From ‘Filling the Sky’ to ‘Sharing the Earth’

In On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square (Random House, New York, 2006), Marshall Berman, in the chapter ‘The Street Splits and Twists’, which, among other things, describes the complicated relationship between women and Times Square, notes in his commentary on Ethel Merman:

Gypsy is one of the most grueling of American plays. It’s amazing how many of the greatest American plays ran on Broadway in a single decade–Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey into Night–heartrending ordeals everyone. Gypsy is the one great ordeal with a happy ending. Its climax, where Gypsy offers to take care of Rose and her mother lets her, is a rare utopian moment when we can actually see tragedy metamorphose into comedy. Our history doesn’t offer many moments like this. Imagine, if we could see King Lear settle into a retirement cottage in Cordelia‘s kingdom; or see Captain Ahab at the very last minute turn the ship around and return to Nantucket, where he could get drunk, try on new clothes, and tell tall tales; or see the Red Army refuse to fire on the people and join in the jubilation of the Prague Spring. Alas, we can’t see any of these things. But Laurents and Sondheim and Merman have brought us a stirring vision of how somebody who used to fill the sky can learn to share the earth. [pp. 159-160; links added]

‘Fill the sky’ and ‘share the earth’; few learn to do that gracefully. The most famous instances of failures to do so are drawn from unsurprising domains like sports. The sports star attains a peak state, one of acute physical and mental co-ordination, performs at the highest levels possible, gains the greatest accolades and laurels, and then, goals attained, suddenly finds himself bereft of inspiration or motivation. Retirement appears as a grim period of enforced lassitude and eventual decrepitude, a time in which the erstwhile star of the heavens, now rudely deposited on humble lower ground, can gaze back wistfully at more exhilarating times. And so thus, the painful ‘comebacks’, which cause former fans and well-wishers so much angst, but which seem to assuage, momentarily at least, our ageing star, before the unfamiliar mediocrity of this new phase of life becomes unbearable and forces a reluctant retreat.

And there are the moon astronauts. Spare a thought for Buzz Aldrin. He graduated third in his class at West Point in 1951, flew in the Korean war, shot down two opponents in aircombat,  earned a Doctor of Science degree in astronautics from MIT for a thesis titled “Line-of-sight guidance techniques for manned orbital rendezvous”, joined the astronaut corps, flew aboard the Gemini 12 mission, and then, finally on Apollo 11, became the second man to walk on the moon. When he returned to earth, having realized, perhaps, multiple summum bonums in the physical and mental domains, a crash landing was almost inevitable: it came in the shape of struggles with depression, alcoholism, and marital infidelity.

‘Filling the sky’ is hard indeed; ‘sharing the earth’ might be even harder once it’s done.

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