Sunday, June 19, 2011
These are the final words that the character Giovanni says in Baldwin’s novel. The rest of the story is told through the voice of David, the lover who abandons him. Giovanni says, “It’s true” in response to another character’s statement that: “Americans always fly. They are not serious.”
The truth of the statement is more than simply about Giovanni’s faithless, ambivalent lover; it is an assessment of the American in Paris. Or of the American colonial spirit anywhere it swoops in, churns things up then flies away leaving the colonized to piece their culture back together again, usually with disastrous results.
When I started writing “Waiting for Giovanni” I wasn’t thinking much about American colonialism; but rather about the tragic end of the innocent Giovanni who goes to the guillotine. In the book Giovanni lashes out in a rage that is almost incomprehensible except to those who have ever been in love. I wanted to find a way to make the love Giovanni held inside, the love that was rejected by David, come alive and have meaning. In part I wanted to accomplish that because I can be a bit of a romantic.
Perhaps Thelma and Louise survived the crash.
But also because I saw Baldwin as a person full of hope. He watched the world explode around him: children bombed, marchers broken by high pressure water, boys hung from trees. His eyes were unblinking as he took in all of the evil ‘that men do.’ Still in his heart he seemed to believe that human beings had the capacity to be better than their initial instincts might be. His essays were often searing indictments of the racist institutions that dominate US culture and at the same time a call to humanity to fulfill their potential.
When the curtain goes down on the final act of the play (that’s a figurative curtain since so few theatres use proscenium curtains anymore!) I want the audience to think about the struggle for love and the struggle to be righteous and want to take part in that struggle. So the truth of how Americans can be—that is callous and exploitative—is not the only truth. If we can imagine seeing all that occurred during Baldwin’s life and still not hate humanity we can create a new world.
Baldwin said once: “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” We are those innocents, like Giovanni, who never see the full and horrible reality that surrounds us.
We’ll recycle our cans and all will be well.
The history is more beautiful and more terrible than is spoken about. But in order to get to the truth of who we can be we must speak about the terrible things we do as Americans (of all ethnicities) both individually and nationally.
It’s just a play, I know. But when you start to write anything—a poem, a vampire novel, a play about one of the best minds of the 20th century—it really helps to think you can write something that will change the world.