Published in 1848, Vanity Fair falls within a broad category of novels often referred to as “classic.” Some may have read the novel as students, while others stumbled upon William Makepeace Thackeray’s serialized story through the Mira Nair film (starring Reese Witherspoon) or the recent mini-series on Amazon. Whatever the medium, the story of Vanity Fair details the life of Rebecca (Becky) Sharp and her friend Amelia Sedley, two women who come from vastly different circumstances and are thrust into — or take on, depending on your interpretation — a society that isn’t very kind to either of them.
Thackeray’s intent was to be satirical and to be a mirror on society. However, like many classic novels it is often dismissed as lacking relevance in the here and now.
Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity is set during a war that has lasted one hundred years and devastated the entire world. Yet, three women from opposite ends of the conflict still manage to find common threads of humanity through the majesty of a painting. The idea that a beautiful work of art could transcend what seem to be insurmountable boundaries seems like it could have been ripped from today’s headlines and leaves the mind swirling long after the show has ended.
Despite its long title, this play was meant for me.
In nine words, the title captures not only the imperatives of oral and intangible history of telling untold stories, but also with the final word — humanity— a dose of reality about what is at stake. I’ve written about my feelings about dystopian narratives, especially as they force us to take stock of the world while acknowledging its fragility.
In the first post of this series I wrote of how the miniseries Roots and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of the Earth and Sky tackled a simple question of individual identity amidst displacement – “Who am I?” But there is a second question that both the show and the book addressed that looks beyond the status quo and the present revealing active identity creation. “Who do I want to be?” is a question that is both aspirational and forward looking.
And so two other art/history pieces I experienced this spring – the Smithsonian’s Crosslinesand the Folger Shakespeare Library’s District Merchants– demonstrate that not everyone wants or chooses to internalize their heritage in the same way. Rather they make it clear that answering the question “Who do I want to be?” is a combination of conscious and unconscious choices we make in the process of forging identities.
“And he, Marin Djivo, younger son of a merchant? What was his life about? Trade? Clever, profitable dealings? He was from a city state that flourished by letting no one hate them enough to do anything disagreeable. Where you are situated in the world, Marin thinks, digging a grave in a Sauradian meadow, shapes how you act in the world.
Then he amends that thought: It is one of the things that does so. Rasca Tripon and Danica Gradek might frame it differently. Or the old empress living with the Daughters of Jad on Sinan Isle might do so. They are all exiles, he thinks, taken from what they were, where they were.”
–Excerpt from Children of the Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (emphasis mine)
For those of you that are fans of musical theatre the title of this piece may prompt you to belt out a singular name. A man whose identity at the moment of questioning had long been obscured by a series of numbers.