Re-VisionPosted: August 7, 2017
“Decadent” was a new word to my ten-year-old grandson. It was splashed across the poster for a production of the musical Cabaret that we were attending at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. An odd choice for a fifth grader and his grandmother? Perhaps, but Teddy had performed in and seen the other show then on stage – The King and I – more times than he wished, so we opted for Cabaret. Even so, “decadent” triggered my uneasy attention as we entered.
Together, Teddy and I had read the synopsis of the show so that he would be prepared for the adult themes and dark, raunchy humor. But we hadn’t encountered the word “decadent” in this vetting, so I tried now to define it. “Sleazy” and “raunchy” captured it visually, but missed its essence. “Dissolute” and “degenerate” were no more familiar to him. Google might have helped, but I decided that, in this situation, a picture – or a scene – was worth a thousand words. So I let it go. Suffice it to say that, by the end of the show, Teddy “got” decadent. He also loved the music and worked to master it on my piano. For my part, I heard words and tunes that had eluded me before and squirmed only once during the bawdy rendition of “Two Ladies.” My grandson seemed unfazed.
During his week in DC, Teddy and I also visited memorials to presidents and war veterans. We spent a day at Mount Vernon, wandered through the National Museum of American History and, more purposefully, walked the corridors of the Newseum and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Much of what we saw reflected on individual leaders, where they went right and wrong. The FDR Memorial, with its stirring quotations inscribed on the walls, was a big hit – and is my own favorite – but we also saw an exhibit about the internment of Americans of Japanese descent under the same President Roosevelt. We observed that George Washington’s courage underpinned the founding of our country and his humility molded our democracy. Yet, he was a slaveholder. We were moved by the war veterans’ memorials – the faces of the soldiers in Korea were particularly evocative — and the remnants of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 wreckage. We rattled off the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment and focused on the rights to assemble and petition our government. And we watched how, pernicious bit by bit, the erosion of those freedoms by the Nazis created the context for the unchallenged murder of millions.
I tried not to lecture, but to observe and to question. Each time I visit these extraordinary sites – and, with 14 grandchildren, it is often – I observe things anew, often through eyes other than my own. Four years ago, I recall a spirited debate between two twelve-year-old grandsons about which more effectively conveyed its meaning: the abstract Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the representational Korean War Veterans Memorial. There is no right answer, of course, but in the competitive passion of the debate, the two boys examined thoroughly how and why they both evoke such powerful feelings. I have felt those two memorials more deeply ever since.
Oddly enough, in this particular week, it was Cabaret that cobbled together the lessons of many of these exhibits and memorials and heightened their emotional impact for me. The show’s montage of raucous and sweet scenes, moments of celebration and heartbreak, collectively aroused in me an uneasy sense of our vulnerability to the personal consequences of leadership gone egregiously bad. We saw how ordinary people could turn on a dime to become hateful and dangerous. We witnessed beauty morph into hideousness, love into fear, innocence into complicity.
Cabaret viscerally captures the demise of freedom in Nazi Germany, and the potential anywhere for a descent into a moral and political abyss where the educative tension between right and wrong – as at Mount Vernon — is eviscerated by wholesale evil. How lucky we are to be able to examine the history of our nation, and speak aloud of its failings as well as its triumphs; to acknowledge the fallibilities of our founders even as we honor them; to illuminate the values and imperfections of our democracy; simply to be alive in this country, in this time, when we are energized to appreciate and deploy our freedoms.
And how lucky I am that my grandson gave me the occasion to refresh my appreciation that Washington is my home.