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“Thoughts on Theatre”

Thoughts on Theatre

Cynthia’s Column October 2008

In honor of our October meeting focusing on writing for the theatre, I am revisiting one of my columns from 2001, and adding a few new thoughts on theatre.

What is it that makes theatre unique and powerful?  Why do people still go to such great lengths to create it when nearly no one can scratch out a living as a writer or an actor in theatre?  Even Neil Simon, the most successful American playwright in a hundred years, can’t get a play opened on Broadway any more.  So why don’t we just give it up?

I have experienced moments in live theatre that were more powerful than anything I’ve ever felt while watching a movie.  Let me share a few of those magical theatre moments from my experience.

I saw the play Agnes of God in New York with Amanda Plummer as the young nun who is so lost in her devout spiritual fog that she can’t let herself consciously understand that she has been impregnated and carried and killed a baby.  Onstage, as she is being confronted with the truth, she can’t allow herself to hear it.  She rushes downstage, and drops to her knees facing the audience, an arm’s reach from the people in the first row.  She looks up, begging God to save her from this unthinkable atrocity and as she prays, arms spread wide in the shape of the cross, face turned up to heaven, both of her palms begin to drip blood.

Sitting in about the tenth row, I had an amazing experience at that moment.  Everything seemed to black out around this young woman.  I felt like I was rushing toward her as I stared at her hands and her face and for that moment I believed that something supernatural was happening before my eyes.  I saw her hands bleeding.  And it wasn’t just me.  It was as if the entire audience, in one instant, had its breath sucked out by some vacuum force.  Not like exhaling.  Like the air being sucked out of hundreds of lungs simultaneously.  It is a strange sound in a full theatre when suddenly all breathing stops.

This same moment in the movie had little effect because we knew it was a trick.  In movies blood spurting from palms is nothing.  We are not impressed, let alone blown away by it.  Some things can only occur by actually being there.  Live.

At the beginning of the play The Elephant Man, a beautiful, nearly naked, young man, walks to the center of the stage.  A doctor describes the deformities of the “Elephant Man” and shows slides of photographs from the 1800’s of the real John Merrick.  As he describes each twisted limb, the young actor contorts himself into that shape, and the audience creates this effect with him.  For the rest of the play, he wears no makeup, but acts the deformity and we see it in our minds.

Merrick is so hideous that he has never had a conversation with a woman.  Even his mother could barely look at him.  His doctor, who has become his friend, goes to the greatest actress in England and hires her to meet this remarkable, bright young man.  She needs to be the greatest actress in order to cover the repugnance that no woman has ever been able to mask in the presence of such horrific deformity.

The only normal part of the Elephant Man’s body is his left hand.  The actress is dressed in full Victorian costume including hat and gloves.  The plan is that she will meet him for five minutes, say the line “Mr. Merrick, how very pleased I am to have made your acquaintance.”  And with her gloves on, shake his good left hand.  She rehearses, showing no repulsion, saying this line several different ways.

When she meets John Merrick, she is able to look at him without registering her horror.  And they begin to talk.  About poetry and literature and art.  And the three minute meeting stretches to ten minutes and beyond.  When it is time for her to leave, she turns to him and we know she will now say the line she rehearsed.  But she hesitates, and then she begins to remove her glove.  And then she reaches out with her small white hand and takes his right hand, the swollen, twisted, reptilian hand and holds it in hers.  And, nothing like her rehearsed version, now from her heart, she tells him how very pleased she is to have made his acquaintance.

When she turned to leave, the audience erupted in an ovation that stopped the show.  Literally.  She could not go on.  She had to stop and hold her position until the roar died down and she could continue.  Hundreds of people had tears streaming down their faces and didn’t care.  Magic had happened.  Carole Shelley won the Tony for her performance, and deserved to.  But it wasn’t about good acting.  It was about a magic moment that happened between two characters and several hundred people who witnessed the miracle.

With hours of makeup daily to create the Elephant Man effect, the movie version was respected, well-reviewed and nominated for awards.  But magic did not happen.

And the language.  In movies the language, even when it is there, is often overwhelmed by the visual images.  In 1974 I drove 40 miles and spent $40 (at a time when, barely out of college, that was a huge sum to me) to see a new play by Peter Shaffer: Equus.  It is the story of a psychologist who treats a troubled adolescent boy who has blinded several horses.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything as violent as that scene.  And there was no blood, and no horses.  Just dancers and a young actor recreating an event, in the way the first actors a hundred thousand years ago must have re-created the hunt for the tribe, before the flickering firelight.

Equus was the first time I ever heard an ovation for language alone.  When the psychologist realizes that this tormented boy understands worship in a way that he never has and never will, he delivers a soliloquy that brings down the house.

I was so knocked out that the next night I couldn’t stop myself from driving that forty miles again and handing over another week’s wages to see if it had been real.  If it had really happened.  And it happened again.  To another thousand people.  Theatre is a domain in which not only can magic be created, but it can be recreated!  Repeated!

About the spiritual.  I grew up in an overwhelmingly Christian environment.  Both my grandfathers were Nazarene preachers.  For the first eighteen years of my life I went to church three times every week.  But the most profoundly Christian experience I have had came after those years, in a theatre.

A few years ago, a London theatre group recreated the Medieval Mystery plays in an old warehouse.  There was no stage, and no seats.  The floor was dirt, and the large space was lit only by authentic oil lamps hanging from chains.  The place looked and smelled like it might have in Medieval times.  Musty, smokey, shadowed, smelling of frankincense and earth.  The actors mingled with the audience and the play was performed in our midst.  There were about fifty actors and two hundred people in the audience.  The actors played out the Bible stories, as if they were peasants in a medieval village.  And the audience played the people of Galilee and Jerusalem who shared the loaves and fishes, heard the sermon on the mount, were the meek who would inherit the earth.

Near the end, when Pontius Pilate brought Jesus before the mob to ask if he should crucify him, the actors, of course, all shouted “Crucify him!”  I looked around in shock, as I realized we outnumbered the actors four to one!  We could stop it!  We could change the outcome!  All we had to do was speak out.  I felt a shout building in my chest, but it stuck in my throat.  I watched, frozen, as the verdict was passed and history, with a horrifying inevitability, began to repeat itself.

Carrying a heavy wooden cross, the actor playing Jesus began his long walk to Golgotha.  He passed among us, so close that we could have reached out and touched him.  As he passed, he looked each of one us in the eyes.  And he knew we could have stopped this and didn’t.  And we knew he knew.  And yet he looked at us with love and forgiveness.

The directness and shock of that moment, face to face with a real person re-enacting such an event, was profound.  Like an inner earthquake.  It is an experience you don’t expect to ever have personally.

Christianity may have survived without theatre, but it is important to remember that for hundreds of years, ordinary working people in villages all over Europe went out into the streets and acted out these plays, and created for themselves a real experience of Christ.  They couldn’t read the Bible.  Not only was it written in Latin, but before the printing press the only copies were hand-written, illuminated and closely guarded in cloistered monasteries.  Besides for most of our history, most of us couldn’t read at all.

This is how the story was passed down through the centuries.  With a carpenter or a shepherd or a soldier, for a week, becoming Jesus for his village.  It’s possible that without this direct experience, repeated thousands of times, the church might not have survived the dark ages, the Inquisition, the witch hunts, and the Holy Wars.

When I was a child in my grandfathers’ church, many things were deemed sinful.  Dancing, drinking, smoking, and movies to name a few.  But theatre was not on that list.  As a child I always wondered why movies were condemned but theatre was spared.  Now I wonder if perhaps the church recognized its debt and was grateful.  So it should be.  And so am I.

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