Just like real life?
“Life here is painless, that’s what they choose,” the old Receiver of Memories tells Jonas in Lois Lowry’s book The Giver, awarded a Newberry Medal in 1994 yet remaining on many lists of banned books. And yet today, 13 years since its first publication, The Giver is still creating controversy.
First Stage Children’s Theater made a bold choice to produce Eric Coble’s adaptation, opening January 26. Because of the provocative material contained in the book and script, Jeff Frank, artistic director for First Stage, is encouraging parents and teens to read the book before attending the play and to then discuss them both as questions arise. Frank believes, “It’s incumbent on us as a theater to present plays that promote challenging discussion in the schools, and for families.”
The Giver provides “a richness of idea and thought,” continues Frank, “that will resonate deeply with everyone.” For Lowry’s book presents a future world without any pain. “Sameness” pervades this world, represented by dull gray in the production and the book. There is no color, no choice; climate control contains the snow, wind and rain. At 12, adolescents are awarded their “assignment,” or occupation, in life after careful evaluation of their talents by the governing group of elders. Adults petition for a spouse, also chosen by the elders, and for the “two children each family unit is allowed.” Adults over a certain age are confined in “The House of the Old” and celebrated, “released,” at a certain time.
Above all, Jonas, the protagonist in Lowry’s world, is without love. For love is considered imprecise language, without a clearly understood meaning, obsolete. Love is seen as a dangerous way to live. For love involves choice, sorrow and risk. The Giver’s world is perfect, without sadness, only similitude. That leaves love and pleasure as remnants of an antiquated way of life, recorded by the “Receiver of Memory,” who stores all the memories of the past in case they are needed by future generations and whom Jonas has been selected to succeed.
A world without pain is appealing at first, seducing the reader into thinking that without suffering life would be wonderful. “It is easy to be seduced into thinking a perfect world, sameness, would be better,” Lowry says. “I created the book to be seductive in the beginning.”
Why wouldn’t society choose to be free from war, illness, uncertainty and even snow? But would giving up all choice be worth a perfect world? A world without even the simplest of diversity? Imagine a world of continual grey, not only in the skies, but people’s faces, clothing, everything. Jonas realizes the “perfect world” in which he lives is empty and shallow, a world created by Lowry to be both utopian and nightmarish.
Lowry is convinced these are all important concepts for adolescents to understand. She has been told, “Teachers are gratified they have a book that provokes thought for adolescents.” Lowry comments with assurance, “The role of literature for adolescents is to ease them into grappling with these different issues. What could be safer than confronting them while curled up with a book in a corner? And then talking about it with loved ones to prepare them for the future. A rehearsal for real life.”
As First Stage finishes their rehearsals for opening weekend, attending the production of The Giver will present multiple opportunities to talk with adolescents about the choices that life involves and requires, the risk involved, the love and hope necessary to withstand any mistakes that are made. For Jonas, in the book and play, has one courageous chance to return the world to one with love. Frank feels, “That Jonas is a child who finds a way to change his world with hope, and all our plays should have a sense of hope.”
Lowry demonstrates that enduring sense of hope through her own life. Now 70 years old, she still answers hundreds of email from children who are inspired by reading The Giver. Everyday she writes, creating another novel or adapting one for the stage. Opening weekend First Stage will present Lowry with an award in recognition of her contribution to children’s literature. That literature, those words, will allow First Stage, as Jeff Frank explains, “To provide the experience for young minds to discover the magic, energy and power of theater.” VS
First Stage Children’s Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts presents “The Giver” January 24 through February 25. For information or questions go to www.firststage.org or call 414.273.7206