Despite our deepening understanding of the subtleties and nuances of human behavior, despite a growing intellectual consensus that good and evil are inextricably intertwined, we are nonetheless living in a world being pushed deeper into extremist positions, where beliefs are polarized into black and white postures, each camp despising the other with little hope for reconciliation.
Guys and Dolls, the classic musical, despite its seemingly innocuous and sanitized depiction of colorful New York characters drawn from the writings of Damon Runyon in the mid-1930s, is actually a brilliant satire of binary thinking. From a 21st-century point of view, it is a story of sex workers, gambling addicts, and right-wing Christian evangelists that explores the binaries of male versus female, good versus evil, saint versus sinner, and criminal versus the law. In the nuanced mind of Damon Runyon and his champions, Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows, and Frank Loesser, Guys and Dolls illuminates the dangers of polarization. Its theme: it is impossible for anyone to be happy living in a world dominated by extremist thinking.
Adelaide’s vision of reforming Nathan prevents her from truly understanding him. Sarah knows she could never love a gambler. Sky could never love an evangelist. Humans beaten down by the depression and reaching to gambling for hope are labeled criminals. As the Save-a-Soul general describes them, they are “evil-looking sinners.” All the characters are miserably locked in polarities, in the kind of binary thinking that insists everything must be either a one or a zero, good or bad, wrong or right. Now, ninety years after Damon Runyon wrote the stories and seventy-five years after Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway, our world is perhaps even more bedeviled by the same kind of polarization.
Of course, like any enduring work of art, Guys and Dolls hides its message in its spectacular humor and one of American theatre’s greatest musical scores and, of course, the antidote it suggests for the polarized world is love. It speaks to us across the decades as clear as the “bell” in one of its greatest songs. It beckons us to open our hearts at this holiday season to the power of forgiveness and transformation. If we look behind its cutesy reputation, we find a work of art determined to bend our souls to empathy and understanding. It does that by opening our hearts with great music, brilliant dialogue, and a message of healing for our troubled time.
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