My mother passed away during the weekend of Tiananmen Square. For those too young to remember, I'm talking about the first weekend in June, 1989. Chinese rebels were staging a protest that shocked the world. Numb from her death, I sat, watching the story unfold for 24 hours. I was drawn to the t.v. for reasons I couldn't grasp. But I watched, mesmerized. The iconic photo of the time (at right) shows a lone young man who walked into the path of the tanks that had been assembled to force out the protesters. Millions of us watched breathlessly as the tanks, at what seemed the last possible moment, crawled to a stop.
I cried. Actually, bawled is a better word. Something about that simple act of bravery halfway around the world set me free. Something cracked open inside. Whether it just let loose the tears I'd been stuffing, or my emotions were jump started, I don't know. But it was healing. And it was about both Tiananmen and my mother, who had just braved over eight morphine-laced weeks in the hospital before dying.
Those memories came up after a friend recently told me she could not possibly go to a play that was about grief and loss. Her husband had died less than a year earlier, and she felt she could not endure the experience. I am respectful of her wishes. But I couldn't help asking myself, Why would she pass up an evening in the theater which explored and illuminated the very experience she was going through? We go to support groups and pay bookoo money for grief counselors, so it's not like we don't want to talk about it. We look at letters, pictures, videos of our loved ones, play those special songs over and over, so it's not like we don't yearn to relive our feelings again and again.
So why do we assume that seeing a story that deals with loss will be a bad experience? Why can't drama help us along as well? Is it because we're afraid we'll leave depressed? Or fear the feelings that might get churned up? Afraid others will not accept our tears or whatever else comes up?
When people we love die, there's no quick fix. No feel-better-fast mainline to administer, no amount of mind-altering drugs to keep our sadness at bay. Even if we mourn without chemicals, we can use denial to keep all those awkward, unfamiliar feelings tamped down. But at some point, we must do something, else our heads become so ensconced in quicksand, we forget how we got there. We can't remember we were supposed to pull out at some point. Then we hurl everything out inappropriately. Don't we use the counseling/support group thing for this very purpose? To start the healing.
The theater for thousands of years has helped us to see that we aren't alone in whatever we're going through. Greed, joy, love, ambition, guilt, treachery, courage, daring, and yeah, grief. As audience members, we see some character in mourning make an ass of herself. Or another character's anger jumps out of their grief inappropriately. My God, how reassuring that others have felt that way, acted that badly. Isn't it confirming to see others "live" through it with the same awkwardness as we feel? Depressing? I would say more enlightening. Even reassuring.
Another friend of mine recently said that over the years, she had never found drama to be depressing. She couldn't remember ever leaving the theater feeling downtrodden or hopeless. I feel the same. Playwrights have always left me something curious to chew on, something that has helped me discover more about who I am and why I feel the way I do.
In fact, most dramas illustrate how we rise to the level of whatever is thrust upon us. Along the way, the seed is planted that we not only make it through, but our lives are deepened and enriched by the experience. From the Greeks to Shakespeare to Edward Albee we glimpse who we are through the characters and stories onstage. Theater is not didactic. It implies. It suggests. It nudges.
When my mother died, a true event on television helped me feel my feelings. Later, plays and movies helped me understand the loss (still do, in fact). A play, however, may be as true a picture as you will ever find of how emotions work. Because no one tries harder than writers to get it right. They endlessly observe how real people act and react. Scenes are rewritten dozens of times to include every true nuance possible. What richer venue is there to glimpse ourselves in the mirror with compassion and understanding?
Linda Lee McDonald
I live comfortably poor in Oklahoma City, have a backyard garden in constant need of a weedeater manicure, am visited by birds every day when they bathe in my mixing bowl birdbath, and am blessed with my two rescue dogs, Jake and Roxie, who save me every day of my life.