• Rainey Knudson

Holding Patterns: Dark Cafés (409 words)

One of the most seductive themes in art and religion is the state of waiting in an ignominious present for a magnificent future that's sure to come. Here are the final lines of Joni Mitchell's The Last Time I Saw Richard, from her seminal 1971 album Blue:


All good dreamers pass this way some day

Hiding behind bottles in dark cafés

Dark cafés...

Only a dark cocoon before

I get my glorious wings and fly away

Only a phase

These dark café days


And here is Prince Hal, the ne'er-do-well heir to the English throne who hangs around with Falstaff and other tavern lowlifes. We know Hal eventually becomes Henry V, one of the most glorious English kings, and knowing that, it is all the more sweet when we first meet the Prince (a hopeless fuckup and an endless disappointment to his father) in the first act of Henry IV Part 1, where Shakespeare gives him the famous "I know you all" speech:


If all the year were playing holidays,

To sport would be as tedious as to work;

But when they seldom come, they wish'd for come,

And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.

So, when this loose behavior I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am,

By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;

And like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

I'll so offend, to make offence a skill;

Redeeming time when men think least I will.


These aren't the same, of course. Mitchell's dark café drinker is stuck in misery, while Hal, two whole plays before he eventually becomes king, reveals that he has the long game in mind, almost clinically so. He's having some fun while lowering everyone's expectations.

falstaff prince hal
Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal in "The Hollow Crown"

There are few more tempting pleasures than the fantasy of greatness deferred, greatness in hibernation. "Surprise!" we will yell, as we set off on a brilliant new life. "I only seemed to be a loser in a dark tavern!" One obvious parallel is the religious idea of heaven or nirvana: when we finally get there, then it'll be good. Just have to muck around on this sullen ground for a while.


Which begs the question: where is the line between positive ideation and getting stuck in a fantasy inside one's head?


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