Friday, April 7, 2017

Flashback Friday: Samuel Barber's Heartbreaking Adagio for Strings

‘I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!” ~ John Merrick

Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings (1936) is one remarkable piece of music. In the 1980 David Lynch film The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins, Adagio becomes the perfect score for the film’s tragically soft climax. More theater goers probably remember it as the theme music weaving together Oliver Stone’s 1986 Viet Nam epic Platoon.

Having just viewed The Elephant Man again this weekend, my heart breaks for these social outcasts. This film tugs at your heart on many levels, detailing an exceptionally deformed man's struggle to gain a sense of dignity after years as a side show carnival attraction. The commercial exploitation of this “freak,” John Merrick, is a major undercurrent throughout.

A long forgotten memory came to mind while watching the film. I had been in Washington D.C. for the May Day protests of 1971. When the streets were safe as the first day’s rioting wound down I attempted to hitchhike out of D.C. in order to reach Athens, Ohio for my ten o’clock philosophy class at Ohio University Tuesday morning. I could tell many stories from that trip, but will only share one here. When it became apparent that the two students from Antioch, who had picked me up in Maryland, were not going to go several hours out of their way to bring me back to school, they were kind enough to drop me off at the Pittsburgh bus station where my ten dollars was just sufficient to catch a midnight bus that would transport me to Athens. With a transfer and two stops along the way I would arrive at 8:00 a.m., just in time to shower and ready myself for class. (Anecdotal: Impractical 19-year-old hippie that I was, I actually left Athens the Thursday before, thumb extended, with no money whatsoever for this five day adventure. My aunt in Falls Church outside D.C. gave me the tenspot in case I got arrested.)

There were four of us on the bus: a young black woman who pretty much kept to herself, a middle aged West Virginia woman who insisted that every boy friend she ever had was named Eddie and that I should get off with her at Parkersburg (an offer which I declined), and a man who worked for the Coney Island Freak Show who was traveling the country to purchase freaky attractions for the famed New York amusement park. He showed me photos which people sent, which he would then go examine in person and occasionally purchase. Some were Polaroids, others regular pictures.

As we riffled through the stack of photos I saw a two-headed sheep, two-headed dog, a six-legged sheep, Siamese twin pigs with eight legs and two heads, and other horrors, some fascinating, others grotesque. It was not a pretty assignment, yet he seemed to relish it.

I think it fortunate that the carny sideshows with humans as monsters to be gawked at are a thing of the past… or I hope so. But the reality is, we still see this attitude in the world where some people are made to feel themselves outcasts. Every society has its untouchables. It could be race, social standing, education level, special needs, the way we look, piercings... What we forget is that these are fellow human beings, with beating hearts, who like John Merrick have had human aspirations, who long to be treated with dignity.

How indescribably painful it can feel to be outcast, untouchable and dehumanized. Oscar Wilde, in his poem Ballad of Reading Gaol said it aptly:
"We did not dare to breathe a prayer or give our anguish scope,
Something was dead in each of us and what was dead was hope."

Perhaps there is someone in your life who feels isolated. Perhaps by befriending this person you will give birth to hope in his or her heart. Or if you are feeling inward pain from a heart wound that seems to go on an on, perhaps you can take comfort in knowing you are not alone. My prayer is that you will be comforted.

There are a number of versions of Barber’s wonderful and heart-rending composition. I selected this one to remove its film associations so you can just lose yourself in the streams of sound. If you get a chance, take it in. Inhale its evocative mesmerizing power.

This blog post was originally published in March 2009. 

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