3/24/2020 05:56

Reality on the stage

I woke up this morning thinking about Bertolt Brecht. Who knows why? Perhaps this moment of history, when most of the United States and the world is locked down in fear of the COVID-19 epidemic and plays are not seen, put into my mind thoughts of communist dictatorship.

My thought of Bertolt Brecht turned to the memory of challenging a presenting professor on the notion of Brecht as the demolisher of the fourth wall. That's nonsense, as any amateur who barely dabbles in theater arts can see clearly enough. Shakespeare's characters spoke directly to the audience and so did the ancient Greek players.

So to Shakespeare and to the foolishness of thinking Romeo and Juliet is a play for high school sophomores simply because the protagonists are presented as teens. It is a play for middle-aged adults dealing at last with their nostalgia for a world which never was. What teenager can appreciate the apothecary philosophy of Friar Laurence? Hardly a one, for it is aimed at the maturing adults who must deal with the mixture of good and evil which form all of us.

Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus (which many teens, especially the boys, would enjoy far more), The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet ...

... and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, the long novel by David Wroblewski whose entire plot is cribbed directly from Shakespeare's Hamlet; a book loaned to me by my neighbor across the street; a fact which much impressed the high school students with whom I was working that same morning.

And so to student theater, to the high school musicals which are suppressed by our response to the epidemic, to the last musical play I have watched. That was Tuck Everlasting in the Knight Theater production; a very funny musical which I watched with a friend on my birthday just a few weeks ago when coronavirus disease was barely a nagging uncertainty on the other side of the world.

I have watched quite a number of plays. (I almost never miss Knight Theater, which is entirely run by St. Norbert College students with hardly a trace of adult prejudice.) I enjoy them. As I get older, though, it is harder and harder to lose myself in the stories while it becomes easier and easier to see the actors and the effort of production. Fiction is a wonderful thing but the reality intrudes and becomes the object of my attention.

In this most recent musical play, the college students were joined by a child of perhaps six years, a crowd favorite and quite skillful but limited by his age and inexperience. During the finale, with the entire company on stage, there was a moment when all the actors were to pivot together. The timing is critical and difficult. Directly in front of me, the young actor. On his shoulder rested two fingers of the twenty-year-old behind him, ready to signal the time to turn.

I liked the play. I liked the jokes and I enjoyed hearing the rest of the audience appreciate them. I thought the players sang well and danced well enough. But what I remember first of all when I think of this production is the resting of two fingers on the shoulder of a child.

Brecht, Shakespeare, Sawtelle dogs, and musical theater. I woke up this morning thinking about Bertolt Brecht and ended up thinking about two real people supporting each other on the stage. Reality intrudes because its relationships are more powerful than imaginary ones.