“I didn’t understand it.”
I have to admit that I hate it when a student says that.
In 1985 I taught a section of Acting to non-majors at the University of Iowa. Then and now, I ask acting students to either be in a play (preferable) or go see plays. One of the plays available to these students was a new piece by Mel Andringa that opened the new “Studio B” space. The piece opened with a bit about narcissism in contemporary performance art in which Andringa gave a lecture about the narcissism in the art of Mel Andringa. The show then progressed into a fairly “straight” performance of Anton Chekhov’s On the Harmfulness of Tobacco, as performed by an English professor who had make-up to resemble the good doctor and giving a lecture on Chekhov. After intermission was Andinga’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars. This piece opened with a monologue about an opera singer who was playing the clown in Pagliacci. And his wife
was playing his wife in the opera. And his wife was having an affair. So, according to the monologue, the actors actually kills his wife on opening night and sings the great aria of pain. And then the performer went to the piano to sing the great aria, and it was “Frankie and Johnny.”
“I didn’t understand it.” It was essentially using self-referential irony as an on-going device. “Oh, well I still didn’t understand it. Was it supposed to be funny?” Did it make you laugh? “Sometimes, but I didn’t know if it was supposed to be funny.”
If it made you laugh, then it was funny.
You may disagree with me, but I’m not overly fond of always having every single thing explained to me. In my advancing years, I tend to snooze for a while during the first act of a movie. I generally find that when I wake up in the midst of the second act that I haven’t missed much and can pick up with clarity who is doing what and why.
This is on my mind because the population of dead people I know continues to grow, and recently with some alacrity. One friend dropped to the floor, and there he was. I had seen him only the week before and had a laugh with him. Now he’s joined the army of the deceased.
Regular readers of this column might recall that I have a young daughter. A family friend gave her a fish a few years ago – Leonard T. Fish. He was a good enough fish, I suppose. Leonard, essentially, over the past four or so years of his presence in our house has been the Dr Who fish. It’s always the same fish, but he has been played by several different actors. With the help of some mis-direction and sleight-of-hand, each time a “Leonard” has been found floating, a new “Leonard” has found his way into the tank in my daughter’s bedroom. Mysteriously Leonard has sometimes changed color. But Leonard has always been of the same species, at least.
The latest Leonard has been the longest-running Leonard, having been about two years in the part. The last few weeks he was looking a little unwell. Finally he wouldn’t take nourishment. Not long afterward he was laying on the neon gravel at the bottom of the bowl.
My wife and I decided it was time for Leonard to finally die, thinking our daughter would be mature enough to understand what had happened. So, we told her and prepared Leonard for burial in the back yard. There were tears and a brief service while we remembered all that was good about Leonard. And then there was a burial. Leonard came from earth and returned to earth.
This is the crazy thing about all life on our planet. Ultimately it dies. Spoiler alert.
I was telling the story of a play to a friend once. The play was set in the 1650s. “Do they die?,” the friend asked of the main characters. “Well, yeah. From our point of view, they’re all dead now.” But that snarky answer didn’t satisfy the point of the question.
Recently I traveled down to the nation’s capital. While I didn’t know the deceased (I had never met him), a good friend was connected closely to the man. I went to support my friend. Many fine people got up and said many wonderful things about this man whom I’d never met. I regretted not having had the opportunity.
As I left the memorial service, I thought about Star Wars.
Star Wars is now forty years old. I haven’t seen the new movie as we go to press. But I can spoil it for you. Some heroic people will struggle against the machinations of some villainous folks. Things will look dark for our heroes. But in the end they will win. To a degree. We must guess at how pyrrhic the victory is while we await the next sequel.
George Lucas had a fairly straight-forward idea, and that good idea has made billions of dollars for folks on the Star Wars gravy train. I have seen all of the Star Wars movies – some of them several times. I own dvds of some of my favorites so I can watch them as I choose. And I’ve watched the first with my daughter. It is a cultural icon or touchstone. To not know Star Wars is to not be familiar with one’s own culture.
I have several friends who despise spoilers. Yet, some of the most popular stories start with spoilers. The one thing that people know about Titanic walking into the theatre is the spoiler that the boat sinks. The boat always sinks. It can’t do otherwise.
Romeo and Juliet is arguably the most popular play ever written. Several hundred years old, and it still sells a boat-load of tickets. And the play begins with a clear outline of what’s going to happen. Star-crossed lovers are going to meet an untimely end. Curiously enough, that’s exactly what happens in the play.
As I walked down the street, reflecting on the memorial service and Star Wars, I thought that the memorial service was a fine thing and completely human.
One of our own died. He made the leap to the real unknown, leaving the rest of us behind. And so in the midst of the darkest night of the year, we gather in a place of light. To remember him? Yes, certainly. But also as a group of mammals looking to fight off the dark. The dark comes in many ways and forms. And, even though we know it comes for us all, we gather and fight against it.
You don’t know the man who was memorialized. Neither did I. But he was one of us. He was a fellow human on the pathway. He touched the lives he touched, and that’s enough.
When I taught acting at the University of Iowa some thirty years ago, I did things I still don’t understand to this day. My life, probably a lot like yours, has all kinds of bits that don’t make a lot of sense. And, if we pull them out and look at them, we can see that to a person “outside” of ourselves, this or that action might be very odd or strange. And no one comes along to explain it.
Understand I’m not trying to excuse poor behavior or give some high falutin’ way of saying that “boys will boys.” Rather, I’m simply pointing out that reflection doesn’t easily explicate several things I’ve done in my life. And I’m guessing that this part of life holds true for most of us, male and female alike.
Therefore, I’m not bothered much about having to understand every jot and tittle of every story I see. Did it hold me? Did it produce a reaction from me? Then, having everything in a neat package isn’t all that important to me.
“I didn’t understand it.” There’s plenty I don’t understand. Why shouldn’t that be a part of our story? When one of us leaves we gather together and honor the dead. And we celebrate our life. I don’t think I’ve been to a funeral or memorial in which there weren’t some refreshments of some kind afterward.
We all know what to expect from a Star Wars picture. That’s not the question. We all know that the boat will sink. We know that the lovers will die.
The question isn’t about what they did.
The question is about how they did it.
And whether you see Star Wars or honor the deceased or simply live your inexplicable life, the how is what counts.