Nov. 29, 2017
Warning: Do not read this prior to seeing the play. Major spoilers are included. It will ruin the experience for you.
When the audience gets to the end of the 100 minutes or so of Tracy Letts’ The Minutes, they pretty much need to stop and take a breath. It is a brilliant play, to be sure, but the ending is so stunning and so powerful, and it so undoes what we thought we understood, that it takes time to process. This play demands discussion and thought; it is provocative in the best sense of the word: it provokes the mind to work to consider what it has just witnessed and to find ways to understand it. I don’t say “understand it fully,” as I am certain that even a close reading of the text would leave room for interpretation; no, I say “understand,” as in make your own meaning from. And that is what I am doing here: making my own meaning out of what I witnessed at Steppenwolf Theatre so that this play does not haunt me. Others may fixate on different aspects and that is fine. Letts himself may have other notions and that is fine. This is what I saw.
It must be said that there are several themes at work in this play; I will try to touch upon some of the major ones.
The Council’s Names and The Town As Extended Family
As easy as it is to spend time discussing the individual quirks and characteristics of the Council members, they all, from Oldfield all the way to Peel, share at least one thing in common: they want what is best, in their opinions, for Big Cherry. That is why they are on the Council to begin with. Sure, Assalone has his little bicycle scam, but he’s not getting rich from it. And Superba clearly enjoys the power of his office, but he’s not exactly in the Gang of Eight. Breeding and Blake go along with the general flow of things, and one can only speculate why as Letts doesn’t let on, but here’s a thought: Blake is black (Letts’ naming in this play is, if nothing else, playful) in a town that clearly has mostly white people in it and was founded in a battle that wiped out a minority, and his ideas (if the Lincoln Smackdown is representative) don’t go over well with the majority, so he goes along because he desires to fit in a town where that fit may be tenuous. Breeding, who clearly lacks any, is smarmy and crude and off-putting, precisely the kinds of qualities that would leave a person friendless if he didn’t go along with the majority all the time, but he seems sincere at least in his desire to maintain the town’s budget. Matz is a ditz who lives in her own head, Oldfield is there almost by force of habit by this time and Innes has a single agenda that consumes her, but all three live and die for the Heritage Festival. Hanratty tries but fails to pass an expensive fountain rebuild to benefit the disabled…like his sister…because he thinks the town needs it.
Peel, at this point, is the Outsider. We’re seeing this Council working through his eyes, for the most part, as he seeks to unravel the mystery of Carp and the Missing Minutes, and a lot of what we see for most of the play just doesn’t make sense. To the idealistic neophyte politician, the pettiness, the squabbling, the in-fighting, the crazy secrets are at odds with his perception of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” He wants transparency. He wants to peel back all of the obscuring layers. As the Outsider, he has been more interested in his own family—his deceased grandmother, his new daughter—than the town, but as he listens he hears a group of people who may as well not have families. (Young town clerk Mrs. Johnson does not even have a photo of her five-year-old, which stuns him, and the only other family member anyone mentions with any significance is Assalone’s brother, the sheriff, who is in on the scam.) The only “family” they have is the town. They live and die by its football team. They spend an inordinate amount of time planning its Heritage Festival (which they all agree is their most important job). It is their first priority, perhaps their only priority. And when someone threatens the natural order of things, whether that is young Peel, who creates trouble by asking questions, or Carp, who (of course) carps about the finding he has made that calls into question the very nature of the Festival and the town itself, they don’t merely circle the wagons. This is not a defensive group. They go on the attack. Peel senses it when Assalone and Breeding verbally assault him for simply wanting to know where the minutes are. Carp, of course, learned it as his last lesson.
The Power of Myth
Peel recognizes the fallacies behind the story of the Battle of Mattie Creek as he hears them for the first time, and they are indeed so obvious it begs the question why no one else has questioned them. We question whether Lee Harvey Oswald could fire three shots in rapid succession with a modern rifle, but these people absolutely believe that one soldier killed twenty Indians with an 1890s rifle that required constant tedious reloading. The fact that it is impossible doesn’t stand in the way: the story is too good not to be true, and therefore it is true. Besides, it sets up the Farmers, the founders of Big Cherry, as protagonists and positive characters rather than the self-serving oil-seekers they apparently were, claiming the Indians’ land before their bodies were even cold.
Myth is a powerful thing. It is created through the constant repetition of a good story, like George Washington and his famous cherry tree. In this case, the entire legend of the town’s founding is retold again and again in the Heritage Festival, solidifying it in everyone’s mind. The re-enactments are so vivid that the Council even has their own mini-version of them that they clearly perform for their own entertainment any time they feel like it. Myth is storytelling, and strong storytelling holds within it the capacity to change people. If the townspeople of Big Cherry were told the true story that Carp uncovered, they would be shocked, of course, but eventually the repetition of that story would take the place of this one. Perhaps the old Heritage Festivals themselves would devolve into myths, stories grandfathers tell around campfires of the silly things they believed in their youth.
But the citizens of Big Cherry are not going to learn the truth, and the old myth will not lose its power. The high school will remain the Savages, and the ritualistic “Indian” chanting and dancing will continue to be part of their tradition, as it can because the Indians, in the myth, were the aggressors. If they knew the truth, all that would need to change.
The Myth of Truth
Mayor Superba seems to believe that, by hiding the Minutes, he can hide Reality. He must be living in our world. In this Trumpian universe we find ourselves in, where Truth gets to be defined by the person speaking, and stonewalling and outright lying are completely acceptable even by the White House, it becomes harder and harder to know real Truth. News sources are, more often than not, biased and carrying out agendas as they report their stories. It takes a discerning reader or viewer to realize that Truth is not, after all, a Myth.
Since this is the era of “fake news,” though, Truth is often so much a casualty that it might as well be a myth. Consider this story: there was a time not long ago when all news anchors reported the news the same way, told the same stories, and were each able to be believed by anyone who happened to be watching. Sounds like a myth, doesn’t it? I’m sure it does to anyone under, say, forty, but we older folks know that is exactly how it was before Fox News and the dawn of the politicizing of newscasts. And since it’s all politicized now, where is Truth? Can it even be found? Is it even possible?
Consider this story: There was a beloved family comedian who entertained millions with stories derived from his life, from the Bible, and from observations of the world. His records were best-sellers. He starred in hit TV shows. He was loved by everyone. And this story: A former comedian was accused of drugging and raping dozens of women over a period of years. Same guy. You know it: Bill Cosby. For decades, everyone believed that the first story was The Truth about this man. Now we know there was another, much darker, side. The Truth: is it malleable? Or is it just a myth that it can ever be known?
Letts seems to be arguing the former. Big Cherry could know the truth if the Council allowed it, but they did not. They only allow the truth as they desire it. Carp’s discovery is destined to lie undiscovered forevermore. One of them might even have the ambition to find it and destroy it. One can alter the truth if one knows how and one has the power. It is indeed malleable. Though the truth, as they say in X-Files, may be out there, it is simply getting harder and harder to discern.
In a very real way, this is a play about conquests. Its central matter hearkens back to the Indian Wars, and the Truth (would that it were ever known!) is that the slaughter at Mattie Creek is just one of the many such slaughters that marked the real Indian Wars. (In fact, November 29, the date of the Mattie Creek slaughter, happens to be the date of a real-life one, the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, in which nearly 700 Cavalry soldiers attacked a mostly unarmed Indian camp and massacred or mutilated the inhabitants. Perhaps Letts had this in mind.) The “Truth” (in play terms) is that even the real Big Cherry slaughter was honored by the US Government, with twenty soldiers receiving medals for their part in the bloodbath. It didn’t matter to the US at the time whether it was one heroic soldier or a battalion: the only good Indian was a dead one.
Conquest was what these wars were all about: defeat the Indians and take their lands. Similarly, the Town Council meeting is all about conquests. Some are easy like defeating Hanratty’s proposal: it takes time because he is stubborn, but it was always doomed; he was seriously outnumbered. Some are much harder, like Peel’s demand to read the Minutes. He begins without another vote backing him but eventually forces Superba’s hand, making him cast the deciding vote or go on record as trying to hide the Minutes. Eventually, when Superba has had his say to Peel and the latter has left, we see the Council’s “Closing Ceremony,” the blood-covered faces, the “Indian” movements and sounds, the “Savages” that (if they are the local high school) conquer and (if they are in history) die. And of course Peel returns (more on that in a bit): the would-be hero has also been conquered and assimilated.
“History is a Verb”; Differences v. Similarities
“History is a verb,” Superba tells Peel. History is always in motion, constantly being written, constantly changing. We know the old saw that it is written by the winners, but Letts has a point here as well. How many celebrities have had their histories rewritten this past month? On the day I wrote these words alone, the list expanded to Matt Lauer and Garrison Keilor. And what about actual history? Like Christopher Columbus, for example? Not long ago he was a celebrated figure, though we knew that a lot attributed to him was myth. Now? More and more he is demonized as the ruthless killer he was, as we move past the myths toward something closer to the truth. Some call that “revisionist history.” Letts would appear to argue that the term is redundant.
In the case of Peel, he has a decision to make. Like most liberals, he feels very good about himself and the life decisions he has made. And when confronted by the revelation of the murder committed by these people in order to protect their town’s heritage, he is horrified. He would never do such a thing. He would tear the town down rather than participate in it. But then three things happen. Superba reminds him of all of the wasteful material comforts that the wannabe holier-than-thou man enjoys, things he knows better than owning but owns anyway like a gas-guzzling SUV. Johnson reminds him that, like the rest of them, it is his town too. “We live here,” she says. “This is where we live.” Tear it down and what do you do? Where do you go? And finally, Peel goes out into the rain.
Here I will repeat a bit from my review:
When Peel is called upon to start the week’s meeting with an invocation, at first he is a bit taken aback—separation of church and state, anyone?—but he obliges, muddling through a lengthy epistle to the Lord in praise of the rain. That might not be too notable except for the fact that it has already been made abundantly clear that Big Cherry has had more than enough rain lately, as it has been pouring for two straight weeks and they are currently in a dire thunderstorm that threatens the town’s already weak electrical grid. Yet he goes on an on about how important rain is, for the same rain that possesses the destructive power they are currently witnessing also causes crops and flowers to grow; its positive characteristics must be taken with its negatives.
Perhaps Letts is arguing that this is also the way we need to take ourselves: people are rarely only a single thing. Certainly, if this month’s headlines have taught us anything, they have taught us that. Great comedians and important lawmakers are still human and, being human, are capable of doing ugly things as well as the good they do. We need to decide for ourselves how to respond to each instance, but there can be no doubt of the universality of the theme: humans are frail creatures. There is actually no such thing as “holier than thou.” And with great power, as we’ve seen, comes great temptation.
When Peel wanders back in soaking wet, it is as if he has realized all of this. It is a kind of baptism. He has changed; he has been reborn into the Council of Big Cherry. And in the end, he joins the rest of them in their frenzied, savage movements as a sign of his solidarity: he has chosen not to report anything but rather to play the game. He has not only peeled back the layers obscuring the truth; he has peeled back something within himself, whatever humanity could have argued that this was so wrong that under no circumstances could it be tolerated. That has been washed away by the drenching rains, a flood of Biblical proportions (there is actually a joke about building an ark) in a town whose leaders commit murder to protect a sordid lie. It is completely absurd, and that is what Letts is going for. When reality becomes a joke, the only Truth remaining lies in absurdity.
Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member