IS THEATER NECESSARY?
Don’t we have enough diversion just by pressing the power button, sitting down in a favorite chair and letting entertainment come to us? Television not only brings us comedy, but does our laughing. TV drama allows us to check on the vanilla fudge in the freezer whenever the spectacle of a suspected felon being banged against a wall seems redundant, or after open heart surgery has lost its original novelty, We won’t miss anything we haven’t seen a hundred times before. If we’re patient enough, we don’t even need to go out to the movies. Sooner or later they all turn up at the video store or on cable, and if a film is excessively heartbreaking or terrifying, we can always remind ourselves that it’s only a movie, only being the operative word. History lessons, news, sports and games are all readily available around the clock. From time to time, television even offers virtual art museum tours, dance programs, and symphony concerts to anyone willing to go to the trouble of finding them. Of course, you can’t linger at a particular painting, congratulate the performers, or expect an encore from TV, but it’s easy and costs next to nothing.
Why, then, would any sensible person want to go to an actual theater—change out of gym clothes, buy tickets and drive downtown, just to observe the efforts of even less sensible people who have spent months learning lines, building scenery, adjusting lights and sound; assembling what is actually a massive human jigsaw puzzle? Chances are you won’t see a tornado, flood, a forest fire, or a city bombed to rubble in the theater. All that has to wait til you’re home and watching the late news.
Even so, there must be a few good reasons for live theater, or no one would bother to do it. There’s language, for one thing. Theater is one of the few places to find it anymore. Special effects and computer generated images have almost entirely replaced dialogue in film. As the “concept” becomes higher, conversation becomes increasingly unnecessary. Major blockbusters often manage with virtually none. The complete English sentence is rapidly becoming an endangered species, with no organization to save it from extinction except the theater. People talk in plays, sometimes too much, but often wittily and passionately about enduring issues. During intermissions, audience members actually speak to each other, reacting and interacting to what they have just seen on the stage; in effect, becoming actors and active themselves. There must be something fundamental about the entire process, something truly essential that shouldn’t be lost. Live theater turns spectators into participants, something even the most effective TV and film doesn’t attempt and couldn’t accomplish if it did. To stimulate, involve, and delight an audience, three dimensions always seem to work far better than two. Achieving that wonderfully contagious state of excitement needs two companies—one team on stage, another off.
The Greek word ”drama” translates into “the thing done”, but the word came thirty thousand years or so after drama itself. Reach back far enough, and you find that reenactment is the way the past was first preserved. Anthropologists tend to agree that the first dramas took place in Cro-Magnon caves, after hunters returned from the chase. Using what little language they had and a considerable amount of mime, the hunters recreated their exploits for their audience so effectively that some were inspired to dip a stick into mud and draw on the walls, inventing another art form. Much later, there were ceremonies at tombs; charades to record the deeds of the departed and inspire the living. Eventually actors (there’s nothing else to call them) imitated natural events as a hint to the gods to produce sun or rain and refrain from sending floods, typhoons, and other undesirable examples of force majeur. These occasions eventually became so well-attended that they required huge amphitheaters to accommodate the crowds. Once given those state-of-the art facilities, drama quickly developed in multiple directions. Tragedy concentrated upon myth and history, inextricable and tending to be gory, while comedy offered triumph and romance with a revel for a finale. After Sophocles perfected the method of telling a story by action instead of narrative, the rest was merely following the example and adding some accessories.
Live theater has had a longer run than any other form of human expression. Until laughter, sorrow, and memory become obsolete, we’ll continue to need it as much as ever.