1. AMERICAN MYTH
Myths have no life of their own. They wait for us to give them flesh.
Myth is a loaded term. Mary Zimmerman, a former teacher of mine who has made a career playing in the world of myth, defined it for me as tales that we hold in our collective unconscious that primarily deal with origin stories which use the fantastical and often contain the supernatural. Others, she is quick to point out, use the term in the figurative sense by naming something a myth when they believe it is false, like bats are blind and bulls hate red. When you put American before it, there’s a whole other connotation that occurs. Mary assumed I was referring to pioneer folklore, while others have connected it to the unattainable promise of the American Dream. Check out the definition of myth and you’ll find these are all valid interpretations.
For my purposes, I look to the first definition of myth that pops up in Merriam-Webster:
a : a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon
b : parable, allegory
This is what I mean when I refer to an old story. Be it from the Bible, the Greeks, Shakespeare or Brecht, I define myth as a story that successfully helped its audience gain perspective in their lives. The next step then, is to make the myth American.
Let’s take a case study that most are familiar with: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Now, strip everything away that isn’t its bones: the Elizabethan references, costumes, religious context, and so on. What’s left is a myth about the inheritance of hate within tribalism. To make it American, find the flesh of historical context. What era of our nation’s history applies to these bones? There’s no wrong answer, but I chose the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, and specifically in southern Appalachia. Finally, it is necessary to infuse this American Myth with the blood of the present, and this is achieved through populating the story with a diversity that represents our country’s evolving identity.
There is one more crucial ingredient, which Mary referred to and does beautifully in her own work, and that is a dash of the fantastical. To create the space for this, it is necessary to further specify that these American Myths live in a land inspired by the historical context, instead of one tethered to historical accuracy. Our Romeo and Juliet then, lives in Verona, North Carolina.
The fantastical can materialize in many ways, but it is always aimed at one result: the audience’s delight. In our investigation of America, the topics promise to hold significant weight, so it is essential to find a balance in our storytelling. With R & J, I have infused it with pagan inspired ritual and bluegrass based music.
The result is The Ballad of Romeo and Juliet, a new American Myth, which we can use to create communal reference points for our urgent yet enduring investigation of our home.