Redeeming von Trapp: Coming to Terms with Unwanted Legacies
For a little while after the death of beloved actor Christopher Plummer, half the internet could be seen scolding the other half over how to properly memorialize him. For every fan posting a tearful farewell to Captain von Trapp, there was another person popping up to remind everyone that Plummer had long disliked the role, disliked the film, and really disliked being remembered first and foremost for them.
Imagine finishing up and walking away from what you consider the most annoying job you’ve ever done, one completely ill-suited to your temperament, only to find out later that your work had such an inspiring effect on people.Which is true, to an extent. It’s well known that Plummer groused for years about The Sound of Music, to the point of giving it a pretty unflattering nickname. An actor with a long and storied career, including plenty of Shakespearean roles, he resented being chiefly identified with what he considered, at best, a sentimental children’s musical. Still, the passing of time, a rewatch or two, and an ongoing friendship with co-star Julie Andrews softened Plummer sufficiently that in later years he could be seen gamely putting in appearances at cast reunions and anniversary specials, like a gruff grandfather coaxed into indulging a persistent family.
Reminded of all this by Plummer’s obituaries and tributes, I started wondering why exactly he had taken the Sound of Music role in the first place. I was both amused and touched when I found out.
It seems that Plummer wanted the lead in a musical stage version of Cyrano de Bergerac, so he signed on as Captain von Trapp to get some musical experience beforehand. Here’s the amusing (and touching) part. I happen to own the cast album of that Cyrano production. I love musicals and I love Cyrano de Bergerac, and, as you may have guessed, I’m a fan of Plummer, so I’d snapped that one up years ago when I first saw it for sale. But here’s what I’d learned from it: Christopher Plummer couldn’t sing. I’m terribly sorry, fellow von Trapp fans, but he could NOT sing. He sort of talked-sang his way through the part with a Cyrano-like bravado that helped him sell it, but that’s the most that can be said.
But what about his singing voice as von Trapp? Well, turns out they ended up having to dub him. (I know, I know. I really am sorry.)
So one of the most accomplished actors of the late 20th century is remembered mainly for a role he didn’t like (at least at the time) that he took to prepare for another role that it didn’t really help him prepare for at all.
Honestly, Mr. Plummer, I get it. I can relate, at least a little bit. While my career has been nowhere near as storied, still, on a smaller scale, it’s seen a few ironic twists and left a bad taste. Try being a single woman spending the bulk of your adult life working in Christian organizations, most if not all of which aim to help families, and you could teach a class on irony.
Having left that field behind me a couple of years ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about my time there, and what sort of legacy I can claim for the first half of my career. By and large, they have not been pleasant thoughts. For various reasons, I can’t explain why, so I’ll just say this: Giving so much of yourself to places and people that, in the end, simply don’t want you around is a bitter experience.
I heard quite a bit, in the last few years of my time in that field, about how I was just not a good fit—despite my faith, my longevity, my hard work, and even my efforts at twisting and reshaping myself like a contortionist to make myself fit. I think even Christopher Plummer would have to concede that feeling like a bad fit for a role in a long-remembered movie is preferable to being told by others that you’re a bad fit. At least he got some appreciation for his work.
Make no mistake, I didn’t do that work for so long to get people to like me. I felt I was where God had called me to be, doing work He wanted me to do, and that was what mattered most. Besides, I figured that employees in any field would have to swallow a few indignities, so I might as well put up with them there as anywhere. But I look back now and recognize some deeply unhealthy patterns. For one thing, I was an unmarried woman working in a field that had, at best, an underdeveloped theology of singleness, and that let me in for a world of hurt. And it wasn’t just about me. Many of those unhealthy beliefs and patterns were being perpetuated through the actual work of the organizations of which I was a part, sending some of that hurt out into the world, and all purportedly in the name of Jesus.
Looking back at all this, I can’t help but feel shaken.
What is a person at mid-career to do when it comes home to her that she spent so much of her life working in complicated, if not downright harmful, places like this? I’ll be honest, I’ve had my bleak moments of wondering whether I wasted some twenty years of my life.
One of my favorite writers, Dorothy L. Sayers, appears to have gone through something similar. Sayers worked in advertising for years and was very successful at it, creating one of the most popular advertising campaigns of her day (“Guinness Is Good for You”). Years later, she wrote Murder Must Advertise, a detective novel that also served as an unsparing critique of the industry in which she’d spent so much time. Sayers paid tribute to the office camaraderie she’d known, and the fun of working and playing with words; at the same time, she compared the advertising industry to the illegal drug trade in a way that was no compliment to either. “As far as I can make out, all advertisers are dope-merchants,” she has one of her characters say, and the remark pinpoints her problem with her former work: she had come to believe that it exploited people, tempting them to spend money they didn’t have on junk they didn’t need, and putting the entire economy on a false basis.
I’m not sure when Sayers came to this conclusion—whether it was during or after her time in the industry—but I think I know something of how she felt about it. Were there good times at those Christian organizations I worked for? Yes. Did I learn and grow there? Yes. Did I do some good work there, work I’m proud of? Yes.
Did the opportunities I got there come at the cost of my own self-worth, and sometimes my self-respect? Yes.
What remains now of those years? Only the thought that I tried to do the best I could for the best reason I could—to serve the God I love. And the remembrance that, after all, I did some good work. I still talk now and then with people who’ve read my writing from those days. Sometimes I wish I had been more aware of the wider implications of some of the projects I worked on, or pushed back harder when I did recognize harmful messages, or just stood up for myself more. But there were good projects too, projects that let me exercise my creativity and pour my heart into them, and I’m told that people found many of them helpful or inspiring or comforting.
And I have to believe that God could use them for good—that not everything I built on the foundation He gave me was what Paul calls “wood, hay, or straw.”
A strange and lovely thing resulted from Christopher Plummer’s role in The Sound of Music, many years after he played it. I’ll let Jewish writer Gabrielle Hoyt tell you about it. Whenever she hears about another anti-Semitic atrocity in the world, Hoyt writes, “That’s where my favorite gif comes in. It’s easy to find. I don’t like typing ‘Nazi’ or ‘swastika’ into my browser, but ‘captain von trapp + flag’ will suffice. And there he is: Christopher Plummer at peak hotness, as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, tearing a massive red, white, and black swastika flag in half.”
You know the moment—that tiny but perfect moment when the Captain pulls down and destroys a swastika flag that someone had hung outside his house. The gif of that moment started popping up all over the internet after Plummer’s death; I posted it myself as soon as I heard the news. But even before that, it had been popular, arising again and again at just such moments as Hoyt describes.
Hoyt goes on to say:
How much do I love this gif? Let me count the ways. First, there’s the visceral satisfaction. Watching the repetitive tearing, you can almost hear the sound of ripping fabric. Plummer does a fine, clean job, his impassive acting as von Trapp at odds with the clear effort it takes to rend the flag. Only a momentary contortion around his mouth illustrates the effort, however; in this moment, von Trapp is committed to treating the flag like the trash that it is. In internet parlance: You love to see it.
It doesn’t bother her that the character doesn’t share her faith; in fact, she prefers it that way:
It is precisely the un-Jewishness of von Trapp that keeps me coming back to this gif. He has no vested interest in opposing the Nazis… and yet he considers it a moral imperative to do so.
Christopher Plummer was known to say that the role of von Trapp, as given to him, was so “empty” that it took “every trick” he knew for him to make something out of it. He probably never dreamed that the effort he put into that role, a role he didn’t even like, would mean so very much to a young Jewish woman many decades later.
But what a legacy to leave behind—the image of brave opposition to overwhelming evil, a simple but compelling image that helps people through dark times. Imagine finishing up and walking away from what you consider the most annoying job you’ve ever done, one completely ill-suited to your temperament, only to find out later that your work had that effect on people.
To invest one short moment with such great meaning, he must have done, to coin a phrase, something good.
Like Plummer, I may not always have been able to see in the moment what good I was doing, if any. I may be even less able to see it now than I was then. But if I trust God at all, I have to trust that He uses even my feeblest efforts and redeems my mistakes. I have to believe that in God’s economy, nothing is wasted; that in His care, nothing is lost.
Really well said; thank you.
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