What in the world is this emotion?

Upon reading King Lear, Rebecca West remarked, “What in the world is this emotion? What is the bearing of supremely great works of art on my life which makes me feel so glad?” I have been asking myself this question following the stunningly good season finale of the FX drama The Americans, which concluded its six-season run at the end of last month. Why should a conclusion so utterly heartbreaking make me, to echo West, feel so glad?

It may be that when a work of art beautifully and intelligently succeeds there is a piercing feeling of kinship that confers upon the reader or viewer a sense of belonging, a kind of invisible embrace that satisfies our secret longings for connection and meaning. Too often, it must be said, we are let down, even by truly excellent books and movies and TV shows and plays. Nothing is perfect, after all, except when it is, except when, on those exceedingly rare occasions, everything simply works. (And as The Americans brilliantly illustrates, that does not mean that everything is resolved. I find the open questions and loose ends in the show’s finale among its highest achievements.) The buoyant gladness felt in the infrequent presence of such perfection is more than an experience of pleasure. I believe it represents that precious instance when it is the art that sees us. We are seen, somehow understood, and, in that moment, loved.

In one of the many online articles I voraciously consumed after the season finale, I read that the creators of The Americans were highly perfectionistic, and no more so than for the show’s final episode. Of course, many writers labor at length over their revisions—the countless drafts, the agonies of the elusive perfect sentence. A scripted television series is unique in that its story and characters may unfold over the course of several years, opening up fresh opportunities for revision long after the drama has already been launched. Arcs of tension may bend and torque in unexpected directions. The collaborative nature of television, and the simple fact of time, allowed The Americans’ creators the flexibility and the creative space to craft a beautifully-wrought finale that now puts this show on a short list of the best TV series ever.

The art of revision is much on my mind, as I prepare to embark on (yet) another draft of my novel. An inspiring example of storytelling thoroughly imbued with the process of revision was the new production of My Mother’s Keeper, a strikingly original play by Carmel Valley theatre artist Jane Press. I had the pleasure of seeing My Mother’s Keeper at the Carl Cherry Center last month, six years after Press mounted an earlier version of the play in Carmel, with a subsequent run in Venice, California. (At the Cherry Center, both the original and the revised version of the play were directed by Robin McKee. I wrote about Press and the 2012 production here and here.) Press has now substantially rewritten My Mother’s Keeper, an autobiographical memory play that explores, through dramatic episodes, the unbreakable thread of love and pain binding mothers and daughters across several generations. (Sample line: “She looked at me with that tone in her voice.”) While the new version is now more tightly focused on its principal characters, perhaps the most notable change is that Press, who played herself in the earlier version, now plays the role of Della, mother of sensitive Jane, daughter of imperious Ida (expertly performed by Teresa Del Piero), and a volatile force of nature that Press conveys in a staggering, electrifying performance that dares to expose the wounded vulnerability behind a damaged parent’s self-absorption. This new iteration of My Mother’s Keeper highlights the essential necessity—in theater, in fiction—of deeply complicated characters, an artistic truth I must keep in mind as I continue to revise my novel.

In the revised Mother’s Keeper, Della’s and Ida’s characters are vividly written and performed. But the crucial role of Jane seems to function mainly as an access point for the viewer to marvel at the majestic energies of her mother and grandmother. Jane’s character feels underwritten and, as performed as a young girl by Ryan Finfer, and as an adult by Janice Blaze Rocke, is simply overpowered by the twin presences of Della and Ida, a pair of monuments to maternal complexity. Yet relationships, too, whether someone is living or not, are works in progress, forever subject to change; the passage of time is its own revision process.  One hopes for a future version of My Mother’s Keeper in which Jane—holder of memory, speaker of truth—owns the stage as fully as those formidable family matriarchs whose stories demand to be told.