Rod Dreher

The Grateful Acre, The Prairie Of Pain

Yes, it’s just
I got sad
If you’re all about the particular, and ordinary people Then why don’t you want to hear about all my things, My particular things

There you have the first intimation that Teresa is lying to herself — and lying to herself in a way that will be familiar to many of us. Especially us intellectual types who, in our particular lives, profess abstractions but live differently, and dwell within the cognitive dissonance.

Justin, the cowboy, recites for the group the text of a children’s book he has written, called “The Grateful Acre.” I’m not going to reproduce it here, because it really is a special moment in the play — special, but also eerie. It brings to mind Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree,” but in this case, it’s a fable about an acre of land that endures cycles of life, death, and suffering, with a spirit of gratitude for whatever happens to it. That description might sound corny, but I assure you the text is not. It is a children’s fable instructing the reader about the kind of fundamental stance toward life that they should have.

Later, though, in a discussion with chronically ill Emily, she describes her body as a “prairie of pain.” The passage is here:

JUSTIN
Your dad was saying and I thought it was brilliant that it’s this Cartesian “neo-Gnosticism” that convinces people that their souls are somehow separate from their bodies, and their bodies can somehow be fashioned however they like.

EMILY
Oh that’s beautiful J, that’s so — my body is so much a part of me I can’t even begin And I didn’t choose this, my body is just a friggin
prairie of pain,
and I can’t choose to make it go away
It’s just what I’ve been given.

The grateful acre is the prairie of pain. Catholicism is about accepting the suffering, as Christ did, and allowing it to refine you, to make you holy.

Emily has been given to know the prairie of pain in a particular (that word) way, but all four of these friends are suffering. They have been schooled in how to think about the world, but the encounter with suffering has tested, and is testing, their ideals. Emily is the only one whose suffering — whose given suffering — has left her without a choice in how to meet it. It has made her radically empathetic … but, as we learn, it has also made it difficult for her to discern moral truth.

In his New Yorker review of the play, Vinson Cunningham writes:

Justin never quite forgets that blood on the patio, or the difficulty he had killing the animal. That’s never happened before—hunting is a favorite pastime—and he sees the change in himself as just one more sign of the times’ palsying effect on the simplicity of the old ways.

But nothing in this richly allusive play is exactly as it seems at first glance. Justin’s fixation on the early sacrifice—he keeps trying to scrub away the blood when he thinks nobody’s watching—put me in mind of Cain, fretting over the spilled blood of his innocent brother, Abel.

The play begins with Justin killing a deer. Symbolically, this seems to say that violence and suffering are givens of the human condition, and that we are not going to be able to escape them. We are not going to be able to create the perfect conditions for ourselves; all our grateful acres will inevitably turn into prairies of pain, because that’s what it means to live. How we inhabit that ground, and whether we make it holy or desecrate it, determines the character of our lives.

Teresa has gone to New York and fashioned herself as a Millennial Joan of Arc of the media, but she is hiding from her own fears. Kevin keeps waiting for something to happen to tell him what to do with his life, while time passes (Teresa is not wrong to say that his is a failure of courage.) Justin has become a contemplative, and, as we see in the play’s final moments, has chosen a way to deal with his own rage at the darkness overtaking the world — but is it the right way? Emily has no choice but to dwell in the prairie of pain.

Without giving away too much, I can say that Professor Gina, who taught all of them (and who is based on Will Arbery’s mother Ginny), shows up to sort her pupils out. There is conflict, but the main thing I took away from her appearance is that for all her flaws, she was willing to suffer for the sake of creating life, and teaching, and reaching out, in her own broken ways, to love the students God sent to her, and to give them what they needed to thrive. Prof. Gina has created a way of life out of her own historical givenness — she was a Goldwater girl back in the day — but her daughter Emily, and Emily’s friends, can’t follow her as closely as she would like, because the historical conditions into which they’ve been thrown are so different. The thing they have most in common, though — this, according to Emily, is that they all suffer. Emily talks about all the physical illness her mother has suffered:

… she’s walking around in tremendous pain every freaking day. And she never complains. That’s some faith. That’s some faith. So y’all I guess we can forgive her for being a little intense.

The grateful acre, the prairie of pain. The human stain that stays with us. I’ll leave you with these lines from Ellen Wolf:

But gradually I found my head forgetting the characters’ political leanings and my heart breaking for these beautiful broken people as the play climaxes, when Arbery shatters the political zeitgeist and sends us careening into the supernatural, confusing, devastating pain of humanity where we all truly live. When the lights came up, everyone seemed shaken, including the girl next to me.

Yep. It’s that kind of play. Here’s the trailer:

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