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Spring 2000

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All the worldís a stage

by Victor L. Cahn

Victor Cahn

     The last few years have been banner ones for futurists, as all of us wonder how political and economic tides will shift, what discoveries medical science will bring, and when, if ever, we shall travel to other planets or galaxies.

     We have also enjoyed speculation about how subsequent generations will entertain themselves. Certainly developments over this past century have proceeded swiftly: first recordings and silent movies, then radio and sound movies, then television. More recently VCRs, video disks, and computer-generated screen images have offered amusements that 25 years ago were to most of us unimaginable. If current predictions prove equally accurate, we may soon be able to sit home at any hour and select from among millions of movies or programs to watch or even join.

     Yet amid the hubbub about whatís coming, we ought to reflect on one form of performance that has survived not only this century and this millennium, but the past three millennia. We should also note that this form shows hardly any signs of extinction.

     This art is theater.

     Itís an experience that has changed amazingly little since its origins. In Athens 2,500 years ago, thousands of people gathered to watch and hear performers enacting scripts by playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. In England 20 centuries later, the populace rushed to the newest works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Indeed, the most thrilling moment in the acclaimed movie Shakespeare in Love is the depiction of the premiere performance of Romeo and Juliet, as viewers both rich and poor, educated and untutored, gaze transfixed at the action before them, then respond with unfettered emotion.

     The power of that phenomenon has not diminished over time. True, we marvel at technological advances in film and television. Yet when we walk into an old-fashioned legitimate theater and see the houselights lower, the stage lights rise, and the actors move and speak, the event remains compelling. The performers may number as few as one or as many as a hundred. The setting may be bare, the lighting stark, the special effects nil. Yet something in the pure live enactment of a story grips us, just as it did those crowds many generations ago.

     To be sure, that the event is ďliveĒ is one reason for its allure, for who knows if actors will forget their lines, or if offstage personnel will muddle their cues. Let us remember, too, that those in the audience must do more than gobble popcorn, for no camera leads our eye. Instead we have to listen, watch, and think for ourselves. We may also contribute to the presentation by laughing, shouting, or otherwise reacting to what is played before us.

     Even disruptions can be provocative. If someone leaves a movie, who cares? Certainly the actors onscreen donít notice. But if someone walks up the aisle at a play, everyone, onstage and off, wonders why. At a movie, idle conversations and beepers are merely annoying. Besides, if they distract us so much that we miss something, we can always stay for the next showing. At a play, though, extraneous noise from onlookers is downright intrusive, for we canít afford to miss anything. There is no next show. Every performance is unique.

     Hereís another reason theater remains fascinating. Future movie-watchers will encounter the same images of Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca or the creature in E.T. that we see now. So too in 2050 will viewers of Dr. No hear Sean Connery utter with that same memorable resonance, ďBond. James Bond.Ē But John Gielgudís Hamlet is gone. So is Laurette Taylorís Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, and Laurence Olivierís Oedipus. Like all theatrical performances, they become part of our collective cultural memory: moments that fewer and fewer of us can recall, and that none of us can experience again.

     Iím fortunate to live in the Capital Region of New York, where professional and community theater flourishes. Almost every town in the area has a company, and those of us who choose to do so can work in one house after another: acting, directing, and, in my case, writing, as well as building sets, hanging lights, gathering props, and running shows. Not every production triumphs. But our joy in creation, along with the loyalty of our audiences, suggests that at the end of the next century and beyond, the sights and sounds of actors performing on a stage live will continue to provide an irreplaceable thrill.

Professor of English Victor Cahn is an actor by avocation and the author of several plays. He has written books on Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard, and Harold Pinter. This essay first appeared in the March 23 edition of the Albany Times-Union.


© 2000 Skidmore College