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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Unicorns, Fire Escapes, and Candles



I'm planning to teach my favorite play, The Glass Menagerie, this week, and so I am re-thinking the symbols featured in the play: the unicorn, for instance. That magical, ethereal, remote beast we would all like to discover wandering around in our backyards. Its coiled horn, which is called an "alicorn," contains a remedy for poison. Its tears are supposed to heal a broken heart. I think of Kenny Loggins' version of "The Last Unicorn" and the song's haunting lyrics:

THE LAST UNICORN

When the last eagle flies Over the last crumbling mountain And the last lion roars At the last dusty fountain In the shadow of the forest Though she may be old and worn They will stare unbelieving At the Last Unicorn When the first breath of winter Throughout the flowers is icing And you look to the north And a pale moon is rising And it seems like all is dying And would leave the world to mourn In the distance hear her laughter It's the Last Unicorn I'm alive... I'm alive When the last moon is cast Over the last star of morning And the future is past Without even a last desparate warning Then look into the sky where through The clouds a path is formed Look and see her how she sparkles It's the Last Unicorn I'm alive... I'm alive.

The song seems relevant when I think about the character of Laura Wingfield, who collects little glass figurines, her favorite of which is a unicorn, and who lives largely in a world of her own. She is like the unicorn, also, because she has a distinguising characteristic --- a limp that she feels separates her from the other girls and classifies her as a "cripple." At the same time, Laura is ethereal and lovely and full of grace --- and mysterious, like the unicorn. Once the horn on her glass unicorn is broken, however, he becomes like all the other horses, and the magic is broken. Laura's heart will not be healed. Since I'm not very likely to come across a unicorn today who will let me hop on her back and take me away from my heartache and troubles, a second metaphor to examine is the fire escape, which serves as a porch for the Wingfield family in The Glass Menagerie. One of my favorite scenes from the 1987 film version features Tom (John Malkovitch) and Amanda (Joanne Woodard) on the fire escape. Malkovitch is so sexy in this scene. When he first steps out on the fire escape, he says to the audience,

"Across the alley from us was the Paradise Dance Hall. On evenings in spring the windows and doors were open and the music came outdoors. Sometimes the lights were turned out except for a large glass sphere that hung from the ceiling. It would turn slowly about and filter the dusk with delicate rainbow colors. Then the orchestra played a waltz or a tango, something that had a slow and sensuous rhythm. Couples would come outside, to the relative privacy of the alley. You could see them kissing behind ashpits and telephone poles. This was the compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure."

I can't say that mine has been a life without change or adventure. I've had plenty of both. I also can't say, however, that these bring happiness. Still, it's a romantic idea --- a fire escape. I'd like to have a mental fire escape. Perhaps I do: meditation.

Finally, there is the symbol of the candle in the Glass Menagerie. That painful scene in which Tom tells Laura to blow her candles out --- in other worlds, to live in the real, vivid world, which is the only world we have --- to abandon illusion. But also he seems to say please blow out your candles so that I cannot see you and keep searching for you everywhere:

"I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes ... Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I meant to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger ---anything that can blow your candles out! --- for nowadays the world is lit by lightning! blow out your candles, Laura --- and so, goodbye ..."

I love candles. They do give the room an illusory glow --- and scented ones of course add ambience of a different kind. They can invite romance or stillness of the spirit. They can indicate a memorial or a prayer offering or a sort of mini-lighthouse.

Each of these symbols is complex and offers intellectual study and emotional impact. I'll be lingering over them today.

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