More than two decades ago in New York City, I had to decide one summer's eve: should I see the latest blockbuster flick with friends or dutifully take in, solo, the earnest doc that no one enjoyed, but every politically correct person had to experience, at the queer film festival? Thanks be to the goddess of cinematic decisions, I went against my slovenly instincts, and opted to be PC: I met my late partner, the love of my life, at the festival. (Note to the Schmaltz Police: our passion was ignited, in part, by a shared disdain for cinematic pomposity.) If the gods had planned otherwise, I would have ended up, sans better-half, smelling of stale popcorn.
In a health crisis, do we go with the older doctor, whose wisdom garnered through years of medical practice, could save our hides; but who could leave us to bite the dust through lack of stamina or decreased mental acuity? On the other hand, should we opt for the younger doc, who could be bursting with fresh, life-saving ideas or with doom-sealing, youthful arrogance?
Nothing is more tricky, chancy in life, than making choices. This is true for everyone, but especially, for creative artists – from playwrights to painters to poets to novelists to actors. Do we play a gangster again and risk being typecast? Should we read our poetry at a poetry slam, when having never done spoken word work before, we could sound like a sorry-tongued fool? At the reception, if we invite the editor of that hot new literary mag to have lunch, would he take that for a friendly invite or as insidious "networking?"
Much famous art pivots on the anticipation, anxiety, risk, pleasure and pain in making choices (from Shakespeare's "to be or not to be" to Frost's "the road not taken"). But, sometimes low-brow art drives existentialism home.
Last month, Monty Hall, 91, received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards for hosting more than 4,000 episodes over more than half a century of the game show "Let's Make a Deal." The show still airs on CBS with Wayne Brady as host. Hall, though no longer a host, is still involved behind the scenes with the program. On the program, contestants must choose which curtain they want to have opened. No matter what they decide, they'll win a prize. Yet, as happens so often in life, there could be a catch. If they're lucky, they'll win a vacation, money or a car; if Lady Lucky disses them, they'll get a Zonk (a booby prize such as a barnyard animal, fake money, a goofy T-shirt or broken car). Think of that, the next time you feel "zonked out!"
Hall created "Let's Make a Deal" with Stefan Hatos. They got the idea for the show from "The Lady or the Tiger," a short story (often anthologized) by Frank R. Stockton which was originally published in 1882 in the magazine "The Century." In the story, a "semi-barbaric" king in ancient times, who loves nothing more than to control his subjects' lives, develops a deliciously cruel punishment for criminals. The trials of these suspects were the game show of their time. Holding court in the arena with thousands of his public cheering, the king motioned the accused to come forward into the amphitheater. The suspect faced two doors. The accused didn't know what he'd find behind either door. If he chose one door, the accused met "a hungry tiger, the fiercest and most cruel that could be procured," Stockton wrote, "which immediately sprang upon him and tore him to pieces as a punishment for his guilt."
But, if the suspect "opened the other door, there came forth from it a lady, the most suitable to his years and station that his majesty could select," Stockton added, "among his fair subjects, and to this lady he was immediately married as a reward of his innocence...Then the gay brass bells rang forth their merry peals, the people shouted glad hurrahs, and the innocent man, preceded by children strewing flowers n his path, led his bride to his home."
Life for the creative artist is often (figuratively) like "The Lady or the Tiger." Will our muse be a wild, mangy beast springing on our imagination, or a beautiful woman (or gorgeous man) with whom we make captivating, provoking, spell-binding art? Will we be mauled to death (metaphorically) in the arena under the gaze of the barbaric king or serenaded by brass bells and "merry peals?" Despite all of our workshopping, practice and second-guessing, we'll never know for sure. Believers or non-believers, to create is to take a leap of faith.
Will we win the prize or a Zonk? Who knows? Let's make a deal.