The Wheel is a multi-layered work that contains references to essential moments in modern Western conflicts, Christianity, classic myths, ground-breaking theater styles, and even contemporary psychology.
You will hear in the play the resonances of Bertolt Brecht: Mother Courage, Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Person of Szechuan . Like those plays, The Wheel asks us to look at our world and examine our ethical and moral character—as a people and as individuals. The world is pulling us toward our own survival. Do we have the courage to commit to survival for another, to a community, to our own higher nature? Is it possible to escape the cycle of conflict through personal agency?
One of the great intrigues of The Wheel is its movement across place and time. The play satisfies the definition of magic realism: a genre where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment. This is most strikingly evident in the character of Beatriz who, characteristic of the genre continues to be alive beyond the normal length of life. The play enters a mythological space as Beatriz moves through space and time and in this movement, we are encouraged to see the circular nature of the human experience.
Centered around our recurrent engagement in war, each conflict resonates with its previous incarnation and the tragic futility of this repetition is manifest. The play resolves where it started: at the wedding of Beatriz’ sister, Rosa. The return home is a common trope in mythology and there are many manifestations in popular culture of the repetition and return. They offer the central character the preternatural perspective of history: if we could see our experience within the large sweep of history, could we gain insight? Can we change our own course or the course of human events?
I think one interpretive possibility in The Wheel is to imagine the events of the play as a psychological journey particular to Beatriz. We learn in the play that as a child, Beatriz lost her own father to war and this seems to motivate her commitment to reunite the young girl to her exiled father. At the end of the play, Beatriz’ own father appears and I think this reunion with her father allows for an interpretation that the young girl that Beatriz has shepherded through space and time is her own young self, traumatized by her early separation from her father.
It is worth noting that the final leg of Beatriz’ journey is the desert and that she makes the point repeatedly that she has been in the desert for 40 days. The allusion to Christ’s 40 days in the desert is explicit. Wikipedia reminds us that:
“The temptation of Christ is detailed in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. According to these texts, after being baptized, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the Judaean Desert. During this time, the devil appeared to Jesus and tempted him. Jesus having refused each temptation, the devil departed and angels came and brought nourishment to Jesus.”
In the Biblical story, the presiding temptation of Christ is to use magic to prove his divine nature. In The Wheel, this is a temptation presented to the young girl (who may be, as I’ve suggested, Beatriz herself).
In The Wheel, it is Rossignol who appears after the 40 days in the desert. His name is evocative: the name meant “nightingale” in French. It also refers to a well known French family of cryptographers and as early as 1406 the word rossignol has served as the French term for “skeleton key” or for any tool that opens that which is locked. So our Rossignol in The Wheel holds a key to meaning. Interestingly, another symbolic meaning for nightingale is the poet. And indeed,the Rossignol character identifies himself as both a naturalist and a magician. I think we hear the merge of these two identities when Rossignol explains magic to Beatriz: “There is nothing in the world that is properly magic. Only nature. That’s magic alright. A baby growing in its mother’s womb, a brown worm that turns into a butterfly, a barren field that breaks with flowers. You want to see something truly miraculous? Look all around you. Look at the way two people look at each other when they’re in love. The rest is just a show, it’s a trick.”
The Wheel is an incredibly evocative text. We are asked to hear the play through its mythological evocations and its psychological suggestions. At the heart of the play is the question about history repeating itself and the role of individual consciousness and agency in the larger sweep of human experience. Does The Wheel suggest an escape from this cycle? And is that the question? If our actions cannot change the course of human history does that relieve us from the responsibility for moral action? Is the presiding myth of The Wheel (and, indeed, of human experience) the myth of Sisyphus? As Camus says in his essay about Sisyphus: “The struggle itself [...] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”