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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Look Out Above For What's Coming Down!

When I was in high school, about 14 or 15 years old, I went on my first date that was not a double date with some boy’s father or mother doing the driving, and the evening should have been memorable for that reason. The boy who asked me out had his driver’s license and picked me up at home, all by himself, after my parents gave permission because the boy and his family were members of the church we attended. Wouldn’t you think I would remember what I wore and what kind of car the boy drove, if we went out for ice cream after the main event and, if so, where? But I don’t recall any of that, because the main event was a stage play and that evening the first time I ever saw live actors on a stage. I I was powerfully stage-struck!

“The Curious Savage” is a gentle comedy with a quiet message and a touching conclusion. Other inmates of the cozy insane asylum where the main character is committed for the period covered by the play cannot tell her in so many words that they love her, but each of them has some indirect means of expression, and she understands them all. I still remember that she is told by one of them, in the last scene, to carry an umbrella, in case of rain. Hardly King Lear, but it moved me deeply.

The performers were high school students, mostly juniors and seniors. This was not a professional production, by any means. Nevertheless, as the final curtain fell, after the cast took their bows, I sat transfixed, unwilling to acknowledge that the magic spell had come to a close.

Inspired, I soon began to try out for one-act plays and to discover the intoxicating world of backstage. The focus of that monumental, hundred-year-old, three-story, limestone-block castle of a school, two or three blocks long, a school with tall Gothic doors and inner stairways of solid marble -- the focus for me became the auditorium with its heavy proscenium curtain, orchestra pit, onstage trap door in the floor and soaring space above for flying rigs. The smallest bit part sufficed to fuel my dreams or, failing that, a place on the props crew.

My theatre love persisted, and in my senior year our cast of “El Camino Real” (I played the old gypsy, mother of Esmeralda) climbed successive levels of competition to first place in the state of Illinois. Heady stuff! I then began a checkered undergraduate career -- three schools, three or four successive majors before graduation 20 years later -- in speech and theatre at the University of Illinois. “Read plays!” urged professors of acting classes. Fine! I would read plays! No one needed to twist my arm to make that happen! There were also technical classes, such as costume design, and challenging beginning work in directing. All the world may be a stage, but it’s just as true that the stage itself, wherever it is, is its own world, with its own language, traditions, and a history going back at least to ancient Greece. And I loved every aspect of it.

I’m getting to my point, truly I am. If I were younger, I would have gotten to it sooner, but at my age memories take up more and more of my conscious mental life.

Look up the phrase deus ex machina, if it is unfamiliar to you. The idea dates back to those early Greek and Roman dramatists and had originally a material reference. Even that long ago, you see, staging (think “production values”) was sometimes elaborate and complex. For example, marvelous machinery could bring a “god” down, unexpectedly, from on high, to thrill an audience and resolve dramatic action. Like all special effects, however, after a while it was no longer surprising and began to be seen instead as rather a cheap trick. Was the playwright unable to wrap up his plot no other way? Too bad!

As audiences, along with critics,  became more and more sophisticated, the term deus ex machina came to be more generally applied, as it is today, to any last-minute introduction of a new, often unconvincing character or development brought in near a story’s end to bring an otherwise hopeless mess to a tidy conclusion. Moderns use the phrase in literature discussions as well as in drama, and film criticism in our household is particularly scathing when we feel a scriptwriter or director has resorted to a deus ex machina resolution.

I approach my point ever more closely.

The now-familiar insomnia, waking not from but into a nightmare, recognizing inevitability but being unable to believe completely in what is clearly coming down the tracks – the overwhelming experience of the last two months and more – waking, that is, into a new world that has become frighteningly unreal, I thought in the dark of one recent morning of the deus ex machina, and my first thought was, isn’t that just what we need? There is no other way out, is there? We humans have made a horrid, irresolvable mess on our world stage, and no playwright on earth, no team of the wisest of world leaders can possible sort us out at this late stage. Not in my lifetime, surely.

Quickly, however, a second thought followed: wasn’t it precisely the irresponsible longing for outside rescue . . . combined with the emergence of someone claiming to possess the godlike powers of a world rescuer . . . combined with a fearful audience desperately willing to believe, desperately longing . . . that brought us to this state?

No, we should not wish for it, and we should not allow the cheap trick to be put over on us. There is no way around this mess other than through it, and through it we must slog, one foot in front of the other.

Do you need a weatherman to tell you there will be storms ahead? Take an umbrella. Someone else is sure to need it if you don’t.


GH said...

Thanks for this, Pamela! Hard to resist the wistful, frightened yearning for the quick fix, though.

P. J. Grath said...

FOUND THE QUOTE! How could I have forgotten? It's from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and it's Mr. Bingley who says, after Mr. Darcy says there isn't a girl handsome enough at the assembly to tempt him to dance, "I would not be so fastidious as you are,'' cried Bingley, ``for a kingdom! Upon my honour I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life, as I have this evening; and there are several of them, you see, uncommonly pretty."

P. J. Grath said...

And great! Now I've put the quote on the wrong blog!

BB-Idaho said...

An interesting read; from the 'roar of the greasepaint & the smell of the crowd' and the seque to the frustration with current events
tied with the commonality of a Latin phrase. My first date was so
bad (state fair, too much hotdog/cotton candy/ride the tilt-a-whirl/guess what happened next) it's a miracle I even had a second. My oldest daughter was much into local theatre, especially musicals, so that excitement is understandable, if by osmosis. As for our
very odd experiment in democracy, these are interesting times we
live in. Looking for comparisons, my ideas were way behind the
high tech times. Trump and Lonesome Rhodes from 'Lost in the Crowd'?
29,400,000 articles by search engine; Trump and Caligula? 394,000 and Donald & der Fuhrer? 25,000,000. We are divided as a people
with as little apparent chance at rapprochement as Civil War times.
What is most frustrating is that a large minority has given us a one party government and an erratic arrogant leader. Enough of my rant.
Thank you for your well written observations. ..and yes, my second
date was better!

P. J. Grath said...

BB, always good to hear from you. You've reminded me of a time I overindulged to an unbelievable degree at the best county fair in Michigan. That's the St. Joseph County Fair, third week in September, still put on by the Grange. Maybe someday I'll reveal publicly just how much and what I ate that night. For now I'll just say it was a once-in-a-lifetime gorge. Not sure how your state fair experience is connected to your daughter's theatre experience, unless your first and second date became your wife. ???

BB-Idaho said...

I'm not sure where the performer bug comes from. I have a niece on
my sister's side that is in high school and in her mind, Broadway
bound. My daughter announced one day she wanted to try out for the local civic theatre and we supported her of course. Her first roll
was that of Liesl (I am sixteen, going on seventeen) in 'Sound of Music'. At the age of 14. Talk about casting against type!
As for the infamous Fair date, the young lady moved to California
two months later. I found my wife in Zoology lab (no, she wasn't a
primate) when were seated by each other. One day we were to look through our microscopes and draw the unicellular species Euglena.
They are advanced for prokaryotes, having cilia and a light sensitive
'red spot'. I noticed she spent more time looking at my sketch than
her own microscope. And so, I drew some nice eyelashes on the red
eyespot. What can I say? She was a psych major and was obviously
attracted to a serious case worthy of more study.
(I'm starting think of myself as not a writer, but teller of tales)

P. J. Grath said...

Tellers of tales are an important stream in American literature, BB. You're a good one! I need to
put up at least part of your river story one of these days very soon....