Ramblings on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Music Man, & Mismatched Couples
My good friend and critique partner, Penny Williamson, and I just got back from our annual spring trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s wonderful going to the theater with a good friend who’s also a writer. I've found some wonderful literary inspiration on visits to Ashland, Oregon--the allusion to Othello which sets the theme in Chapter 1 of Secrets of a Lady, the Hamlet references running through Beneath a Silent Moon, the question "whom do you identify with in Julius Caesar?" which runs through the as yet unpublished The Mask of Night.
This trip was no exception in the literary inspiration department. Between performances Penny and I indulged in some of our favorite activities--we walked, shopped, lingered over meals at favorite restaurants, and analyzed the plays.
The plays were a rich and wonderful mix. One favorite was Equivocation, a world premiere by Bill Cain in which William Shakespeare is commissioned (or rather commanded by King James’s right-hand man Robert Cecil) to write a play about the Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot. A brilliant, layered play about politics, writing, family–and theater. (It may spark a blog post when I have a bit more time to think about it). Another surprise favorite was Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. When Penny and I first heard OSF was doing The Music Man, we were a bit skeptical about a Broadway musical mixed in with OSF’s usual blend of Shakespeare, modern and older classics, and edgy new plays. We left the theater completely entranced. It was a wonderful, clever, sweet-but-not-sappy production that brought out how River City, Iowa, is changed by musical con man Harold Hill and how Harold Hill is equally changed by River City and its inhabitants.
Particularly Marian Paroo, the town librarian. The romance at the heart of The Music Man is delicate and heart warming. Con man Harold Hill who is looking for a “sadder but wiser girl” and librarian Marian Paroo who is waiting for her “white knight” seem complete opposites and yet you root for them to get together. More than that, you believe in their happy ending. Perhaps because, as Penny and I discussed, while Marian and Harold are both misjudged by those round them, they see each other with surprising clarity. Marian falls in love with Harold knowing he’s lied about his past. Harold sees past Marian’s frosty demeanor. Meredith Wilson’s clever lyrics point to the fact that this seemingly mismatched couple may have more in common than one thinks. In the song “The Sadder but Wiser Girl,” Harold refers to The Scarlet Letter and the goddess Diana. He may be the most well-read person in River City next to Marian, who shocks the town by reading Chaucer, Rabelais, and Balzac. Musically, their two signature solos, “Goodnight My Someone” and “Seventy-six Trombones” have the same melody, disguised by different tempos. A clever way of showing how in sync their minds are beneath the outward show.
This got me thinking about other favorite mismatched literary couples who are soul mates under the skin. Such as Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing (which OSF is doing later this year). Despite their war of words Benedick believes Beatrice without question when she swears to her cousin Hero’s innocence. He sees through the truth of the situation while the other men in the play are taken in. Or Mulder and Scully who begin as skeptic and believer but become each other’s touchstone.
Arthur Clenham and Amy Dorrit in Little Dorrit (I came home last night and curled up with the last episode) are mismatched not by personality but by age and circumstance, which prevent Arthur from seeing Amy’s feelings for him or acknowledging his own for her. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are also mismatched in age, not to mention her interest in theology and his rationalism and the lack of interest both have in marriage (and echo of Beatrice and Benedick). Yet the spark of sympathy between them is clear from their first scene together in The Beekeeper's Apprentice. (Speaking of Holmes & Russell, I just bought The Language of Bees and am having to remind myself I can't stay up all night reading it).
For me to believe in a happy ending, I need to believe that the characters are somehow uniquely right for each other. That realization can be that much more powerful and interesting when they are seemingly an impossible match. In my own series, Mélanie goes into her marriage to Charles knowing they are an impossible mismatch in ideology, loyalties, background, and life experiences. Yet when she realizes she loves him it’s because “though he might not know her true name or any details of her life, he understand her as no one else ever had”.
Do you like stories about mismatched couples? Any favorite examples? What does it take for you to believe the characters have a chance to be happy? Are there literary mismatched where the author didn't convince you the differences between the characters could be overcome? Writers, do you get inspiration from the theater? Who else watched Little Dorrit (have you seen the 1988 Christine Edzard films, which are equally engrossing)? Who else is looking forward to Russell's & Holmes's latest adventures in The Language of Bees?