A few questions have arisen about the end of the play. Here are my notes from an earlier session:
Explaining the end of the play.
It can be argued that the end of the play is a bit whacked, poorly constructed, or just plain flawed. I propose that taking such a position would be both inaccurate and incorrect. Of course, we would love to see Martha and Herald reunited and marching off into the sunset with their darling little girl, Zonia. But I contend that the play was never intended to be about Martha and Herald, but about Herald (the Wilson Warrior) and his development and, take a deep breath, about Bynum and his final fulfillment. Let me set the scene.
In Act 1 scene 1, Bynum told Selig, the trader and People Finder, about a man he was looking for, a Shiny Man he met on a road who once shared with him the Secret of Life. Bynum said the man asked for his hands, then rubbed Bynum’s hands between his own hands that had blood on them and said the blood was a way of cleaning himself. Soon the road changed, the surroundings changed and “everything look[ed] like it was twice as big as it was.” The cleaning with blood was clearly also a type of enlightenment, a baptism of sorts, preparing Bynum for a future task. During the same experience, Bynum saw his father, who told him he would show him how to “find my song,” and explained that the Shiny Man Bynum had earlier seen was “the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way and that
“Said there was lots of shiny men and if I ever saw one again before I died then I would know that my song had been accepted and worked its full power and I could lay down and die a happy man. A man who done left his mark on life.”
OK. Hold on to that thought . . .
Skipping forward to the end of Act 1 scene 4, the House folks have come together on a Sunday evening after dinner to do a Juba, a African cultural celebration that involves dancing, singing, and invoking the Holy Spirit. Everybody is there and participating except Herald. When Herald arrives, he goes off the deep edge, questioning the existence of God and the Holy Ghost. He goes off into a bit of a other worldly experience, “dancing and speaking in tongues.” he then says,
“You all don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know what I done seen. Herald Loomis done seen some things he ain’t got words to tell you.”
Bynum comes to his aid, walks him through his exposition of the vision he has seen, learns about his vision, and walks him back from the edge, so to speak, and back to this world and sanity. We won’t go into the details of that vision here, but suffice it to say that elements of the vision are significant, the bones rising and walking on the water, the bones sinking all together all at once and forming a tidal wave that washes the bones, now clothed with flesh, black flesh, ashore, but still inanimate. Then a wind enters the bodies and brings them to life, and Herald Loomis is one of those bodies come to life, except at that point, unlike all the others, Loomis cannot stand up, or as he says it “My legs won’t stand up.” At that point, I think Bynum knew spiritually and at some level that he had found, at least potentially, his shiny man. But that more development would be required.
OK, moving forward to the end of Act 2 scene 5 (the stuff in the middle is not insignificant, but we can come back to it later if we have to), Martha returns to the House, Loomis returns, and Martha thanks Bynum for reuniting her with her daughter Zonia. Loomis takes offense at that and accuses Bynum of “binding” him to the road, to a life of wandering around and dissatisfaction. Bynum denies it, and at this point, Loomis draws his knife, followed by a type of call and response that tells us with finality there is not going to be a future with Martha and Loomis together. Their apartness has developed them into different people than they were before when they were together. AS Herald says, “Joe Turner’s come and gone.”
Then at the height of the exchange, Loomis draws the knife across his chest, drawing blood, then rubs that blood over his face, replicating, in some ways, the same blood cleaning and self-baptism that Bynum experienced in Act 1 with the original shiny man. Similarly, Loomis comes to a new awareness as a result of the blood baptism. Finally, he is standing and he proclaims “I am standing! My legs stood up! I’m standing now.”
This is the completion that Loomis sought. He bids Martha farewell, and Mattie rushes out to be at his side. The stage directions Wilson inserts here are pure poetry:
Having found his song,
the song of self-sufficiency,
fully resurrected, cleansed and given breath,
free from any encumbrance
other than the workings of his own heart
and the bonds of the flesh,
having accepted the responsibility
for his presence in the world,
he is free to soar above the environs
that weighed and pushed his spirit
into terrifying contractions.
At this point, Bynum realizes fully that Loomis is his shiny man, that his song has been accepted, and that he has lived a life of meaning.
So, Loomis is complete. He has Mattie at his side for his next journey. And Bynum can peacefully rest. Q.E.D.
Yes. I think Bynum is a central character, although Loomis is definitely and definitively the Wilson warrior in this play. We relate personally to whichever character we will and that is one of the human functions of all the dramatic arts, to engage the audience, one by one. But we also have to keep in mind the suggestion made in class, i.e., putting it mildly, that creative people are less focused on their audience and more focused on externalizing their creative impulse. I wrote a poem once, a sonnet, that I thought was exclusively focused on a somewhat complicated rhyming scheme, yet at the end, the whole poem had meaning for me (and perhaps, for any one else who read it), the rhyming scheme notwithstanding.
A friend the other day called my attention to a painting, The Choice of Hercules. The painting (could be a play or a poem) has four human characters, and people who gaze on the masterpiece are subliminally left to choose one to relate to (though forcing that choice may not have been the artistic intent of the painter, Carracci). It’s a bit of a tangent, but it is true, we can’t all be Hercules.
The Choice of Hercules (https://www.wga.hu/html_m/c/carracci/annibale/1/heracles.html)
Wilson is using his plays to build a history of a century, but he is also creating a mythology, and a philosophy. That is why these plays will last and last. And yes, he is developing a psychology, a code for human behavior, perhaps a universal code. It will be fascinating to see how it all unwinds in the remaining six plays.
More on the title. “Joe Turner” comes from an old blues song about a system of incarceration for emancipated blacks in Tennessee, generally on weak or flippant charges forcing them to work in plantations for a limited time. Joe Turner was the brother of Peter Turney, Tennessee Governor at the end of the 19th cenury. See more here: http://www.usprisonculture.com/blog/2010/11/28/they-tell-me-joe-turners-come-and-gone-music-prison-the-convict-lease-system/