You are what you earn?: Work and Worth in Carpenter’s “Up”
Thomas Friedman’s June 27th Op-Ed in the NYT, “Invent, Invent, Invent,” is a timely read alongside Bridget Carpenter’s drama Up, which is now playing in Chicago at Steppenwolf. Looking back at history, Friedman suggests that great inventions have been born out of hard times and that our society is in dire need of nurturing creative minds: “We might be able to stimulate our way back to stability, but we can only invent our way back to prosperity.” The link between invention and personal (to say nothing of public) prosperity is not always so forthcoming as Carpenter’s play illustrates. Her play centers around Walter Griffin, a husband, father, and lifelong aspiring inventor, whose work ethic (or lack thereof, depending on your own sensibility) calls to mind the life of the starving artist, which, in the best of cases, is a noble life, a meaningful life, but in reality, also a penurious, even debt-ridden one. Through the opposing viewpoints of husband and wife and father and son, the play ultimately urges us to consider what constitutes work and worth: steady full-time employment and a paycheck, as Helen Griffin and, at moments, her son Mikey insist; or potentially awe-inspiring creative endeavors that may not yield a cent, as Walter maintains.
As a writer and a teacher, accustomed to no-pay and low-pay work, I commiserate with Walter. And while I would not go so far as he does to tear up and swallow dollar bills, I appreciate the symbolism of the recurring gesture. In one sense, he quite literally puts his money where his mouth is, as the expression goes; if money is the impetus for success, then he’s not merely ingesting, but investing, capital in himself, in his imagination. At the same time,his destroying of dollars can also be viewed as a personal denunciation of capitalism. Unfortunately, the practical realities of daily life require some amount of money, unless we want to forgo food and shelter and perish. Of course, the Griffins are certainly not starved or homeless, but the extent of their happiness is another matter. The practical-minded Helen, who works as a U.S. postal carrier, serves as a perfect counterpoint to her unemployed husband, who feigns having a job for months by leaving the house every morning and incrementally recycling money from savings in the guise of a paycheck. It is noteworthy, however, that worker bee Helen, not quixotic Walter, seems most discontent throughout the play.
In what unfolds like an attempt to forge the gap between his parents’ views on work, the Griffins’ son, Mikey, begins selling office supplies for his girlfriend’s Aunt Chris and earns a considerable sum of money in a short time. This lucrative experience clearly shades Mikey’s thoughts during a poignant conversation with his father in scene 9:
Mikey. Today in English we had to write “hope statements.” Like, what we “hope” to achieve in higher education and what we “hope” to accomplish later in life. It was dumb.
Walter. Oh. I want you to do whatever you want to do.
Mikey. What if I wanted–just to work?
Their talk continues with Walter recalling his job history to his son, the essence of which is captured in these lines: “Mikey, I’m going to tell you a secret. It’s the secret of life. The secret of life is, almost every job is exactly the same as every other job. Picking up someone else’s shit.” While they talk, Walter polishes his rusty chair that once took flight 15 years earlier, hoping to display it at the Smithsonian. This, too, puzzles Mikey, who wonders why his father wouldn’t sell, rather than donate, the piece.
The play’s two major climactic moments center around money and work. First, Helen discovers Walter’s employment lie; then, Mikey goes to pick up his paycheck, hoping “to make everything okay” for his mom and dad, only to discover that Aunt Chris and Maria have skipped town and that he has been scammed out of his hard-earned income, proving himself only slightly less inept with finances than his father. After the first of these moments, Mikey defends his father to his mother: “WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE SO LAME, MOM?! DAD WANTS TO DO BIG THINGS!” After the second, however, Mikey’s own sense of self-worth has been broken by his money loss, and we see just how deeply fraught he is by the disconnect between his image of his own father and the traditional image of father as breadwinner that has so long been ingrained in our culture. Turning to his father, Mikey quips: “Define “father.” I told Maria that I would do it. Be the father. Help. Change diapers, I don’t know. Provide, be some kind of provider. “The Father.” Where do I get all that, you know? You don’t do very much. You don’t do anything.” When his mother insists he apologize, he follows up: “No! What has he ever done but sit at that table and fuck around with things that don’t work!” After ridiculing her husband throughout the play for not sharing her work ethic, Helen softens and defends Walter in the name of love; in spite of his impracticalities and faults, she deems him rich in traits that can’t be quantified in dollar terms. In the end, everything has gone “up” in flames, so to speak: the Griffin’s savings account, Mikey’s romance and earnings, and Walter’s prized chair (which Mikey actually sets on fire). All that endure are the bonds of parent and child, husband and wife, and the hope and passion of Walter’s creative spirit.
After spending a few hours revisiting Carpenter’s play and writing this pro-bono post, I’m left now to ponder my own work and worth.