There is a common image of the artist as a bedraggled loner ensconced in his studio (artists are always male in the common mind). Whether the artist is a writer, painter, sculptor, or whatever, he is moody, disheveled and teeters uncertainly on the cat-walk of sanity.
The writer sits alone in his rat-infested flat above a whore-house with red neon light screaming unheeded warnings across the walls of his mind. There is a single lamp spilling unnecessary light on the termite-eaten desk. He hunches over an Underhill Upright - upright referring to the writer, not the machine - a bottle of squalor stands guard at his right hand as he bangs out veiled autobiographies to an uninterested world.
The painter lives alone in a dingy, cavernous room with wooden planks for flooring. Alone, that is, unless he has just sold a painting and can pay a local night butterfly to pose nude - nude is on purpose, naked is not - while he dispassionately outlines the curves and ignores the scars.
Painters have beards, writers do not.
Amidst these land mines of solitary creativity and psychological case studies, there is one art form that stands out as unique in all of art history. It is the single art form that thrives on socializing and public adulation. It is the one art form in which mental instability is paraded and glorified, rather than castigated and clucked at. It is the one art form in which there are job descriptions and career paths, and whose jargon has invaded the natural landscape of communication.
I hear you...what about the military and pro sports? Those are destructive, not creative, and the mental illnesses on display are not favored in polite society. A soldier or a linebacker cannot quote Shakespeare and Ionesco, nor can he distinguish between the five conventional plots. Most certainly, these Cretaceous outcasts could never understand the deus ex machina, though they pray fervently for just such a thing.
No, in the theater, there are educated and erudite folks who just happen to like taking off their clothes for money in acts that require no consummation. These beasts of the boards know the subtleties of body language, they rehearse for hours to place just the right inflection on a syllable, they thrive on the praise and applause of their peers, and most of all, they live for the blood-screaming immediacy of the theater.
There is no other art form in existence in which a happenstance assemblage of artists, technicians and machines must work in perfect synchronization for two and a half hours every night to create magic. And there is no other art form in existence in which the consumming public expects that magic on demand.
Image a gaggle of art lovers hovering around a painter screaming nightly for a new masterpiece. Or how about stuffy readers seated in the flat of the writer awaiting their due on time and on cue. You would more likely receive cacophonous hissies about the vagaries of the creative muse, than steamy dressing rooms choked with anxiety and pheromones, and full of painted liars ready to offer their souls for your applause.
Yes, in the space of time that most of us slough off on the couch in front of the TeeVee, this group of highly suspect human beings emote to the point of leaving a physical residue on the stage - not just actors but crew as well. In a quiet moment, if you listen very hard, you can hear the Stage Manager having a cow in her corner backstage. She has screamed every curse and epithet known to humankind trying to push the talent onstage.
Pulses are pounding, the hairs on the nape of the neck are standing erect, pupils are dilated - just another night in the theater.
Before and after, the entire company gets sauced. Before to calm the nerves and focus the fear - nay terror - of stepping in front of an audience. After because the thrill of the moment and living in the eternal now is something humans are ill-equipped to survive. Ram Daas would be envious of the showman's life: there is no future or past, just now.
That is why persons of the theater are so prized among the lesser artisans of film and TeeVee. In those bastard arts, only the stage-trained and tempered can hold up under intense pressure and deliver identical performances time after time. "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star," roared Peter O'Toole's character in My Favorite Year. He spoke from the heart in that singular line.
The theater is a mystical place. Great brotherhoods are forged in 10 short weeks, though they fade just as quickly. Indeed, the stage has produced some of the greatest talents ever to emote a catharsis. Even their deathbed scenes are truly of note.
The great Victorian actor Edmund Keene is still quoted "on the boards" for his Earth-quaking last thought as he expired, "Dying is easy...comedy is hard."
Perhaps the uninitiated will not remember Wilfrid Lawson, but there is a tale of Titanic proportions among theater folk:
Sir Lawson met an old friend on the street after a long absence. They retired to a pub for a long list of courage. At one point, the friend suggested they take in a show, and Sir Lawson said there was a show up the street that was "fair".
They stumbled their way over to the theater and, with luck, were able to get two tickets in the back of the house just moments before the curtain rose.
As the show went on, the friend remarked, "Seems a bit slow, old boy."
To which Sir Lawson replied, "Hold on, it will get quite a bit more interesting in just a moment."
The friend inquired, "How so?"
"Do you see that woman on stage there?" said Sir Lawson.
"Yes," came the reply.
"When she finishes dressing, I'm supposed to enter," he hissed.
Such incredible toying with the Eternal Now are not possible in film and TeeVee. They are edited out. Theater is immediate and gut-real. There is no "cut" and do-over. There is only NOW...
Film and TeeVee people are known for drugs and overdoses. That doesn't happen in the theater. The high from just one tiny show is so overwhelming that there are only two answers: one, the orgy, and two, drinking heavily to bring you down. Theater people don't need drugs, they live the greatest of them all - NOW.
In Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, he noted that one could look into the eyes of a traveler and see how far they were from home. When Arthur looked into Ford's eyes, he was nearly thrown from his stool. This was a metaphor not for aliens or travelers, but for theater people.
We know each other across time and space, no matter the distance or medium. We can look into each other's souls and know that both of us have stood upon the threshold of Time and touched the Big Lie at the center of the Universe.
Theater is a unique and wonderous thing. There can be no other experience like it, for even the shamans know theater. It is the deepest of all human experiences, which is why audiences crave a taste, though they dare not step into that abyss.
Theater has no rival. It is mystical in a way that no solitary artist will ever experience, for ultimately he cannot share his experience with anyone, even those looking at his tints or brushstrokes. Only those who have journeyed to the Center together and survived can ever share the Mystery that is theater.
That is why the very stitching of culture uses the lines from the stage. That is why the undergarments of God are the Costumes of Ages. That is why even the Universe uses make-up to show us her best face - though we call them flowers or so other appellation.
Once you have tread the boards, you cannot see the world in the same drab way that the rest of humanity envisions it. Once you have played on the Far Side, nothing less will suffice.
As Shakespeare himself noted, "The play is the thing in which we shall catch the conscience of the king."
Theater is dangerous and should be handled with the utmost of care. Those who toy lightly with it are bound to receive radiation burns. The older the play, the deeper the magic.
Can you name a single work of art that is more than 2,000 years old?
I thought not.
But the Greek plays and the Roman plays are still produced today, as fresh and alive as they were millennia ago. They don't need restoration because they have not faded. They don't reside in a single place but are available to anyone anywhere at any time. Theater IS immortality. Shakespeare is just as relevant now as he was 400 years ago. So too Aristophanes and Thespus, Ionesco and Wycherly. The past lives in the eternal NOW, and it is connected to the future, because at some point those great plays will be produced long after we are dead.
Show me a Mona Lisa that can achieve that.
Oh, to tread the boards once again and live in the immortal moment for just one second longer.
Human, meet thy true god...