Sunday, March 08, 2009

Our Town, Their Century

Frank Rich, drawing on his roots as a theater critic, goes back today to the perennially American "Our Town" to remind us of what has been lost in our national life since it emerged in another Depression seven decades ago.

"Once again," he writes of the play's continuing revivals, "its astringent distillation of life and death in the fictional early-20th-century town of Grover’s Corners, N.H., is desperately needed to help strip away 'layers and layers of nonsense' so Americans can remember who we are-- and how lost we got in the boom before our bust."

This week Bernard Madoff will step out on the stage to explain how he created the nonsense that took away billions from his fellow citizens, including the Holocaust humanitarian, Elie Wiesel, who now says, "We gave him everything. We thought he was God."

In the background is a crowd scene of lesser crooks--"Sir" Allen Stanford of the Bahamas, who hustled greedy innocents and built himself a castle, complete with moat; Paul Greenwood and Stephen Walsh, "money managers whose alleged $667 million fraud looted the endowments at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon"; and the Noel family of Fairfield County, Connecticut, who "took in at least $500 million in fees (since 2003 alone) for delivering sheep to the Madoff slaughterhouse" and posed for Town and Country in their numerous homes.

Since colonial days, there have always been con men and swindlers among the American dreamers striving for success in the world's most open society, but as Rich reminds us, we have come a long way from the kind of people in "Our Town, whose narrator could say at the town cemetery:

“New Hampshire boys had a notion that the Union ought to be kept together, though they’d never seen more than 50 miles of it themselves. All they knew was the name, friends--the United States of America. The United States of America. And they went and died about it.”

In this century, small town boys are still doing that in distant parts of the world but those of us they are leaving behind had damned well better clean up the Union they are dying about.

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