On Christmas Day in the evening, I enjoined my parents and my sister and her husband to join me in watching It’s a Wonderful Life, for the first time, actually. I have learned from my life in the blogosphere that the film is something of a time-honored Christmas tradition for many people, but it had never been one in my house. I decided it was time to rectify that.
I enjoyed it immensely. It’s wonderfully charming and full of free-wheeling American hustle and bustle. But beneath all of that are some hard-hitting insights about identity and and the way the value of a life is reckoned. That George Bailey learns that the world would have been much worse without him, and that we don’t see the good that we do, or too easily forget it, is a major thrust of the film, but it is also not the deepest thing about it. When we look at how he learns that lesson, we can begin to see how the film affords us some pithier insights.
That his absence would mean that certain existing circumstances would be changed for the worse is part of George Bailey’s education, but it is not actually the central part of it. Consider the encounter with George’s mother. While there may be ways in which her circumstances are worse for his absence, the true horror, for George, is her failure to recognize him. Within the context of the premise of the movie at that point, it’s because he never existed, but he still is George Bailey, with all of George Bailey’s experiences and attachments, and to have his own mother, or his wife, or his good friends look at him blankly as if he were a stranger and none of their common experience had ever happened, is to experience a moment of vertiginous horror. This is all summed up in their failure to recognize his face or his name.
The egregiousness of such a betrayal is indelibly rendered into one of the founding documents of our civilization, the New Testament. The favored apostle, Peter, notoriously denies knowing Christ three times in the course of one night, to secure his own safety. This denial is a part of the larger sequence of the Passion, the series of events in which Jesus is humiliated, tortured and murdered. Jesus foresees Peter’s denial in Gethsemane, and it is one of the bitterest parts of his vision of what is to come.
The reason, I would maintain, that we find such a denial so horrific is the basic recognition that we are only possessed of an identity, of a self with defining characteristics, insofar as those aspects are recognized by others. We are, all of us, interconnected, and our identities interpenetrate with those of others. To be shunned, ostracized, to have one’s face and name denied and rejected, is to undergo a kind of psychic execution. It is to be made, in some very deep sense, unreal.
In light of all this, we can see that the play that Uranium Madhouse is preparing to produce, A Man’s A Man, has more than a little in common with It’s a Wonderful Life. Though one is a Hollywood melodrama and the other is by a hard-bitten, wry observer of some of the darkest chapters in the history of the West, they have in common the spirit of scramble and hustle and surviving by the skin of your teeth, and they both have some dark waters running deep beneath their respective rambunctious surfaces. Without wanting to give too much away about the story of A Man’s A Man, I’ll just say that denials like the ones George Bailey experiences occur at decisive moments in that play, without the comfortable counterfactual padding that the guardian angel Clarence affords, and they pack a wallop.
I’m very much looking forward to splashing around in the raucous surfaces of the play and plumbing the depths beneath. If you like the sound of all of this, please make a donation today to the cause, and help us make this production a reality.