Goodbye for Now …Long Live Theater!

I must make a little announcement about myself. Those of you who’ve stayed loyally with me for some time now should prepare your good and discerning selves for a shock. This is my last column for a while.

Don’t! Please don’t. You know I hate it when you cry. But before the entire hierarchy of Lincoln Center Theater starts to dance the hora in the aisles, let me add that I’ll be back soon. And, meanwhile, I’ll be writing an occasional dispatch. I’m off to London on a six-month sabbatical to research a book-the official biography, if you please, of John Osborne, the dramatist and uncompromising free spirit who blowtorched his way into English life and changed the future of British theater.

“Oh heavens,” cried his Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger , “how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm-that’s all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry Hallelujah! Hallelujah, I’m alive!”

We shall try, then, to bring him back to glorious life, warts and all. He was the passionate nonconformist of rage and mockery who scandalized some by announcing he was proud to have been born an Englishman and a heterosexual. But theater was actually as vital to this turbulent, controversial man as oxygen. He thought his plays could change the way we perceive life.

Why do we go to the theater? Or put it another way: Why, oh why, do we go to the theater? If we go to a movie and it isn’t any good, well, it’s not the end of the world. We’re usually quite content just the same, sitting in the cineplex with our gummy bears. It passes the time. Though, as Samuel Beckett pointed out, the time would have passed, anyway. But if we’re disappointed at the theater, everything changes dramatically.

We cannot while away the time at the theater. Time becomes precious. Theater takes place in time present. In the “two-hour traffic of our stage,” as Shakespeare put it, time is of the essence. Lear goes mad before our eyes, a mirror is held up to the world and we see ourselves.

It’s live! Sometimes, when irritated by someone eating or talking during a play, I’ve lost patience and said to them: “Ssssh! This is not a movie. This is live !” (At which they look surprisingly shocked.) But what can you do? Recently, only moments before the curtain went up on Art , the couple behind me were on their mobile phone to their child at home. “This is your mummy, darling. Go to bed, sweet pea. Can you hear me? Yes, we’re at the theater, darling. Hang up now, sweet pea. Hang up, darling. The show’s starting. Yes, I’m with your father. I love you, too.”

Theater isn’t a church, thank God. But it asks for a certain effort. We enter a theater leaving the real world behind. In this timeless ritual, we willingly exchange reality for the illusion of reality. We collude in a game of pretend the better to understand the world. We actually travel from light (the foyer) to dark (the auditorium) to light (the stage). There, Antonin Artaud’s “strange sun,” a light of abnormal intensity, illuminates the whole of life, including its convulsive cruelty.

But when theater disappoints, our response can be profound and unholy. We take a bad theater experience personally and might even feel a sense of betrayal. Or mutter disconsolately, as James Thurber did about a play, “It had only one fault. It was kind of lousy.” Costly tickets-“Seventy-five bucks for this ?”-don’t entirely account for it. Our pleasure in theater is sensual, and our connection to it is deeply emotional. You do not get emotional about a cineplex.

But when theater works, as life can work, how we celebrate then! (You don’t stand and cheer to the rafters in a cineplex, either.) Perhaps we’ve just seen an intoxicating performance by one of those kings and rulers of the stage, a great actor. A comedy tonight! Or an epic tale of angels in America, Lost and Found. But we will have experienced something unique and priceless. Our hearts are glad, and we can say that theater is the one place on earth where all liberties are possible.

In David Hare’s Amy’s View , which starred the wonderful Judi Dench as a well-known West End actress, Esme, theater itself is under siege. Dominic, a young TV producer and future movie director, doesn’t see the point of theater, believing it to be dead.

“You know, you go to the theater,” he explains amusingly. “A character comes to the door. You think, Oh my God! He’s going to cross the room. Jump cut, for Chrissake, just jump cut! And then, the next thing-oh, Christ, you just know it! The bastard is going to sit down and talk . [ He shakes his head pityingly ]. And it’s so slow. They do it slowly. And the way they act! It’s so old-fashioned. In these big barns and they all have to shout. Why don’t we admit it? It’s been superseded. It had its moment, but its moment has gone. Of course, I defer to you, Esme.”

“Thank you …” she replies with steely irony. But she makes no formal defense. When her own life crumbles, theater saves her life. It is the only thing that makes sense. Theater is all she heroically has, and, in many ways, all she need have.

How I wish, even so, that she had answered the punk! He deserved an answer. He represents a fashionable point of view. (“Jump cut, for Chrissake! Just jump cut!”) But well-told stories are not to be rushed, a 2,500-year heritage has yet to be superseded, the language and theater of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett and O’Neill has yet to die.

Tell me: What would we lose if we were to lose the theater?

See you soon, everyone.

Goodbye for Now …Long Live Theater!