In The Tempest (Act 2), there is a scene that ranks among the most gripping in all of Shakespeare. In it, Antonio works to convince his brother Sebastian to murder their father. They have no choice, he argues. “What’s past is prologue” he tells his brother, “what to come in yours and my discharge.” Fate has placed them at this point in time and, once their father is dead, great adventure awaits.
Change, the play tells us, is inevitable, and this is where things get interesting. Shakespeare, centuries ahead of the thinking of his time, suggests that what matters most is our individual response to the challenges that attend significant change. How will Sebastian respond to this challenge of fate?
How do we respond to change or the potential for it? The current generation is the best equipped in history to analyse and absorb alterations to our social structure. We possess greater access to information, technical expertise and social literacy than any other generation at any time in human history. We have the tools to manage inevitable change to our benefit. A rough reading of 20th-century history would suggest that we have done exactly that, if somewhat imperfectly. As a species, we have largely overcome the kind of potent emotional appeal that made colonialism desirable and totalitarianism possible. We have opted for free, open societies whose structures are amenable to change. We have become sufficiently sophisticated intellectually to prevent ourselves from becoming trapped into a single, regulated manner of thinking about things – about race, gender, culture, God, economics, political power, education, art and even fate.
Or have we?
Have the successes of an open society – a social structure that is unfailingly unprejudiced toward alternative points of view – resulted in more real change and more potential for change than we can, as a species, handle? Do the current political trends catching on in western democracies that favour isolationism, closed borders, “ethnic purity” and “traditional values” suggest that we are poised to return to the more rigid, less permissive social structures of our past? And do these trends reflect a conscious choice? Or, is the pushback against human rights, personal mobility, economic independence, immigration, and the primacy of individual identity simply part of our biological resistance to change and our learned preference for inertia? After all, in virtually all naturally occurring phenomena, from radio-isotopes to weather systems to local politics, the natural manner of things is the maintenance of order in an effort to mitigate, if not utterly avoid, chaos and confusion. Perhaps “the past is prologue” is just another way of saying we can’t fight our ontogeny. We are what we are.
Some take this darker view, suggesting that our prologue – our past – is inescapable; our tribal instincts will never leave us entirely at peace. We are built to exercise power. If it is necessary to guarantee our survival, we will, as a species, resist concepts like the free exchange of ideas and dignity in identity. Another famous British author described it this way: “if you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.” (1984, George Orwell)
In truth, the alternative – the continuance of the progressive, open society – is hardly less terrifying, filled as it is with the unknown, the uncertain, and the insecure. And yet the assertion that “to live and let live” is the only truly humane way forward has such strong appeal. To continue to develop our capacity for benevolence. To embrace “the Other”. To open ourselves to every influence, to tolerate every difference and thus to survive, even prosper.
The choice, it would seem, stands before us. Consider these thoughts to be your invitation to apply to Taking the Stage: 2018 and address your stagecraft to the question – Open Societies: Is the Past Prologue?
by Joel Rakos