'The play's the thing'

I am of two minds concerning the theater and frankly, I consider this a virtue. Some of my more single-minded acquainances never take note of anything but the illusion while watching a play, and -- as a result -- get very little enjoyment out of playgoing. All they want is illusion; and even this they insist should be as mindless and jolly as possible.Some of them never go at all, in fact, unless they're guaranteed in advance that the evening will provide no shock or bump, only a light, airy concoction of amusing fluff.

For some of these people even Shakespeare falls outside the realm of the tolerable I was informed, not too long ago, how agonizing it had been for one such acquaintance to have to sit through a production (in England) of "Othello" -- such a dreadful tale to have to follow! I took it that the fault lay with Shakespeare for dreaming up such horrid characters and situations, rather than with the company for not doing the Bard justice.

This unsettling glimpse into the thinking of an otherwise very likable lady set my own thoughts to working. First and foremost, I was reminded of one of my own efforts upon the stage: playing Sancho Panza in a amateur production of "Man of La Mancha." In particular, I recalled an insight I had had during our long and laborious rehearsals.

The two scenes that required the most work and the most painstaking precision , the highest manifestation of order and control, were the two most "chaotic" scenes -- when Aldonza was borne off by the muleteers, and her revenge upon them carried out with the help of Sancho and Don Quixote. The "illusion" in each scene was of chaos and disorder; but the reality of what was actually taking place upon the stage was exactly the opposite. Had the realities of the performance shared in the chaos of the illusion, dancer or actor might easily have been injured.

Even at the time of our rehearsals I was conscious of the paradox; and the lesson has stuck with me over the years, somehow growing richer as time passes.

I know from my own experiences as a playgoer that as soon as the realities of the production intrude upon its illusion -- as soon as the plight of a performer becomes more apparent than the plight of the character he or she is creating -- the whole thing falls apart. This reality cannot intrude; but we can't be entirely oblivious to it, either. At some level, the audience must be conscious of the performer's grace and control, or they can't go on comfortably fearing for the lives of the characters!

If anyone in that audience for "Man of La Mancha" had been given cause to worry about the safety of Johnallen, rather than the outcome of Sancho's deeds of valor, the "illusion" would have been ruined. The illusion, even if it be of theft or battle, must remain intact -- must maintain its wholeness and integrity -- if the audience is to be treated to an evening of rewarding theater.

Only a well-ordered reality can sustain a well-ordered illusion. And a perceptive audience needs to be aware at one level or another of both the realities andm the illusion of the stage if it is to get its full experience of the proceedings.

In a production of "Othello," for instance, these realities include the force and majesty of Shakespeare's language; the power and aptness of his delineation of character; his sure control of the patterns that make up the shape and flow of the emotions of these characters and their consequent actions. The realities also include the performers' capacities to understand, articulate, and embody all of the foregoing; the shaping control of the director, whose job it is to integrate the performances with some organizing vision of Shakespeare's text or intention; plus the work of the lighting designer, the costumr, and so on.

Of course, anyone who sits in the audience doting on the lighting effects while ignoring the wickedness of Iago or the relentless growth of Othello's jealous suspicions is probably another lighting designer, and not a wholehearted playgoer. But anyone who misses the deftness and art and genius whereby Shakespeare shapes the illusionm of wickedness through Iago -- anyone who passes the time wishing the human condition would go away or else be perpetually amusing -- is missing even the beauty, form, power, and expressiveness of those special illusions that constitute the heart of the theater.

Failing to see anything butm the wickedness (which is merely an illusion within an illusion, after all) is to miss that entire constellation of realities that make the theater a vehicle of joy and beauty as well as of insight and force.

Ultimately, of course, it isn't double-mindedness one needs inside the theater, but open-mindedness: an expanded awareness which sees the realities shining through the illusion, even as they create and sustain its wholeness and harmony. Genuine theater -- be it comedy or tragedy -- gives us this harmony of illusions; and this harmony, rather than the "tale that is told," is the genius of the theater. The predictable pleasantries that make up theatrical fluff, on the other hand, do not give us this harmony of illusions but at best an illusion of harmony -- at worst, a hackneyed, stale, uninspired mirage of false hope. If this serves to pass the time, it certainly does noting to improve it.

Looking for and finding the manifold harmonies of Shakespeare's tragedies may be harder work than objecting to the treachery of Iago or to the tragic outcome of Othello's suspiciousness and susceptibility; but why go to a play at all if one isn't willing to put a little work int it? First-rate theater is no palce for escapism; there's plenty of room for that amid the comforts of home!

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