Monday, June 4, 2012

Living in Paradox: Matchmaker Heaven

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be;
When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.
(Tao of Leadership, The Paradox of Letting Go, ch. 22)

All behaviour consists of opposites or polarities. If I do anything more and more, over and over, its polarity will appear.
(Tao of Leadership, Polarities, ch. 2)

I'm not sure whether Barnaby Tucker might be a closet Taoist. What I'm reasonably certain is that both Dolly Levi and Malachi Stack are. I accompanied a generous (more on why this is relevant in a moment) friend to a performance of Thornton Wilder's Matchmaker this weekend and met all of the above characters -- granted not, as they say, 'up close and personal'; but close enough to have some of their folksy wisdom and life perspectives penetrate.  

Among a number of themes Wilder explores in this entertaining (if somewhat OTT) production is that of the costs associated with living at the polarities of our experience; holding that an extreme of anything (money, caution, propriety), as another friend and author of the two quotes at the top of this piece would say, is not a very satisfying or sustainable posture. Barnaby first. This hugely naive, scared rabbit of a young man, is charged with the responsibility (by Dolly, the matchmaker) of providing the audience a summary of the 'importance of the play'. Having been compelled by his co-worker to venture to New York (from rural Yonkers) for the day in search of 'an adventure', Barnaby certainly gets his money's worth. The wisdom he gleaned -- and what he wishes for all of us -- is 'just the right amount of adventure, not too much, but, then again, not too little'.  A lovely restatement of living in balance, the mindfulness equivalent of equanimity.  That is to say that calm, composed place we are encouraged to cultivate each time we sit, the middle ground between attachment and avoidance, a composed observer rather than the reactive participant.  For Barnaby, pudding is great -- just don't eat too much (you have to see the play to get this one).

And then there's Malachi, brilliantly presented by Geraint Wyn Davies. Malachi spends the early part of the production firmly establishing his slick credentials -- not the right fox to be left in charge of the hen house. As the play builds to its denouement, our garrulous con man finds a dollar-stuffed wallet and -- steps out of character (or so we think) for a little tete a tete with the audience. 'I suppose you thought I'd just keep this'. He goes on to explain that this is not in keeping with his 'value system' (an apparent oxymoron if ever there was one). His 'logic': that to cultivate multiple vices -- and equally no vices -- is a recipe for disaster. His advice, predicated on his own rocky road of experience, is to indulge one at a time, lest eschewing all would make one a tightly constrained, about to explode vessel of self-denial; while throwing oneself indiscriminately into self-indulgence will almost certainly come to a bad end. Already a committed drunkard, he therefore cannot be a thief at the same time. And he gives the wallet to the man he suspects has dropped it. Another lovely statement of 'moderation in all things'.

And finally, Dolly. Again, not just what she seems on first blush. Professing to be the 'selfless matchmaker', she clearly has designs on the wealthy (and decidedly unhappy) antagonist of the piece (Horace), alternately whetting his appetite for the next candidate and salving his disillusionments with the next in line -- all leading relentlessly to her own doorstep. And this is where Dolly's Taoist leanings begin to shine through. She harbours a philosophy of money that it is only of value when 'it's spent' -- keeping the system well-oiled and mobile -- rather than being an end in itself (as is typified by Horace's miserly style).  At core, she personifies our first quote: letting go of . . . enables the attainment of. In this production, loosening one's grip on one's 'wallet' allows one's heart-desires to thrive. Simple and oft-stated but. . . Dolly, the paradox.

Excepting Dolly herself, each character occupies a polarity, is largely unhappy, unfulfilled, and resigned. Dolly's 'matchmaking' is less of the external relationship kind and much more of putting each of these individuals in touch with their 'other side': Horace with his generous, loving aspect, Barnaby and Cornelius with their adventurous sides, Ermengarde with her emotionally risky face. Living in balance, in equanimity -- fully aware.

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