Utah is an amalgam of bizarre politics. A few days ago, I drove from Salt Lake to Cedar City, traversing Utah’s broad swatches of nothingness, incredible scenery, and needlepoint Mormon steeples, all under a haze of wildfire smoke.
I was driving to participate in the academic conference of Utah’s Shakespeare Festival, planning to talk about disability in the 400-year-old play, The Tragedy of Richard III. This year, the theme of the festival is “Shakespeare and the Other”; speakers were asked to consider how Shakespeare used POC, women, queer characters…demographic “others”, in other words…to make political statements. I, a bisexual woman uncertain of both her sexuality and her woman-ness, and an agnostic atheist, certainly list severely to the left, so I felt the comfort of an echo chamber. We transformed Shakespeare’s politics into our own, and were allowed to do so, protected by our rich liberal bubble. As I spoke, and as I listened to others speak, the phrases “w*nk fest” and “circle jerk” drifted around my mind.
I would drive from the conference to Hurricane, where my friend and I were staying. The first night, we labored up a desert hill, ditching our sandals, our bare feet clopping up the red stone, to see the sunset and Martian hills from a better perspective. When we reached the top, we saw that new oil rigs sprouted from the broad orange fields, adding to the luxurious natural beauty gilt profit and big, beautiful coughs of sand. My friend and I wheezed from physical and moral stitches, staring at those little phallic pricks in the surface of the earth. “The world is ending,” I said, and she picked up some litter. We found a spot to take pictures anyway, stumbled to our house, and turned up the air conditioning.
Tuesday evening, we saw Shakespeare Fest’s Merchant of Venice; a comedy about money and justice, featuring a Jew, Shylock, who sits right on the line of caricature and humanity. I wondered if there were people in this Utah audience who had never met a Jew before, and knew this evening could alter their sympathies forever, for better or worse.
(Leslie Brott as Antonio and Lisa Wolpe as Shylock, 2018 Utah Shakespeare Festival)
Thankfully, Cedar City’s version of Shylock—and the Jewish actress who played him—carried a history that demanded empathy. We see Shylock lose his family, his money, and his religion; he’s forcibly converted to Christianity. When we saw this happen, several people in the audience gasped. Tears leaked from my eyes. A few seats down, I heard someone whisper, “This is a comedy?” And, because of its absurdity and futility, it is, even if we can’t laugh at it.
For the past year, my home and the world—with all our echo chambers, our pre-apocalyptic environment, and our trials of empathy—has been a comedy that has pushed tears from my eyes. All of us hang somewhere between futility and choice, and, perhaps most importantly, our own comfort, control, and desire. So, because I despair and panic every time I read a headline, smell smoke, and see drills hover over my home state, it’s time to start making some jokes.