It’s all too understandable why concern has been voiced over
the theater’s ability to carry on in our grieving, shattered city. What use a
play-a mere play strutted on the stage? How can we laugh and dance when life
has become a nightmare?
My feeling is that at no time in our lives have we needed
the theater more, and my hope is that the suffering theater community itself
will take heart knowing how close it is to our own hearts.
Can any of us imagine a world without theater? Only one of darkness.
When the theaters went dark for two days last week, there was no choice. But
the traumatized city seemed darker still. Theater has always been our eternal
refuge, embrace, hope, solace and home.
When we go to the theater, we actually travel from darkness
to light. Before every performance begins, the lights go down in the
auditorium, and there!-the light of the stage, Artaud’s “strange sun,” a light
of abnormal intensity, illuminates life for us, including its convulsive
cruelty. At the same time, we go to the theater leaving the real world behind.
In this timeless ritual and rite of passage, we willingly exchange reality for
the illusion of reality. We collude in a game of pretend, the better to understand
the world, to salve our wounds, to escape for a while into the two-hour traffic
of the stage.
Theaters are handmade by dreamers and poets and idealists,
and other dissipated people. They have always been tolerant and truthful,
well-lit places. Which is why, throughout history, despots have always closed
They are the last place on earth where stories are told to a
community. The stories can be fabulous. The opening moment of Peter Brook’s
theater version of the Mahabharata begins
when a child enters and goes toward a little pool.
Then a man appears.
“Do you know how to write?” the man asks.
“No, why?” the child replies.
“I’ve composed a great poem. I’ve composed it all, but
nothing is written. I need someone to write down what I know.”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your poem
about?” the child asks.
“It’s about you.”
The man is the
storyteller, and the child is us.
“One should always listen to stories,” Vyasa says later.
“It’s enjoyable, and sometimes it makes things better.”
II is the story of a king who becomes a human being by losing a crown in
this “all-hating world.” Richard’s lines are renowned: “For God’s sake, let us
sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the
death of kings.”
He tells the sad stories sitting “upon the ground”-closest
to the earth-with his audience encircling him, like all traditional
storytellers through time.
One day, long ago, I was traveling through Nigeria
when a storyteller arrived at a village riding a horse. He was dressed in a
coat of many colors, so no one could miss his flamboyant stage entrance. He was
the local griot, come to tell a story. He spoke in Hausa, but I could follow
what he said at first as he yelled out to the excited crowd surrounding him:
“Listen to me! I will
tell you a story! You will love it!
You have my word . And I will tell you
the story just as soon as you give me money !
MONEY!” At which the villagers slapped a note on his
forehead, which stuck to the sweat of his brow.
We need plays to dive into our broken hearts and minds, and
bring catharsis. Sophocles’ tragic heroine Electra , the personification of mortal agony, delivers her opening words
to the gods like a fervent ritual of primal need: “Divine light, sweet air,
hear my pain.” But at its center, Electra
is a moral debate about fierce opposites-vengeance and compromise,
forgiveness and betrayal, memory and forgetting. Blood or
peace. How, the drama asks us-and will not stop asking-can we live when
great crimes have been done to us?
It’s said that no play or work of art, no Guernica or
Greek tragedy, ever stopped a war or changed the world. But they can help us
see the world differently, they can enrich us. And we can say that theater is
the place where all liberties are possible.
Even in these terrible times of those who died and those who
gave their lives saving lives, even as the whole story of our city is yet to be
told, the theater always offers hope. By nature and design, every performance
becomes a new beginning, every night a fresh start, every show a rebirth.
On the third day of the tragedy last week, the theaters
reopened, and I was glad. I didn’t think for a second that life was “back to
normal.” I can’t even imagine when it will be. But at the last moment last
Thursday night, I thought I’d like to go to the theater just the same-to
support it, in a way.
But which show? I’d been promising myself I’d see Bat Boy for some time, and so the cult
hit musical about a half-boy/half-bat it was. As The New Yorker deftly put it in an
admiring review: “This is the only play in the history of the theater whose
hero ends Act I with a rabbit in his mouth and moves on, in Act II, to an
entire cow’s head.” But the Union Square Theatre was at best one-fifth
full that somber night, and I couldn’t help but fear the worst about the
evening of kitsch and irony that lay ahead.
Yet it was where we wanted to be. From the outset, everyone was willing the
courageous cast on. And they were just terrific, and would be terrific in any
circumstances. Our bloodsucking, pointy-eared hero turned out to be an Eliza
Doolittle Bat Boy who learns to speak proper and not hang upside down. “A bit
more schooling, a lot less drooling,” goes the loving advice. Until things go wrong when Bat Boy falls in
love with his sister, Shelley, though he doesn’t know she’s his sister at the
time. In days gone by, Shelley’s mom accidentally slept with bats, apparently,
and Shelley’s dad wasn’t too pleased about it, I can tell you.
And so we laughed again, at Bat Boy the musical, whose young composer and lyricist, Laurence
O’Keefe, is surely gifted and fun. And at the curtain, when we gave the cast
our hands, one of the actors-Sean McCourt, who plays evil Dr. Thomas Parker
(Shelley’s dad)-stepped forward and thanked us for coming. He said, quite simply,
how they hoped that laughter had given us some solace and how performing had
helped them. And then he asked us to join the cast and sing “God Bless America,”
and together we sang.