In my early manifestation as scruffy young bo-ho, I went with a friend to see a local, fringe production of Ionesco's Exit The King. It was, in fact, a magisterial event. Ionesco's minimalist stage instructions and absurd writing proved to be innately accessible to this little group of 20-to-30-somethings, and they put on a show that was deeply moving. When it was over, I was sold on theatre - ready to shell out regular money, no matter what risks I incurred as a naive audience member.
My friend had a slightly different response. He turned to me and said, "I want to write a play like that!"
I thought of his response last night, after I rented and watched the pilot episode of Six Feet Under, Season One. Neither my wife nor I knew anything about the show - with one exception: I know how the whole shebang ends thanks to this weekend's newspapers who gave it away in their bylines. Good grief! In an era when the civilized press typically follows the etiquette of SPOILER ALERTS, a reader can reasonably expect not to see a SPOILER on the byline! Surely God has a "special" tier in hell for editors who give in to such impulses.
Moving on, then: we still had no real expectations. The show caught us completely off-guard. It was remarkable entertainment that got a lot of laughs from us, much of it genuine, some of it uncomfortable. It struck a neat balance between pathos and yuks that adroitly highlighted how complex motivations make for tortured but rewarding family relations. And when it was done, I thought, "I want to do that!"
I liked the setting: if you want to explore the absurd artifices of modern life, a family-run funeral home is the ideal environment. So many facades to explore, and where better to explore the facades we erect as individuals trying to maintain dignity in front of family members and the people we hope to be intimate with? And isn't that the real "trick" to intimacy, granting each other dignity despite our most undignified flaws of character?
I'm getting lost in themes - the surest way to make art look like a pretentious bore. I also liked the show's use of mysticism: the dead father reappears every few minutes to each of the family members, to present or say something enigmatic and off-putting. This frequently contrasts with the picture the characters constructed of him while he was still alive. His appearances also highlight the treacherous balance of the relationships among the living; they all have that terrible potential of being either incredibly rewarding, or incredibly catastrophic - or both at once.
Which is all to say, as I was watching this family struggle with their grief and their grievances with each other, I was completely there.
I can't fashion and present something quite so sublime - at least, not on television. First of all, I'm not in the television industry, and from my limited experience on and behind the stage, I doubt I'd be much good at it. Like the stage, television is a "plays well with others" medium. I do alright in small groups, but the larger the creative circle gets, the smaller I tend to make myself.
I still like that "I want to do that!" impulse. That, for me, is the sign a work of art is succeeding. The painting, the novel, the play has issued such a sublime and irresistible invitation to the beholder that he dives right in, immerses himself in the creative waters and enters a state of mind that feels like it is creatively partaking in the process. And why not? It's not like the artist is doing all the work - she's suggesting just enough to get you to step in and do the rest. You're co-operating in the dance; when she starts stepping on your toes, that's when you start with the bad reviews.
And when you're inspired to step out with a pirouette or two of your own, you've just been seduced by a master. That's what good art should do, I think: seduce you off the couch and onto the dance floor.