Faith Hope and Love in “How I Learned to Drive”
The three theological virtues, faith, hope, and love are recurring themes throughout history, especially prevalent in theater and plays. The idea of hope in Angels in America by Tony Kushner and How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel creates a sense of a happy endings in both plays; however looking deeper it may only be a happy ending for some of the characters. All three virtues must work together symbiotically, without one they would cease to exist. The characters from both plays, Angels in America and How I Learned to Drive go through traumatic circumstances and events, and communicate to the audience in different ways in order to cope with their grief. Li'l Bit, How I Learned to Drive, and Prior Walter and The Angel, Angels in America, use the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love in order to process and explain their traumatic experiences.
The character of Li'l Bit in How I Learned to Drive narrates her story in segments of memories, completely out of order and on her own terms. She is painting a story in flashbacks, accessing repressed memories in a strategic order. These flashbacks only allow the audience access to what Li'l Bit wants to tell. How I Learned to Drive is set in the 1960-70's, in an extremely poor and rural town where Li'l Bit lives with her mother and father. Her family is very open about sexuality, often joking about sexual subjects at the dinner table. While eating dinner, Li'l Bit's grandfather says Well she better stop being so sensitive, cause five minutes before Li'l Bit turns the corner, her tits turn first (Vogel 11).
The family's openness with sex makes Li'l Bit uncomfortable, telling them to stop and walking away from the table. Though the last scene in the play, if we put the the play together chronologically the first scene is during a trip where Lil' Bit wants to stay an extra week at the beach and drive home with Uncle Peck. Li'l Bit's mother says no at first, but after Li'l Bit's relentless insisting, her mother tells her it's her own fault if she gets hurt. On the ride home, Uncle Peck sexually assaults Li'l Bit however; she waits until the end of the play to give us that information for a reason. After revealing the piece of the puzzle she was withholding the entire play, Li'l Bit says: That day was the last day I lived in my body. I retreated above the neck, and lived inside the fire in my head ever since (Vogel 58). This statement is extremely powerful, as it demonstrates faith, hope, and love at once. This complex love for Uncle Peck is not black and white, Herren explains,Li'l Bit's relationship with Peck was a love/hate relationship with a man who was not only her uncle and her abuser but also her mentor, teacher, father-figure, and confidante. As an adult capable of forgiveness, she can appreciate the gifts that he gave her along with the punishments (Herren par 5). Lil' Bit's secret the entire play is that she loves/loved her Uncle Peck, but it is an anomalous love.
Li'l Bit starts the play with: Sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson (Vogel 9). This sets the tone of forbidden love, hope, and faith across the play. Throughout the play, we begin to understand that the relationship between Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck is complex and may not be understood to anyone, including her. The idea of hope and faith are interdependent, they simply do not work without each other. Faith is the not necessarily believing in a higher power, but rather the idea of trusting ourselves to another, whether it be a person or an entity. Searching deeper, many people believe the idea of faith is only spiritual or religious, but people could entrust almost anyone with the idea that they will do what is in our best interest. Hope is taking that trust of faith, and extending it out into the future while keeping the same belief that the other person has the best of intentions.
At the age of eleven, Li'l Bit put her faith in her Uncle Peck, with the hope that he could be mentor. This faith and hope make the audience uneasy and uncomfortable for the duration of the play. Vogel chose to make the audience uncomfortable about Li'l Bit and Peck's pedophiliac and incestuous relationship, all while Li'l Bit is trying to make us see that Peck was someone she looked up to and admired. The challenges of such an approach are daunting. Vogel chose to write against the prevailing grain of what we think we know (through pop-cultural clich) about sexual abuse, instead emphasizing "the gifts we receive from the people who hurt us." But Vogel was also intent upon not "denying or forgetting the original pain" (Harren par 3). While Li'l Bit's family is trapped in a poor town in Maryland, Li'l Bit dreams of working hard academically in order to go to college and better her life. The rest of her family thinks this is an unnecessary pipe dream, however Uncle Peck is a supportive confidant who does everything in his power to help Li'l Bit succeed. At the age of thirteen Li'l Bit seals her fate by putting her faith into Uncle Peck one a week for their furtive meetings.
Li'l Bit's hope is Uncle Peck will be someone who can help her, while she is helping him. Li'l Bit understands that even though her uncle is flawed, her faith and hope lay in his hands. Through this, Li'l Bit slowly begins to fall in love with her abuser, in an arguable Stockholm Syndrome type mentality. Most people will read or watch this play and immediately fixate on the fact that Li'l Bit is a minor and that Peck is her uncle, but Vogel is more interested in depicting a woman with hope, faith and love sorting through a traumatic experience in order to get forgiveness and acceptance from herself. Li'l Bit's story ends happily, as everytime she drives she pictures Uncle Peck, a happy memory of the man she loves, the one who so early on in her life she put her faith and hope into.
The ideas of hope, faith, and love are vastly different as portrayed in Angels in America, with characters Prior Walter and The Angel. Prior Walter's faith was tested time and time again after he contracted AIDS and his health began to deteriorate. After breaking the news to long time boyfriend, Louis, Prior's health began to take a steady decline. At first, it appeared that Louis was going to stay, and help Prior battle the disease, but it soon became clear that Louis was going to abandon Prior in his time of need. After almost four years together, Prior put his faith into Louis, and his hope--which was his faith extended into the future. As in any serious relationship, partners put their hope into the other person, believing that they will be there during the difficult times when help is so desperately needed.
Any long-term relationship is rooted in hope, hope that the other partner has our best interest at heart, hope that their love will extend into the future and be strong enough to withstand the trials and tribulation of life. Was Louis unjust in leaving Prior after his diagnosis? Perhaps, but during the 1980's, AIDS was a frightening and unknown disease which had little to no cure, as drugs to suppress it were almost unattainable and wildly expensive. Perhaps love is a construct, a falseness convoluted by the idea of hope and faith in another person. Hope is an idea that helps many people from giving up on their faith; faith in humanity, faith in themselves, faith in god or lack thereof. As such, hope's labor is to insist that the present is not enough and that the future can and must be better. In dark times such as these, characterized by a range of hope's disappointed-from war without end to the economic and political failures (Chambers-Leston 143). Prior hangs onto the belief that life can get better, even if the present is grim. This is an example of faith and hope working interdependently.
In flies The Angel, Greetings Prophet! The Great Work Begins: The Messenger Has Arrived (Kushner 167). Prior finds a new faith, and a new hope in the fact that he is deemed a prophet, and must work as such to help save humanity. The Angel demands that Prior STOP MOVING! in order to fulfill God's wishes for humanity (Kushner 178). Prior, like Jonah from the bible, tries to flee from The Angel as Jonah tried to flee from God. Both Prior and Jonah were unsuccessful in their avoidance, because we can not escape faith and hope (Nutu 177). After Jonah was swallowed by the whale, and Prior felt The Angel's power, they both knew that they had to succumb to the powers of their faith and their hope. Despite being diagnosed and living with AIDS, being abandoned by his boyfriend, and watching friends die, Prior still has faith and hope that humanity need to keep moving. Prior has a love for life, a faith that humanity will evolve into acceptance, and a hope for a brighter future. The Angel explains to Prior that death and destruction are coming for humanity, that the world must stop moving, that the future is grim according to God. Prior's hope enables him to have a positive outlook, he wants to live, to see what is ahead of him. Even after The Angel tried to convince Prior to die, he says:
Still bless me anyway. I want more life. I can't help myself. I do. I've lived through such terrible times and there are people who live through much worse. But you see them living anyway. When they're more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they're burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children - they live. Death usually has to take life away. I don't know if that's just the animal. I don't know if it's not braver to die, but I recognize the habit; the addiction to being alive. So we live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that's it, that's the best I can do. (Kushner 283)
An undoubtedly likeable character, his hope for his future faith makes Prior not a prophet, but a simple man wanting the most out of his life. Prior searches for his hope, his desire to live another day, to battle his illness, and to be a person who makes a change.
Pope Benedict XVI so eloquently wrote: Hope is practised through the virtue of patience, which continues to do good even in the face of apparent failure, and through the virtue of humility, which accepts God's mystery and trusts him even at times of darkness (Benedict). Throughout history, faith, hope, and love have come together to give people promise into the future, an outlook that could be very grim in the worst of times. Both Li'l Bit and Prior practice the art of hopeful patience in order to keep their faith. After their traumas, Li'l Bit and Prior decided to "keep the faith" and hope alive.
Through sexual assault, illness, heartbreak, and death both characters chose to uphold the three theological virtues in order to cope and see light at the end of the tunnel. The endings to both plays seem to be happy ones, Li'l Bit is forgiving herself for the sexual assault and love she has for Uncle and Prior is loving with AIDS one day at a time. Both characters embody the virtue of hope, Li'l Bit seeking seeking forgiveness in herself and Prior wanting acceptance from society and himself. Hope, faith and love collaborate together to shape the characters of Prior and Li'l Bit, as they process their tramas throughout the plays.
Benedict XVI, Pope. God Is Love: Deus Caritas Est : Encyclical Letter. Vatican City : San
Francisco: Libreria Editrice Vaticana ; Ignatius Press, 2006.
Chambers-Letson, Joshua Takano. The Principle of Hope: Reflections on a Revival of Angels in America. TDR (1988-), vol. 56, no. 1, 2012, pp. 143“149., www.jstor.org/stable/41407134.
Herren, Graley. "Narrating, Witnessing, and Healing Trauma in Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive." Modern Drama, vol. 53 no. 1, 2010, pp. 103-114. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mdr.0.0145
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993. Print.
Nutu, Ela. Angels in America and Semiotic Cocktails of Sex, Bible and Politics. Biblical Interpretation, vol. 14, no. 1/2, Feb. 2006, pp. 175“186. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1163/156851506776145814.
Vogel, Paula. How I Learned to Drive. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1997. Print.