A while back, I was talking about The Great Gatsby with a couple of friends. One had recently read it (on my strong recommendation) and felt a bit let down; another remembered reading it in high school and feeling like the teacher was forcing a bunch of invented symbolism down his throat.
“Sometimes, it doesn’t mean anything that the sky is blue!” he said. “Sometimes it’s just blue.”
I thought, “But the author said it was blue. He didn’t have to make it blue. Everything that’s in a crafted piece of art is there because of a decision.” But I didn’t say it.
I was reminded of that conversation last night, when I was honored to see the traveling production of Billy Elliot here in Orlando. (Matt Palm’s review for the Orlando Sentinel gives a good plot overview.) It was pretty astounding stuff; summary videos can’t quite give the same impression as the effect of seeing dozens of bodies move in sync on stage:
I came in knowing that the play (and the film it was based on–and yes, that’s Mrs. Weasley in the trailer) is about a boy who wants to be a ballet dancer, but I wasn’t sure why the 1984 British mining strike was the context.
That’s when I thought of my friend’s comment about reading symbolism into Gatsby. I thought, “Look, someone made a decision to set this story in this context; it’s not like it was random, just as it wasn’t random that the sky was blue in the book.” And for a little while, I couldn’t figure out why this setting was chosen–but the process of wondering was meaningful, adding an extra layer of interest to what I was watching. That nagging question–why this strike?–made me an active watcher, not a passive one. And of course, it didn’t take long to begin understanding the answer–or perhaps it’s better to say that it didn’t take long for me to start making meanings, as I don’t think I was understanding the absolute, complete truth of what the show wanted to tell me.
It started during the long number “Solidarity,” which was easily one of my favorite parts of the show. To mark the passage of many days, as Billy learns more and more about ballet and as the strikers’ confrontations with police grow in intensity, “Solidarity” blends passages of singing and dialogue in both the ballet class and on the strike line. What makes it so striking (accidental pun, I promise) is that these different characters are occupying the same spaces on the stage, moving in sync with each other, with girls in tutus passing between the gaps between the police officers with increased complexity, all while singing in harmony–even though we understand that they’re not really occupying the same narrative space.
The lyrics of the song–“Solidarity! Solidarity forever!”–have their surface level meaning, applying to the solidarity needed to stay on the strike line, on the police line, or to dance together in ballet. But increasingly, as we hear the word solidarity over and over, we realize that solidarity is both physical and emotional, that this production wants us to consider the ways that people group together and isolate themselves.
And that’s the answer to my question about why this story was set in this place: it offers a setting where the emotional parallels between Billy’s life and the lives of his family and friends crop up all over the place. The individual is honored: Billy’s decision to dance is shown to answer his dead mother’s request that he be himself even when it’s hard, and his father has to make a hard individual decision that costs him solidarity with his peers, a decision that is definitely honored by the production, as it leads to good things. (I’m clearly trying to walk around spoilers carefully here.) But the individual also seems to function best, paradoxically, when in the context of community. Billy’s father’s act of individuality leads to new levels of solidarity between the miners; Billy’s path toward fulfilling his individuality is only possible because of the people who join him; even Billy’s decision to dance alone at night shows him joined by an adult version of himself who echoes his every movement and eventually dances in harmony with him, suggesting that Billy functions best as an individual when the different parts of himself are acting in concert with each other, as in dance, or the trinity.
One of my favorite quotes about music and rhetoric is from Gregory Clark’s “Virtuous and Ensembles: Rhetorical Lessons from Jazz” (from this book). He says that improvisation “offers a starting point for thinking about resolving the conflict of individual and community in ways that conventional terms of rhetoric don’t allow” (44). That is, the ways that a jazz musician improvises both allows his individuality to shine, but only because he’s doing so in a context of community, where everyone supports each other, feeds off each other, and follows the same chart. Surely Billy Elliot has something similar to say.
If you’re wondering “So what?” this is the heart of why I’m writing this at all: I increasingly have trouble seeing the lines between literary analysis and rhetorical analysis. Here’s what I mean: because messages are crafted, because decisions are made by artists/communicators/rhetors/whomever, it’s worth asking ourselves why any text is the way it is. That means that if the sky is blue in Gatsby, let’s ask ourselves why that might be; if Billy Elliot is set in the 1984 mining strike, let’s ask ourselves why it was crafted that way. That’s also the heart of any more traditional rhetorical analysis: why is this political ad using these colors? These words? Why was this speech, this essay, this X organized in this way, using this and that detail or this and that order? After all, someone decided to make them that way; let’s not assume they weren’t and just let people affect us however they want without some critical thinking defense plates mounted solidly around our vulnerable heads.
No, the answers to all those questions won’t necessarily tell us what the creators had in mind, but that’s not the point. The point is find meanings, I think. Meanings that matter. Meanings that make me leave Billy Elliot both amazed at the technical skill I saw, but also at the complexity of what it said to me.