The Wisdom of Youth

By Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University           

The last week of classes at many Italian schools is now past, and the stressful season of final exams—a one-week battery of written exams, followed by intensive oral follow-ups—began this next. But the last week of classes was also a time of culmination, the week for the presentation of the extracurricular theatrical productions some of these same students have been preparing all spring. I had the singular pleasure of seeing one such production in the Roman seaside township of Fiumicino a week ago on a late Monday afternoon, and was amazed by the sophistication of the entire production. 

Entitled “2012: An Odyssey in Space and Time,” the show was conceived, written, choreographed and produced by a remarkably creative group of more than thirty students ranging in age from eleven to fourteen, and supported by some remarkably generous and far-sighted teachers who do this all voluntarily, in addition to their already extensive professional duties. A good friend of mine, Mr. Corrado Sferaggatta, was the main faculty sponsor of this production, and it received further support from the “Eco-Schools” program in Italy. 

The title’s subtle gesture to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic was underscored by the ominous strains of the film’s operatic opening soundtrack; this was but the first of many alternately playful and serious artistic references the students used to season their play. 

The curtain rose to reveal three young girls, one of whom had recently heard about the so-called Mayan Apocalypse, scheduled for the winter solstice in December of this year. The whole thing had really freaked her out, and her two friends were trying to calm her down. They finally landed on the solution of visiting the local mad professor who was reputed to have invented a time machine. He and his erstwhile assistant had indeed done so, but like many another inventor, genius was not necessarily married to practical skill. The professor, hilariously immersed in a world of his own, delegated the actual programming of his strange device to a bumbling assistant who managed, all in the short space of forty five minutes, to partially electrocute himself and mis-direct the machine twice before eventually planting the girls among the ancient Mayan civilization they wished to visit. 

Their first errant voyage took them to the imperial city of Rome, under the rule of the new emperor, Nero. This blustering emperor stole the show, playing to the Colosseum’s vast crowds (in this case, ironically played by us in the audience) when he was not casually strumming the ballad of the local soccer team, A.S. Roma, on his cithara. The selection of this emperor—which is to say, the Roman Empire at this time—was a brilliant choice. We were immediately made mindful of the devouring passage of time, gazing upon an empire that saw itself as eternal, and administered from a capitol city that still markets itself as “eternal.” Edward Gibbon notwithstanding, that empire did not endure forever. It was deeply moving to witness a group of remarkably self-reflective students from that same city reflect on endings and new beginnings in such a probing and sensitive way. 

That self-consciousness also had a vaguely political edge. The scenographic set-up of the whole Neronian episode contained visual and choreographic references to a comedic work from the early 20th century played by a well-known actor of the time, Ettore Petrolini, whose nominally apolitical comedic sketches nonetheless carried implicit political overtones in the charged atmosphere subsequent to World War I.  So these students were not merely reflecting on an ancient regime gone the way of all empire, but also on political crises of greater immediacy, in the post-liberal era of global financial crisis, and grave doubts about the future of the European Union. 

The next Odyssey transported the three girls through space, instead of time. Literally. They landed in another world, where a brilliantly-clad cluster of space aliens welcomed them with warm hospitality and a barrage of curious questions. If the Roman Empire did not last forever, it also did not manage to conquer the entire world. Every empire must learn its limits, since the surest fact of imperial life is that there is always more world than time, and thus more ground than any empire can assimilate. Accepting that enervating fact—that the world is far larger than any of us, and not answerable to our whims or desires—is one of the marks of maturity, for adolescent girls and aspiring empires alike. The girls seemed to manage it brilliantly, arguably far better than the US and EuroZone, in fact… 

These two mistaken destinations nonetheless served a crucial theatrical purpose. They enabled me, a citizen from North America, to see our continent with Roman eyes, and thus to see the remarkable civilization of the Maya as distant from us in space as well as time. That is to say, as utterly foreign, and strange, and now essentially vanished save as a vague archaeological memory. This point was made with artfulness and subtlety through a casual reference to yet another Italian film, “All We Can Do is Cry” (Non ci resta che piangere), in which Robert Benigni and Massimo Troisi attempt to travel back to 1492 to prevent Columbus from making his historic voyage, and thus averting what was, from the Mayan standpoint, truly an apocalyptic event. 

And what of the apocalypse the Mayan calendar allegedly predicted, prompting this poor girl’s nightmares and these three crazy trips? It turns out that the royal Mayan chronologer was named Maya, resulting in the marvelous ambiguity whereby the repeated references to “the calendar of Maya” referred both to the monument that had given our erstwhile heroin her nightmares, but also the quirky commonplace of the local scribe cranking out her numbers. Maya the Mayan was essentially locked up in a tiny office, working out her calendar, and she was tired. When the girls landed upon the scene and opened the veil behind which she was working, the long-suffering scribe begged for a break. She was granted a reprieve and thus her calendar broke off at the winter solstice in the year of our Lord (not her Lord, at least not yet) 2012. 

The play ended with the soulful strains of a remarkable Canadian band, “Great Big Sea,” covering REM’s classic, “It’s the End of the World As we Know It (And I Feel Fine).” It was acoustic, slow, and eerily reassuring. 

The moral of this strange and beautifully scripted tale? 

There is no end of the world, apart from the endings we ourselves create. Three worried girls brought Maya’s calendar to a hilarious end. An earthquake—yes, these young thespians were mindful of the suffering of their northern countrymen and women, too—is the end of the world that we have built upon a fault line. Ecological disasters of our creation are even more devastating, and not only to our own species. Endings, in short, are everywhere. 

But they need not imply death or destruction. As these remarkable young students reminded us, endings can inspire us to new journeys, and the remarkable expansion of our collective imaginations. All that is required is the patience to wander, the virtue of close attention, and the compassion to care. The entire play was prompted, after all, by two girls’ passionate commitment to help defuse the panicked worry of a friend. 

And what the three girls discover along the way, with us in the audience, is the spiritual essence of Tolkien’s marvelous truism: “Not all who wander are lost.”

 

 

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