For Better or Worse? – Cristina Colmena’s Look at Love Arithmetic in Happily Ever After
by Eliza Anna Falk
14 February 2014
‘Till death do us part’ – is the dream worth dreaming?
Valentine’s Day is as good a time as any to reflect on love’s complications, especially as the event, by putting a spotlight on happy couples, inadvertently draws attention to those unlucky or disappointed in love. Cynicism around declarations such as’ ‘till death do us part’ is on the increase, especially in the western world where high divorce rates deter many from tying the knot. However, despite love’s tricky nature and significant shifts in sexual and marriage behavior in the last decades, love and relationships continue to be of primary importance to majority of western population. With the desire for romance and companionship comes a wish to know how to attract and keep a ‘perfect match’, a wish so intense it drives us to look for advice promising what’s best for us. A new paradigm of ‘amour’ based on self-love and positive thinking has emerged in recent times, supported by the ancient ’Law of Attraction’ telling us that ‘we attract what we are’ and that in order to be loved we have to first learn how to love ourselves.
Cristina Colmena’s* compelling dark comedy ‘Happily Ever After’, which has its world premiere on 13th of March at the Flash Point Theatre in DC, delivers a valuable opportunity to reflect on love and its challenges, and to learn from mistakes made by unlucky lovers. The Ambassador’s Theatre production directed by Hanna Bondarewska, starring Karin Rosnizeck and Doug Krehbel, promises a truly entertaining event with high emotional resonance. The play centers on three male-female scenarios: young lovers destined to part; a promising one night stand which fails to blossom; and keeping appearances after thirty years of marriage. All three relationships are sabotaged by the inability of the characters to act on their true needs due to fear and insecurity, a behavior an average adult can most likely relate to. “These scenes are only snapshots of love stories, or better said, “un-love” stories”, says the author, who also writes, that the characters “could be anyone of us at some moment of our lives: we recognize these people, sometimes they even say the same things that we say.
‘Alliance of two against the world’ or genuine love?
There are various theories explaining why true love is hard to find and why it can go wrong. Many postulate that barriers to happiness stem from people not knowing themselves and not being able to feel and give unconditional love. “Unless you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will think of it as fate” claimed Carl Jung, one of the most prominent psychoanalysts representing a belief that because true human identity is a result of unconscious processes and thoughts, it remains hidden from awareness. Alternative explanations of the phenomenon have been offered by a number of 21st century scholars blaming globalization and corporatization for depriving us of individuality and independence, and thus robbing us of opportunities to find out who we really are. This may explain the growing popularity of the ‘new age’ tools and techniques, such as meditation, yoga and spiritual life-coaching, aiming at revealing our true or higher selves and sorting out the subconscious obstacles blocking the way to genuine and fulfilling relationships.
In his 1956 book ‘The Art of Loving’, a social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm postulates that life in a free market economy robs people of their true identity and takes away their ability to see themselves as autonomous beings able to love themselves. When we become ”commodities” in “a well-constructed profit-making machine”, we lose our creativity and self-expression essential for true love and become lonely and insecure, he says. Fromm further claims that such damaged and needy individuals look for love and companionship with another to be able to cope with the daily pressures and loss of ‘self’. As a result, the formed partnerships are only a form of an” alliance of two against the world”, which is mistaken for “love and intimacy”. Such ‘empty’ love often leads to disappointment, emotional and physical infidelity and divorce, despite rewards obtained in exchange for contribution to economic production, such as access to material goods and comfortable lifestyle.
‘Misunderstandings’ – A true love gone wrong?
‘Misunderstandings’, the first act of Colmena’s play, invites us into the lives of a young couple (possibly not yet transformed into ‘commodities’ and hurt by a string of failed relationships), struggling with the end of their union and the hopes of its possible resurrection. While mistakenly waiting to meet in separate cafés they regress to the past presenting us with flashes of highs and lows of their tumultuous passionate union, underpinned by a powerful mysterious bond keeping them together against all odds. Despite their strong attraction and mutual hope to re-unite, the lovers do not reach out to each other and as a result lose out on what could have been a chance to build on their genuine connection and turn it into a fulfilling union. Who said that true love was easy, especially if you are young, inexperienced and insecure? If only they were not crippled by the fear of rejection and called each other instead of taking it for granted that “the other one did not care”. A mistake easily avoided, provided we have maturity and confidence to act on our true desires…
“Don’t take it personally”- I have had enough of ‘empty’ love
We are presented with another ‘what if’ in the second act titled ‘Don’t take it personally’. The story gives us an insight into the minds of two chance lovers in their 40’s feeling awkward the morning after. The female turns out to be a veteran of one night stands who openly regards love as “a very painful disease” and does everything in her power to entice the man to leave her place, despite his attractiveness and willingness to stay. She nips a possible relationship in the bud convinced that every union is doomed to fail. “So…you call me, we go on some dates for a while, and then we have a relationship, and then maybe marriage, maybe children, and then divorce, of course”(…) “It’s not my fault…too many disappointments. Finally I’ve learned”, she says, bringing Fromm’s theory to life. But there is chemistry, she lets him stay longer, they talk and laugh, yet it is not enough to conquer their fears and cynicism – they part as strangers and fail to take a chance on happiness. If only he had asked for her number, if only she had asked him to stay, maybe they would have started dating, “got married, maybe they are now happily ever after”.
‘Melodrama’ – One plus one equals loneliness
The third act, ‘Melodrama’, portrays a couple in their 60’s celebrating 30 years of marriage. The husband and wife feel tired, bored and old, yet are too powerless due to insecurities and fear of change to try and improve their miserable existence. For the sake of peace and quiet and by avoiding arguments and pretending everything is all right, they maintain their ‘alliance of two against the world’ whilst their feelings of self-unworthiness and unhappiness with each other continue to deepen. They say “It’s better not to tell the truth, to keep quiet, to smile even if you feel like saying go to hell…”. For the sake of the children and stability, they resign themselves to the life of loneliness, lies and psychological decline, resorting to silent outbursts of anger and accusations in order to cope and keep themselves sane. Crisitna Colmena paints a scary picture of what lack of love and respect for oneself and each other can do to people who despite their relatively young age by 21st century standards, deprive themselves of happy and stimulating lives they deserve.
‘I do’, but death has nothing to do with it
The author’s choice to present three age groups symbolic of a lifetime worth of romantic vicissitudes and focus entirely on unhappy side of love does not necessarily fill one with optimism, especially those who are still waiting to experience couples’ bliss. Nevertheless, the play’s message is clear – if you keep sitting on a fence and do not overcome your fears and insecurities, happiness may never come. Seeing the dark and almost grotesque side of the unhappy marriage in ‘Melodrama’ is depressing enough to make one think that it should never be too late to start seeing ourselves as deserving quality life. Seems that maturity, experience and opportunity have a lot do with how we approach our lives post middle age. If we are strong and determined enough to find courage to start questioning why our lives are shallow and depressing, we are bound to start finding answers and at least attempt to act on them. Self- love does not mean that we become selfish and cold, it simply means that we embrace who we are and start caring about our own happiness believing that an entitlement to a fulfilling life is as much ours as it is everyone else’s.
It is comforting to know that what is called “gray divorce revolution” has put a stop on “till death do us part” amongst Americans 50 and older. No longer a part of capitalist profit making machine and tied down by financial and family commitments, the retirees have more time to review their romantic and family relationships, take stock of their lives and make changes or new plans and decisions, if needed. New York Times article dated September 20, 2013 quotes statistics showing that the divorce rate among people 50 and older has doubled since 1990, with most being initiated by women. Nowadays, expectations of healthy 50 and 60 years old across the western world are often for much more than a mediocre marriage, with people expecting fun, friendship, passion and as little melodrama in their lives as possible, unless it is seen on screen or stage, and is as enjoyable and entertaining as ‘Happily Ever After’ by Cristina Colmena.
* Cristina Colmena, writer and playwright born in Spain, has lived in New York since 2010. She has published a book of short stories, La amabilidad de los extraños (The Kindness of Strangers), and several of her short stories have appeared in literary magazines. Her plays, Typing and Happily Ever After, were included in the New Plays from Spain series as part of the PEN World Voices Festival 2013. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Audiovisual Communication and Journalism and has worked as a director and screenwriter for television. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing in Spanish from New York University, where she is currently pursuing a PhD in Spanish and Portuguese Literature. She is also a contributor of articles and film reviews for various publications.