“The theater, when all is said and done, is not life in miniature, but life enormously magnified, life hideously exaggerated” – H.L. Mencken
I found this quote rather provocative when I first read it, and I wasn’t quite sure that I agreed. However, after further consideration, I understand the truth behind this statement. Here are just a few examples that I’ve thought of:
How many of us, in our real lives, deliver monologues? Really, mumbling to ourselves is the closest we get to being in a monologue like situation. Yet on stage, there are several times where we learn some of the deepest and darkest secrets of a character from having access to those inner thoughts via well-crafted monologues. Therefore those moments on stage are a heightened version of the stream of consciousness that is constant, yet private, feature of our lives that simply cannot work on stage (and is generally more eloquent than what I normally mumble to myself!)
When you think about this quote in relation to musicals, the concept becomes even more apparent. I’ll never forget watching the film of West Side Story in my high school music class. One of my classmates commented about how totally improbable it was to have these men snapping and dancing in the middle of the street in the opening number. It’s true that in a real-life situation that would be rather out of place, but for a musical it’s perfectly normal! The closest thing we have to the spontaneous dancing and singing in the streets that are depicted in musicals is a flash-mob, and at that those are planned and rehearsed and are essentially a kind of theatre itself. While singing and dancing are the bread and butter of most musicals, these are not naturally occurring states for most people. Yet this is the way one expresses oneself in a musical, and unless the show wants to draw attention to it in a humorous way, it is never seen as odd to be singing or dancing on the street.
What is interesting is in a show like Man of La Mancha where the dancing isn’t so much of a focus, but the singing is more like a monologue; just one person, singing their heart out to the audience. This blends these two real-life improbabilities and yet makes for a powerful theatre experience.
Basically, what we deem to be private needs to be public on stage because of the audience. Think about how difficult it can be to read people in your day to day life, and then having to do that to figure out a story line. It’d be almost impossible! Instead, we need to hear the thoughts of the characters on stage so that we might fully understand the play that is unfolding before us. Theatre needs to be larger than life because it is merely a representation of life, and not life itself. While there are plays that try their best to replicate life, there is still a script, still a set plot, and therefore it is still a construction. This isn’t bad however; it’s actually a good thing. We don’t want to watch real life; we have to live that already. Theatre has been a form of escape since the days in Ancient Greece when it was used in religious festivals and competitions. We love that the world depicted in theatre is “hideously exaggerated”, because it allows us to look at those elements in our life on that large scale and bring them back with us to our own small scale lives.
This is a new feature for my blog that I thought I’d try out for when I haven’t seen a play in a while but feel like writing. I call it “Mid Month Musings.” Basically, I’ll look at a quote from a play, playwright or critic about the theatre or Shakespeare or whatever sparks my interest and give you my thoughts about it. I’d love if you’d join in the conversation