The Sunset Limited

sunset limitedI want to direct this play.

I knew, vaguely, that Cormac McCarthy had written some dramatic work but I’m more familiar with his more-recent novels like No Country for Old Men and The Road.  This play is subtitled “A Novel in Dramatic Form” but I think that’s not really giving credit to the theatricality of the text.  I mean, maybe McCarthy felt it would be too boring to put onstage, I don’t know.  Steppenwolf did it a few years ago and so that means it can in fact be done.

The play is two men, both middle-aged, discussing faith and life.  Well, its more than that.  One, a well-off white professor, has tried to commit suicide by jumping in front of a commuter train in NYC and the other, a black ex-con and ex-drug addict, saved him and brought him back to his apartment.  There they sit, in the middle of “the moral leper colony” that is the slums of NYC, and Black tries to save White’s life and soul.  Black is a deeply religious man, White an avowed atheist.

Now, normally this setup is predictable.  The man-of-the-earth convinces the man-of-the-mind to believe and they all live happily ever after.  Thank goodness for Cormac McCarthy – because that’s NOT what happens.  Similarly to how I believe I’d feel in a situation like this, White never “comes around” to Black’s point of view.  He remains steadfast and in the end, he leaves – most likely to try and kill himself again, only without the interference this time. White argues that God is a fabrication, a fallacy, and if you know me you know I’m inclined to agree.  White’s problem is that he has lost faith in the “things” he put value in.  As a result, he doesn’t see life as worth living and he doesn’t need to worry about a life yet to come – he understands that THIS IS IT.  Once this life has become not-worth-it, why continue in the hopes of a better one to come?  If it isn’t worth it, end it.

Black, on the other hand, after a moment of ultraviolence in jail, has a religious experience and comes to see more meaning in the world.  He defeats most of White’s preconceived notions of religious ‘fanatics’ – and this is a nice touch by McCarthy, making the character NOT an idiot who believes the Bible to be 100% word-for-word truth or a zealot who damns you to hellfire the minute you disagree.  He’s intelligent, articulate, and White respects his opinion.  Its just that he sees it as wrong.

The play is entirely these two men engaging in a dialogue and the ending is not entirely satisfactory, because it isn’t a “happy” or “neat” ending.  I think the play is even better because of that, though.  Life is not neat and these are big ideas that deserve to be talked about.  100 minutes of these two men onstage talking would probably be tough for some and commercial theater this is not… but it IS a brilliant piece of philosophical debate (hence why we read it in philosophy), full of the theories of the big players in modern philosophy from Weil to Nietzsche to Camus to Heschel and even stretching back to the old-school players like Plato and Augustine.  Black is left, at the end of the play, asking God why he didn’t give him the words to help White… and we’re left to decide for ourselves whether Black was delusional or the epitome of Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith.  Big stuff, powerful stuff.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  The play, at times, comes off as a little bit of a “let’s get as much philosophy in as possible” and there are some issues with the characterization of both men.  However, it is a powerful and provocative look at what it means to be human and what our lives actually mean.  Is it worth struggling on or should we just take a ride on the Sunset Limited?  This play is, in many ways, McCarthy taking “to be or not to be” and presenting the debate in a modern context – and wow, is it a doozy.

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