I had the pleasure of working with some Dartmouth College students on a play that is running now, In the Next Room by Sarah Ruhl. My job as dialect coach was to teach a British accent to one of the cast, but as I watched the rehearsals progress under the skilled direction of Jamie Horton, and witnessed the tremendous reception it received opening night, I was reminded once again of why live theatre is so powerful and so important: it’s the sacrament of the group, blending with the sacrament of the arts to create an explosive force that defies description. Not only was the cast pumped up, their adrenaline flowing, but the audience reaction to this wonderful play was everything a playwright and cast could wish. We were right there with the characters every step of the way. There were gasps of incredulity, gales of laughter, and most importantly, an identification with these poor shadows on the stage. We liked them, and we wanted to know them better. The actors’ skill created an alternative world on stage for us to escape into. The sacrament of the group made the cast and audience come alive.
I was reminded that in ancient Athens the Greeks believed that it was important for every citizen to attend the theatre during festival time, because by watching the tragedies unfold, tragedies that the audience knew backwards and forwards before the play even started, the citizens would experience “ex stasis” (ecstasy) – a stepping out of themselves and into the life of the play. As the drama spiraled on to its ineluctable conclusion, the spectators experienced catharsis, a cleansing of the soul. They were healthier for having put themselves into someone else’s skin and having seen the world through their eyes.
At the same time the Athenians felt godlike as they watched these souls on stage, helpless in the grip of fate. The audience knew the outcome in advance, just like the gods, and I had a similar sense during In the Next Room –not because the ending was known to the audience, but because of the sense of superiority we felt as we watched the foibles, the misunderstandings and the ignorance in the matter of eliciting sexual satisfaction in these characters from the year 1900. As they fumbled about in the prisons of their bustles and corsets, as spouses struggled to find romance or at least a connection with another human being that was real, soul deep, and not superficial or conventional, we, the audience took pity on them, and loved them for their hopeless ignorance, praying they would find the joy in sexual congress that most of us, thank goodness, understand in 2014. Sexual union is the third sacrament that was found in the theatre that night, and those three sacred aspects of our humanity: the arts, the group, and sexual union are a trinity that anyone of any faith or no faith should be proud to acknowledge.