The Show in front of Our Eyes


Why do people go to the theatre or the movies? Certainly, they want to enjoy the experience. But what experience? Just seeing the show? I believe there is something more to it. It is called collective emotion.

History knows quite a few examples of theatre shaping public opinion, and even kindling public unrest. At the premiere of Beaumarchais’ play “The Marriage of Figaro” in 1784 in Paris the crowd was so great that three people were crushed to death, and the play’s run of 100 nights was an event so huge that historians agree it contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Yet I doubt that people could be influenced by one voice, no matter how powerful it is. Do you really believe that audiences fathomed the truth about their lives only after they heard Figaro’s witty observations? The same play had been banned from public performances but had been freely circulating and read at many private gatherings. And good luck proving that the actors’ mastership was at the bottom of the aforementioned social impact.

What was happening at those performances, as well as what happens at every great performance of every great play, is a massive progression of human feelings brought to a point beyond control. Of course the impetus comes from the stimulating spectacle. But its emotionally charged truthfulness seizes the mind and overwhelms the heart, gathers its power by resounding through the minds and hearts of everyone watching, and bounces back with an almost unbearable acceleration, prompting every spectator to reassess his life and giving him the strength to go out and change it.

We humans are social beings. Reaching out for each other is part of our most significant innate drives. It is not only protection or acknowledgement we are looking for. It’s the excitement and beauty of sharing our thoughts and feelings. Theatre art is one of the highest forms of this kind of activity because it avoids the obstruction of literalism. We share with each other indirectly, without insistence on anyone’s part, drawing our excitement from an even more vulnerable source: the bare, helplessly exposed actors standing mere yards in front of us.

At the end we feel our existence justified. We know that we are not alone in this world, and we identify ourselves with all the others between those walls, because we have laughed and wept at the same moments, with similar passion and gratitude.

Does this mean that every audience is the same? Certainly not. Every night produces its unique atmosphere, woven by the invisible emotional waves of everybody who attends. Sometimes the cheerful ones are the majority. They start laughing early into the show, carrying away the rest. At other times the hall is filled with older people, who lead the others into accepting a deeper, wiser layer of the content. Once in a while among the spectators one can find a bunch of punks who remain completely untouched by the plot and contaminate the others with their indifference.

People’s souls resemble theatre audiences. We often refer to our inner world as an abstract space, which we will never be able to understand in its entire complexity. And this is exactly my point. Who can grasp what a randomly assembled audience is thinking or feeling? The spiritual acoustics of a crowd is so easy to sense, yet so difficult to trace. Every one of us carries in herself the ever smiling cheerleader as well as the grouchy old man; the gullible enthusiast as well as the tired cynic; the seductive charmer, and the repellent loner. What we show in our behavior depends on which one of these characters will take the lead. At certain points one of them might be exhausted, another hurt, the third one might have been greatly disappointed. And there you go: the most unexpected one draws the reins.

Also, as it is with every audience, there are different types who crowd in within every person. I know that the cranky people whom I shelter in the chambers of my soul are quite a lot more than in my daughter’s “audience”; and that my friend’s girlfriend’s “inner number” of party jocks determining her reaction to life in general is quite alarming…

The resemblance deepens even further as we explore the quality of the performance itself. Unfortunately, what our audience often sees is not what it has paid for: the show turns out to be boring, stupid and cheap. But so is life; our inner world is equally subjected to a performance similarly dubious in quality. We just have to cope with it – exactly the same way as our audience is supposed to stay till the very end of the show.

What Shakespeare meant when writing the famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue about the seven ages was not that we were those “merely players”. He used “they” instead of “we”, remember?  It is them, the others, who pass in front of our eyes in a funny, stupid procession. The Bard wanted to warn us that we were about to attend a simple and a little disappointing show called life, where everybody plays two-dimensional roles, composed of two or three repeating actions. Yet that wasn’t his complete thesis. Remember also who pronounced that heavy statement? It was Jaques, who remains one of the most interesting, intellectually restless and originally thinking characters Renaissance has produced. Mocking his environment and playing the cynic, Jaques conveyed one of the most positive messages in world literature: that no matter how self-deprecatory we are, there’s always more to us, as long as we don’t fall into the trap of leading the flat sheep-like pattern of life he describes. As long as we can keep in our inner audience some more characters than the seven types mentioned by him, we are definitely doing well.

As a humble interpreter I would add: the actual performance isn’t that important; it is the motley bunch of spectators that matter. It would be great if each of us, actors or not, keep more of them in the bosom of our souls.

© 2009 Peter Budevski

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