The Conduct of Life

By Berman, Paul | The Nation, April 6, 1985 | Go to article overview

The Conduct of Life


Berman, Paul, The Nation


What is the spirit of the time? In his book The Conduct of Life Emerson answered that the question is too broad. Better to ask, How shall I live? Because in examining the conduct of life we come as close as we can to discovering the spirit of our time.

I wonder if Maria Irene Fornes, she of the five Obies, meant to invoke Emerson in her own The Conduct of Life, which had a brief run at Theater for the New City. Her setting is Hispano-fascist, her characters more Dostoevskian than transcendental. An army officer is mad for power and might get some if he can control his vices and corrupt his fellow officers. His wife is beside herself with suspicion that he tortures prisoners and rapes the servant girl in the basement. The whole of society looks maggoty and illegitimate in her eyes. She would happily give away her wealth to those who need it. Her husband disgusts her. All is sinking into a black it of moral despaire.

This is curious to see. We don't think of the fascist classes in Latin America bothering with disgust or introspection or moral concern, only with Miami bank accounts. Of course that is stupid of us. The Hispanic fascist classes have obviously been tormenting themselves morally for many years now, since a portion of those classes has been defecting to the left-wing opposition. So they do ask, Now shall I live?--naturally they do, and no doubt they ask much the way Fornes shows this officer's unhappy wife asking in The Conduct of Life, with agonies of soul and eventually with a gun. And what is this, by the way, if not the spirit of our time?

The play conjures a lot of tension, mostly by keeping the scenes tight and disciplined and unsettlingly short. The dialogue and staging seem almost to have been cropped too close at the top or bottom, like those paintings by Philip Pearlstein where the nude's head or leg has been cropped off the edge. …

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