We’ve come to Act V, Scene III of Shakespeare’s tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet. In the relative darkness of the theatre seats, we watch the drama played out onstage. There, in a circle lit by a solitary stage light, Romeo kneels at the side of his beloved Juliet who lies in apparent lifelessness in the Capulet family crypt. He speaks to her from the grief of a broken heart:
. . . . I still will stay with thee;
And never from this palace of dim night
Depart again: here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chamber-maids; O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
. . . . Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!
. . . . Here’s to my love!
And with that, Romeo drinks a vial of deadly poison and dies on the instant just as the apothecary who sold it to him said he would. We in the audience watch this in horror, not only because of the death of this beautiful young lover but because his death is a colossal error and waste of his life, for we know as Romeo does not that Juliet isn’t dead but has merely taken a potion that feigns death in order to prevent her forced marriage to another. And the situation only worsens when Juliet revives and, seeing her dead lover there, takes up Romeo’s knife and stabs herself to death.
We in the audience are swept into the passion of all this, shaken by what’s transpiring on stage. What then prevents us from shouting out to Romeo that it’s all a mistake? “Don’t Romeo! She’s not dead! Don’t drink the poison!” What keeps us from rushing on stage to wrench the fatal knife from Juliet’s hand? We don’t do so because somewhere in the heat of our temporary belief and involvement, we retain the aesthetic distance to know that it’s only a play, that no one has really died and that Romeo and Juliet are portrayed by actors who will rise and go on with their lives once the curtain falls on their death scene.
The classical analysis of live theatre takes account of the fact that audiences simultaneously respond to the drama on stage as if it were real while reserving sufficient detachment to know that it’s make-believe. These apparent contraries are sustained as a result of a delicate balance between “the willing suspension of disbelief” essential to emotional involvement and “aesthetic distance” essential to retaining an awareness of the performance as make-believe. It’s aesthetic distance that keeps us from leaping onstage to prevent a homicide or attack a villain. But it’s also aesthetic distance, with its reassuring safeguard of the play as only a play that permits the viewer to participate in the drama as though it were real life. It’s this provisional accommodation between the equalizing forces of distance and involvement that characterizes drama and, as we’ll see, characterizes life itself. It’s a balance requiring a discriminating distinction between what’s make-believe and what’s real. Conventional theatre with its proscenium arch and curtain is instrumental in maintaining this distinction.
When the necessary distinction between fact and fiction breaks down, life itself threatens to become theatre. T.V. news coverage for example becomes theatre when the event being covered is accompanied by the endless chattering commentary of a news anchor reading from a scripted dialogue and when most news items get but a moment’s coverage before moving to the next item, and when advertisement for beer and toothpaste are interspersed throughout the scant half hour allotted to world’s current events. It’s a formula for potential confusion between reality and entertainment that’s enhanced by the fact that the viewer himself isn’t on hand at the refugee camp or present at the mop up operations after a devastating earthquake but is sitting on a comfortable sofa in his own living room.
The danger here for all of us is the spread of a media-weary emotional indifference to actual events. When the real lives of people are perceived as just so much additional theatre, we lose the raw capacity to respond as human to human. Contemporary media permeates every instance of our lives and makes of us one vast worldwide audience. We have our ticket in hand, have taken our seats, and watch as the play goes on. All we need do is wait for the curtain to be lowered so that we can go on to the next act, or lower the curtain ourselves with a simple click of the TV remote. Our very lives have become popular entertainment. On March 21, 2003, the United States launched a massive aerial attack over Baghdad. Seventeen hundred sorties were flown. Five hundred and four cruise missiles launched. Seated as an audience in living rooms distant from the attack, we were treated to an entertaining television spectacular packaged as a night of “shock and awe.” But by then so many of us had become so jaded by the spectacular violence of action movies that a disappointed acquaintance of mine complained that the “so-called shock and awe” turned to be not such a big deal. For at least one viewer, the televised destruction of a city and consequent loss of life was mediocre entertainment.
Television is a passive entertainment experienced in the containment of one’s own home. You don’t have to do anything about what you see on the screen. You can watch a house or car explode into flames, a murder committed, an explicit sexual encounter take place, and still retain the appetite to grab yourself some chips and beer during the commercial interruption. Within the framed image of a television or computer screen, life itself gets randomized as a series of images in which fiction and reality merge and the whole show appears as make-believe. The image of an Iraqi father holding the shattered body of his little daughter is viewed with the same unresponsive detachment as an actor in a play. With lengthy and repeated exposure to random events of life and death, it takes more and more to feel less and less. This numbed response toward the portrayal of normally upsetting events measures an increase in the expansion of aesthetic distance that, while appropriate and necessary to theatre, has profoundly negative psychological and social consequences when applied to life itself.
Monk Eko, Abbot of Shasta Abbey, whose monastic life wasn’t exposed to the onslaught of contemporary media, once had a television installed in his quarters so that he might watch the evening news. He felt an obligation to know what was happening in what for him was the “outside world.” He told me that he couldn’t watch the news without crying. This was during the early phases of the Iraq war, and I had to ask myself how any of us could watch the news without crying. We would be a nation in tears if we hadn’t made theatre out of our lives. Eko’s grief was the sole human response appropriate to present circumstances. He’d retained the normal passions of the heart. We all of us need to cry over the evening news.
Then why don’t we? One obvious reason is that we can’t be crying all the time. It isn’t that we’ve lost the native capacity to cry. We can quite readily cry over a movie or a theatre drama because these only engage our emotions for an hour or two at best. But the media’s contemporary theatre of actual life is interminable, and so we protectively smooth over the rough spots as best we can. But it’s a comfort we purchase at the cost of superficiality and indifference.
The actual world isn’t theatre, isn’t a make-believe circumstance to which aesthetic distance is an appropriate response. As real people, we’re not divisible into audience and actors, stage and seating. It’s time to lower the curtain on the final act, extinguish the stage lights, bring up the house lights, and see who’s sitting alongside.