EMMA: Life is theatre. Theatre is life. If we’re showing what life is, can be, we must do theatre.
SUE: Will I have to act?
EMMA: It’s not acting. It’s being. It’s springing forth with the powers of the spirit. It’s breathing.
Fefu and Her Friends (1977) by Maria Irene Fornes
I started this blog eleven years ago on March 23, 2009, to be exact. My sister had died five months earlier, on October 20, 2008, after a 5-year battle with stage IV colon cancer. For the duration of my sister’s illness, I had been pursuing my doctorate, and I was coming unglued. By the time she died, I was gone. I no longer knew who I was, what I was doing, or where I was going. In January 2009, I arranged to take a leave of absence from my PhD program in order to grieve, reflect, and eventually redirect my life. In the wake of personal tragedy, this blog provided me focus and structure and enjoyment and inspiration. It also brought artists and scholars near and far into my life, some of whom remain in my life to this day. I posted consistently here for about two years. In January 2010, I founded Thinking Cap Theatre, a professional non-profit based in Fort Lauderdale, FL, with a mission to stage plays that experiment with form and depict the diversity of the world within which we live. We staged our first production in June of that year as a one-off event really. In 2011, we mounted something resembling a full season. A decade later, Thinking Cap has presented more than 30 productions, including regional premieres of some amazing newer works that sing with TCT’s mission, such as Young Jean Lee’s Church and Straight White Men, Jen Silverman’s Collective Rage, and Clare Barron’s Dance Nation; and strong revivals of (early) modern classics, including Shakespeare’s King Lear, Behn’s The Rover, Beckett’s Happy Days. In sum, my professional life has remained full of drama, but my theatre-blogging life had flatlined, until now.
I often wondered if I would ever return to this platform, a blog, and this particular incarnation of it, “Drama, Daily.” And, here I am. Typing these words, here, now, feels, somewhat, dramatic. Another personal ‘triumph,’ this time amidst a global tragedy instead of a familial one.
I just reread my first post (pasted below), entitled “Theatre & Drama: Etymology 101,” a post intended to elucidate and contextualize the name of this blog. An okay post, I suppose. A post that those who know me well would expect from me, given my endless fascination with the meanings of words. To this day, I remain just as smitten with the ‘theatrum mundi’ metaphor as I was when I wrote my first Drama, Daily post. If I had a dollar for every time I have thought about or encountered the theatrical or performative in everyday life, or conversely, for every time I have read a play that goes ‘meta’ and invokes the theatre/life conceit, I would be at least several grand richer, for sure.
Just prior to COVID-19 dramatically altering our daily routines I was in preparation to direct Fefu and Her Friends (1977) by Maria Irene Fornes. I love this play and the grand dame Irene so much that I could devote an entire blog to these subjects alone. (I know. Calm down, Nicole.)
For those unfamiliar with the play, here is a quick synopsis:
Set in 1935 in the New England home of the title character, Fefu and Her Friends is on the surface about eight women who assemble to plan and rehearse an arts education fundraising campaign; while they do get around to this altruistic, outward-facing project in the 3rd of three acts, the play is most concerned with the complex, inner lives of these women. Fornes illuminates the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that constitute the very essence of these women, particularly those thoughts, feelings, and experiences that are painful, those that they have ignored, suppressed, or failed to detect or recognize as a result of patriarchal oppression and its accompanying sexism and misogyny.
Fornes once wrote, “Art must inspire us. That is its function.” She was against the interpretation of art and for art as inspiration. In the same piece of writing (a preface to a 1966 collection that included her plays Tango Palace and The Successful Life of 3), Fornes asserts that a work of art’s success hinges on whether or not it is “breathing its life for us.” Her sentiment evokes a sense of a work of art as a living organism, as something we take in that is as essential as oxygen. Her remark also evokes a sense of a work of art as something ethereal, even holy, with which we commune, something, paradoxically, as alluring, familiar, strange, and mysterious as life itself. What does it mean, then, for art to inspire? Consider two particular definitions of inspiration that resonate: (1) the drawing of air into the lungs; inhalation; (2) a divine influence directly and immediately exerted upon the mind or soul. A teaching artist who used yoga and visualization as prelude exercises to playwriting, Fornes prized the spirituality of theatre, the spirituality of the creative process, the creative product, and the creative experience for an audience. When Fornes states that art’s function is to inspire, she means something more profound than practical, although her work certainly provokes thoughts that could incite action or activism. She means that art works on us, through us, with us, reciprocally and holistically, rather than (merely) intellectually.
I began this post with a quote by Emma, the most free-spirited character in Fornes’ play Fefu and Her Friends. Emma invokes the theatrum mundi metaphor: “Life is theatre. Theatre is life.” This wise conceit has many virtues: It is a truism, a tradition, an echo, and a invitation to act. To me, the theatrum mundi metaphor is also an ongoing comfort and inspiration. The recent widespread impulse by artists and non-artists to create and perform drama, at home, virtually, in this moment; to dramatically, theatrically document this moment; to use new or existing drama, right now, as a way to cope or distract or entertain or all three at once is inspiring.
And all of it reaffirms not only the poignancy of this millennia-old metaphor as a concept, but also reaffirms drama as a life-affirming practice, as a life tool, better yet, as life itself.
May drama inspire you today. May you inspire drama today.
Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
Drama, Daily Post #1, March 23, 2009
Theatre & Drama: Etymology 101
“All the world’s a stage,
and all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and Puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes sever and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange, eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
–Jaques, As You Like It, (2.7.138-165), 1599/1600
While this may be the most boring way imaginable to begin my blog, Drama, Daily, the academic in me feels compelled to define the terms that underpin my blog’s dual theme: the life of drama and the drama of life.
In ancient Greece, the verb infinitive theatre meant to behold. Theatrum was a place for viewing. The word drama referred to an action, a deed, a play, especially a tragedy. The first entry of the word in English usage, found in OED and dated 1515, provides the most common meaning: a composition in prose or verse to be staged and conveyed via dialogue and action and accompanied by costume, gesture, scenery as in real life, a play. An entry dated 1930 indicates the word’s non-theatrical meaning: the dramatic-quality, colorfulness or excitement that characterizes something. The oft-used and largely derogatory term “drama queen,” which can be found in an entry dated 1923, describes a person who overreacts to a minor setback, a person prone to exaggeratedly dramatic behaviors, and a person who thrives on being the center of attention. [Interestingly, the first English usage entry for the term “drag queen” followed two decades later in 1943.] The word “theatrical,” which carried a meaning similar, though less disparaging, to drama queen, was used as early as 1649 to describe behavior that resembles the manner of an actor, behavior that is artificial, affected. Circa 1710, “theatrical” took on a more derogatory meaning in line with drama queen: having the style of dramatic performance, extravagantly or irrelevantly histrionic, ‘stagy,’ calculated for display, showy, spectacular. As early as 1837, the term “theatricality,” the quality of being theatrical, entered into English usage and was used both as a synonym for a play or dramatic performance and also, significantly, to characterize the dramatic nature of something mundane, non-theatrical. A final term worth noting, “performative,” was brought into mainstream usage with J. L. Austen’s 1962 work, How to Do Things with Words, though OED dates the first use of the word back to 1922. A performative is an utterance that, consciously or not, effects, brings about, an action. Following Austen, Judith Butler has theorized the performativity of gender roles.