As many of you know, I am heavily involved in theatre. I think that theatre is the most human of all the humanities, because in almost all of the other humanities the audience is somewhat detached from the artist, while in theatre the artist is right there before you, taking two-dimensional characters on the page and breathing life into them, making them into flesh-and-blood people. And, if all goes well, the audience will feel the pain of the characters on the stage. They will feel compassion, and if they can feel compassion for transitory fictional people in a temporary situation in a safe environment, then maybe it will be easier to feel compassion for others in the real world. I think theatre can teach us to be more compassionate and therefore can teach us to be more human.
I recently saw a production of The Sound of Music that was directed by a friend of mine. I then viewed the movie again for the first time in a long time. One of the things that struck me, particularly in the stage version, was how willing everyone was to back off and let the Nazis take control of Austria. They didn't want to join the party, but they weren't going to make waves and put themselves on the line by standing up and saying, "This is wrong, and I'm not going to stand for it." In the stage version there's even a whole song about it, a cheery song called, "There's No Way to Stop It," which basically equates the Nazi take-over with the revolution of the earth around the sun. Captain von Trapp is practically the only character who refuses to compromise his principles, who will stand his ground no matter what.
I was forced to ask myself (and I'd encourage anyone who reads this to ask themselves as well), if I had been alive and living in Europe during the 1930s, would I have been someone who stood up to the Nazis and resisted them, or would I have been one of the ones who sat back and said, "I'm not going to make waves, I'm going to sit here and be quiet and save my own ass"? And it would be nice to say that I would fight and stand up for myself and never give in, even if it meant death or torture or imprisonment or all three. But I look at myself, and I'm just not sure. I see my idealism, and my sense of moral outrage, but I also see my unwillingness to get involved in confrontation, my hot temper that I labor to keep under control and so attempt to avoid irritating stimulii, and I just don't know what I would do. I know what the right answer is, but I don't know that that answer is true.
And when I look at what is going on in the world and in this country now, when I look at Bush talking out both sides of his mouth on every issue, making up news reports, lying and covering things up at every turn, when I see the political/legislative tango when it comes to gay rights, at least one step back for every two steps forward, I have to ask myself, am I doing enough to oppose this man and his regime? Am I keeping too quiet? Am I giving in by refusing to get involved in certain arguments, or am I just saving my energy for something more constructive? And if it is the latter, am I actually putting that energy into something constructive, or am I just wasting time doing other things?
There's a Garth Brooks lyric (see below) that says, "When we're free to love anyone we choose, then we shall be free." And until that time comes, we will never be free. And the only way this will ever come about is if we learn compassion, and fortunately there are plays out there that can teach it to us.
One of my most important achievements in my life, and one of the ones I am most proud of, is having been a cast member of The Laramie Project. If you have never seen or read this play, you owe it to yourself to experience it. For those of you who don't know, this is a play that documents the aftermath of the Matthew Shepard beating. This event, though unspeakably horrible, taught a lot of people the meaning of compassion. My favorite quote from the play is by Rulon Stacey, the CEO of Poudre Valley Hospital where Matthew was treated:
And as I told you before, homosexuality is not a lifestyle with which I agree. Um, but having been thrown into this...I guess I didn't understand the magnitude with which some people hate.
Most people don't realize the magnitude with which some people hate. I think many people are unaware of the magnitude with which they hate. But hate is like a drug, it's addictive and it's destructive, and the only way to counteract it is with love, or to be more specific, with compassion.
The play itself has the power to teach compassion. This is a story from Moises Kaufman, the main author of The Laramie Project:
Discussing the emotional effect that The Laramie Project has had on audiences (and the company) with the Village Voice prior to the New York opening, Kaufman described what happened to Jedediah Schultz [a University of Wyoming student and a person in the play]. "He's a Baptist, and he's 19 years old. When we arrived, his views about homosexuality were very conservative. He's say things like, 'My parents say it's wrong. I think it's a sin. It's bad.'" The year following the murder became a time for reflection and consideration for Schultz, as he began to reevaluate his parents' views. He then gets involved in a production of Angels in America that the University of Wyoming is presenting. "Before we opened in Denver, Jedediah came to one of the rehearsals. As we're going through the play, we get to some of his text and I look up to see him sobbing hysterically. So I stopped the rehearsal and went over and asked him, 'What, Jed, did we do something wrong? What's the matter?' And he tells me, 'I can't believe I said those things. I was part of the problem, wasn't I?' The Greeks believed that the reason to do theatre is to achieve catharsis. When I read about it in school, I was like, 'Yeah, sure, catharsis.' Jedediah's reaction made me feel like our work was done."
Having been involved in the play, I feel as if I've gotten to know Jedediah Schultz and I've vicariously witnessed him learning compassion. His story gives me hope. I think the Greeks were only partly right, though. One reason to do theatre is to achieve catharsis, but another reason is to learn compassion.
In this story Kaufman mentions Angels in America. This is a play by an absolutely brilliant playwright named Tony Kushner (whom I met once). I can't really explain what it's about, and I don't really want to try, but its subtitle is "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," which should give you some idea. I recently, and by "recently" I mean "technically yesterday," had the opportunity to watch the HBO mini-series version of it. Unfortunately it wasn't quite the theatre experience; since it was a movie there was that detachment from the performers, but it's most likely as close as I'll get to seeing the stage version. The movie was brilliantly done. It is similar to The Laramie Project in many ways: themes, obviously, but also in terms of casting and staging, although I think The Laramie Project is much more accessible to the masses. I would recommend the movie of Angels in America to anyone, but I would also recommend either reading or seeing The Laramie Project first, and I would recommend that you see the movie Angels in America rather than read the play, because it is meant to be performed, and you don't really get the whole feeling of it when you read it. But again, you owe it to yourself to see it.
One of the most prominent motifs in the play is AIDS. I'm sure that many of us have wondered, why has such an horrifying disease been unleashed upon us? Why would God do this to us, or if he did not do it, why does he allow it to be, to spread the way it has, to infect and destroy so many lives? In many minds it is inextricably linked to homosexuality; in hateful minds it is considered a punishment on gay people for their sins. I think it has been given to us (by which I mean humanity as a whole) to teach us compassion. As I mentioned, compassion is feeling another person's pain. People with AIDS suffer horribly, and I don't see how it would be possible to watch someone dying a hideous, agonizing death and not feel some compassion. Of course, people don't always have to watch, people purposely stay away out of fear, which breeds anger and hatred. So I'm not sure how effective it is in teaching us compassion directly, but it can teach it to us indirectly by being the inspiration for plays like Angels in America, which ends with the following lines:
This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.
I'm not so idealistic as to know that these lessons in compassion sometimes fall upon deaf ears, (perhaps often). But as Keats once said, Beauty is truth, and truth beauty.These plays have brought beauty into a world that seemed to contain only ugliness. Truth into a world that seemed to contain only lies. Hope into a heart infected with despair.
So does life imitate art? I sincerely hope so.
The Great Work Continues.