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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Drama ‘The Living’ set at Appleton; campus closed to public

Critic At Large

Lawrence University Theatre Arts

Play poster.

APPLETON, Wis. (WFRV) – Lawrence University Theatre Arts will present the Anthony Clarvoe drama “The Living” for a campus audience at 8 p.m. Oct. 28-29 and 3 p.m. Oct. 30 in Stansbury Theatre.

NOTE: Message from the university: “In our efforts to keep our campus and community healthy, Lawrence University is closed to the public until further notice.”

“The Living” is infused with parallels.

Set during the 1665 bubonic plague in London, Clarvoe’s 1993 play “was a poignant and timely metaphor of the HIV/AIDS crisis,” the Department of Theatre Arts says. “Our experience with COVID-19 brings new insight into this challenging and hopeful play about resignation and resilience during the grips of a pandemic.”

Clarvoe’s narrative dramatizes the growth of community in the midst of chaos. The script’s epigraph, from Ecclesiastes, sums up his perspective: “For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow:/but woe to him that is alone when he falleth;/ for he hath not enough to help him up.”

“The Living” is set in 1665 London, when the city was in midst of an outbreak of bubonic plague that would ultimately kill more than 20 percent of the city’s population.

While 68,596 deaths were recorded in the city, the true number was probably over 100,000,” according to the National Archives of England. “Other parts of the country also suffered. The earliest cases of disease occurred in the spring of 1665 in a parish outside the city walls called St Giles-in-the-Fields. The death rate began to rise during the hot summer months and peaked in September when 7,165 Londoners died in one week. Rats carried the fleas that caused the plague. They were attracted by city streets filled with rubbish and waste, especially in the poorest areas.”

The play examines a range of human behavior in response to a sweeping threat – from heroic attempts to help others or address systemic issues, to reflexive, to heartless self-protection. 

Attempting to avoid contagion, people don’t touch or breathe on each other; papers pass from one person to the next with giant tongs. Those doctors who haven’t fled protect themselves with bizarre masks that transform them into terrifying messengers of death.

The script was inspired by contemporary testimony from Capt. John Graunt; Nathaniel Hodges, M.D.; Sir John Lawrence; the Rev. Dr. Thomas Vincent; and Daniel Defoe’s historical novel, “Journal of the Plague Year.”

The Lawrence University production is directed by Timothy X. Troy of the faculty.

Characters in the play include John Graunt (a scientist), Sarah Chandler (a shopkeeper’s wife), Edward Harman (a physician), Elizabeth Finch (a searcher of the dead), John Lawrence (Lord Mayor, a merchant), Lord Brounker (a cavalier), Rev. Dr. Thomas Vincent (a nonconformist minister), Mr. Sawyer (a cabinet maker), Mr. Mills (an Anglican minister), Dr. Goddard (a physician), Jamey (a watchman) and Bill (a farmer from Walthamstow).

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