In January of 2010, my mother was dying. She wasn’t totally-bedridden-dying, not yet — but she was getting there. We didn’t know it then, of course, but she had exactly one year of life left.
That month, I also saw Marya Sea Kaminski give a gut-churning, bone-achingly sorrowful performance as Electra, directed by Sheila Daniels, at Seattle Shakespeare Company. Of all the afflicted Greeks, Electra is one of the unluckiest: her hated mommy killed her beloved daddy because daddy sacrificed sister to a goddess (Trojan War business). Electra waits for her brother to come home and kill mommy, but he dies on the way — or so she thinks — leaving her catastrophically bereft. It’s bad.
The plot did its work, but something in Kaminski’s performance shocked me, even after years as a working theater critic — it didn’t seem like she was acting grief. She was grief incarnate. It gave me literal stomach cramps.
I was baffled, had to see it again and, for reasons I only dimly understood, bought my parents tickets to join me, to watch this live, raw, blistering expression of a grief we all privately carried and could barely comprehend, much less express. But in Kaminski’s Electra, it was there. We could behold it — examine it.
It was something only theater could do. Movies just aren’t that moving — not in the same way.
And why not? Why, in that particular moment, did I find such solace, such emotional solidarity, onstage? What’s so special about theater? I’ve been asked that last question so many times, and asked it in return, never getting further than the theater enthusiast’s shopworn answer: “There’s something magical about seeing it live.”
Sure, sure. But why? What’s so damn magical?
This summer, I thought I caught the glimmer of an answer in a billboard for the food-delivery service DoorDash. A well-groomed man reclined on a couch, phone in hand, neon diner sign above his head. Below him, the pitch: “Order burgers without moving your buns.”
Theater, I realized, is the opposite of that. It’s everything our watch-at-home, extra-pepperoni-hold-the-olives culture of comfort, distraction and pseudo-control (in which we get to play with inches of difference, but never yardage) has been engineered to avoid.
Theater is inconvenient (you must move your buns); it’s uncomfortable (at least airplanes have flight attendants you can flag down for pretzels); it’s puny for cultural capital (not the street cred of graffiti, nor the sophistication of symphonies); it’s economically silly (there are better ways to make money); it can be intensely claustrophobic and boring (can’t get up, can’t change the channel); and so on.
Compared to an evening of Netflix and Uber Eats, theater is downright risky: going somewhere strange to be a human, sitting with other humans, sharing nothing but air, space and a story. You might have to look at (and reckon with) things that make you squirm.
These discomforts can produce bizarre effects, and I’m enlisting two philosophers to help explore why. (My mother was a reader — I think she’d approve.)
The first, famed conservative Edmund Burke, who wrote a 1757 essay about the sublime.
“Sublime” is an exhausted word these hyper-accentuated days, when even mundane exchanges get exclamation marks (“hello!” thanks!” “bye!”) and superlatives (“he’s the worst,” “you’re the best,” “all the feels”). But it was a newish and special idea to 18th-century Europeans newly interested in the difference between the merely beautiful and the sublime.
Beautiful things, Burke argued in his essay, are safe and subordinate: a violet, a vase, a tamed landscape. (Think the pleasing colors and lines of a French vineyard.) But vast deserts? Storms at sea? Eerie ruins? Things we can’t control and aren’t useful, but still move us, are sublime.
Film is safe and subordinate — it cannot be sublime. Its camera work, even when “awesome,” is all manipulated arrangement of color and line. It is economically useful (Hollywood, Bollywood). And no matter how big the explosion or expensive the actor, it’s all tamed, disembodied representation — carefully edited shadows on the wall, infinitely reproducible, never adjustable. There’s no immediacy, no risk.
Theater flirts with the untameable sublime even in its “safest” spaces. A few examples: That night an audience member interrupted Hans Altwies performing the solo show “An Iliad,” standing to yell there are “too many war stories” — and Altwies talked with her in character before integrating the moment smoothly back into the narrative. The time Derek Horton sailed across the Nippon Kan stage on a scooter, eyes closed and arms outstretched like a crucified Christ, in his obscure, oddly affecting “Custer.” The predominantly white audience watching each other’s stricken faces as we tried to digest just a morsel of our racism during an in-the-round performance of Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over.”
The immediacy, the event-ness of theater makes it more potent: I laugh harder in theaters than I do at movies. I bet I’ve logged more teary minutes (probably hours) in theaters than anywhere else — weddings and funerals included. And, as theatergoers are well aware, its potential for boredom is acute, serious business. It’s so real, some skillful artists use it as a tool, an audience tenderizer, lulling us and making us more sensitive for shocks to come.
Why the potency of live-ness? Enter philosopher No. 2, Walter Benjamin, who had a word for this: aura.
His 1936 essay with a cumbersome title (“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) thought through how the new technology of photography would change art. Super-simple distillation: Notre-Dame is unique, embodied. It has its own “aura … its unique existence at the place it happens to be.” If it burns, it’s gone. But a photograph of Notre-Dame is infinitely reproducible, a disembodied image you can pin to your favorite wall. Burn all the photos you like — there will be copies, aura-free, floating around.
“That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art,” Benjamin wrote. His big example: The difference between theater and film.
Theater oozes aura and is irreproducible — not just from one “Hamlet” to another, but from night to night. “Pulp Fiction” will always be “Pulp Fiction” no matter where in the world you go, the camera an absolute dictator of your attention. (Benjamin points out that watching a movie isn’t watching acting — it’s watching editing.) Film is an object; theater is an event.
And while theater restricts your mind’s menu of distractions (no phones, no fast forward), it also provides a kind of liberation: an invitation to focus on the immediate present, free to move your attention wherever, from a gesture on stage to the lighting grid above your head. It’s like the strange relief you might feel on an airplane when you can’t use your phone but before the movies start. In one way, you’re stuck. In another, you’re finally unstuck.
Philosophical games aside, loving something like theater in the age of Netflix requires an element of visceral, irrational amour fou. Some people love the precision of a good script, others are in love with certain actors.
Here’s mine: I am incurably attracted to that moment when the house lights dim on a roomful of strangers, just before the stage lights flare up on other strangers who are about to become characters.
There’s a radical possibility in that dark interval, that gap. Doesn’t matter whether I’m in a cramped basement or razzle-dazzle show palace. Doesn’t matter what exciting 7 p.m. situation I’ve torn myself from to trudge to another damned play. The promise of that interval is the same. We’re all there together, for a common purpose: to let the rest of the world drift into the background like mental wallpaper, to see what’ll happen next to these people in this room. That is, to us.
You can only find that level of heightened group communion in a few places: theater, sports and church. People have been gathering to do those three things for thousands of years — and they aren’t going to stop. Even if the regional theaters go bankrupt, nation-states collapse and Broadway becomes a barely remembered relic sunk beneath the rising Atlantic Ocean, people will still gather to stop time and perform stories. It suspends the aloneness.
As we left the theater in January of 2010, I asked my mother what she thought of that “Electra” and its exquisite, communal sorrow. She said it was “good” and gave me a piercingly kind, knowing smile.
I don’t think she meant the play was good. I think she meant it was good for me.