“This madcap world, this whirligigging age.” That’s Edward Guilpin, a minor Elizabethan satirist, observing that the world is a crazy place and it’s moving too fast.
That was in 1598.
What’s a whirligig? A toy, a plaything, something that spins? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word’s etymology is what you might have guessed, essentially two words -- the verb whirl and the noun gig, here a toy that can be made to spin. There are wonderful old forms, too, as beautiful as old recipes: whyrlegyge, whirlegogge, whirlygigge.
At the end of Twelfth Night, the clown Feste (translate: party guy) explains, without really explaining, how people get their comeuppance. “Thus,” he says, “the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.”
But not always.
In 2011 the HuffPo blogger Vicky Ward wrote about the 2008 banking crisis and the lack of any punishment for the malefactors. Her title: “The Whirligig of Time Fails to Bring Its Revenges.” (Maybe the banks responsible might better be called malefactories.)
The other night I caught a new play called The Whirligig, a complicated and compassionate drama about a dying young woman and a set of characters who are drawn together, finally, as her life reaches its limit. When you enter the theater, our central character is in a hospital bed that slowly circles the stage on a turntable. Not all whirligigs move fast.
The play is by Hamish Linklater, a busy and engaging actor and one whose work in Shakespearean comedy has been a source of special delight. He’s the son of Kristin Linklater, one of the acting profession’s great vocal teachers. Which means that good ears run in the family.
We don’t hear very well, most of us, and certainly not at the present moment, when voices and actions seem incomprehensible, both individually and in the screaming chaos that results from their collision.
One of the things I love about theater is the way in which it helps to clarify the chaos — not solve it, mind you, but let us see and hear what we have to endure and survive, with the hope that something can move us forward. The turning we can’t do much about; the forwarding we can.
Whirligig is an awfully good word, especially because it feels so old-fashioned. At the end of Linklater’s play, a dying girl is still dying, and her mosaic of a family is brought together, standing around, their last task being to ease her out of the world with some kind of humor.
Linklater knows his Shakespearean denouements.
This time a woman will not come suddenly back to life. This time a clown will not lead us in a jig.
The whirligig will turn. But we can do what we can do.