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Redeeming Time

I am generally averse to works of theatre that revolve around ideas about science or mathematics. I liked, but didn’t love Proof. I liked, but didn’t love Arcadia. Scientific metaphors that some authors find fecund – and obviously many audiences agree – seem sterile to me. I suspect it’s because, to my mind, scientific ideas can’t really serve as metaphors – rather, we use metaphors to understand scientific ideas because those ideas can’t really be grasped directly. When we say “light is a wave” we’re using our common experience understanding of waves to explain, by analogy, something about light. But that’s all the metaphor is. It doesn’t mean that light “is” a wave – and that, for example, there therefore must be some kind of medium (the ether, say) through which said waves propagate. The math – the ability to predict how light will actually behave – is all that’s real, and the metaphor’s truth derives from its utility in enabling us to pursue the math correctly.

So if a playwright or novelist runs the metaphor backward – says, for example, that life is like quantum mechanics because you can’t really observe it without participating in it – what I hear is a scientific idea is being reduced or misused. It doesn’t seem possible that somebody would understand quantum mechanics more intuitively than life, so what’s really happening is a metaphor to help somebody understand quantum mechanics is being repurposed, and transformed into something else, to say something about life; and as a consequence of the transformation, the metaphor becomes a poorer guide to the science, and may actually misinform.

So it was with trepidation that I approached The Little Years, a contemporary Canadian play by a mathematician (John Mighton) that, as I understood, used modern ideas about the physics of time to illuminate the tragic life of a girl, later a woman, who never quite “got” life. But my trepidation turned out to be somewhat misplaced. This isn’t really a play that uses these ideas about time as a metaphor. It’s a play about a person for whom those ideas about time become a powerful metaphor. And, whether the playwright intended this or not, to my mind becomes something of a victim of her own ideas.

The person in question is Kate, a bright if odd teenage girl in the 1950s at the start of the play (played with authentic innocence by Bethany Jillard), who has an interest in science of which her mother, Alice (a progressive revelation in the hands of Chick Reid), disapproves. Kate doesn’t really have friends – doesn’t really get people at all, in fact. She’s the kind of girl who is most comfortable alone with her journal, into which she writes not only the usual bookish girl wonderings but her speculations about the nature of time.

The play follows Kate from this point to late middle age, but by the time we see her next, a college dropout in her twenties (now and for the remainder of the drama played by Irene Poole in one of the best performances I’ve seen from her), it’s already all gone wrong, and nobody – or, at any rate, not her mother – can figure out what went wrong. She’s angry, bitter, actively working to alienate everyone around her. She’s bitter, in particular, about the preference everybody – especially her mother – shows for her exceptionally accomplished poet of a brother, William. But, interestingly, there’s never any suggestion that William doesn’t “deserve” that preference. He’s bright, accomplished, sociable – and, moreover, he doesn’t have any antipathy for his younger sister.

William doesn’t ever appear on stage – not living, anyway; his ashes appear in an urn in the second act – but his presence is felt in every scene. His mother glories in his accomplishments, initially, but as we see later, when she’s old and in a nursing home, living her life through her son has left her as bitter as her daughter. (It’s a triumph of performance as well as a sign of the strength of the writing that Ms. Reid, so perky and upbeat in her early scenes, yet so bitter and angry decades later, is very clearly the same woman.) William’s wife, Grace (there’s a pointed name choice for you – and Yanna McIntosh plays the role as a very human embodiment thereof) herself seems vaguely oppressed by her husband’s success; she reacts, on the one hand, by trying to take her troubled sister-in-law under her wing (Kate lets her spend her time, but shows her no affection or gratitude in return) and, on the other, seeking solace in an on-again, off-again love affair with a painter friend, Roger (played very finely by Evan Buliung – it can’t be easy to project both interiority and shallowness, which is precisely what is called for in the role).

Mighton seems to be saying something about the nature of fame and glory, and the pursuit thereof. There’s a pointed scene on this theme relatively early in the play, when Grace brings Kate to a party, and introduces her to Roger (this is before the two have started their affair). Kate is belligerently hostile to Roger, but she doesn’t simply avoid him – she sets out to take him and his pretensions to significance down a number of pegs (one senses she’s really taking aim at her absent brother, or her mother, through him). She lectures him about time, how it could just as well run backwards as forwards, how we can’t actually experience it – all of this by way of mocking his desire to achieve some kind of permanence, something that lasts beyond his own life, through his art. Roger leaves her to get a drink, and to continue on the path of life he planned, but decades later he tells Kate that he never forgot what she said, that, in fact, she got him exactly right: his art was hollow, propelled by ambition rather than anything authentic, and as a consequence his whole career has been meaningless for him. (And even his fame was fleeting; he’s now known as the “Barry Manilow of painting.”)

But what struck me about the scene was the destructiveness of the metaphors that Kate had latched onto. What was truly important in what she was saying wasn’t anything about the nature of time, but about the nature of experience. She was cautioning Roger against living through imagined experience – ambition, she sensed, was a variety of just that, living through the imagined experience of achievement as from the outside, as her mother lived through the imagined experience of her famous son. If one isn’t to live through imaginary experience, one must live through reality. But this is one thing Kate never does – her whole life is a rejection of reality, out of anger and hurt that reality seemed to have rejected her. And she consoles herself by saying that, understanding the nature of time as she (thinks she) does, she is the only one who understands the folly of everyone else’s engagement with reality.

Now, I don’t actually think Kate’s life is ruined by her adolescent meditations on time. But I also don’t think her life is ruined by her mother’s preference for her brother, or by the casual discrimination against women that was just part of the 1950s landscape. As Ms. Poole plays her, Kate is a profoundly disordered person, someone who, on a very basic level, doesn’t understand how to relate to people. I’ve known a few people like that – some more functional than others. What they have in common is that they have always been “off.” They were born that way. Now, there’s still the question of how you – and your parents, your school, etc. – respond, all of which has bearing on the varied outcomes I’ve observed in these people. But I couldn’t quite tell whether the author recognized that Kate was one of these people. That while her anger and bitterness may be primarily due to the way she was treated (though not necessarily; I do know people who I’ve known from early childhood and who, for all I can tell, were just born angry and hostile), her strangeness is not. That’s just part of her, from the beginning.

Some years ago, I saw a production of The Glass Menagerie in which Laura was played as one of these people. Not as a very shy girl who narrowly misses the opportunity to break out of her self-imposed shell, but a woman who was fundamentally “off” – who may have briefly, even profoundly, connected with the gentleman caller, but who could never have sustained that connection no matter what he did. That’s not the only way to play the role, but I didn’t think it was an unrealistic choice – as I say, there are plenty of people like that. But the main consequence of that choice was to take the focus of the drama off of Laura, and put it more on Amanda and Tom, and how they are affected by her, and having to live with her. Similarly, in The Light in the Piazza – a very moving contemporary musical, about a young woman who, as a consequence of an accident, has been trapped, mentally, at around age ten, never to fully mature (other than physically, where her development is entirely normal) – the focus of the drama isn’t so much on the woman as on her mother, and what living with – and devoting herself to – this child has done to her life.

The Little Years is another drama about an “off” character, but we are with her for so much of the play that there is no way the drama can recenter on somebody else. And I appreciated how uncomfortable that made me. I didn’t want to identify with this woman, with someone I could see was in constant psychic pain, and who plainly could not understand the nature of that pain any better than could the people around her.

And I wonder how comfortable Mighton was with it either, because he concludes with the only unconvincing scene in the play. Kate comes to her niece, Tanya’s, graduation, and, meeting her, learns that Tanya has worshiped her for years, ever since she discovered Kate’s old notebooks where she wrote down her adolescent musings on time. These notebooks, it turns out, changed Tanya’s life – protected her, in some fashion, from the trials of adolescence. Kate finally makes a connection with another human being. And she weeps, her first and happiest tears of the play.

I say this was an unconvincing scene, and the reason is that Tanya is not a character; she’s a vehicle for the author to give a gift he wants to give to his protagonist. Tanya seems completely oblivious to how odd her aunt is. It’s not that she looks past it, much less that she seems drawn to it – she just doesn’t seem to notice. And that is just not how you would react if you worshiped someone for her writing, and then finally met her, and she was, well, really strange and off-putting. Tanya, moreover, was played by Ms. Jillard, the same actress as played the young Kate; the suggestion, plainly, is that Tanya is who Kate might have been were she born into a more accepting family and a more accepting time. And I just don’t believe that. Indeed, I think it reduces all the pain we’ve been through to a “message” about love or tolerance that isn’t even supported by the rest of the play – Grace, most obviously, does everything anyone could hope and more to welcome and accept Kate, over the course of decades, and it makes no apparent difference to Kate’s state of mental and emotional isolation.

Notwithstanding my objections to that last scene, I was impressed by this play. It was exquisitely realized – beyond the excellent work from every member of the cast who, on top of everything else, have to age forty years over the course of the play (and they do so), every piece of furniture in the set, every accessory in the costumes, is a perfectly chosen signifier for period and character. And, though I can’t exactly say I enjoyed it, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Whether I wanted it to or not, it made a connection with me, a connection that lasted well beyond the time I spent in the theatre. Which, notwithstanding that I don’t even know what time is, seems to me to indicate that it was well-spent.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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