The stuff of tragedy

Read more about the movie based on William Styron’s classic novel, Sophie’s Choice.

Sex and death, the stuff of life and drama throughout history, stalked the 26th special session of the Nevada Legislature via testimony supplied by Chancellor Dan Klaich.

The University of Nevada System’s top dog provided a dog and pony show that blew away all others your scrivener has observed in a lifetime around politics and government. Klaich leaned on a drama called Sophie’s Choice.

Appearing before the Assembly as legislators revisited the state budget swoon, Klaich said he represented the flip side of state government counterparts running corrections and social services. Without solid education, he asserted, more young people will wind up in later life behind bars or on welfare rolls.

He also said a budget-starved state education system will decimate quality or require fewer students. As chancellor, he indicated, he will limit access rather than destroy what is left of quality should budget cuts keep coming.

“Really, those are the unfortunate choices that we are making here today,” he said. “They’re Sophie’s choices.”

Sophie of Sophie’s Choice dominated William Styron’s novel and Alan J. Pakula’s film adaptation. The searing story, steeped in sex and death, is set against the backdrop of postwar Brooklyn and the earlier Holocaust in Europe.

Styron proved adept at capturing existentialism exported by France’s Jean Paul Sartre (life, absurd and pointless, still requires choices). Styron’s existential question turned on life, which follows sex, and death, which follows life.

In the film, Sophie reveals in flashbacks that she was forced at Auschwitz to choose life for one of her two offspring and death for the other. She chose life for her son, death for her daughter and anguish for herself.

The son eventually disappeared from her life and, in the end, Sophie and her disturbed partner Nathan chose double suicide in America. Readers and viewers chose this dark drama in droves.

Stingo, Sophie’s brief lover and the tale’s narrator, finds an Emily Dickinson poem with the bodies of Nathan and Sophie on their death bed:

“Ample make this bed / Make this bed with awe. /
In it wait ’til judgment break / Excellent and fair. /
Be its mattress straight / Be its pillow round
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise / Interrupt this ground.”

Pakula’s movie catapulted Meryl Streep into superstar status, made newcomer Kevin Kline a bankable film actor and gave Klaich a powerful metaphor.

Klaich used Sophie deftly and answered lawmakers’ questions with aplomb in a bid to keep higher education in the hunt for survival, if not revival. He featured the dog in his show, flea-bitten but his champion for helping economic recovery via a trained Nevada workforce. He threw in a pony, promising transparency and accountability in exchange for avoiding death by a thousand Gibbons administration budget cuts.

His performance was a preview of coming attractions, including a drive by Klaich & Co. next year for more taxation to save Nevada’s future from what many liberals fear—a final scene akin to the one in Pakula’s film. That begs the question whether the final scene’s point was the double suicide or the poetic choice.

Anti-tax conservatives will choose to ignore Sophie as metaphor, battling for their own views. Until robust economic recovery, though, whoever triumphs on government’s stage won’t disguise the lack of ample beds for either offspring of sex—life or death.

Without a growing economy, a different Emily Dickinson poem should bedevil Nevada liberals and conservatives alike:

“In this short life / That only lasts an hour /
How much – how little – is / Within our power.”