Sunday, June 29, 2008


I'm re-reading David Mamet's Three Uses of the Knife. Mamet is perhaps my favorite curmudgeon. He's like a grumpy, older male relative who's seen it all, and doesn't understand "them kids today." Except he really does understand them, he just doesn't understand why mankind persists in making the same damn mistakes over and over.

So please forgive the sweeping generalities and curmudgeon-like words below, or at least take them with a grain of salt. These thoughts occurred to me as I read, and I would like to share them with you:
When you come into the theatre, you have to be willing to say, "We're all here to undergo a communion, to find out what the hell is going on in this world." If you're not willing to say that, what you get is entertainment instead of art, and poor entertainment at that.
- David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife
From its Latin root, communion is essentially "a sharing." Removed from any specific religious sense, communion is a form of intimate communication.

The definition with which I am most familiar is the Christian meaning, the eucharist, the sacramental consuming of bread and wine as originated by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. The tradition I grew up in did not believe in transubstantiation, the actual transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, but I do know of of it, albeit from Protestant publications highly critical of the belief.

There is something inherently holy about communion, whether we're talking unleavened wafers and wine, or a completely honest exchange between human beings. We live in increasingly unholy times, it seems. What passes for intimate conversation is oftentimes self-centered exhibitionism: "I'm manic-depressive," "Let me tell you what an asshole by boyfriend is." There never seems to be an attempt to dig any deeper into these surface issues, to discover some personal truth that may improve our conditions, or at the very least satisfy our need for some ounce of understanding about them.

Instead we are satisfied to dress ourselves in our problems, put on our neurosis and phobias as if they're jewelry. These "intimacies" are in fact plumage put on display for all the world to see. Yet, I wonder how satisfying this exercise truly is?

Theatre at its most potent is a laying bare of the psyche. It's a means of taking situations, thoughts, and feelings familiar to all, placing them on a dissection tray, and opening up the experience of life for an audience to see and ponder on. So the theatre is a kind of life laboratory. If slapstick depends upon the quality of "safety" to elicit belly laughs, so too does drama depend upon the safety of knowing it's all just a game. The players are merely artists, and we in the darkened house are not witnessing acts that possess any true, lasting effect on the characters involved.

It is in this laboratory and safe zone that theatrical communion can occur.

Any seasoned audience member or actor, any veteran of the stage will tell you there are times when the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, moments when the electricity is in the air, and a sort of psychological transubstantiation occurs. Joe Actor as Hamlet becomes Hamlet, if only for a few lines. A sharing occurs, and intimate communication is had.

It seems funny to me that true intimacy can occur between strangers in a public milieu, yet it escapes us among the closest of friends.

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