The fall season gets started with two politically charged works that move to the heart of our times.
One is the McCarter Theater production of “Gloria: A Life.” Written by American playwright and McCarter Theater artistic director Emily Mann, the stage work uses the life of feminist and social activist Gloria Steinem to examine social issues related to gender and power. It is on the McCarter stage through October 6.
The other is the Princeton University Music Department’s free concert performance of the contemporary opera “The Hunger.” Created by Irish composer and Princeton music faculty member Donnacha Dennehy, the new work uses the Irish Potato Famine to both remember a people and explore the ongoing problems related to power, class, and racial prejudice.
The opera will be performed at Richardson Auditorium on Tuesday, September 17, at 8 p.m. The composer will also speak about the work’s creation at a free event at the Lewis Center for the Arts’ James Stewart Film Theater at 185 Nassau Street on Friday, September 13, at 4:30 p.m.
Both artists have made statements regarding their work and how it talks to today audiences and reflects the power of art.
“Gloria: A Life” encapsulates the themes and ideas that I have been working with all my life and in my tenure here over the past 30 years. It is a documentary play that speaks to the current moment by focusing on justice, fairness, and who we are as a people. I feel it is a work that becomes more and more urgent every day.
As important, the play is a community-based piece. In Act Two, we all come together to talk about the most burning issues of the day using the content of the first act as a springboard. These issues can be hard to discuss, but as Gloria herself says, “We can’t keep putting movements in silos. They are all connected.”
I want these conversations to be cross-generational, and for people of all gender identities and races to feel comfortable, proud, and welcome to participate. Each of us has a story that matters.
“The Hunger” concerns itself with a big topic, the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52, which transformed Irish society irrevocably. The main narrative voice in the piece is provided by the astonishing accounts of the famine by the American non-conformist Asenath Nicholson. Mrs. Nicholson spent two years traveling around Ireland — often on foot — helping those dying from starvation and writing about her experiences of the unfolding famine.
One tragedy of our understanding of the famine is that precious little is available from those who directly suffered. There is no published account from the Gaelic-speaking majority that experienced the most. Musical culture almost shut down entirely through the period. Only one song from the sean nos (old style) tradition of unaccompanied singing deals directly with the topic, and that is “Na Pratai Dubha” (Black Potatoes). Shards of that song form the basis of an extended defiant section. Indeed it is to the sean nos tradition that I turn in seeking out — or maybe even inventing — an indigenous Irish thread in this multi-dimensional narrative.
On a larger socio-economic level, one of the terrible ironies of the famine is that while many were dying of starvation or associated diseases, food (which the majority of the populace could not afford) continued to be exported from the large estate farms. This is largely due to an ideological battle at the heart of the British government in London, where an influential contingent did not want to interfere with the workings of the market, at least in Ireland. Of course this was further complicated by the dynamics of colonialism.
Lord Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the Treasury, charged with special responsibility to Ireland at this time, even wrote that the “Famine had been ordained by God to teach the Irish a lesson, and therefore should not be too much interfered with.”
Addressing this broader context (and the parallels today) are voices from the worlds of present day economics, history, and philosophy. These new voices are presented through video inserts taken from interviews specially undertaken for this piece with Noam Chomsky, Paul Krugman, Branko Milanovic, Maureen Murphy, and Megan Vaughan.