Leaving The Theater
April 23, 2014
A play is just what its name suggests: a fantasy, a rendering of how life is or how it could be or how a playwright thought it ought to be, and all of these possibilities are enacted on a temporary stage. Theatre is lauded for many reasons, be it the technical skill which a fellow artist can appreciate or the irresistible appeal and charm of the story. Each of these tales is meant to teach something, and the fate of the characters at closing curtain is not as important to us as the audience leaving the theater at the end. As a portion of a class, I was required to attend a stage performance of Cabaret. The musical was a wonderful display of skill in everything: a glare of colored lights suggested the nightclub setting while a few lines of criss-crossed laundry hinted at the city outside the windows. I forgot to think of it as a performance, a sure sign that it was an excellent one. I was caught in the enchantment of the theater as it suspended the outside world, yet what I was shown in this contrived world was dark and sometimes senseless. I hated sitting there and observing the perversity of this realm. Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the people who liked it. A story is a very simple pleasure, and if you are not allowed to claim your own cup of tea then there aren’t too many things you can express a preference for. So if you like the musical, that’s fine. I accept the fact that you might hate The Sound of Music, and have your own very good reasons. Even I, prejudiced against the play from the start (I really hadn’t wanted to go), thought the ending was poignant.
The play is set in Berlin, right before the Second World War. A man named Hitler and his plans for a stable society seem to be the only, even plausible, force, for order in sight. It is a grim setting, and the characters are playing out their lives amidst the mistrust of everyone and everything: the government, their landlords, their neighbors. Everything is a hopeless trap, and they seek release in the brightly-lit cabaret, the place where they can indulge in anything that strikes a momentary fancy. And yet, at the end of the play, a man is left standing alone at a train station, watching the woman he’s not sure he loves disappearing for good. Amidst the music and fanfare, the conclusion is that cabaret has failed. It was a temporary drug for a desperate city. Though the finale offered little hope of a permanent cure – for that is a happy ending, not a tragic one – it did reveal something about what people do when trying to escape tragedy. I was sad at the end, because the people in the cabaret were so hopeless. But it made me think about the hopelessness. I wondered what, if anything, would have helped the characters. That the show prompted such thoughts is a mark of a good story.
It is not a happy play. I left wondering if I was going to get some of the dark images out of my mind that night. And yet, the gnawing concern about the nights’ performance was not the play itself, but rather the reactions I observed to it. The students poured out of the theater and onto the bus, chattering enthusiastically about the performance. Many things were complimented which I was in complete agreement with: the singers were exceptionally talented, the costumes and the set brought one’s imagination vividly back to the ruined and dilapidated shells of buildings and citizens desperate to redeem some shadow of the towns which used to be home. But the songs being hummed on the bus ride back to our hotel were the cheery ones, the tunes sung in the cabaret. I heard snatches of conversations over the clamor of the bus, “it was so much fun, the cabaret scenes were my favorite,” mixed with “I could really see a change – everyone was so happy at the beginning, when they were all in the cabaret.” I wondered at this reaction. This was what the characters thought at the very beginning of the play, before the cabaret failed them. Hadn’t the rest of the people in my class seen the ending, or even the middle, of the play? That was when the characters, initially with much the same attitude as my fellow students toward the lights, music, and fun, learned that their cabaret was only a cheap veneer. Even more than a simple case of missing the point, it was disturbing to me that the students thought the play was a happy story. It was as though they were going to have to travel the same path as the protagonists, with all the pain that came along with it.
A single oversized mirror dominated the stage and greeted the audience of the original Broadway production of Cabaret. The people who came to the theater for a night of enjoyment met their own distorted reflections. A truer reflection of life was shown by the performance. Often, our art shows us how we are, and the brief period of decades is the only tangible difference between the follies and passion of those in Cabaret and the responses of some in the audience. Thrilled by the song, dance, and spectacle of the fictional nightclub, what would stop them from mirroring the tragedy as well, and this time in the real world? There was humor and romance in the story, as in life, and the songs were so catchy I can sing them now, though I haven’t heard them in almost three years. But the story was rife with hints of what was coming to harm Europe and humanity, and for these characters there is no lastminute escape over a mountain. A tragic ending. Anyone who did not see that sadness of wasted choices missed something that artists perfected into a three-hour spectacle, and without an understanding of what that tragedy might mean, the play was nothing more than a collection of catchy tunes and some bright lights. Mere spectacle.