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Essay

Tim Sanford on "The Great God Pan"

Relativism. When I was in graduate school, this buzzword seemed to chase me around from subject to subject. The relativity of time translated to the relativism of memory which translated to the relativism of truth and identity. The "Theater of the Absurd" reflected this slippery unknowability of existence in aesthetic form. But I always had trouble with this notion. It seemed to me the elusiveness and fluidity of identity did not necessarily indicate the absence of identity. Everything I knew about the endeavor of dramatic action screamed the opposite. Drama is uniquely poised as an art form to represent the bubbling forth of submerged secrets onto the surface. It's called subtext.

In After the Revolution, Amy Herzog dramatized the bubbling forth of history into a family's life. Amy showed the fluidity of historical truth in the divergent views each family member had of it. Yet she also showed the resistance of history to each character's attempts to massage it subjectively. Absolute historical truth might remain unobtainable, but its hidden force still shattered subjective versions of it.

The Great God Pan looks at personal history with a similar lens, and its ramifications are perhaps even larger. Let me second Amy's assertion that it is not a play about sexual abuse, even though a revelation about past sexual abuse launches the action of the play. There was a time when child sexual abuse was a trendy topic (long before the current scandals at Penn State or in the Catholic Church). Concomitantly, there was a time when plays with revelations of child sexual abuse at their core were submitted to the theater with some frequency. Most were as revved up and sensationalistic as the famous McMartin Daycare Trial. There isn't an ounce of sensationalism in Amy's play. The incident of abuse is only one of the several buried events that sit like undisturbed depth charges in the memories of Jamie, its central character. As he reluctantly turns a spotlight into the darkened fathoms of his unexamined memory, waves of untapped emotions begin to bubble up, including moments of awe entangled within them.

In a pivotal scene between Jamie and his old babysitter in her nursing home, she reminds him of a nursery rhyme she'd say to him on the way to the swimming hole: "What was he doing, the great god Pan, down by the reeds in the river." The verse was meant in fun originally, but in the context of the play's revelations, it seems to suggest that almost mythic natural forces have acted upon him. To me, though, it also suggests that something tumultuous is going to be unloosed in him. We also come to feel that the great god Pan tugs at fears and dreams of all the characters in the play. Jamie's hidden wounds become almost metaphoric for the wounds that lurk within all of us. Pan may have laid the old foundations of Jamie's identity in ruins by play's end, but we also feel the strength he is developing by wrestling with this dark angel and the bracing cleanness of the new air he is breathing.

–Tim Sanford, Artistic Director
September, 2012

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