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Bells have been around for as long as people have been on the planet. The actual bell as we know it is ancient, but even before that, it is probable that a startling sound, made from striking one object upon another, was used amongst humans as a means of communicating, warning, calling, memorializing. With the development of skills in making metal, four thousand years ago, this became the clanging sound we associate with bells.

Who does not have bells in their lives? Castles once used them to warn of approaching attack, churches to announce services and toll the dead. In Buddhist temples, bells serve a ritual purpose. Hindus ring the temple bells during puja.  Schools use them – or used to, when I was a girl, to start and end each class, and each day. How we waited for that 3:15 bell! In the domestic sphere, a bell could summon a servant, or announce that a stranger was at the gate. With the arrival of the telephone, ringing no longer measured the day but interrupted it, rendering private lives accessible. Bells have now become electronic, and who has not had to wake in the morning to the annoyance of an alarm?

So deeply imbedded in human culture are bells and their use, that many volumes could be written about their presence in literature and popular culture. One thinks of Quasimodo, the bell ringer of Notre Dame; of Tinkerbell in Peter Pan; Lady Macbeth and her signal of murder. The striking of the clock pushes the narrative in A Christmas Carol; in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, we’re told that every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings. Bells tolling, bells warning, bells signaling, over and over, they recur across cultures and times. Two recent plays, both by African-American playwrights, use the ringing of bells to such powerful effect, as to captivate and in a moment summarize the entire premise of their plays.

In August Wilson’s Jitney, the setting is a down-at-heels car service in an African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh in the 1970s. The stage directions are clear about the marginal nature of the place where the action occurs, with its bottles and signs and mismatched furniture, and most importantly, the pay telephone. The stage directions “The telephone rings” occur over and over again, for this is the sole communication system for Becker’s gypsy cab company. The more it rings, the more it signals the success of this business, the service and employment it provides. In performance, Mr. Wilson’s placement of the ringing is brilliant, punctuating and moving the action, creating and dissipating tensions. It is a real place with a real purpose and the ringing telephone constantly pulls us back into that, the function and the need of the place. At the play’s climactic last moment, Becker’s son, recently released from prison, stands in the office with a few of the drivers. They have just attended Becker’s funeral. The son Booster lacks the maturity and commitment that was embodied by his father. It is unclear what will happen to the threatened car service, losing its building and its owner. Then the pay phone rings. And rings. And rings. And Booster stands there, and it seems as though in a second we understand how much is at stake, not just for a single man or a single family, but for an entire community. The phone rings again. And again. When Booster strides to the phone and answers, “Car service,” it is an act of courage beyond measure.

In Fucking A, Suzan Lori-Parks’ ferocious interpretation of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, we find ourselves in a dystopian world of corrupt institutions, layers and layers of Draconian laws and rules, with utterly devastating consequences for those who do not follow them. Hester in this version of the story is an abortionist, and the “A” is carved into the flesh of her chest. Her role is a legal one, assigned by the state instead of a prison sentence, and Hester is busy. Her doorbell rings day and night, with someone “in trouble.” She performs her grisly task with weariness and inevitability. As the executioner in ancient times, the axeman, the hangman, so too is Hester needed and despised. She has one goal, to get her son out of prison, a son imprisoned as a child for stealing, now a man who she has not seen in decades. She saves her coins and tries and fails, tries and fails. Friendship and love come her way but they do not matter. Ms. Lori-Parks leads the audience and her characters through nightmare after nightmare, rape, murder, dismemberment; this poor woman is bludgeoned by first one event and then another. She loses all, and in the end what is left? Her tools, her bloodied apron, and the doorbell, ringing again. She responds in the end as Pavlov’s dog; despite all, events that would kill the strongest person, she puts on her apron and answers the door. In the end for her, there is only survival, and the bell.

The 17th century English poet John Donne’s lines “no man is an island” and “for whom the bell tolls” are frequently quoted, have been used as titles for other works, and seem likewise embedded in our consciousness. It seems a cliché, but these words, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, deserve reviewing in context, rendered here in modern English:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Mr. Wilson and Ms. Lori-Parks remind us of the price paid for our signal responses. Within chaos and loss, without guidance or comfort, these two characters stand in for all of us. We are mortal and will be diminished by death, by loss and oppression, but our common humanity requires of us recognition, and response.

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©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2017. Reuse with permission.  Photo credit Rene Schlegel.