One of my pet theories of theatre is that it is the only instinctive art form we humans have. Music performance, painting, sculpture, and other such crafts require skills that need to be learned and practiced; no one is born knowing how to play the piano, but the ability to act out and perform for an audience is hard-wired into the brain. (Plenty of actors make a very good career on the stage and screen with no formal training…more’s the pity.) Watch small children at play and they are performing by playing roles in their games — cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, whatever. They don’t get that from just watching TV; it’s instinctive. It crosses all cultural levels and continents. When I lived in New Mexico I saw some of the sacred dances and ceremonies at the Acoma pueblo and it struck me that this form of worship — the circle of spectators, the lead dancer, the elaborate paint and dress, the chanting — all reminded me of the ceremonies described to me by one of my fellow grad students in theatre who was studying the aboriginal customs of his native Australia. The connection between the two was the human instinct for performance.
Theatre is everywhere, and I don’t just mean on the stage and screen. It is our method of interaction with our fellow man or woman. Our religious rites originated in theatre — and vice versa — and even our method of determining guilt or innocence in matters of law comes down to a performance by lawyers in front of an audience — the jury. And certainly politics is all about performance.
This need to assume another character, to act out, to ritualize, comes as a part of our need to make sense of nonsense; to understand that which we can’t easily explain, and to put it in simple terms. We take a complex issue and try to frame it in a well-made form. Aristotle’s definition of drama — a unity of time and place, and the linear storyline of a rising action with conflict, crisis and resolution — makes things seem straightforward in a world where none of the elements truly exist. A woman dying in a hospice in Florida with her family and the world drawn into the struggle is painted in simple terms of good and evil, black and white, life and death. It may not be right, but it is the way we have to see things in order to make sense of it.
There is another element of performance that plays an even greater role sometimes, and that is the audience’s need to connect with the story being told and the people telling it. The strong sense of identification with the character and the conflict makes it compelling to watch and see what will happen. The audience tries to put itself in the action and make an emotional connection with the characters. They objectify it and make it simple to understand so that they can apply the lessons and feelings to their own lives. There but for the grace of God… So the private tragedies of families, be they the Schiavos, the Petersons, the Simpsons (take your pick; Homer or O.J.) become life lessons for all of us, and whether or not they chose it or like it, their lives become the stuff “of which dreams are made.” I am willing to bet that there will be a TV movie of the Schiavo case on the air before this year is out, and we will see it ripped from the headlines on Law & Order.
It also explains why we have made performers — and I mean all performers, including politicians — our celebrities. They hold tremendous power over our rites and dictate social mores. They hold us with their every word and in some ways we wish we were them. It feels good to have people pay attention to you; it gives you a feeling of self-worth and power that you might not have if you were just another face in the crowd. For this sense of well-being, of entertainment, we are more than willing to grant them this power and elevate them above us. We forgive them their trespasses in some cases, but also hold them to higher standards and turn on them with a mob-like wrath should they show any signs of being somewhat less than a star — and more like one of us.
Someone once said that politics is show business for ugly people. (Actually, given the current crop of “stars,” I’d say that applies to show business as well, but…) If the first three months of this year is any proof, that adage is right on.