Last summer I saw Josh Ritter in Dallas. Around the middle of his set, his band left him alone on stage and he stopped the show completely. The stage lights were turned off, he unplugged his guitar, stepped away from the microphone and sang “In the Dark” (The Animal Years) standing on the edge of the stage. The theater, a floor and a mezzanine, packed with about 2,000 people, responded to his voice in the dark, repeating the chorus:
The crowd carried the chorus even after he stopped singing. When the lights came back up and the band joined him to finish the set, Mr. Ritter had disciples and evangelists. I’ve seen some of the best my generation, and some from older generations, but I don’t think I’ve seen somebody so thoroughly in control of his art; both in craft and performance. He ended the night with “Lantern”, the whole band less singing in harmony than full-shouting, multiplying the melody, promising to hold a light high for us and the crowd shouting back our promises to do the same for them.
What is the Lantern That Josh Ritter Promised?
That song “Lantern” is on the album “So Runs the World Away”, an allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the play, the line is spoken when the murderous uncle/king has been caught in his own guilt after watching a play (within the play) that closely resembles his own crime. The uncle/king calls for the houselights to be brought up, and then runs away to hide from his guilt. Hamlet utters the lines:
Let the wounded deer go weep,
Let the hart unwounded go play,
For some must watch while some must sleep,
Thus runs the world away.
Josh Ritter’s performance did its own work to catch my conscience. Taking the lines of Hamlet for what they are; a dividing of the world into two parts: those who are wounded and weep, and those who are ungalled and go play, Ritter rewrites them with another allusion, this time to the Bible:
Throw away those Lamentations
We both know them all too well
If there’s a Book of Jubilations
We’ll have to write it for ourselves
So come and lie beside me darlin
And let’s write it while we still have time (Lantern)
Ritter, having used all of the verses in the song to lament the darkness of the world (the thistles eat the thorns / and the roses have no chance / It’s no wonder that the babies / come out crying in advance), chooses to throw away the lamentations, and instead to dwell on the happiness the world offers; he has chosen to be the unwounded deer about his play and asks us to join him.
The song is beautiful and, I must admit, as a thing of beauty causes happiness in this world. So Josh, for a moment I will lie down beside you (figuratively) to write that Book of Jubilations. But only for a moment, Josh. Because your play ended; the houselights came up; you got on your bus and we all stumbled back into the dark. It was beautiful, I even have some record of the night (worth every penny), but that beautiful thing is over. It was made beautiful in its time, and the best you can offer now is to go on tour again so that another beautiful dying moment can pass. But we all made the promise to you as well, and how are we holding up on that promise? Not well, I’m sure.
So what is the Lantern that we all promised to each other? To enjoy ourselves? To eat and drink and find enjoyment? Is it to make beauty? To make beauty that passes away so that we call for the lights again? Is it to be a community of people committed to jubilation? All of this seems to pass away, and I have to ask not sarcastically, but empathetically with Mr. Ritter, “What’s the point of a light you have to strike a match to find?”
The End of Lanterns
I think Mr. Ritter knows that those moments are meant to end; he’s a songwriter after all, he deals in a medium that is considered long at 4 minutes. It’s funny though because he continually reaches past that constraint, writing songs close to 10 minutes which I think goes to show that he is unsatisfied with a thing of beauty having an ending. As are we all. And that’s the problem with any lantern we create: oil burns up, tungsten filaments decay, fluorescent molecules are exasperated. We are creatures in a creation made by a Creator; or we are players in a play written by a Playwright, and we as players are allowed to write “some dozen or 16 lines” of our own, but our little plays end. The lights come up and we flee to hide from our guilt – fooling around thinking we were Playwrights.
I am frustrated along with Mr. Ritter concerning the dark of the world, and with the beauty that fleetingly inhabits it. I am frustrated the rich men grow rich on the backs of those they oppress. I am frustrated about the “wolves howling at our door / singing about vengeance like it’s the joy of the Lord.” But that frustration makes me long for a world where the beauty doesn’t pass away; eternity has been placed in my heart. An eternity where the toil is fruitful; an eternity where a man has both son and brother to share in the labor and the reward and the full house makes it through; an eternity where we are not too much in the sun because there is no sun that scorches the earth and then quickly hastens to its bed, but rather goes black like a burned out lantern and is replaced by the light of God who satiates the hungry, quenches the thirsty, and wipes away every tear. I want an eternity in the sanctuary of God where He shows me the end of wickedness and He drives out fear with His perfect love, and His perfect love for us looks like His Son given so that we could share in eternity as sons (and daughters) – not sons of a murderous usurper king, but of a King who gives eternal life.