Geez. There ain’t no denying it. Forty-five is middle-aged. Actually it’s beyond middle-aged. I’ll be darn lucky to make it to ninety (or to pay off my mortgages by then). Still, I count my blessings for making it this far, and I bought tickets to an appropriate birthday play as a reward.
I had the good fortune to watch Brian Dennehy recently in two short plays at the Goodman theatre in Chicago — Eugene O’Neill’s "Hughie" and Samuel Beckett’s "Krapp’s Last Tape." Dennehy, who is a young looking seventy-two year old, delivers an intimate portrait of two older characters. In "Hughie," he’s a middle-aged gambler who carries on a monologue with a silent hotel clerk, after just returning from the funeral for his ‘good-luck’ gambling buddy, Hughie. In the Beckett play, Dennehy transforms into the character of Krapp, a “wearish old man” celebrating his sixty-ninth birthday by listening to an audiotape he made of himself on his thirty-ninth.
Both plays are compelling character portraits of mortality with hints of regret and lots of whiskey. Dennehy is a talented actor, who doesn't seem to mind if these characters reflect on his own life story. Like Krapp, he has been recorded during moments of weakness and ego. (A reporter once caught Dennehy lying about being wounded in Vietnam while serving as a Marine — an untruth that he apologized for.)
Beckett’s play particularly knocked me out. The opening scene has Krapp muttering around the lone pieces of furniture on the stage — his chair and desk, which contain audiotapes and other strange items, like bananas. Krapp peels and eats two bananas and carefully looks for places to discard the peel. At one point he threatens to throw the peel into the theatre, breaking the “fourth” wall with the audience and reminding us that we mirror Krapp’s character in many ways — we’re all sitting in chairs, silently reflecting on life stories.
I feel like Beckett's Krapp (yes, it's intentional) too often since I live apart from my children for much of the month while working in Chicago. I stare at my screen, listening to computer keys click as I make plans, buy tickets, and write away the hours until I see my kids again. Moments in the classroom with my students are enjoyable ones--I miss being around young people... I talk with myself way too much.
As someone who works primarily in film and as a writer, I am often struck by the specifics of the theatre—a space where audience and performers breathe the same air. The storyworld of the play is tactile in a way that screens are not. Screens can be lonely places to work in front of. But theatres, like the classroom, are about community and sharing stories with people.
Even after twenty years, I can admit to my blood pressure rising whenever I stand before a crowded room. Getting comfortable with telling stories in front of a crowd is something that professors need to master in order to succeed. I still remember teaching “Freshmen Composition” in my first years as a graduate student. I had a pair of Japanese exchange students (twins), one of whom held up her hand the first day and asked, “How old are you? Are you old enough to teach us?” (I was twenty-three at the time.)
The classroom is nothing if not a small theatre. Learning how to be a little theatrical in class takes practice. Much like controlling the theatrics involved with parenting teenagers.
Theatre is still around, and continues to thrive right next to all of our other storytelling mediums. Why? Because the storytelling arts engage audiences with their shared experiences — even when they involve muttering to one’s self about aging and events that happened to you when you were much younger.
Fortunately, I just got an email from my son that has his latest short story in it. Best birthday present I could receive…