More on Binges in the Dark

Most of us go to plays and movies and concert halls on an occasional basis.  Sensible theatre-goers, even if they are terribly enthusiastic, might make a play a week, and a really eager movie-goer might take in two a week on average.  We casually dip our fingers in the water of imagination seeking escape from our daily cares.  And then we can express our gratitude for the gift of the artist’s temporary insights, before we go back home to re-engage our real-world defenses.  On the other hand, I have been an out-of-towner addicted to “binge viewing” for the past fifty years or so.  In that time I’ve seen some of the best theatre in the world, and some of the worst, with a lot in between.  And I suspect the majority of my theatre-going experience has been in the context of immersing myself for up to a week in as many plays as I can manage.

I was in New York City solo for four days and nights this month.  At today’s hotel rates, that’s the budget max.  During that time I watched five plays and five movies, went to the Big Apple Circus, and took in a magnificent Carnegie Hall concert by the Vienna Boys Choir.  That’s three a day, twelve viewings “in a dark room.”  It’s not a record for me, by any means, but I must admit it was a push, and my stamina is by no means enjoying any upsurge as I get older.

I have to agree with my good wife and acknowledge that this behavior is just a little bit crazy.  She and I enjoy far saner trips to New York together, where the same four nights might include a walk in  the park, a museum or a gallery, a leisurely restaurant meal, an afternoon nap, a movie or two, and a play.  Few people outside the professional club of theatre critics ever take the opportunity for the kind of concentrated viewing I just completed.  But I don’t pretend to be a critic.  My responses to what I see and hear are random and personal – fair warning to anyone expecting honest-to-God critical reviews here.  Neither thorough nor logical, they are recorded primarily to keep my head clear about what I see and how I feel as a result.  I can’t even call them guides for friends seeking input for upcoming theatre plans.  Of the five plays I saw this month in New York, for instance, one has yet to open and may never, and the other four are closed or soon will be.  Still, friends have on occasion found my scribbling to be constructive and useful, and if you find it informative, by all means use it as you will.

This kind of viewing orgy produces a very curious dichotomy that is both reassuring and disturbing – both comforting and frightening.  Ignoring for a moment crass commercialism and profit engineering, every theatre and film artist is driven by a passion to share his or her own vision of what is true about being a human being.  And when so many versions of  “the truth” are stacked so closely together, any objective validation is undermined.  Any sense of universal truth is called into doubt.  The best we can do is struggle to find the words to express the questions.  After all, how dare any of us, whether artist, politician, or religionist, claim to “understand,” to “know” anything at all?  Each of us has but a single, and very mortal, point of observation from which we see “the truth,” and each is for whatever reason bound to express it, for better or worse.  Mercifully, we don’t always act on what we “know.”  Those who do have probably been responsible for as much death and destruction as they have charity and justice.  In the end, despite our lofty ideals, isn’t it basic human instinct that finally controls our actions?  Isn’t it our primal fears, our physical needs, and our obsessions that keep us safe, create our dreams, and ultimately determine our behavior?

What a predicament!  These are the questions we ponder in the dark, as we identify with people on the stage or screen that are somehow like us, people struggling to make the critical choices about their own lives that we must also make. Sometimes they are laugh-out-loud funny, or extraordinarily courageous, and sometimes they are unbearably tragic.  But none of them, if the play or movie is any good, has any answers for us.  Only more questions.

Like everyone else, of course I am seeking answers; I have an instinctive need to be RIGHT!  But especially in concentrated form like this, the theatre doesn’t let me get away with that.  I am not given time to grow comfortable with a self-righteous opinion or decision.  I am immediately faced with a new view, a new angle which causes me to question my old one, and so am forced to walk out with a whole new version of what is right and true for me.  In fact I consider it the task of every playwright, screenwriter, director, actor and designer to change me peronally, to offer me new choices, to challenge my assumptions and expectations, to make me ask new questions.

It’s an exciting adventure this viewing in the dark, and it can also be very disturbing.  It’s very different from the shams we create and live by in everyday life.  Would I want to be even more regularly reminded of my mortality in some form or other, day in and day out?  Hell no.  Four to five full days a couple of times a year serves the purpose.  In “real” life, I need my illusions.  I need to believe in fairness, in right and wrong, in peace, in justice, and in the permanence of the planet.  And of course like everyone young at heart if not in age, I am planning to live forever.  I need those holes in the earth into which I can stick my head when I’m afraid.  Mindless pretenses are a matter of survival, just as I suspect they are for most of us who devote our lives to sustaining the myth of our own importance.  But every now and then, I need to be yanked out of the hole.

What armor must the theatre and film critics wear in order to protect themselves from the day-in and day-out barrage reminding us of our insignificance, our inconsequentiality, our irrelevance in the universe as a whole.  I can understand how easily they must get jaded –  how they must pose as experts in humanity and yearn for validation from something, anything;  and how they must be constantly disappointed to find yet another movie of mindless escapism, yet another play subsisting on pretentious delusion and the empty promises of answers that can’t be there.  I could never choose to be a critic.  But in my fashion, I go on viewing, sitting in the dark, searching for that private place within myself where I can stop pretending.  And just often enough, in the theatre or the movies, I’m struck by the truths that are revealed by actors pretending to be someone else, and I am happy to be surprised by the questions I must ask of myself as a result.  So tell me again:  Why is it that people call acting “just pretend”?

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9 Responses to More on Binges in the Dark

  1. Tim Hulsey says:

    Went the Ibsen well?

    • Bill says:

      The Rosmersholm ticket, one of Ibsen’s best, went to my friend and fellow playwright, Stephen Sossaman, who gave it passing good grades for its language and relevance to our times. Here’s an excerpt from the director’s notes in the program:
      “In Act 1 of Rosmerholm we are encouraged to believe that the shadows
      of the past are about to be overcome by the enlightened vision of Rebecca and
      Rosmer. As you observe the arena in which these lofty democratic ideals are
      challenged and reflect on the state of our country in the autumn of 2010, you will
      know why Ibsen’s grasp of the psychological complexities that drive us as human
      beings is totally modern.” Elinor Renfield, Director,program
      I was sorry to miss it, delighted that Stephen didn’t, and equally delighted that I didn’t miss Brief Encounter.

  2. Stephen Sossaman says:

    I understand how the cost of travel can lead you to “binge viewing,” and I admire anyone who has the stamina to manage your typical New York schedule. I could not possibly keep up with you.

    One downside to binge viewing, as you well know, is that you do not have much time to process one art experience before being immersed in another, perhaps a far different and more influential experience.

    Speaking only for myself, I often need several days without competing artistic visions to feel as if I have absorbed or t least recovered from some art. Decades ago I staggered out of “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and “Marat/Sade” utterly incapable of understanding the changes I was undergoing. I still think about them.

    Those two plays, and earlier productions at the Academy theater in Atlanta when I was in high school, taught me that art can work powerfully without your necessarily understanding what is going on.

    Films, too: a few years after returning to civilian life I was devastated by the film Seven Beauties, and unable to finish watching Little Big Men without quite knowing why. At least not for a few years. I am still recovering from two brilliant recent films, Never Let me Go and A Serious Man, if meditation about meaning counts as recovering.

    In an ideal world, I think, you and your fellow audience members would stagger home from a theatre performance knowing that you had been changed yet not knowing quite why, perhaps even knowing that you had perceived some fundamental truth without knowing quite what, in prosaic words, that truth is. Knowing that the truth you were faced with was not necessarily complimentary and comforting.

    And then you would have some time to recover thoughtfully, perhaps on your back deck or while walking in the woods. We might as well keep the television off and ignore the internet while this recovery period is still working.

    • Bill says:

      Thanks, Stephen. You’re right on. I finish the week in thorough confusion, without the kind of in-depth focus that comes with a more one-at-a-time approach. I also value the latter for really soaking in a new conundrum. But the rapid-fire bingeing on many different points of view does seem to widen my perspective, and perhaps make me a little more skeptical of the sometimes condescending self-importance of any single writer. I admit I’ve often come out of a really fine piece of theatre and wanted to isolate while it worked its way through me. And I do regret having little time to ponder deep issues and refreshingly new vantage points before being assaulted by yet another one. But then too not everything deserves such consideration. The binge approach is like fireworks. Some are duds; some are stunning; but the total cumulative effect is spectacular.

      • Tim Hulsey says:

        The nice thing about “binge viewing” is that if one sees some especially putrid theatrical excrescence, at least one knows something better will soon follow.

  3. Chris Ryan says:

    Bill,

    Your NYC theater/movie “binging” is quite normal my friend. I remember undergraduate days when I could “triple deck” movies in and around classes by hitting matinee discount rate first runs at Harvard Square Theater late Friday mornings after morning classes, go to afternoon classes, have dinner, go to see 1940s/1950s classics at The Brattle Square Theater, and then hit the midnight show of “Night of The Living Dead” at the Orson Welles Theater. I always found that such frenetic activity forced me as the viewer to focus more intently on the movie’s message. Keep “binging” – I think that it keeps us young.

    Best,

    Chris Ryan

    • Bill says:

      Keeps me exhausted, and ah yes, young! I remember it well. I think I started this habit at the same age, taking the bus from Princeton to New York on a Tuesday night for a show, spending the night at an all-night 42nd St. movie theatre (re-runs, honestly, and good ones!), showering at Grand Central, breakfasting at a Horn & Hardart Cafeteria, and hitting the movies again before doing standing room at two more plays (I specifically remember “Bells are Ringing,” “West Side Story” and “Compulsion”), and catching the late bus back to school. I’m sure my total expense was less that 50 bucks. Of course there was the little matter of missing a day of classes.

  4. Zed Zabski says:

    Bill,
    Being a true critic or not, only a theatre pro’s pro is able to do what you have to do to stay abreast of your craft. I imagine very few people are like you in this way. This is a wonderful thing. It provides true meaning for who you are; and it leaves opportunity for the other hundred theatre monkeys in the world to intuitively pick up on what you witness.
    On the other hand, my brother, I do hope you maintain your partner’s walk in the rainy park ritual whenever you need to go it alone. The planet needs you to hang on a bit longer. Like bread and cheese without a flower, how would the world be without the few people like you?

    • Bill Rough says:

      Thanks, Zed. You are a prince! And yes, I still take that long rainy walk in the park when I’m on my own, although it may be on harder payment, and it may be limited to drizzle or less. I do own up that wind, a hard rain, and snow and ice will drive me underground in the city far more than they used to.

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