The Three Act Masterpiece, Cry, the Beloved Country

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The Three Act Masterpiece, Cry, the Beloved Country

The Three Act Masterpiece, Cry, the Beloved Country

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A few years ago, on my way to South Africa, I decided read Alan Paton’s classic work, Cry, the Beloved Country, about the conflict that has defined the South African nation ever since the European empire established its dominion over the native tribes of that land.

In so many cases, as in this one, the true greatness of a work of art may be broken down into three pieces: structure, content and style.  Of course such divisions are ultimately completely artificial and impossible to sustain, but indulging in them is a way of relishing the delicious beauty and profound sense of meaning the artist achieves in bringing them all together.  Indulge me, then, briefly, if you will.

My favorite novels almost always possess a narrative structure that is crisply designed to deliver a functional force of movement the mere contemplation of which brings me joy and wonder.  At the same time, the power of such structure relies entirely on the way it gives shape and dimension to the content of the story.  The trick, as we all know, is to take a story with meaningful content and give it a powerful structure.  And if the story has both deep meaning and great power, then hopefully the artist is also equally able to give it great poetry.  Cry, the Beloved Country does all this superbly well.

In writing this novel, I imagine that Paton began by looking for a way to illustrate the tragic dysfunction of his nation.  It is the dysfunction of an industrial and imperial race struggling to maintain the power to dictate the lives of an agrarian native people dispossessed not only of their land and resources, but also of their culture and beliefs.  Paton finds his vehicle for illustrating the dysfunction and then structures his drama in three acts.

In the first act, Book One, Paton tells the story of how a black boy kills a white man in the capital city of Johannesburg.  This is a good symbol of the dysfunction in South Africa.  But Paton real symbol is not the murder, but the father of the murderer, the parent of the dysfunction.  The story begins in a rural valley that is drought stricken, mismanaged, and so drained of all its prosperity.  A poor black priest is witness to this fading remnant of the old ways of his people.  He is not at fault for it, but a victim, and an honorable one at that.  A man who continues to care for a suffering people with nothing left to cling to but their dying ways.  It is this man who is called out of his old dying world to look for his sister, his brother, and his son, all of whom left his village long ago and have never written and never returned.

Thus, Paton does not tell the reader, this act is about the killing of a white man, for indeed, this act is actually about the encounter of a black man with the new world of industrial Johannesburg.  It is about the frightening, dangerous, and difficult conditions the native people must navigate in that city and the terrible ways they fail to do so safely.  Thus, the reader meets the old native priest in his old world environment and follows him into the city where he traces down the lost members of his family and finds one to be corrupt and powerful, another to be a prostitute with a fatherless child, and a third to be missing, on the run, possibly even a murderer. 

Here, Paton levels the blow he has been holding back.  The murdered victim is a white man and, not only a white man, but a heroic and just white man, a reformer and activist, a man who left on his desk a manuscript entitled, “The Truth about Native Crime,” when he got up unknowingly to meet his violent death.  Thus, Paton shows us a tableau of the pain of this dysfunctional society with its detailed background, its minor players, its various principle characters, and its terrible tragic irony.  With each step of his journey, the weight and dismay of this encounter with the new world bears down heavily on the shoulders of the old priest until at last his faith is all but broken.  The weight and dimensions of grief Paton adds incrementally is then given further dimension by the good acts of the people who care for him, house him, guide him, provide him spiritual counsel and provide his son free legal counsel.  Through these good acts the old priest’s capacity for taking on more grief is expanded until the world is simultaneously a place of profound pain and humbling generosity that the meekness of humanity’s continued existence is completely exposed for all to see.  Thus ends Act 1.  In itself, it seems, this would be enough for any artist, but Paton has only just begun.

Act 2 begins back in the same old world valley with the same phrases invoking the same landmarks, but this time, the father who is witness to it is a white man.  He watches from atop one of the hills he owns, the police arrive and make their way up to him.  Thus, the reader understands the hints softly sewn in Act One.  The murdered victim was once a boy the murderer’s father knew by sight as the son of one of the valley’s wealthy white farmers.  Thus, as Act 1 shows us the journey of a humble native priest to the near exhaustion of faith and all endurance, Act 2 shows us the journey of a wealthy white farmer to discover the justice-and-humanity-loving soul of his son who now is dead.  Combined with the experience of discovering his son’s book case devoted to the life of Abraham Lincoln and reading his son’s eloquent and persuasively argued essays on the nation’s obligations to its native people, the father also has the experience of the trial of his son’s murderer and the presence of the murderer’s grief-destroyed father as the guilty verdict is read. 

The shared frailty of both fathers, the shared grief of both fathers, and the shared love of both fathers is not lost on either of the fathers themselves or the blessed reader who is witness to their humanity.  Meanwhile, these two sons, the heroic reformer born from an unjust race and the careless murderer born from a victimized race, expand in different dimensions of the meekness of humanity in Act 2 just as did the profound pain and humbling generosity experience by the old priest in Act 1.  However, what in Act 1 was a one dimensional encounter with a tragic societal dysfunction, in Act 2 has become a two dimensional encounter.  The two fathers and the two sons and all the people they encounter in the fulfillment of the tragedy describe a space that would seem to entirely encompass the South African struggle.  This would again be enough for any artist, but Paton has no intention of confining himself to mere tragedy.  In Act 3, he seeks transcendence.

It’s not a simple thing to make the reader believe in the miracle of mercy from God.  Indeed, only in this one book has an author ever stunned me with the awe of such a spiritual encounter.  Awe, notably, does not come without complete persuasion.  One doesn’t feel awe and question.  But the awe inspiring experience of God’s mercy that Paton’s provide achieves something even more impressive.  Paton takes an old priest who struggles home with the news that his son is condemned, a priest whose faith has been all but extinguished, and he not only convincingly showers him with the presence of God, but does so over and over again.  Each time, Paton makes the reader feel the wonder working in the old priest’s soul in a new and astounding manner, through the greetings of the villagers, the bright light of friendship from the murdered man’s child, the deliverance of milk for starving children, a plan to restore the valley, and an intervention with the priest’s bishop.  At the same time, Paton shows the wealthy white farmer find a means of relating to and honoring his dead son, of repenting the blindness of his heritage, and finding communion with the other father of his suffering society, the old native priest.  From the midst of this expansion of the South African soul, Paton brings us back to the execution of the priest’s boy and the tragedy that all fathers must suffer before society learns to care for all its children.

Add to the astounding narrative craft and the great import of the story’s subject, Paton’s very moving poetry and you have a timeless masterpiece.  Stylistically, Paton’s prose has four components I particularly admire.  First, there is the poetry with which Paton describes the natural beauty, laments the suffering of humanity, and gives energy to the political conflict all of which are at the core of his beloved country.  Second, there is his mastery of the native idiom and the old world peace and wisdom reflected in the simplicity and rhythm of native speech.  Third, there is a narrative third person omniscient voice that, as in Hemingway, is spare, but observant, that leaves much unsaid that is yet more strongly suggested.  And finally, there is a readiness to interrupt, innovate, and depart from the narrative line in a manner that is extremely effective, particularly because it is proportionate to the purpose being served.  Altogether, Cry, the Beloved Country is as beautifully expressed as it is conceived, informed, and structured.  It is a book from which any writer can learn and be inspired and which any human heart will hold dear a long time after the last page is turned.


By the Author of The Three Act Masterpiece, Cry, the Beloved Country