Life as theatre performed on a Parisian street corner

“… life is a drawn-out stream of people making entrances you’re unprepared for and exits you barely notice.”

There’s a street corner in Paris with a cast of thousands. Take a seat where the Rue Pierre Lescot crosses the Rue Berger. It’s in the pedestrian zone that stretches from the Forum des Halles shopping district to the Pompidou Center. Go late on a Friday afternoon and hundreds of people will walk through your field of vision every minute.

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A June afternoon on a Parisian street corner. (Photo: Robert Schneider)

Some are going to shop or to the Pompidou, others are arriving from the regional express station (half a block to the north) or from the metro on the Rue du Rivoli (a block to the south) or from the Chatelet bus stops (a bit further south). The flow of humanity is unceasing: young people; old people; Parisians; out-of-towners; foreigners. It’s as if Europe has made it a priority that this street corner never go empty for a second.Do this and you will be humbled by the quality of spectacle that a great city can offer gratis, simply by being a great city.

“Theatre people … as pick-up artists: we want to break down the wall of unknowing between strangers.”

Occasionally someone enters the intersection with a purposeful gait only to stop short, perhaps undecided which means of public transport to use next. Others wander in with no destination in mind. Still others come and stay; people congregate around the Fountain of the Innocents, held by the centrality of the place like grains of sand shaken and blown to the center of the bed of a pickup truck on a dusty highway. A young woman wearing a short skirt lay on the cobblestones near the fountain, perhaps working on a sun tan. When she turned over I saw that her face was covered with lesions.

A man in a blue tee-shirt was fraudulently soliciting contributions from anyone who was ‘against cruelty to animals and children.’ He carried a fistful of plastic bookmarks depicting sad-eyed infants and woeful basset hounds.

A tall black man strode by with extraordinary grace considering that his hands were handcuffed behind his back and a ring of police surrounded him.

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Stories that might intersect, pass by instead (photo: Robert Schneider)

Three Canadian teenagers arrived arguing about whether to take the metro or a taxi to get to the Gare du Nord. I looked at their map and told them the metro would be quicker.

When their egos permit it, most theatre people will admit that the work they create on stage is vastly less compelling, intricate or powerful than life offstage experienced to the fullest degree. Nature’s above art in this respect; no opening scene of any play I know, however well produced, could arouse my interest and curiosity half so well as a 30-second snippet of Lescot and Berger. “Jason,” a character in What Comes to Him Who Waits by Jean-Marie Besset, acknowledges as much when he describes a similar corner in London:

“If you decided to stake out a corner of Piccadilly, say, next to Simpson’s. You’d sit there, on a chair, and you’d wait. . . . You’d spend the rest of your life there, waiting…. And you’d see all the people that you’ve known in your life, at one time or another. Over several years you’d see them all go by. Friends, relations, celebrities . . . Because it so happens that everybody goes through Piccadilly one day. You’d see the Queen, and Laurence Olivier, but you’d also see your cousins from Australia and the couple from Nice who were so nice after your accident in the South of France . . .”

Jason is suffering from a wasting illness. His “Piccadilly speech” shows that he’s wholly unready to die. All too aware of life’s unrealized possibilities, he’s bargaining with death, saying, in essence, “just let me stay, if only as a spectator.”

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Dramas and comedies, histories and fantasies. Universes within us (Photo: Robert Schneider)

As I thought of the Besset play, the scene in front of me became less satisfying: there was too much humanity; it was too richand in the 50 minutes I’d already spent there I hadn’t seen anyone I knew or recognized: no friends, no relations, no celebrities, certainly not the queen or the French equivalent of Laurence Olivier, Gerard Depardieu, whose new film was opening that day. To be sure, I’d seen many people I was curious about, including the man in the handcuffs — what had he done? I’d seen several people who looked as if they could make a difference in my life one way or the other (if I knew them), and a few whom I might become obsessed with — but again, I’d have to know them first).

Robert Schneider

Robert Schneider

The initial exhilaration fading, I felt anxious and lonely. Why didn’t I know anyone? Why didn’t anyone know me? How had I managed to spend my life on a relatively small planet and yet meet so few of its inhabitants?

A bit to my left, a young Frenchman with more bravado than good sense was mounting a direct assault on the “getting to know you” problem; he was trying to pick up girls. He wasn’t handsome or well dressed, but nearly every woman he talked to was willing to give him a few minutes, proof of the old acting adage that if you have an objective in mind, you can fascinate people who don’t. I watched him hit on two Hungarian girls who seemed moderately receptive. The conclave broke up when it became clear that the three of them had no language in common.

Theatre people work from a similar impulse as pick-up artists: we want to break down the wall of unknowing between strangers.  We do this by gathering some of the passers-by together to hear stories about other passers-by. Somehow this palliates the vertigo that nags at us when we realize that even the most sociable among us will never get to know more that %.000000001 of the world’s population.

However specific we make them, the characters in our plays are stand-ins for everybody. On behalf of humanity, our characters offer up their secrets, their obsessions, a glimmering of their essence. When you’re in the audience this provides the illusion of a pick up, a version of intimacy, a taste of  a rich buffet of emotional engagements the street corner suggests but never delivers. What’s more, you receive these revelations as part of a group. The people around you aren’t quite strangers any more because you’ve been stimulated in their company and they’ve been stimulated in yours.

Outside the theatre, life is a drawn-out stream of people making entrances you’re unprepared for and exits you barely notice. A street corner is unbeatable as a costume parade, but there’s no exposition. If you want to be privy to the rest of the story — if you want to follow the threads to the edge of the tapestry — you go to see plays.

That’s my theory at least.

Otherwise the only thread you follow is your own.

Francis Bacon, a wonderful writer who DIDN’T write Shakespeare’s plays, said it best: “Little do men perceive what solitude is, and how far it extendeth. For a crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.”

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Robert Schneider

–  Guest writer Robert Schneider, previously wrote “It’s Pretty, but is theatre any longer necessary?” He teaches drama and theatre criticism at Northern Illinois University, is a dramaturg, reviewer, playwright, and occasional actor. He has contributed articles, interviews and opinion pieces to Theater Magazine, Plays International, American Theatre, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times. His translation of the Rabinal Achi was published by the University of Colorado Press in 2007.

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