The Sound of Toil

A fine romance

A fine romance

The Sound of Music is one of those inexorable movies that you either love or hate—-and it may change by the moment.  But the other night when I watched it with my sisters, I was “twitterpated” with it again!  And, like sweet-and-salty snacks, it’s a delicious contrast with another Best Picture winner, Chicago.

The 1965 winner is full of deceptively light-sounding songs about the savvy and perseverance required in an age when noble men lived in sprawling villas raising brilliant children and charming lovely ladies on the ballroom floor.  Seems like an era that didn’t need much perseverance, doesn’t it.  But what I appreciated about The Sound of Music this time was the fact that underneath all the bubbly childish cheer, there is a darker side of a vanishing life.  The house is empty and shadows when Maria arrives.  The children’s uniforms don’t quite fit correctly.  There are no groundskeepers, although the startling view of the lake never alters.  The gala ballroom is full of characters we don’t know, and horses and motorcars vie for the gravel drive.  The story is intimate, but in its intimacy it is also empty—foreshadowing the stripping and rending to come.  Examining Maria’s bedroom during “My Favorite Things,” it struck me that she and the children would have little to take when they ran away: the rooms were like guest rooms, nothing personal, simply accommodating.

Could this be your silhouette?

Could this be your silhouette?

But in the midst of a broken rhythm of Disappearing, The Sound of Music is wildly romantic and sexy in a soft and subtle way that Chicago countermands.  The sexiness of The Sound of Music is its concrete link to where sexiness came from: child-bearing.  No, of course, child-bearing doesn’t present well on-screen as an erotic and inspiring moment, but the love-bond between a husband and wife is quite literally manifested in their children.  What makes Maria and Georg’s bond so wonderful is that they love each other so well, especially through their tenderness with The Children, despite the fact that The Children are not Theirs.  It’s the ultimate love story—for the same irrefutable reason that movies as hilarious and quirky as Yours, Mine, and Ours and Cheaper By the Dozen have a timeless effect: real love bears fruit.

Chicago, on the other hand, depicts the empty eroticism of love disjoined from materiality.  Like a strip tease act, it struts upon its stage promising a lot but delivering little—or, when the moment of delivery comes, its rather disappointing and we wish the mystery were still there.

The world of Austria in the ’30s may have required perseverance of a political nature (which political scene creates a lovely tableau for Maria to demonstrate her new role as Georg’s wife, not simply his governess); but the Chicago of the ’20s is the kind of perseverance that doesn’t ennoble humanity but rather betrays it.  In Roxie and Velma we meet women who we wish could have the luxury of love but for whom we know there is no hope if they don’t reject sincere feeling.  Their lives are too damn hard to actually be experienced full-body.

What are you gonna do about it?

What are you gonna do about it?

Yes, Chicago is dazzling and titillating and it makes you want to watch more, but it ultimately dies away at the end, dissipating into a vapor, a remembrance of hard days and harder nights.

Now for the kicker: while reading Anton Chekov’s short story “On Official Business,” I was struck by the following lines:

And [the magistrate] felt that [the insurance agent]’s suicide and the peasant’s misery lay on his conscience, too; to be reconciled to the fact that these people, submitting to their fate, shouldered all that was darkest and most burdensome in life—how terrible that was!  To be reconciled to this, and to wish for oneself a bright and active life among happy, contented people, and constantly to dream of such a life, that meant dreaming of new suicides of men crushed by toil and care, or of weak, forgotten men of whom people only talk sometimes at supper with vexation or sneers, but to whom no help is offered.  And again: “We go on, go on, go on…”

the anxiety of our age

the anxiety of our age

Could it be that The Sound of Music is only possible because of Chicago?  And what I mean, I suppose, when I say that is really: does the rare, high life floating up near Plato’s Ideal Forms and religion’s noblest creeds depend on a substrate of broken lives and wasted toil?  Can Captain Von Trapp play his suit because Amos pays $2000 to be upstandin’?  Is it as devastatingly simple as the fact that raising seven children is terribly expensive, and, of course you can fall in love if you can afford a governess, but God help you if you’re in so deep you invent a child to save your neck from the noose?  Volcanic soil is the richest for harvest, so scientists say…but does anyone ever consider that the ingredients of finer living (organic food, anyone?) come from much accumulated pressure and toil underneath our floor?  Is one man’s ceiling another man’s staircase to paradise?

The injustice of this must topple in the End.

    • UD
    • July 19th, 2011

    As one who has watched many, many (did I say many?) performances of SOM in various forms and venues (classic movie, community and professional theatre), I’ve thought in recent years that the next milestone for this venerable story would be for some creative mind to develop a modern re-telling of it. While the historical setting is interesting and was once essential, the values communicated in SOM, which you point out, transcend history and therefore should be amenable to an updating of the setting and characters…something really fresh and provocative. Not sure exactly what that would look like, but in considering the possibilities I’m reminded of how Shakespeare has been done (in Elizabethan English) using characters, costimes and sets ranging from its original period to contemporary, and everything in between including early 1900s and 1940s. Could be interesting, especially as the generational memory of that time fades. What will become of SOM when there is no one to remember what the Anschluss was?

    • Reisytal
    • July 21st, 2011

    I agree! I am quite the fan of “original practice”—which phrase I’ve stolen from The Atlanta Shakespeare Company (, my favorite place in the world. I see Elizabethan theater regularly, but I loved their Summer 2010 rendition of Hamlet: The Musical. Re-contextulaizing Hamlet opened up amazing depths in a play I’d seen many incarnations of already, haha. Back to SOM: yes, and amen! There should be a “modern” adaptation….I’ve been thinking of what slice of our current world could supplant Vienna during Anschluss. I think the element of “vanishing” and “lines in the sand” is essential. Considering the current state of American economic affairs, it occurred to me that suburban middle class life would be an interesting substitute. The plot could unfold with a nanny from overseas (since convents aren’t in style as a cross-cultural experience anymore) serving a military man in caring for his kids; you could even thrown in a Superbowl cookout to supplant the grandeur of the Baroness’ party! I’m not sure yet what would represent Anschluss in our new rendition, but I’m sure there are many politically savvy people who have just the thing in mind 😉

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