A Wagner Matinee

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 11th grade April 2001

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The play is narrated from the perspective of Clark Hamilton, a character who, in his own words, has "assumed the demeanor and dress of a true Boston Brahmin." Clark's cultured existence is unsettled by a letter he receives from his uncle, Howard Carpenter, a Nebraska farmer, informing him that his Aunt Georgiana is coming to Boston to handle a financial matter. Through his conversations with his inquisitive landlady, Mrs. Springer, we learn that Clark was raised in Nebraska by his uncle, whom he clearly detests, and Aunt Georgiana after his parents had died. Clark has clearly chosen to distance himself from his rural Midwestern past-as his landlady observes: "It's as if you didn't have a family." We learn, too, that Aunt Georgiana had lived in Boston for the first thirty years of her life and had taught piano at a conservatory.

Uncle Howard's letter releases a flood of memories in Clark: of the harsh, bleak Nebraska landscape; of his deep-seated resentment of his uncle.

It is a life he would prefer to leave buried in the past: "In the past ten years I had beaten the last of the lingering Nebraska dust out of my clothes, and my hands had grown soft and white." By moving east, Clark has remade himself, pursuing his own vision of the American dream.

Aunt Georgiana arrives in Boston after a three-day railroad journey on day-coach to save money. Clark's deep, reverential affection for his aunt is clear, as is his contempt for the values of the world she inhabits. Observing her pathetic, misshapen figure, Clark recalls his uncle's harshness, his frugality, his brutal whippings-vivid reminders of the unbridgeable gulf between the Nebraska farm and his present life, a world, as his landlady describes it, of theaters, museums, and Italian tailors. While Aunt Georgiana sleeps at the rooming house, Clark tells more of her story to Mrs. Springer.

A thin, bespectacled spinster, Aunt Georgiana met Howard Carpenter on a vacation in the Green Mountains. They fell in love, he followed her back to Boston, and they eloped and moved to Nebraska, where they secured a homestead. From that point on, Aunt Georgiana lived her life as a farmer's wife, although Clark recalls with fondness those moments when her music lessons allowed both of them to transcend the daily drudgery of farm life. Clark tries to interest his aunt in revisiting some of the scenes of her previous life, but she seems distracted by tasks she has neglected back home in Nebraska. He is successful, however, in persuading her to attend a matinee performance of Wagner's music.

During the concert, the overture triggers off another flood of childhood memories. Clark recalls in particular an exchange between his aunt and uncle that epitomizes their sharp differences in outlook and sensibility. "Sometimes music is like food to me," Aunt Georgiana told him. "Well, it don't feed your young'uns," was his curt response. As the concert proceeds, Aunt Georgiana is completely entranced, totally absorbed by the music. When the concert has concluded and the musicians are filing offstage, she breaks out in tears and tells Clark: "I don't want to go." Clark feels the old, unresolved anger about his uncle rising within him. He appeals to his aunt to stay with him in Boston. She gently rebuffs him and returns to Nebraska. She disappears into the vast prairie lands that swallow up so many countless souls. Several years later, Clark receives a terse letter from his uncle, informing him that Aunt Georgiana has died of pneumonia. -J.A.M.