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”?