4 min read

Guys and Dolls' celebration of commitment

A truly joyous production of Guys and Dolls causes Oliver Wright to reflect on the positive portrayal of commitment and oath-making that underpins the show’s high-stakes rolling.

After 15 years as a lawyer in London, Oliver is currently doing a DPhil at the University of Oxford.

Five actors stand dressed in 50s clothing.
The leading characters.
Bridge Theatre.

Guys and Dolls is the quintessential musical, and it’s playing gloriously at the Bridge Theatre in London right now. As I left the theatre the other day, I found myself on the ticket website wondering about gambling on an immediate return visit. Are shows ever as good second time round, though? Can such a repeat ever bring new life? Or do repetitions fall flat, guilty of aesthetic anaesthetising?  

These worries reminded me of Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Constantin Constantius, and his somewhat bewildering psychological venture Repetition (1843). In one scene, Constantius retraces his steps to a theatre where he remembers attending a farce that had him in raptures. The second time, however: not so much.  

“I endured it for half an hour”,  

Constantius reports,  

“and then left the theatre, thinking: There is no repetition at all. This made a deep impression on me.”  

But the psychological experiment does not end there. The clue is in his name – Constantin Constantius: constancy doubled, repeated. Repetition can bring new life, all things can be made new (as he implies), if repetition is coupled with constancy, with commitment. That commitment drives repetition forward, not back. “Repetition and recollection”, he claims, “are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forwards.”  

What has all this to do with Guys and Dolls in London 2023? At one level, the show is a wonderful evocation of street-life in mid-Manhattan, of smart but skittish low-level criminality – the pulsating rush for the next illicit game of dice, betting on the horses, falling in and out with Dolls, and generally trying to evade the police. You sometimes think it’s the gamblers and the gambling which steals a Guys and Dolls show.  

 But the way this one plays at the Bridge Theatre, I was struck by such joy and exuberance and laughter, intermingled with a celebration of commitment. What does commitment have to do with gambling; what has commitment to do with joy?  

One of the leads, Sky Masterson, is my way in. We meet him first as something of a cad, flying around, emptying fellow gamblers’ pockets, carousing in Havana, returning for another round of Craps. But he nevertheless turns out to be a man of his word; he literally belongs to his promise. With a flourish early on, he hands over a fateful piece of paper: his marker, an ‘I owe you’ note. It is a guarantee.

The beneficiary is the evangelising Sarah Brown from the Soul-Mission, who Sky at this stage is wooing merely to win yet another bet. The marker is not as frivolous as his affections appear to be. This IOU has a power to which Sky willingly binds himself. Its force, Sky says, can be attested by anyone else in town. Markers will appear again much later in the drama in the chaotic scenes which lead to Sky’s reappearance, as he desperately tries to discharge his obligation, and the magnificent Luck be a Lady Tonight, itself an appeal for ‘luck’ to prove constant, not to be ‘fly-by-night’. So there is an eager commitment – when it comes to gambling – to be ‘good for the money’, to be ‘a man of my word’.   

Marriage, like any relationship, involves gamble and commitment. The greater the proposed commitment, the greater the gamble. The greater the gamble up front, the greater will be the commitment required. If it wasn’t a gamble, it wouldn’t require commitment. 

But the production shows another comingling of gambling and commitment: in relationships. It falls to the principal women, Sarah and Miss Adelaide, rather farcically propping up a bar, to expose this (‘Marry the man today’). Marriage, like any relationship, involves gamble and commitment. The greater the proposed commitment, the greater the gamble. The greater the gamble up front, the greater will be the commitment required. If it wasn’t a gamble, it wouldn’t require commitment. ‘Give him your hand today / And save the fist for after’! 

But commitment in the show is not portrayed as the ‘grit your teeth’, or ‘turn the other cheek’ kind of commitment. No – commitment brings joy and new life to the drama. Without Sky’s IOU, there’s no Guys and Dolls. Without Sarah and Adelaide’s search for commitment, there’s only abuse. And this feeling of joy is widespread. The commitments being made are not just those ‘on stage’, but also by the audience. As you will read in the show’s reviews, the audience are implicated in the action. They are ‘immersed’, standing alongside the actors who move and dance and sing their way through them. The audience are ‘in’ the Hot Box strip-joint, sat at tables. They are gambling along with the crap-shooters. They are witnesses to the testifying in the Save-A-Soul Mission (played in this production as a high point of the show, with ‘impromptu’ encores for Nicely Nicely’s testimony ‘Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat’). Indeed, they are not just witnesses, but participants.   

That is our commitment, too. Without costume, we nevertheless agree to shed our ‘outside’ lives to participate, to be bound by the terms of the drama. And this ‘shedding’, this agreeing to be bound, this cost which we willingly take on ourselves, ignites joy. Commitment is not a stolid virtue. We need not shirk self-imposed restrictions in principle as being joy-less. There is always a gamble in relationship. And relationship’s gamble only ever pays off through commitment. Commitment to the other.  

Commitment, like Kierkegaard’s ‘repetition’, can forge new life. As well as negatively portraying the ‘falling flat’ of aesthetic repetition, Kierkegaard also celebrates a repetition which is both more mundane and lifegiving. It is life recollected forwards. He writes: “Hope is a lovely maiden who slips away between one's fingers; recollection is a beautiful old woman with whom one is never satisfied at the moment; repetition is a beloved wife of whom one never wearies, for one becomes weary only of what is novel.”   

Reader, I bought more tickets.

Film & TV
5 min read

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 

The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.