Los Angeles Times
It may sound strange for a theater critic to say this, but it’s time somebody did:
1. Life is not theater.
2. People are not characters. .
3. Truth is not the same as a nice moment.
4. The business of America is not show business.
Two experiences bring these distinctions to mind. The first was reading a an article in which a panel of acting coaches assessed the performance of 12 potential presidential candidates on TV.
The second was jury duty. Back in the 70s, after two weeks of serving on a jury in Los Angeles, I wrote a piece comparing the courtroom with a theater. A novel idea at the time.
Thirty years later , in a Minneapolis courtroom, the first thing the defense attorney asked me as a potential juror was: “When you look at the courtroom, doesn’t it remind you of a set?”
Conclusion: Everybody’s into the idea of life-as-theater these days. In some ways, it’s a good thing. For instance, it keeps a person from being too impressed by the trappings of people in power. Behind the curtain, there’s usually an average-sized human being working the thunderbolt machine.
This would have been a healthy thing to keep in mind during one of Hitler’s torchlight rallies in the 1930s-theater out of the Wagnerian cookbook. Still, Hitler’s audience clearly didn’t want to look behind the curtain. The show was too much fun.
This becomes a problem when a culture gets hooked on idealized images, punchy underscoring and terrific stage management. It begins to prefer these things to the modest, mixed signals of ordinary public life. In fact, it begins to identify the glamorous simplification as the real truth. Not on intellectual grounds, but on aesthetic grounds. The other stuff just confuses the play. One wants a clear image of what’s wrong with the world. One wants a superhero to clean it up.
What this person actually thinks–whether he thinks at all–matters less than how we feel in his presence. How’s his charisma? How’s his body language? Does he have a nice smile? Do his eyes crinkle?
Rather than functioning like citizens electing a fellow-citizen to tend the store, we become casting directors looking to fill a star part. After the recent Romney-Obama debates, it was only logical to ask the Hollywood image experts to rate the aspiring candidates. Was Obama “human” enough? Was Romney “presidential” enough?
Well, the debates are an audition, partly. But they’re also supposed to be an examination of the candidates’ views. These do relate to the way each would run the country. Assessing their statements, however, is less fun than schmoozing about their presentation. For one thing, you’d have to know the issues. So the acting teachers-like most of us-concentrated on style.
Who looked the most “presidential”? The panel dismissed this candidate as too flaky, this one as too boring, this one as too uptight. Suggestions were also made as to which theatrical roles might help bring each candidate up to pitch. One teacher thought that a particular candidate needed to play someone heroic, like Shakespeare’s Henry IV.
Probably he was thinking of Henry V. Henry IV is a heartsick, distracted man worrying about his dissolute son. Caulfield’s panel would probably have dismissed him as being not royal enough.
But what does “royal” mean? What’s “presidential”? The trouble with casting a leader is that you go for a stereotype. Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t have impressed the acting coaches of his time as presidential. Too tall. Too gloomy. A bit of a flake.
Warren G. Harding, on the other hand, would have been perfect. Ronald Reagan also filled the bill, the first admitted actor to take the post. I once asked a well-known British player if he wasn’t impressed with Reagan’s hold on the American imagination. “Not particularly,” he said. “I know how it’s done.”
Reagan gave us a good show. But next time, this theater critic intends to vote for the candidate who makes the most sense over the one who makes the most agreeable presentation. If this person does well in office, he’ll eventually look very presidential. Who would have thought, in 1945, that they would ever do a one-man show on Harry Truman?
Jury duty was another reminder that life and show business should be kept on separate tracks. Yes, the courtroom can be thought of as a stage set. But it can equally be seen as an altar, with the judge as priest.
The robe is to remind him that it’s a solemn business to send a person to jail. He is not on the bench to express himself, like an actor, but to express the law. Similarly the jurors, sitting there like a Greek chorus, have sworn to put aside their personal feelings and concentrate on whether or not the law has been broken. Where theater is about emotion, courtrooms are about thought.
Like a play, a trial involves conflict. First, the conflict that brought the defendant into court. What happened? The jury puts it together from the people who were there, and this process is much like that of an audience at a play. What are the characters in “Oedipus the King” but witnesses?
In court, however, we have two attorneys trying to channel the testimony in opposite directions. It’s fascinating to see a piece of testimony take on another coloration as the defense attorney adduces a fact that the prosecuting attorney had, for some reason, neglected in his line of questions.
Anybody who watches “People’s Court” knows this. What makes real-world trials undramatic is the amount of time that everything takes.
Hamlet’s complaint about “the law’s delay” still holds. A person on jury duty can sit on a bench for two weeks without being called to do anything.
Or he/she can be called for a panel (about 30 members), and not be selected for a jury (12, plus two alternates). Or called for a jury, but “excused.” (Each lawyer can reject up to 10 potential jury members without explanation.) Or the entire jury might be excused because, for instance, the defendant has changed his plea.
Assuming the case goes to trial, there will be a good many time-outs as the lawyers huddle with their clients or everybody huddles with the judge.
Judged as theater, this is most unsatisfactory. Its virtue is that it gives people time to think. During one break, I overheard a public defender persuade his client not to go to trial but to go to a counseling service, certainly a less drastic experience for him and his family.
More drama is averted on the average day in a courthouse than is played out. Considering that “drama” in real life usually involves suffering, this is a good thing.
The aim of a well-ordered society, in fact, is to keep tragedy on the stage, where it belongs. You have to wonder about the health of a culture that seems to crave a suppertime ration of junk catastrophe–car crashes, gangland killings and airline heists. “More violence in the west Metro tonight!” the newscaster promises. But first, a word from your Toyota dealer.
We get addicted to this sort of thing that when a real-life tragedy happens down the block, it’s like “something on TV”–in other words, not to be taken seriously. How many kids playing at killing have actually killed? imitating TV?
What I like about going to the theater is that you know it’s going to be fiction. It’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference.