By Stages: Grief, Gratitude, Guitars

By Gregory Kable, dramaturg

Deborah Salem Smith’s intimate and expansive drama Love Alone deftly engages several seminal debates of our cultural moment, including the effectiveness of our health care system, escalating litigation and its impact on doctor-patient dynamics, and the status of women in male-dominated professions. It equally addresses broader themes of mother-daughter relationships, generational gulfs, interpretations of justice and personal responsibility, core human experiences of love and loss, the legal standing of same-sex couples and the painful, yet profound process of recovery from any life-altering circumstance.

Thanatology, the interdisciplinary field focusing on death, dying and bereavement, entered popular consciousness in the 1960s, due in large part to the widespread influence of a pair of books generating considerable attention. The first was journalist Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, a 1963 expose of the funeral industry which spoke to a dominant national repression and avoidance in all matters related to mortality. The second was the classic 1969 study On Death and Dying by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Rooted in her clinical work with the terminally ill, Kubler-Ross provided the psychological complement to Mitford’s sociology, identifying a cycle of responses in the face of death which she famously proposed as stages of grief. For Kubler-Ross these were comprised of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, the purity of any theoretical model complicated by Kubler-Ross’ awareness that individual reactions vary greatly from any definitive pattern, particularly given the thread of hope that passes through all of these permutations.
Gustave Moreau, Orpheus (1865)

Several of Mitford’s indictments led to industry reforms, although she still found much unchanged in attitudes and practice decades later in a revised edition published posthumously in 1998. Kubler-Ross’ conclusions were both celebrated and consistently challenged by rival perspectives, sparking controversy to the present day. What makes these still valuable touchstones are their shared articulation of a deeper process beneath the rush of concerns and conflicting emotions in confronting and surviving loss. As does Smith’s play, they share a compassionate acknowledgment that in the wake of death we are thrust into passages which both transform and redefine us.

How appropriate, then, that the settings in Love Alone are intermediary spaces such as waiting rooms, a house made alien by absence, a new home, consulting offices, music touring arenas and parking lots, and that its characters are likewise in varied states of transit. A realtor, a rising musician, a doctor just out of residency, a young married couple in a period of adjustment, combine for a study of lives in flux, and their consequent mutual vulnerabilities are equally revealed as potential strengths. In such tentative environments, emergencies can land with seismic force, while the opposite can also be true: without the certainty of long-held habits and stubborn resignations, the known and familiar are less calcified obstacles, and growth can occur with unforeseen swiftness. But Smith refuses easy answers and pat resolutions. As in classical tragedy, her characters must navigate a complex landscape of ethics, law, and politics. 

Love Alone further resonates with the classical world in its themes attending to art. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell outlined the main contours of the Hero Quest in religion and mythology, defining three recurrent phases he labels separation, initiation, and return. This pattern of isolation, immersion, and reintegration is as applicable to one’s progress through mourning as it is emblematic of the creative process. Among the most prominent mythic figures in twentieth-century art is the Greek god Orpheus, a deity whose story is inextricably tied to music, death and rebirth. Orpheus charmed nature itself with the sound of his lyre, journeyed to the underworld in a vain attempt to recover his lost wife Eurydice, was torn apart by frenzied Bacchants, and ultimately resurrected.

For numerous artists, Orpheus has served as a symbol of both the creative spirit and the alienation which can accompany that identity. Tennessee Williams wedded both perspectives in his mid-century tragedies Orpheus Descending and Suddenly, Last Summer, whose respective protagonists were a musician and poet broken and literally consumed by corrupt contemporaries. In contrast to these metaphors of a fallen world, Smith offers a rebuttal in the person of a female guitarist, whose success in a punk band “One-Armed Edna” (recalling the dismembered Orpheus) is a testament to all of the women of rock before her, from acoustic legends Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt, to electric pioneers Nancy Wilson of Heart and Joan Jett, to our present spectrum of pop confessor Taylor Swift and Moscow activists Pussy Riot. This ascendance of female guitarists in the often unwelcoming male landscape of rock embodies a message of empowerment which speaks to that promise of survival in the Orphic legend. And the assertiveness linking these divergent women is another marker of those wider drives toward greater equality in America and abroad. Nevertheless, on the personal level, such a journey, like Orpheus’ own, is fraught with peril. States of uncertainty, fear, and regression are as frequently suffered through in the arts as in grief. In this respect, it’s telling that the renowned American director Anne Bogart titles a central chapter in her essays on the profession “Terror”, counseling the anxious that in making peace with danger, “beauty is created and hence, grace”. 

A Modern Day Orpheus: Heart’s Nancy Wilson

Just as artists embrace the darkness, and each successive female musician widens the path for those who come after, Smith’s play confirms that mourning can be an experience as marked by dignity as distress. As she reinforces in an interview, “You never know who you are until it’s your tragedy.” Love Alone offers us a collective portrait of individuals simultaneously bound together and pulled apart by a common crisis: their emotional evolutions tracing a syncopated yet similar arc in the direction of that terminal point of the mythic quest: moving through stages, rebuilding relationships, aspiring toward healing, committing to wisdom, and finding a way back into the light.