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Communique: Commentator Gwenyfar Rohler | "What Country, Friends, Is This?" (Act I, Sc 2)

Henri Adolphe Schaep
Schipbreuk (1856)

Gwenyfar Rohler loved Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" as a child. In adulthood, the story becomes more complicated. 

Gwenyfar remembers when Art and Life reflected each other in young love. Additionally, she has settled the authorship question in her own mind.

WHQR Commentaries do not necessarily reflect the views of WHQR Public Media, its Board of Directors, or its Members.

As a child, one of my favorite possessions was a radio dramatization tape set of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. I was enthralled with the struggles of Duke Orsino in the Lady Olivia to smooth the rough road of love, the antics of Sir Toby and Andrew, and of course the survival story of Viola. So while my friends worshiped Michael Jackson and Whitesnake, I burned up the batteries in my walkman with the soundtrack to Camelot and the exploits of a young victim of a shipwreck in a strange land. For Viola is very much entering Illlyria illegally and under duress. She assumes a fake identity in order to survive. The stranger in a strange land has always been suspect, as well as dependent upon the kindness of others. It's a tenuous and interesting problem. And perhaps what continues to make a viola appealing as a character and heroine is her determination and her resourcefulness because both are essential for survival if you are friendless.

In college, I dated a young man who was a migrant worker here from Latin America. It was an eye-opening experience for me in many ways. I had always been privileged to see my country through the lens of a pampered well-cared-for middle class upbringing. I was not expected to leave school at 14 to help support my family. My father wasn't gone for years at a time following seasonal work and sending money home via Western Union.

Luis had a gift for languages. He was kind, smart, charming, and incredibly hard working. After an arduous journey through the desert that included swimming in a river in his underwear, he arrived as an unaccompanied minor with responsibilities, obligations, and a debt load to bring him here that I could not fathom. Three years later, we met and I was enchanted, partly because compared to the spoiled and desperately angsty, oppressed, and drug ridden middleclass boys around me who had no real problems in life except that everybody gave them everything they asked for.  Luis was heroic by comparison.

And at every turn he was trapped. The people who owned the contract to bring him here, paid him-and I'm putting that in air quotes-they paid him for his labor and deducted a portion from his pay toward his debt. They provided him with housing that was substandard at best and charged him an exorbitant rent. And when I say substandard, I mean he slept on a towel on a floor in a single-wide trailer that he shared with 12 other men. From the meager funds leftover, he fed and clothed himself and sent money back home to try to keep the family afloat.

I was living in a very small, isolated community at the time and we were one of a handful of interracial couples. For the first time in my life, I experienced profiling. We got pulled over every time Luis was in a car with me.  We just started building in an extra 20 minutes if we were going to drive to the grocery store.

His contract was eventually sold and he was moved to another state to start again on a treadmill that wouldn't stop in a carnival game that was rigged against him. It was like the worst aspects of Steinbeck brought to life by comparison, it makes a lighthearted antics of twelfth night desirable, but then that was written to entertain the entitled, not as a warning or an expose. But sometimes it takes a little comedy to get us to pay attention. Because how many young women could survive shipwreck, lose all of their family start new in a strange land with no context, no support, no resources, no network? Very few. I don't know if I could. And perhaps that's why I have so much admiration for those who do.