Charles Dickens opens, A Tale of Two Cities, with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” the novel then goes on giving us a feel for living with purpose through the French Revolution. I bring this up because the same can be said of today. We live in a world so full of marvel, so full of opportunity that it often overshadows the fact that we also have an abundance of despair, hate and greed.
As we’re swept through the tumultuous storm of daily living, many are faced with existential questions; sadly some come up with dire answers. And in that dire state of mind, relief is sought through demonstrative behavior. A sense of powerlessness breeds desperation, and desperation breeds contempt with the compulsion to effect change.
You are sitting in the answer to despair. Do not take this too lightly, for theatre has traditionally been the relief valve of social pressure. Today it is more important than ever. Historically, it can be argued that Theatre was originally a commentary on humanity and our relationships with each other and the divine. As theatre proved to be a popular attraction, note the size of the Greek amphitheatres, aspects were ritualized and institutionalized to become dogmatic religion.
Some three millennia later, theatre still has appeal to the public. There has been a checkered past for the art; each time it reaches the masses and begins to impact social change, it has been harnessed for other purpose, or banned. Every time in history that some moralist gets a chance to control a culture, theatre is either hijacked and dictated to, or banned. Think of the British Reformation, think Comedia del’arte, think Italian Renaissance.
Today, we are faced with a new attack; it is the popular presumption that film and television are the modern theatre. After all, if it looks like a Duck…. But here’s the challenge I put to you. If film and television are the new improved theatre, why is it that on the average, we feel catharsis far more often in an underfunded small theatre than we do in watching a 200 million dollar movie?
I would submit that there are two principal reasons, the first is that film or it’s cousin television, are not truly fourth wall experiences. There is no connection between performer and audience. The communication is presentational on one side and observational on the other, neither actor nor audiences are viscerally connected to each other. The second is that film is a medium that caters to the lowest common denominator. This is not to say that film is stupid and theatre is smart, it’s to say that film is not designed to compel introspection, film is primarily entertainment, which takes much of it’s lessons from religion giving us heroes to believe in but not those we understand.
Heroes with superpowers are enviable; they are extensions of an unrestricted ego. The message is ‘if you have the right cause you can accomplish anything’. What it doesn’t address is that right and wrong are subjective. The good guy, if he doesn’t have super powers, is so woefully abused that he finally falls to base instinct and has to rely upon extreme measures to overcome evil.
The heroes of stage are of a different metal, generally they’re flawed, much like the rest of us, and when we sit with them through their test which we witness, we become a part of the experiment, we feel the angst, we feel the humor, it is a heart level connection, not a cerebral adventure.
Theatre teaches us the absence of absolutes. We see aspects of humanity that we wouldn’t normally consider. We see alternative solutions to human quandaries and we are touched and grow in empathy.
As the seemingly endless stories of mindless carnage are reported on a daily basis, we rush to fix the causes. Undoubtedly there are many factors that contribute to these heinous acts. The aspect that I see constantly appearing is descriptions of isolation, powerlessness, hopelessness and the final dire scream careless of consequence.
Theatre is not the panacea of the world’s woes, but it is the opportunity to look into the world’s woes and see that there are better resolutions than mindless acts of useless destruction. Theatre covers the width and breadth of human experience. If we share that with those around us, if we guide those that are troubled to witness and participate in a play, we have served the world. As long as people see options, they will not digress to inhumanity. Let’s encourage all to seek options. Let’s all find a way to live with purpose regardless of strife.