Short Relief: Ya gotta have art

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Portland Stage Company’s production of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” is set in a lofty, austere, modern apartment in Paris, with all that city connotes about culture and civilization and art.

Veronique and Michel Reille have asked over Alain and Annette Houllie so that they can mediate a playground fight between their 11-year-old sons: Ferdinand Houllie hit Bruno Reille in the face with a stick and knocked out two teeth.

Veronique is an art lover and writing a book about the civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan. Her husband is a hardware salesman. Veronique wants to resolve the boys’ conflict with an apology that comes from the heart of bullish Ferdinand.

Annette has dragged her husband to the negotiations. Alain is an attorney in the midst of counseling a drug-manufacturer client experiencing a public relations disaster because of the harmful side-effects of one of its pharmaceuticals. His attention is constantly being diverted by calls from his client to his cell phone.

As a counterpoint, Michel is regularly interrupted by calls from his mother, for whom he affects an all-is-well-with-the-world bonhomie, which is only tested when she confides that she has been taking Alain’s client’s medicine.

When focusing on the negotiations at hand, Alain instinctively objects to any admission of guilt by his son, just as he counsels his client against making any public concessions about their drug. Alain argues that 11-year-olds are incapable of real maliciousness, that what happened is just boys being boys, and he observes that the original rule of law was that might makes right.

Annette goes further and accuses Bruno of being a gang member who provoked the fight by calling Ferdinand a snitch. Both Houllies point out that if anyone was a snitch it was Bruno for telling his parents. By this point, it doesn’t seem like there are any adults in the room.

The negotiations deteriorate to the point where everyone starts drinking, clothes loosen, and Annette pukes on Veronique’s coffee-table art books. In the process, Michel admits to having belonged to a gang himself as a kid, and to abandoning his children’s beloved hamster, which he always reviled, to an awful fate in the streets of Paris. Michel gets the last word as he asks who knows how to resolve such disputes.

It’s not a pretty picture. The only thing saving us from despondency is that much of the dialog is hysterically funny, as we laugh in recognition of our common experience and all the unseemly impulses we resist.

Coincidentally, at the same time that Portland Stage was playing “God of Carnage,” Acorn Productions was performing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in Westbrook. Woolf is the 1962 Edward Albee play set in that bastion of American civilization, the small New England college.

As I remember that plot, history professor George is married to the college president’s daughter, Martha. An established couple, they invite a new biology professor named Nick, and his wife Honey, over to their house after a party and quickly repudiate all social conventions. Rather than show the young couple hospitality, George and Martha humiliate each other, drink, argue, fight and play malicious games that eventually turn on their guests. Martha tries to seduce Nick. The play ends with Martha admitting she’s afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Woolf was a member of The Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals that gathered in London in the early 1900s. She is widely credited with inventing modernist styles of fiction, such as impressionism and lyricism, and techniques such as stream of consciousness. The group rejected the conventions of Victorian life in favor of the unrestrained pursuit of knowledge, truth, beauty, art, love and pleasure. Woolf in particular believed in the power of art to transform life.

The plays and Bloomsbury Group make me wonder whether we human beings can be responsible, can govern ourselves and our passions and do something positive, or whether we are instead destined to pursue short-sighted self-interest to meaningless oblivion.

Greece, a cradle of western civilization, can’t support its level of social spending. The European Community is reluctant to bail it out. Arab oligarchs, heirs to the Islamic Golden Age, won’t give their people any freedoms. Russia seems to be going backwards. Here at home, Washington can’t do anything. The supercommittee is just as ineffective as any other. Even that sacred cow, college football, is tainted by scandal, arrogance, irresponsibility and worse.

Maybe art is the answer. It’s the quintessential job creator, passionately pursuing some inspiration. Making something out of nothing. Something intrinsically beautiful and transcendent. And taking satisfaction from it. Or at least getting a laugh.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.