My play GOD’S MAN IN TEXAS is a play about listening.
Listening fascinates me. Always has. I sometimes make the excuse for waiting a bit late in the game to start a writing career by saying, “I just listened for thirty-six years. Then I started writing it down.”
Some of my most vivid memories of storytelling and compelling human interaction involve being the wide-eyed, open-eared child at the table, listening to my elders tell jokes, quote scripture, read the newspaper, fling accusations, defend opinions, make excuses, reprimand, flatter, terrify, seduce, humiliate, ennoble, inspire, confess, and lie.
The act of listening is not a passive one. To listen, really listen, takes effort. The payoff is not always what the listener may have hoped for. The end result may be wonderful. It may be awful. What is heard, or overheard, may be information that was never intended to land upon the listener’s ears: that insight, that sharp observation, that admission of guilt. It may be a vindication, or a call to action; it may soothe, or sting.
My Great-Aunt Bertha saw to it that my mother, growing up in the hardscrabble coal-mining region of central Pennsylvania, was given elocution lessons at an early age. Years later, when I was at a similarly early age, Mom and Aunt Bertha would “do pieces” for me. I loved listening to them. Still do. If you’ve never heard James Widdicomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” recited to make your eyes pop, your jaw drop and the little hairs on your arm stand up, let me take you a certain assisted-living facility in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, where Great-Aunt Bertha, now ninety, needs little prompting to give a private performance. Just ask the maids.
The Greeks crowded in amphitheaters, those perfect arrangements of audience and players, to hear masks and myths brought to life by human voices. In my play, a preacher asks to hear God’s whisper. The Greeks not only heard their gods whisper, they could hear them participating in human life, not a bad reward for spending a few hours at the theatre.
A few millennia later, the Elizabethans, blessed with the most sublime use of language in western drama, understandably referred to going to the theatre as “going to hear a play.”
In our room, the theatre, listening to one another is a vital component of the art. That‘s what I love so much about working in the theatre, all the listening. The greatest actors aren’t the ones who just expose the nakedest of emotions. Watch Brando in the film of STREETCAR, notice how, after he howls and whimpers with that primal need for his Stella, he listens. He needs to hear her response, and, in his silence, so do we.
When actors listen, the audience listens. The experience is, I think, a divine communion.
I believe that we come to the theatre for that communion, to try to make some sense of the experience of being human. Ever since the first homo erectus rose to enact the hunt that led to the kill sizzling on that night’s fire, we’ve gathered together round that fire for more than just warmth. When that acting-out of the hunt included imitations of the men and women involved, of the prey, of fear, of need, of triumph, we - in the persons of those ancient peoples - watched, experienced, and listened. We listened to each other round that fire, and we’re still listening.
I think listening - listening to one another and to our planet - is critical now. We live in times when things shift as violently as the tectonic plates beneath California. The concepts of security, of who God is, of how old is old enough to die, of what the climate should be, of how fast an idea can be shared, of disease and wellness, of whether it’s significant that a chunk the size of Rhode Island broke off the Antarctic Ice cap – everything keeps changing.
Listening is so important, beyond the manner of the Greeks or Elizabethans. Our art has evolved to one with which nothing else can compete as a means of illuminating, enriching and elevating the human experience. We come together round the fire, the Gods speak, Aunt Bertha recites, Shakespeare spins gold and the fairies twinkle with never-before-seen illumination.
I’m there. You’re there. And, together, we’re listening.