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On Watership Down and the Creative Home

Friday, December 31, 2010 Leave a Comment

I wonder if every child that grows up without much religion finds those earliest, indelible rhythms of what faith they have in books. For me, that was true, and no book burrowed deeper into how I live than Richard Adams' tale of rabbits, Watership Down. And as it is New Years Eve and time for resolutions, I thought I'd write a little while about why a band of silly rabbits remains so central to who I am, and my dream of building a creative home.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Wikipedia is here to help you, though if you saw Jacob's House, you saw as much of Watership Down as you did the Old Testament. A runt of a rabbit, Fiver, has a vision that sends a group of rabbits, led by Hazel, on a dangerous odyssey to find a new home. It is a gorgeously dark and vital book, and as a child, I remember it felt more like life than anything else I'd read.

Of all the characters, I connected most with Hazel because he was a completely different kind of leader than I'd read before. He was not capable of any skillful violence, he had no magical power, he wasn't the fastest or the strongest or the cleverest, he was not a favorite of destiny nor was his leadership defined by dominance. He wasn't, in fact, particularly good at anything except one thing: the capacity to see what was best in others and call it out into the world.

As a child, I was profoundly moved by this, even though I'm not sure I could've articulated why. Every other model of leadership I'd seen was entirely individualistic - a character accomplishes great things because they themselves are great - and today, whenever I read those endless streams of articles about leadership, most continue to define it this way.

The idea that the survival of community lies not in a single greatness, but in the capacity to see what is good in every one and call it into action, continues to feel like a radical and sacred ideal. As I get older, and see clearly I am not the strongest or fastest or cleverest, it is this ideal that calls to me with ever greater urgency, to find or build a creative home.

Home is such a powerful world; simply say it with intention and let it live in the air awhile, and some strong emotion will usually follow. I think this is because, like the characters of the Old Testament and Watership Down, most of us don't feel a sense of home; most of us are in exile.

For many, that exile is despairingly literal; some power prevents them from returning to the place they call home. For others, they live in the place but that place has changed, and no longer calls to them with that voice of belonging; they are exiles in their own house. So much violence comes from exiles trying to return and others trying to keep them out; from those wanting to keep their home as it always was and others wanting to turn it into the place they left behind.

A grace of Watership Down is that the rabbits do not try to return to their original warren after it is destroyed; home is not a location for them. Rather, home is a place defined by something else: safety, belonging, the capacity to speak in your true voice and be truly heard; a sense of destiny through community; a balance between continuity and change, difference and shared purpose; peace; love. It is home defined by people instead of place.

Theatre, through its powers of imaginative empathy, is one way to see what is best (and worst) in others and call it out into the world (or exorcise it); it can help create a home defined by people instead of place. It is one way, not the only way, though it is the way I love best.

There are many exciting things I'm looking forward to in 2011; marriage (!), directing Ajax in Iraq, producing Dog Act, trying to beat the seven full-length plays I wrote in 2010, writing my first book. But through all of that burns a singular resolution to better see what is best in others and call it into the world, to help all of us exiles find or create a home in each other.

What are you looking forward to in 2011? Any Watership Down lovers reading this blog?

10 comments »

  • KT said:  

    Actually, I'm directing an adaptation of, well...Watership Down! A friend directed me to your post. Well said!

  • Zack said:  

    I absolutely love, WATERSHIP DOWN.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Zack,

    Nice! Did you notice any of the WD touches in JH?

    KT,

    That's very exciting - if it's in NYC, please post more info so I can go to see it!

  • niccib said:  

    Watership Down still haunts me as does the song Bright Eyes from the movie. Have you ever seen The Goodies spoof? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDsLZmGBdt8

  • Isaiah Tanenbaum said:  

    I'm ashamed to admit that Watership Down was one of only two books I was assigned in High School that I failed to complete (the other was the interminable Grapes of Wrath, wherein literally nothing happened for whole chapters at a time). I'd NEVER failed to finish an assigned book before; I felt awful but I just didn't have the planning ability at the time to get through a 600-page novel, even if it was about awesome bunny rabbits.

    Gus, your post made me want to dig up (ha) a copy and finally read it for real.

    I will never read GoW though. God, I hated that book.

  • KT said:  

    We are in Chicago, actually, so if you happen to be our way in the spring...

    http://www.lifelinetheatre.com/performances/10-11/watership/index.shtml

    Lifeline Theatre produces world premiere adaptations of literary works -- the more challenging the better. We've produced the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, Around the World in 80 Days, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, and many more!

  • Catherine said:  

    I didn't read Watership Down until I was an adult, in my thirties. It's one of 2 books I've read since moving to NYC that moved me to cry - aloud - on the subway! (The other is A Prayer for Owen Meany.)

  • Anonymous said:  

    Sorry for the anonymity. I'm not trying to be mysterious. I just happened to come across your post, and could only respond this way. I love what you wrote, and now I will read that book too. But for someone who grew up without religion, your love of a rabbit who loves selflessly is the very root of Christianity—unfortunately the American version has sullied it. I'd encourage you to read the first four books of the New Testament, and see if I might not be right about the unconditional love of a man named Jesus, and his band of disciples he makes into leaders. Okay so maybe he did have some magical powers, but his disciples weren't exactly suave.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Anon,
    I find most of what Jesus said moving and so radical we haven't caught up to much of his vision, thousands of years later. I haven't made the leap from that respect to believing in his divinity, but the next time I read, I'll keep this conversation in mind.
    Catherine,
    I'm right there with you on the adult tears - gets me every read.

  • lawrence krubner said:  

    You write:

    "The idea that the survival of community lies not in a single greatness, but in the capacity to see what is good in every one and call it into action, continues to feel like a radical and sacred ideal. "

    So true! And where are the artists who will continue to develop this radical vision of what leadership can look like?