September 21, 2020

Thoughts and Review: The Unseen by Craig Wright

wright.jpgThe Unseen by Craig Wright, March 16, 2007, Actor’s Theater of Louisville, Humana Festival of New American Plays.

It will probably be a long time before you have the opportunity to see Craig Wright’s stunning short play, “The Unseen.” If you get the chance, it will probably be at a university theater performance where some student director wants to try something that leaves you thinking deeply about philosophical issues- and life- in a way few “entertaining” plays ever will.

Wherever it is, go see it. Wright doesn’t waste one minute of your time, and he gives you much to ponder.

Wright is the author of a number of award winning plays, notably “The Pavilion.” He has been a writer on “Six Feet Under.” He’s got a seminary M.Div, but he writes (in my opinion) from a decidedly post-Christian perspective, with much empathy and feeling for issues of faith, meaning and grace.

The play itself is quite simple. Two prisoners, Wallace and Valdez, have been imprisoned in neighboring cells for many years. They do not know why they are being imprisoned, tortured, questioned and tormented. The larger situation of their imprisonment is a mystery to them.

Each day they talk, playing word games, speculating on the nature of the prison and the outside world. Each day they are visited by their guard, “Smash,” a brutal and vile character in charge of torture as well as the daily care of the prisoners. He loathes them, his job and his own remaining humanity.

In the course of the play, very little happens. In the second half, however, an unseen person in a cell beneath them begins tapping as signal of his/her presence. This brings a whole new kind of experience, new speculations and alterations in relationships.

The end of the play is modestly surprising, but by the time the play ends, the audience should have decided that what they have seen is not so much a story as an allegory.

Wallace represents reason. He uses his considerable intellect to discover patterns in the events around him, predict behavior and make an elaborate escape plan….that almost works. His disappointment robs him of the will to live.

Valdez is faith. He lives by feelings, especially hopeful feelings. His speculations about what he feels is going on are irritating to Wallace, but somehow they give him a resilience and purpose to survive in a meaningless, painful existence.

The “Unseen,” tapping away between and below the two prisoners, represents “God,” especially in the claims of people of faith that God has revealed himself and the answer to our human dilemma. Wallace believes that the tappings from the Unseen are an elaborate message of hope. Wallace rejects it all as unbelievable and too unlikely to be real.

“Smash” is evil; the evil that infests and seems to triumph over every human hope and answer. He is cruel and impatient. He glories in torture, but he also is still recognizably human. He cannot deny his humanity, and the humanity of those he tortures tortures him, to the continual increase of his tortures to the point of being utterly sickening.

The audience sees in Smash a kind of evil that is set against everything, but also undermines itself by its own brutality and denial of value. It does its worse, but it can never do enough to be truly good or erase the soul.

At the high points of the play, both “faith” and “reason” are brought to utter defeat and despair by evil, yet, in the end, evil must admit that it cannot win, and the doors to the prison are opened.

Valdez and Wallace see one another for the first time. They see one another’s faces, and realize that no matter what their differences, they are still fellow human beings. They know that the experience of imprisonment has taken away from them all their certainties, and left them with one another. They rejoice in that discovery, and with their hope and reason intact, they embrace and journey on to face a world where evil is real, but where they have the choice to go on, together, as friends.

Wright is making a powerful statement that the evil of our time has robbed both science and religion of their easy answers. What we have left is a common humanity, and a common experience. We look at the world and at life very differently, but we are all human beings. Wright is pleading for reason and faith to embrace one another, admit their powerlessness to outsmart or defeat evil, but also admit that by sheer determination to continue living for what is meaningful and worthwhile, we can continually make the world over again.

Christians tend to forget that we share a common humanity with those who see the world very differently. We have all suffered through war, death, loss and pain. Science and reason has done little to make the world what it promised, and religion’s many disappointments are manifest as well.

Wright says the way forward does not lie in the mutual rejection of those who differ from us, but a choice to make the journey through life together as those who recognize in others the great gift beyond the greatest mysteries. It is a compelling vision. Naive. Idealistic, yet profound and elegantly beautiful.

When I heard Smash describe the death of a prisoner who surrendered to the torture with calm acceptance, a surrender that drove him to commit unspeakable atrocities on the victim and then to abandon torture entirely, I thought of the cross. There evil did its worse to the very best. There evil exhausted itself and was defeated by love. Jesus tells us that the cross has defeated the soul of evil with the power of the resurrection. Until the day that power is fully revealed, we still live with unspeakable evil. Our answer is faith in Christ, and our response is to imitate him. That may take us to the very torture chambers Smash described.

Nothing in our story tells our fellow travelers that there is a way to avoid the world. We are not better, or exempt. Even our “answer” is not an exemption. Our lives will be much the same: birth, death, disease, loss, loneliness, confusion, transition, questioning, trusting. When we point to the cross as the revelation of the God we believe in, we are not pointing at an escape, but at a way through and a hope that there is more.

The play was excellent, as is the norm at the world class ATL. Thanks to Humana for 29 years of making this festival possible.

Comments

  1. Histrion (Jay H) says

    iMonk writes:What we have left is a common humanity, and a common experience.

    [sarcasm]Oh, come on, now. Life has nothing in common with death. The unsaved have only one mission, and that’s to attempt to glorify their master, Satan, even if they don’t know that’s what they’re doing. And we saved never ever do anything that doesn’t glorify God.

    Honestly, you’re such a liberal.[/sarcasm]

  2. Histrion (Jay H) says

    [more sarcasm]As if the fact that you like live theatre beyond Rogers & Hammerstein isn’t already enough evidence of your godless liberalism. I bet the play had swears in it.[/ok, I’m really done now]

  3. Histrion (Jay H) says

    OK, all sarcasm aside, I have a legit question, and it’s something that’s actually been bothering me for a while. You write:

    Nothing in our story tells our fellow travelers that there is a way to avoid the world. We are not better, or exempt. Even our “answer” is not an exemption. Our lives will be much the same: birth, death, disease, loss, loneliness, confusion, transition, questioning, trusting. When we point to the cross as the revelation of the God we believe in, we are not pointing at an escape, but at a way through and a hope that there is more.

    When we talk about God performing miracles as an answer to prayer, miracles that He (ostensibly) wouldn’t perform for a non-believer, aren’t we asserting more than a hope that there’s something beyond this life? When we circulate an email around saying, “Thanks to all of you for your prayers — Uncle Steve’s cancer was completely healed, and the doctors are saying there’s no way that could have happened,” aren’t we declaring ourselves, if not totally exempt, at least in receipt of Divine Assistance that others don’t receive?

    I’m not even talking about “limos for doing God’s work” or the glossolalia of Pentecostals here, although both are extreme examples. I’m talking about the basic question: does repentant faith in Jesus as Christ have any supernatural effect on our lives in this world, beyond motivation and a new outlook? If so, if there really is Supernatural Help on a daily basis, then why isn’t our journey different from the non-believers? Or, if not, then are stories like Peter’s and Paul’s escapes from their persecutors in AotA misleading, or do they just not apply to us?

    I hope this question doesn’t seem like baiting; this is something I’ve been struggling with.