Art

The Art of Grief​ | Veronica Clarke

Corsicana is the latest play from Will Arbery, whose 2019 Heroes of the Fourth Turning was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It is about many things—death, love, art, memory, disability, place, family. The play defies neat summary, but one of its overarching themes is how art can make sense of the whirlwind of life—and especially of grief—by smoothing over crumpled emotions and turning a mess into something ordered and beautiful.

The story follows two half siblings, Christopher (Will Dagger) and Ginny (Jamie Brewer), whose mother has recently died. With their mother gone, Christopher returns home to Corsicana, Texas, to care for the despondent Ginny, who has Down syndrome. “I can’t find my heart,” she tells him at the beginning of the play. Justice (Deirdre O’Connell), their mother’s best friend, recommends that Christopher enlist the help of Lot (the superb Harold Surratt), a sculptor who recently decided to “open his heart up” to the world through his art. Lot says he once proved the existence of God through experimental mathematics, but threw away the proof. According to him, “Art’s a better delivery system.”

So Christopher asks the eccentric artist if he could write a song with Ginny. “She’s—she’s grieving,” Christopher says. “I’ve never seen her like this and I want to get her brain, uh—or just—get her social—give her some structure.” Lot agrees to help.

Art gives us structure and clarity; It helps us make sense of the disorder of life. As Elaine Scarry has written, “The arts and sciences, like Plato’s dialogues, have at their center the drive to confer greater clarity . . . as well as to confer initial clarity on what originally has none.” Art allows us to put abstract feelings and thoughts into something concrete, to wrestle our heartache and ecstasy into a poetic straitjacket. At times the play seems uncertain of itself, but perhaps that is the point. The characters haven’t finished their song yet.

Before any dialogue is spoken, Lot (whose name means “hidden” or “veiled” in Hebrew) appears on the stage and pushes against the back wall of the set, creating a small gap in the left corner. Beyond this opening, we are told, lie his unseen, unfinished sculptures, left to the imagination of the audience like Platonic forms of art. This reminds us that we, the audience, are ourselves looking into a gap—the stage—and seeing a work of art, the playwright’s own act of heart-opening.

This heart-opening raises questions for interpretation. Lot, disgruntled, tells Christopher how an Oxford American journalist “poked around” his art and “had a lot of ideas about what it all meant.” Ideas about art seem to risk deadening the art itself; the artist’s voice can become muffled. Arbery is interested in exploring the limitations of interpretation. He writes in the program: “There’s a part of me that really wanted this program note to say: ‘Corsicana is a small city in Texas. This play is about four people who live there. Thanks for coming.’ The end.” He goes on to ponder “artists who obsessively create work . . . and then their work gets discovered and fetishized and sold and recontextualized. This play pivots around that moment when something made in private becomes public. Does sharing a made thing take it away from the one who made it? Does articulating a feeling change the feeling?”

Once made available to the public, the artist’s art takes on a life of its own. “A song is a family. / It escapes to beyond you. / You get something you sure weren’t looking for,” Justice sings at the end of the play. Sharing one’s art requires vulnerability and risk—baring one’s heart. With that comes what Lot calls a “question in the air.” Anything can happen; you just don’t know what. You might be called “weird,” as the characters often call themselves and one another throughout the play. But in the words of Julia—Arbery’s older sister who has Down syndrome and inspired the play—sometimes “you just have to say it out loud.”

While sharing art makes one vulnerable to the sting of criticism and the risk of recontextualization, it also creates the opportunity for the community to form. Art builds on what came before, and draws people in, like moths to a flame. By the end of the play, the song that Ginny and Lot write brings the four characters together, and confronts them with love—the “question in the air.”

Life can be a lot. But art is about making order out of chaos, and maybe finding one’s heart along the way. Corsicana is a weird play, but you will feel warmer for having seen it—and maybe a little wiser, too.

Corsicana runs through July 17 at Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan’s Theater District.

Veronica Clarke is associate editor at First things.

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Photo courtesy of Julieta Cervantes.

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