A reflection on artists.
The song “Valley of the Shadow” shares its name with Chapter 40 in Alcott’s Little Women, the chapter when Beth dies. Thomas Newman wrote this song, along with the entire musical score for the 1994 film adaptation of the classic novel. His music cuts the heart.
Through his songs, Newman somehow asks Thornton Wilder’s question from Our Town, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” At times. Not often. Artists like Newman and Wilder force on us life’s waves of heartbreak and triumph. Through them, we get it. And it’s quite painful.
In Act I, Wilder’s Stage Manager explains, “This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.” Our Town is set in northern New York, in the early 1900s. For our Little Women, the growing up, marrying, living, and dying took place only a state away, in Concord, Massachusetts just 40 years prior. The Civil War.
These characters are our ancestors. I am connected to them, and they are in me.
You spend your childhood trying to prove how unique and special you are. Unlike anyone else around you, anyone who’s ever lived or will ever live. You are the most important. You are different. After laying all my grandparents in the ground, the Kansas ground, one by one, I now know I’m not different. I’m part of the cycle. Christmases come and go, year after year. Mr. Lawrence gives Beth a piano, as my parents gave me. Weddings come an go, year after year. George and Emily marry in Act II. Andy and I marry in 2008. We are part of the whole. I am Amy and Jo and Emily and Charlotte. I am a piece of the continent, a part of the main.“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” Wilder answers. “No. Saints and poets, maybe. They do some.” Thank God, then, for poets. Thank God for their plays, novels, music, and films. We’re all walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Poets? They walk with us. But they can see so brightly that they shine a little light our way.