Caroline, Or Change

There and Then, or Here and Now
(or Brexit through a Different Lens)

1865 saw the Emancipation of the slaves in the USA. In 1989 it was the Berlin Wall.
In 1991, apartheid in South Africa. And now . . .?

Three large communities with a great history split down the middle, roughly in equal numbers but not in terms of resources and opportunities, both sides in hock to what they had inherited and apparently unable or unwilling to do anything about it either as individuals or as communities. 

Then, one day, the world turns — a ray of hope in a dark sky, a dream on the horizon, or an accident waiting to happen. They follow the dream, the temperature rises and after a bit of a struggle change comes crashing in as in a thunderstorm.

Suddenly, in USA 1865, the slaves are free, their masters grudgingly accepting what they have to regard as inevitable. Neither side has any experience of a major change like this. Both are walking together off a cliff edge with little awareness and no knowledge of what is to come next. Nothing they have done, or can do, has prepared them for this moment. Pressures beyond their control have brought them where they are.

The immediate result? A sharp distinction between those with resources, knowledge and drive to adapt and those without, the one (given time) likely to survive, the other consigned to struggle in a world of diminishing hopes and opportunities like a jug of cream going sour, victory increasingly looking like defeat, and freedom an exchange of one set of chains for another.  For the others, anything approaching victory is pyrrhic. It would be an overstatement to say that there are were no winners — there always are — but nearer the mark to say that both parties had winners and losers. though in different ways and with different consequences.

Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor and author of If This Is a Man, has a chapter 'The Drowned and the Saved'. It is an illustration of how living in a camp seems to produce two well-differentiated categories of human beings: those who seem to have a unique capacity for staying alive (the saved), and those who quickly lose all hope and strength and go straight to the bottom of the heap (the drowned). On reflection Levi's experience leads him to the conclusion that the key to survival seemed to be the ability to adapt. Those who could adapt managed. Those who couldn't simply went downhill.

What stimulated me to bring these events together was a visit to the Chichester Festival Theatre to see Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change, a play which brought it all together in a presentation on the price and pace of change focused on the emancipation of the slaves in the USA in 1865. Set in Louisiana in 1963 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and in the wake of the assassination of Kennedy it seemed to have far reaching implications, not only in the USA, not only on race and colour, and still as relevant and appropriate today on a different continet as they were 150 years ago.

Caroline is a 39-year old black servant, working daily for the Gellmans, a white middle class household —  Stuart, 39, recently widowed and remarried, and father of the the eight-year-old Noah, each of them still going through the bereavement experience —  and the recently arrived Rose, from New York, new wife and stepmother. Caroline is the focal point.  

Despite the dullness, monotony and lack of satisfaction with her life in a Louisiana basement, with a washing machine, where those around who are more prosperous no longer seem to believe in God and every afternoon she wishes she were dead, Caroline finds it well nigh impossible to come to terms with her new 'free' world. For her, possessions and money are not the whole of life and she still goes to church. Close family and friends seem to cope moderately well with the change and help and support from them is not lacking. She tries hard to adapt but for her the sorrows are too deeply buried ever to go away. Unable to 'let go where she's been' or to 'forget and move on from the place she's in' she cuts a lonely figure with 'sorrow deep inside ' and 'it never go away'. 

On the other side, Rose and the family are not without their problems in the changing world but the intensity of their suffering is somewhat mitigated by starting from a different base and with different resources. 

As the plot unfolds description and detail abound but little by way of hope or explanation as the audience looks and waits for some sort of denouement. From where I sat the details mattered little. What mattered was the overall impression beautifully reflected in mood music embracing 'everything from Tamla Motown trios to classical clarinet solos' (Michael Billington, Guardian Review). 

Central to the plot for me was the underlying relationship between Caroline and Noah which comes to a crisis when the two of them come into conflict. Noah has always been encouraged to leave loose change in his pockets as a compensation to Caroline for her miserably low pay, and Caroline on principle always returns it. Rose decides to impose her authority and tells Caroline she must keep it to teach Noah a lesson and serve up empty pockets in his washing. Anything she finds is hers. But when this creates tension to the point of fisticuffs between Caroline and Noah the breakdown in this relationship is one step too far for both of them. Caroline simply walks out on the family and one of the most moving scenes in the whole play is a forlorn eight-year-old sitting on a circular stage going round and round sadly singing,

And the next day day day Caroline stayed away 'way-way
And she didn't come back back back
And she didn't come back back back.

Clearly we were not far from some sort of resolution while  still unclear what it was going to be but then, as often, within minutes of the end, the sun breaks through in a touching scene between Caroline and Noah as the depth of their relationship is epitomised in a cigarette. 

Very early in the play Caroline had often allowed Noah, too young to smoke, to light her cigarette and have one puff before handing it over. 

Now, in a final scene with two forlorn characters before us, Caroline shares her sorrows with Noah and Noah responds:

'That sorrow deep inside you,
it inside me too'. 

She tells him what she misses and  he adds,

'And sharing cigarettes?
Do you miss sharing a cigarette?'

 to which Caroline replies

'You bet I do, Noah,
you bet.'

But Caroline went and didn't come back. So too did Noah.
 Life would never be the same again, and neither would they. 

Post Script

By the end of the century no doubt many in South Africa and in Europe (both East and West) would not find it difficult to identify with the sentiments. But what does it say to those of us who as yet are only halfway (if that) into our current drama? Where do we find the the sequel, 'Caroline and Noah Twenty-five Years On' or how do we work out for ourselves? 

© Alec Gilmore 2014