128: “The Obligation To Try And Be Beautiful” (Sarah Perry)

“I’ve freed myself from the obligation to try and be beautiful.”
                -Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent

                At first, I didn’t understand why my high schoolers were so excited about doing Night of the Living Dead. That’s probably because I wasn’t excited. I didn’t like zombies; I didn’t like the play. As we read the script, I wondered why I hadn’t insisted we do something else. I could have. The zombies surged through the windows, stumbling in their rotty-fleshy way. I should have, I thought to myself.
                The thing is, my students loved it. The young women loved it most of all. One of them, a sophomore who’d never been on stage, asked to play one of the zombies in the big finale. Another, who’d played leads with us before, had a slow death scene as she succumbed to the virus–and then came back as a zombie to bite her mother’s throat. As I told this thoughtful, compassionate young woman what she was supposed to do, her smile got wider and wider.
                “Can I really?” she asked.
                Looking back, I think I’m starting to understand. My students spend most of their time in a world that demands they be beautiful: that measures them for it, ranks them, sets them aside or admires them for their width and complexion. It’s a world that tells them they should listen, and follow, and be good. The play asked them to be something else. It asked them to be terrifying. It asked them to be strange, to stumble, to rot and fall apart and come back twisted. Whether I liked the play or not wasn’t at all important. It set them free.
                The Essex Serpent is about a widow who, as a near child, was married off to a well respected politician. In the silence of her polite Victorian society, she felt the cruelty he hid from others. She thought that was how love worked. She didn’t realize that she could try to leave until he was already on his deathbed. Then he died, and she looked at herself. She looked at the obligations she’d been handed, the ones she carried, thinking they were hers. She put down some of them, deciding she was free.
                Fulfilling our duties can show who we are. So can the obligations we push towards others, and so can the “obligations” we consciously put down.

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