Theatre is struggling. Again. Why does a long-dying art form always refuse to die?
I have been thinking lately about heroes. As America reckons with itself, among its many inextricably linked crises, the word HERO is bestowed on masked crusaders from healthcare workers to organizers for justice, and on a great many people who don’t seem to want the title, if Twitter is anything to go by. Essential workers aren’t heroes; they’re victims of badly managed late-stage capitalism. George Floyd wasn’t a hero; he was a victim of racism and police brutality. A hero, it seems, is someone who chooses the role. But I am not here to argue the definition of a hero. There are all kinds of heroes in our collective canon: tragic heroes, anti-heroes, superheroes, and so on; every story has one. Perhaps It is just someone who strives for something outside themselves.
The reason I bring this up is, among other things, The Normal Heart. About a month ago I participated in a Zoom reading of The Normal Heart, because that’s what theatre is right now, and so of course I had to go do some research and see what it was all about. I was combing through the Wikipedia page for Dr. Linda Laubenstein, the real-life counterpart of Dr. Emma Brookner, and I found this glorious word: IMMORTALIZED. She was “immortalized” in Larry Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart, as was Larry Kramer himself in the character of Ned Weeks. These people were on the front lines of the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s, when nobody yet knew exactly what it was, or was willing to talk about it. They fought like hell for an impossible-seeming cause. They were heroes. And (hello, blind spot) I had never heard of them until The Normal Heart.
That brought me to thinking about the role of the storyteller, in an ancient, mythic sense. Once again, theatre has been dealt a crushing blow by contagious disease. We are now hyper-aware of the meaning of ESSENTIAL – is theatre essential? I have to believe it is, otherwise I have made some very questionable decisions regarding my life path. And why? Well, consider this: why do you know the deeds of King Arthur? Of Gilgamesh? Of Odysseus, Ajax, Achilles, and the rest? Because someone made them into epic stories and told those stories. They were immortalized. Whether or not all these people were real is, I think, immaterial. They all feel approximately the same amount of real.
Here is the crux of the relationship between journalism and entertainment, fact and fiction – the collective “media” – it is NARRATIVE, the almighty narrative that everyone wants to shape or change. Journalism is immediate. It tells you what is happening now, or perhaps yesterday. It shapes the narrative of the present. Storytelling cements a narrative for generations. It paints it on the cave wall, so to speak. Heroes aren’t born; they’re made by history and journalism, the twin guardians of the facts, ma’am, and crowned by storytelling. For example, everyone knows Rep. John Lewis’s name today, but if you want everyone to know it hundreds of years from now, he has to be engraved into a story.
Here's another word that often gets paired with “hero”: INSPIRE. It feels a little hollow at this point; almost corporate. Why “inspire”? What does that mean? I think it is related to that phrase, “children cannot be what they cannot see.” Why immortalize heroes? Just for them, because they deserve to be remembered? Maybe. But I think what it does, the essential function of storytelling, is that is makes humans into heroes, and heroes into humans. Whether on the scale of a proper AP English Lit epic, or a kitchen sink drama, or even a bedtime story, the point of telling it is to look you in the face and say, “This could be you.” You could be the antihero, the tragic hero, the superhero. You could be Achilles, or Antigone, or Katherine Johnson, or John Lewis. All of that epic possibility is within you, says the storyteller. I think we forget that we are human, and all that that can mean.