologne.You are the river, the moon, the stars.You're no one else I've known.
Some girls take pleasure in buying a fine trousseau,Counting each treasure and tying each tiny bow.They fold up their futures with perfumed handsWhile you face the future with no demands.Some girls expect things others think nothing of.Some girls you marry, some you love.
It's creepy! I mean, it's completely entitled and spells out that Daniel doesn't see Ti Moune as a real person--he likes her for all the demands that she doesn't make, the dreams she doesn't have. This is almost a form of grooming--she's not like those other girls, with their demands to be taken seriously, to be educated and to have their own interests and needs. No! Ti Moune just exists, with none of her own wants, just to fill Daniel's sexual needs!

This song would be bad enough if it were presented as a dilemma song, where Daniel was really considering the choice between the two women, trying to understand his own mind. But as a song presented as a love song, actually song to Ti Moune, it's a series of red flags that if the girl had even an ounce of critical concern for herself, she would at least catch on. She's not the "some girl" that you marry--that's going to be someone else.

But no, Ti Moune gets blind-sided when she is finally let out of Daniel's room and introduced to his fiancee. To the play's credit, the fiancee does scold Daniel for leaving the situation unexplained to Ti Moune--she's not a bitch, and she's genuinely sorry for the circumstances, but she is the fiancee, and what Ti Moune is, well there isn't really a word for it, is there. (Mistress. Lover. Concubine. These are choices.)

What should Ti Moune do now? Well, for a play written in 1990, shouldn't she do something proactive? Expressive of her personhood, her right to be treated with dignity, acknowledging her agency in her own life?

No, what happens is the demon of death shows up, and tells her that she will have to die unless she kills Daniel. (Yes, this was set up earlier, where Ti Moune offered her soul to the demon in order to spare Daniel, and now he is coming to collect the debt.) This is sort of the moment when love and death are tested--I guess? Death points out that Daniel has betrayed her, so why should she die for him? If she kills the love she had for him--literally, by taking the knife and killing Daniel--she can have her old life back, as if she had never loved at all.

In the Andersen story, the mermaids sisters come and offer her the chance to return to the sea. Killing the prince will turn her legs back into a fish tail, she will have her 300 year lifespan back, and she won't die when the sun rises. She's got big stakes here.

By contrast, Ti Moune kills Daniel and--she goes back to being a peasant? This is the offer? Contrary to what the play says, this isn't the choice between love and death--it's the choice between being a murderer and being a martyr. Ti Moune is confronted with a choice between a violent and criminal act, or dying for love. There's not really an opposition of emotional states here. I think Death has mischaracterized the win condition for himself. It's more like he's shooting the moon in hearts--he could win on points, but he's decided not to.

So, Ti Moune doesn't kill Daniel, but gets thrown out of the Hotel and plants herself by the locked gates for the next two weeks. The point of this is? It's like she's doing the Nice Guy™ thing, where if she's just around long enough, he will reward her. Does the play really expect that he is going to ditch his fianc√©? Does the audience expect Ti Moune will get anything but the Madame Butterfly treatment? Now it's just humiliating for the poor girl, a humiliation which is driven home by Daniel and his new bride coming to the gates to pass out coins as for good luck.

So, Ti Moune dies. Before we tally up the win/loss results for the gods, let's look at the lyrics of the penultimate song:

And the gods began to cry- tears of compassion for the orphan, Ti Moune, Who proved that love could withstand the storm, cross the earth, and survive even in the face of death.

Erzulie took her by the handAnd led her to the seaWhere Agwe wrapped her in a waveAnd laid her to her restAnd Papa Ge was gentleAs he carried her to shoreAnd Asaka accepted herAnd held her to her breast.
Regardless of what is happening on stage, the words tell us that the Goddess of Love basically takes Ti Moune to go drown herself. Love hands her over to Death. Love has her kill herself, because that's a victory for love? No, a victory for love would have been for her to go on living, instead of seeking oblivion from the pain of thwarted love. What the play shows us (as opposed to telling us) is that it is better to die from heartbreak, and by dying, you prove the strength of your love.

Again--Love and Death are not in opposition--they reinforce each other. Love is so strong that it invites Death, Death is preferable to Love unrequited. I call shenanigans on the lyrics that "Ti Moune proved" anything like what the plays says she proved. In fact, it's just the same tired trope of an exotic girl deemed to be socially inappropriate to marry (but not to sleep with) so she dies.

But because we are in theory more enlightened than the Victorians, we are going to claim that her death changed things! Not just the "girl who dies for the man she loves" but that her death broke the racial/class divide between the peasants and the Grands Hommes. How does this happen? Well, the dead Ti Moune gets turned into a tree (yeah, I know) that breaks the gates of the Hotel Beauxhommes so it cannot be closed.

Well, maybe that's a start, but what about the wildly unequal distribution of wealth? The peasants are still going to be the ones laboring in the fields, right? The existence of a tree and a broken gate isn't going to accomplish any wealth redistribution or land reform, doesn't compel the Grands Hommes to give up their cars or champagne necessarily. The capital of the island isn't suddenly held in common as an anarcho-syndicalist commune.

The lyrics tell us this:
And one day as Daniel's young son sat in the shade of the treeHe noticed a beautiful young peasant girl high in the branchesLooking out at the world
And the spirit of Ti Moune touched their heartsAnd set them free to love.
But--but--but--"love" was not the problem. The Grands Hommes were "free" to "love" the peasant women, and had done so for generations. The problem was social conventions, family alliances, religious and cultural isolation, economic disparities, which little boys playing under trees aren't dismantling, no matter how upbeat the music is.

And really, Haiti remains a desperately poor island, with poverty remaining intractable for generations. Wealth remains concentrated in the hands of the very very few, while the majority of the population remains essentially peasants. Telling the story of Ti Moune doesn't challenge the fundamental causes of economic mismanagement, and seems to actually reinforce the idea that human effort is futile in the face of the whims of uncontrollable supernatural forces. But with a lovely samba beat!

The moral of the story is not that Love Conquers All--the real moral of the story is that humanity is mere meat puppets to the gods, and we all die anyway. But we are welcome to delude ourselves about that by singing in a major key.

The End.

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