I make theatre and I like to sail. My theatrical vocation and my nautical hobby permit me to observe that America’s distorted version of theatre exactly parallels its distorted vision of lighthouses. The distortion is more visible as concerns lighthouses because it leaves artifacts; the flea market in Wallingford, Connecticut (from which I’ve just returned) contains a generous sampling.
Anyone who’s sailed coastal waters at night or in bad weather owes his life (or, at the very least, the safety of his vessel) to lighthouses. They are utilitarian structures, made to withstand heavy weather. Many are old because they were built to last, usually at great expense and under difficult conditions. The Coast Guard classifies them as “aids to navigation,” a category that now includes buoys, stationary channel markers and a variety of gongs and beacons. Lighthouses, which date back to ancient times, were the first aids to navigation and still play a vital role in guiding crafts of all sizes (though not so uniquely vital in these days of GPS and radar as in day of the pharos of Rhodes).
As one who’s been alone on a boat and lost, peering into the darkness to spot one of their characteristic flashes, I can affirm that I cherish every lighthouse I see, but cherishing and sentimentalizing are not the same thing. Indeed, they are opposites: sentimentality is the ossification of love.
In gift shops, thrift stores and the pages of glossy magazines we find lighthouses galore. Whether in porcelain or plastic, plaster or plywood, these representations rarely capture the life-preserving seriousness of the structures they celebrate. They are prettified and trivialized, fitted out with cute little shutters and improbable flowerbeds. (Of necessity, lighthouses are exposed to salt and spray. Many are built on bare rock, an unlikely support for geraniums.) The relative proportions of model lighthouses are rarely those of actual buildings. The light itself is often gigantic, creating far more windage than the tower could safely sustain. The keeper’s cottage is fantastically larger and more comfortable than in real life. In print illustrations we invariably, we see an admiring claque of seagulls and perhaps the keeper’s little dog as well. The sun is usually shining – conditions that make the light itself unnecessary.
We’ve done a parallel disservice to the theatre: we’ve allowed an ancient institution of high purpose to devolve to something merely decorative, an appurtenance of leisured life, not a preserver of life itself. Theatre no longer guides, it distracts. Theatre no longer orients, it diverts. Theatre no longer flashes out danger, it celebrates good feeling. We’ve lost any visceral sense of what theatre is for. Like the lighthouses of popular imagination it’s perceived as quaint. It’s become a tourist attraction.
At the summit discussion Peter Marks organized this spring at Arena Stage, five Artistic Directors bemoaned the lack of diversity in playwrights and directors, the lack of young people in the audience, the high cost of production, and the high cost of tickets. Their confab produced a flurry of derisive tweets blaming the bemoaners themselves for all these shortcomings.
I found myself unable to take sides on these questions because my mind couldn’t let go of a statistic somebody mentioned in passing: according to the NEA, the audience for theatre has declined by a third in ten years.While we debate how to make theatre cheaper and more inclusive, a good part of our audience is dying off or learning to live without us.
Artaud believed that theatre was a question of life or death. If he were apprised of our situation, I think he’d tell us to stop prettifying the keeper’s cottage and make sure the beacon stays lit. Theatre’s mission, he might say, is not to guarantee fairness or ease of access for its practitioners but to preserve imperiled souls in the world at large. A necessary theatre must necessarily shine forth; pierce the darkness – and save lives. When it ceases to do so – and the world finds out – a long irrelevance awaits in pretty pastel tones.
– Robert Schneider teaches drama and theatre criticism at Northern Illinois University.
He 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.