When I first saw the title, “The Long Christmas Ride Home,” I thought to myself “why the heck is OSU having a holiday play in May!” I didn’t read much about the play, I just got up from bed, got dressed, and went to the theatre at the Drake center.
The play is a fusion of Eastern and Western aesthetics. Or rather, it is a Western misunderstanding of Bunraku puppet theatre techniques. The misunderstanding of this Japanese art form is important for audience members to know before watching the performance. Otherwise, you will be like me and wonder why the puppeteers lack grace on stage. The puppeteers are not meant to be graceful as the art itself and should appear amateurish. I didn’t understand it right away, but after the show, the clumsiness and absurdity of Westerners who romanticize “oriental” art and spirituality was clear. I wouldn’t say Vogul was ridiculing Westerners, but was criticizing our often inadequate interpretations of “Eastern” practices.
The narrative form of the play was what really captivated (and confused) me. The playwright, Paula Vogel, describes the narrative form of her play as follows:
“The man and woman narrators start the play as omniscient narrators, able to read each other’s thoughts and the thoughts of everyone in the car. As the play goes on, they dwindle into parents, frozen in time in the front seat of the car.” S0urce
The play begins with the husband and wife as narrators, often finishing one other’s sentences and correcting one another’s account of that Christmas. Then, the husband and wife narrator slide into the memory they are retelling, where they become active characters in their recollection. Thus, the “story” begins with the drive to grandma’s house. As the husband and wife retell the story of that Christmas, puppeteers bring in three life-like (even a bit spooky) puppets on stage: Stephen, Rebecca and Claire. Stephen, Rebecca and Claire are the narrators’ three children who do not speak at first (only act out the actions that the husband and wife narrate), but eventually gain control of their own memory:
“The adult actors who play the adult children begin as mute puppeteers in the backseat of the car, but grow into narrators of their own, able to narrate and manipulate their memories.” Source
I am not sure if this is the fault of the actors, playwright or myself, but I was confused with the lapses between narrators’ memories. Now, it is clear (I think) that the play begins with analepsis, or a flashback, where the narrators retell the story about a moment in time (a Christmas) that reflects family problems (rejection, infidelity and violence) that come to haunt them psychologically as adults.
The narration then leaps into prolepsis, or flash-forward, and we get a glimpse at the adult lives of Stephen, Claire, and Rebecca’s. The problems within their own relationships reflect the trauma of their childhood. Stephen was rejected and abused by his father as a child. He grows into a man who deeply seeks the effection of men. He is also in homosexual relationships that, as we later learn, consume his life. Claire, the Golden Girl (or Daddy’s Girl), is a lesbian who is attracted to blond, blue-eyed tall girls. She takes pride in bedding attractive women, whom she also calls her “Golden Girls”. She, however, cannot keep their love for long. And Rebecca, who lingers in the shadow of her sister Claire, has a self-destructive neediness that causes her cheat on her boyfriend.
It is clear that this story is not about Christmas at all, which explains why it was held in May. It is about the before and after effects of a Christmas day. That Christmas just happened to be the moment in time on which the narrators draw on. What is most important is how each moment affects the lives of the individuals. What is central in the narrative is the effects that trauma has on relationships and on memory.
Now, one thing really threw me off. The husband, a Jewish man and the wife, a Catholic, were performed by two black actors. Now, I imagine this may seem like a prejudice remark, but my problem is with the visual effect this had on me as a viewer. Just as I cannot imagine a white man playing the role of Martin Luther King in a play, I cannot imagine a black actor playing the part of a white Jewish dude. The actors performed fabulously and had strong voices that captured the characters, but I was thrown off with the race thing. Oh, and the puppet children were of mixed races. Stephen was a Caucasian puppet, Claire was a Latina-looking puppet, and Rebecca was a mulatto puppet. It just appeared messy and incoherent. Quite frankly, it didn’t make sense. Perhaps if they were represented as a black couple who had black children (rather than latino ones, lol) I would have been more forgiving on the directors. As far as we know, Stephen, Rebecca and Claire are their biological children. This was not an Angelina-Jolie’s-United-Nations family.
The play’s theme revolves around the juxtaposition of life and death. Vogul conveys this message by the breathes that the characters take. For instance, when the family is riding in the car, Stephen breathes in the icy cold air. The family 0ften breathe deeply after they argue. It gives the sense of exasperation, frustration, and even boredom with the mundanity of everyday life. Furthermore, the father repeats the phrase: ” I cannot breathe in this family,” which gives a sense that the characters are suffocated by violence, infidelity and lack of communication. Breathing, also, is the indication of life, or rather, a reminder of death. The ghost narrator, Stephen, breathes life into his sisters at a moments when they are close to death: when Claire contemplates suicide and when Rebecca sleeps outside in the snow while pregnant. This reminded me of scenes where you have the grim reaper coming to take one’s soul away. Like the grim reaper, Stephen’s ghost appears, but instead of taking life, he gives life. In this position, he serves as an angelic, or even God-like figure. He breathes life into his sisters at moments where they are standing “at the edge of the cliff,” so to speak. These nuances between life and death are really put in perspective for us when Stephen’s ghost breaks the narrative frame and speaks directly to the audience; asking the ideal audience if we could “see breathes”. Stephen’s ghost mentions that the living do not appreciate life because they cannot see the rainbow colors in their breath as the dead can. I found this particularly interesting, because his direct address gives a chilling effect of a ghost speaking to you, asking you to imagine death. But we have to keep in mind that Stephen’s ghost addresses the audience, but it is only an imaginary audience rather than the flesh and blood audience.
I wrote this post in order to sort out the confusion I originally had with the play’s narrative form. I didn’t not enjoy the play while at the theatre. This is partly due to the fact that I had no idea about the playwright’s intention to poorly imitate the Banraku and that the play itself has nothing to do with Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect jolly singing and dancing coupled with “ho, ho, ho’s”, but…well, something like Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”. On the same token, this play has a lot to offer for those interested in narrative form and trauma narratives. Those who are interested in identity, sexuality and psychology may find this play probing. I would even add gender to these categories, because the father mistreats his wife and his “pansy” son. Moreover, the mother rarely has agency in this narrative. She is just a passive “wife” who only thinks about having more children in order to save her marriage.