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How King Arthur Taught Me to Dance

“Don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” (Alan Jay Lerner)

Was there?

It's never been clear. There was a real King Arthur, but who, and when, and what he was, is open to historical debate. Was there a Camelot? Were there knights of a Joyous Garde, and a Round Table? And Guenevere and Lancelot and love and miracles? And a handsome young Catholic president with a chic wife and a prosperous country?

Yes and no....

There is an angel in the Cimitière de Montparnasse who presides over the word Souvenez. But we only remember parts of any picture. We only see parts of any present picture, too. The pictures life forms in our minds have constant conflicting harmony with their source material.

I saw the San Francisco Playhouse's production of Camelot last night and even though I could recite every word, it was a completely different story than what I remembered. I remembered a satisfyingly tragic love story, and some boring political stuff. What I saw last night was a paean to the eternal human struggle between idealism and reality. The difference? Twenty or thirty years of living. I wept just as much, if not more, but this time I was crying for the noble dream of life as it should be, continually at odds with life as it is.

The first time King Arthur tells us about Camelot, he's trying to impress a girl. It's never clear that he believes his own words. It doesn't have to be clear. It's a seduction tactic. If we were always completely truthful with these, the world would not be peopled. Then as the story goes on, there's nothing but a jarring disjunction between Obama's, er, Arthur's dreams for a beautiful and peaceful world and the world as it actually is. They tell us Camelot is a noble, just, fair, honourable place where good things happen to good people. A moral place. But every action we see is a product of human nature: it is amoral. Camelot is actually a bloody mess, from beginning to end! People are constantly fighting, screwing around, and subverting order. They are acting the way people really act. Arthur's, and Lancelot's, challenge is to respond morally to immoral situations. And if they can't respond morally, at least they can respond beautifully. They aspire to greatness while being fully aware of mortal limitations.

I have no further questions, maestros. That's tango. You fall in love, and somebody loves more than somebody else, and people behave badly, over and over and over again, and hearts break, and it's all a fucking mess, and you break up a few times and you stay together and are sweet to each other and grow as the story of a couple. You want to walk with no impact at all and feel like a floating feather, and you feel your feet clunking on the ground, thunk, thunk, thunk. You yearn to connect with someone else, and you remain frustratingly bound within your own skin, and you feel their soft essence melting into you, and you know you can never truly share anything with anyone else, and you speak and hear the most intimate truths with your bodies. You dream of personal freedom for everybody and a society based on free decisions all around, and you face the realities of stomach-turning jealousy, hurt feelings, emotional betrayal, and jaundicing rage...and the equally present realities of long-lasting loyalty, touching faithfulness, and surprising sweetness. You want to think of yourself as a philosopher king yet suspect you're really just a dilettante. You want to see a milonga as a sparkling party of sophisticated artists in beautiful clothes, with polished manners and exquisite conversation, and yet they are just gatherings of ordinary people, some more ordinary than others, who may or may not be worth one's time of day...but then once in a while, you do have a magical night. You want to believe you're pursuing a path that will lead to a greater understanding of humanity, but fear maybe you're just spending thousands of dollars. There is a constant tension between the step as we want to take it, and the step as we actually do take it. No step will ever be beautiful enough. We will never be perfectly in the moment. Not even if we're Javier and Geraldin.

But the trying, in the face of insurmountable odds, that's what makes humans great. The constant striving for things as they ought to be. As long as we have that, not only was there a glorious time of democracy, peace, justice, and happy love stories for everybody, but there is still. This is what keeps us alive. This is what separates us from other animals. This is how within us we balance the mortal with the divine.

“Each evening, from December to December, before you drift to sleep upon your cot, think back on all the tales that you remember of Camelot. Ask every person if he's heard the story, and tell it out with love and joy if he has not. That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory, called Camelot....” (Alan Jay Lerner)