I just finished a 5 week run of a play
in Hollywood. As plays go I thought it was pretty good. One local trade
paper agreed with me another local paper opined that the play was depressing
and badly conceived. He also noted that the actors obliged the author by
delivering the material as written.
The other critics were silent.
They didn’t show.
Those missing scribes have no idea what a relaxing evening they missed. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the play.
‘Round about the middle of Act One my character (we’ll call him "Joe" since that’s his name) sits dejectedly on a bench and stares off into the ether as the rest of the play proceeds. It is during this period of inactivity that I the actor would often become aware of a cold, wide awake reality uninhibited by any suspension of disbelief. Yes, the 4th wall came tumblin’ down in spite of my efforts to stay "in the moment" and not acknowledge to myself that there was in fact a crowd of strangers (albeit small) watching everything I was (and was not) doing up there. I am experienced and seasoned enough to be able to allow Joey to see these strangers but not allow Joe to see them or even suspect that he is anything but alone out there in the faux forest. (It takes place outdoors, you see).
What I mean is…… I could see the audience. I had
to sit there fighting the urge to actually check out the crowd (such as
it was) for the 25 minutes I was pre-occupied by them. That is a long time.
I didn’t want to see them, I didn’t want to know. I wanted to be Joe. I
wanted to stay Joe. But I drifted. I looked. I saw.
I saw. They slept.
There, I said it, I admit it: they slept.
Not all of them, mind you, but some of them. Actually, most nights it was only one or two as far as I could actually see from my limited vantage point. The first time I saw it I was appalled and even angry. How dare they nod while my Art is happening right in front of them! It occurred to me, however, that Joe begins his ethereal stare relatively early in the first act so the fact is those who are sleeping so peacefully were almost certainly predisposed to sleep in theatres and other public places in the early evening without any help from the artistic expressions of myself and my fellow tragedians, however soothing those expressions might be. That was the only plausible explanation.
I think I mentioned that it was a good play and at least one major trade paper agreed. I did mention that?
And then one night as Joe and I sat out there trying to imagine the number of woolen farm animals being accounted for by the current evening’s assemblage of discerning theatre lovers it occurred to me that we were not merely providing an evening’s enlightenment, an evening’s entertainment, a visit from The Muse, an opportunity for the discerning Art Patron to commune with his fellows in the appreciation of one of the world’s more inspired morality tales, no. We may have aspired to deliver all that but we in fact delivered much more. We delivered that which many experts agree we as a society are depleted of and of which we could all use just another couple of hours! We give that which is needed.
Tradition is served as well. The venerable Yiddish Theatre of old referred to such a selfless offering by the ancient Italian word mitzvah.
The next time you come to see me in a play don’t
spend that valuable time watching me up there watching you. Instead use
the time to close your eyes, relax and reflect on some of the more arcane
and fascinating artistic and linguistic links between what you came there
to do and what you are in fact about to do. Some examples.
Did you know:
The mythological river Lethe has been the subject of many plays, dances and fine art. According to well placed political sources Lethe is the river of oblivion across which lies Hades. Legend has it that a draught from this river causes a soul to
lose all memory of his or her former life, before passing over into the underworld of the dead.
Death is sort of like sleep. In the animated film,
Hercules, James Woods plays Hades. James Woods is a film actor which is
sort of like a stage actor. [See where I'm going with this?]
The world of letters is well represented here as well. In fact, the all important Hollywood mot "schmooze" is actually a corruption of the word "snooze." It comes from the calming effect it’s practice has on producers and other influential Art Mavens.
Although there are examples of theatrical presentations
from virtually every known culture from the beginning of time the
earliest known practitioner of the proscenium mitzvah was the Roman
actor/writer, Narcoticus, son of Sominex. Little is actually known of the
life and times of this legendary napmeister but in many parts of the world
he is known and celebrated as "The Father of the Hackneyed One-Act."
His legacy lives on in today’s popular culture as the TV Sitcom.
I could go on and on, ad tedium, but I think you get my drift. If you the Artist find that your work tends to bring people to a place of slumber, rest easy. Do not be ashamed. Do not lose any sleep over it. Know that you are keeping alive an ancient, proud and soporific tradition.
The next time you see that the casting director’s head has fallen into her chicken salad during your classical monologue, hearken back to those time honored words of the philosopher, Pseudelous, who said, " Playgoers, I bid you Welcome. The theatre is a Temple…"
And who among us hasn’t caught a few winks at temple?
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