Enjoying the Fleeting Nature of Theater, in the Wake of Cancer
Dan O'Brien Reflects on the Dramaturgical Beat
A play is a story that happens. It’s here—this moment, this accretion of moments onstage—before it’s gone.
I prefer “moments” because rarely do we retain words, no matter how lyrically or pithily or wittily they’ve been uttered. We delight in, hold on to, and sometimes carry with us these moments that moved us—out of ourselves and into the present.
Many years ago, though not so many years, I sat in a room and listened to a writer speak. I considered him old; I was not yet 30. The writer was Barry Hannah, and he was somewhere in his sixties—an age far, far over my horizon. He was meant to deliver a craft lecture. As far as I can remember, he spoke mostly of his recent treatment for colon cancer. I can see him vividly still: certain moments, the way he sat sidelong in his chair in a toppled column of sunlight, describing how one morning he woke from a dream, a vision really, of Jesus at the foot of his hospital bed.
I can’t quote a word of that lecture. What I remember was how that day, those moments, shook me deeply. Made me feel embarrassed—for what? For him? Me? I was awake. I was scared. I wondered, Is this a craft lecture? Now I know it was.
About 18 months ago, six months after my wife had been diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer, I was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer with metastasis to the liver. Luckily—I want to say “miraculously”—the metastasis consisted only of two small lesions located in a resectable portion of my liver. I was given a decent chance for a cure. They actually used those words, “decent” and “cure,” though medically speaking one is not cured until ten years have passed without recurrence. My liver surgeon told me that five years ago I would have been given six months to live.
First they removed about seven inches of my descending colon and somehow stitched me back together without the need for a colostomy bag. They took about ten percent of my bladder for safe measure. Then I received four months of intense chemotherapy; they “hit me with everything,” was how my oncologist likes to put it, because I am relatively young and he felt I could take it. Then my liver was resected, about 15 percent of it cut out, as the chemotherapy had shrunk those two lesions considerably, even reducing the smaller tumor to just a smudge of scar tissue. They nipped out my gallbladder—again, just to be safe. Then two more months of chemo. My treatment, as had been promised, was over by Christmas.
According to recent scans and blood tests I have “no evidence of disease,” or NED, a term I prefer to the now apparently out-of-vogue “remission,” which to my mind implies a mere respite from the disease anyway.
Chris Shinn is a playwright about my age. He is currently NED after not one but two bouts of Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancer that usually afflicts children. When I reached out to him after my diagnosis for some sort of solace—advice, maybe—he said, among other things, Bet on yourself. Why not? We are playwrights, after all; we’re accustomed to thinking, Perhaps my next play will be a hit, win a prize, move to Broadway, or at least move somebody deeply.
But I’m realistic too; at least I hope I am. “No evidence” means simply no evidence now, which is of course all we always have.
Physicists, philosophers, and my Hollywood psychic will tell you: only now exists. Easy for them to say. We don’t know what now is. William James defined it as the “short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible.” I read somewhere that the present moment is 25 syllables long: a respectable sentence. Dramaturgically speaking, the now is probably what theater folk call a “beat.”
A beat is a unit of action. One beat begins where the previous beat ends. This juncture is called “change.” Change is what keeps your audience awake. Change crackles, throws off light. Smolders, fizzles—explodes. Change often necessitates a pause or even silence, but not always. Sometimes there’s no time for that.
“I have experienced a lifelong terror of time. Its loss. This is why, I am sure, I write plays.”
When I was six years old, on New Year’s Eve approaching midnight my father raised a glass of cheap champagne and bellowed, “Say goodbye to the 70s!” I fell to pieces sobbing. He took pity on me—this is one of my only memories of him loving me—and whisked me upstairs to bed, where he read The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to me, just as the 80s slithered in.
Like everybody, I presume, I have experienced a lifelong terror of time. Its loss. This is why, I am sure, I write plays. I can control at least my imagination of time’s passage and, more importantly, what change it contains.
I remember learning as if it were a Masonic secret that a page of script in so-called standard format works out to a minute of stage time. 90 pages runs 90 minutes. Infinite time and space, bound in a nutshell. Crammed within this wooden, highly flammable 8.5 × 11 sheet of paper. As the Buddha might as well have said, “O for a muse of fire.”
Because plays are temporal—fleeting. Usually they are disposable.
As a student I could be glib about it, pompous too. The theater’s perishability was a major point in its favor, an almost sacred characteristic that contrasted mightily with the tawdry mercantilism of film and television. Even literature. Of course film and video and paper will degrade in time too. But theater like mass is magic.
You can buy a script, but so few new plays withstand the fire of their premieres (play publishers make their money from licensing performances, not selling books), and scripts, everybody knows this, are painful to read as, by design, they require too much of our imagination.
Because an extraordinary play happens purely in the present, watching it—and performing it—is an experience of both joy and sorrow. And I don’t mean simply those comic and tragic masks: I mean the joy I felt as a young actor, standing offstage waiting to step into the light. I’d been a shy child. For some reason my family and friends thought otherwise (I was a good actor). I thrust myself onto the stage precisely because I was terrified to be there. Backstage with my nose to the black velvet, heart pounding, mouth parching, I’d whisper to myself, intoning an incantation: “You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive”. . . till I heard my cue and made my entrance.
If this feeling of pure presence is not joy, then I don’t know what is.
As for tragedy, well, these moments have to end. And some plays and productions are bad, or good but hard. And there is grief in the days and weeks after the closing performance. Relief too. Not unlike a life.
“Without shattering the illusion of reality: everything happens in your play for the first and last time.
Plays are shaped out of the mystery of empathy. The playwright’s joy is the actors’ joy is the audience’s joy; at least that’s how things are meant to unfold. Other emotions too. But joy foremost—in the awareness, however conscious, of our privilege to inhabit this present, to sit in some hall, however grand, or a dusty black box somewhere, doesn’t matter, sharing our individual allotments of time with each other and this story that is being made to happen for us and before us. These are clichés but useful: the actors are here, with us, spitting and aching, sweating and straining and sometimes transcending. The theater is a sacrifice: these tickets were expensive; the actors, and the playwright, are being paid practically nothing.
I have heard Paula Vogel say that as she matured she realized the primacy of economy and precision in her plays’ language and action: our days are numbered, more so each day, and what a gift it is that an audience is giving not minutes but hours of their lives and asking you to fill it. And not wasting time means for the playwright not wasting time on the page. (Waste all you want drafting and redrafting—my drafts climb easily into their hundreds.) But without shattering the illusion of reality: everything happens in your play for the first and last time.
There’s an old backstage joke about old audiences: any given performance could be their last. So, again, let’s make this count.
And speaking of counting: they say each of us has a certain number of heartbeats. They say you’ll enjoy more beats the more you use your heart. So give us more life—give us a thrill. Which of course means thrill yourself first while writing. You are your first and sometimes, sadly, only audience.
As for the young, well, a bad play—boring, cloying, cringey—might keep them from darkening a theater’s door for the rest of their days. So, for art’s sake, think of the children.
My longtime but still quite youthful agent Beth Blickers asked me recently, “What will we do when the boomers are all gone?” I think about this frequently; I share it with you ambivalently. How I’ve longed for audiences of my own generation who might more likely understand me, or share my confusions at least. All playwrights know that Saturday night’s standing ovation invariably precedes Sunday matinee’s snoring chorus of hearing-aid feedback. Oh, and be skeptical of the popular young playwrights: they are most likely tap-dancing at the old folks’ homes.
But if you are economical and precise in your use of porous dialogue, the escalating action of your very personal conflicts, your ever-more-revealing disclosures of character, the complexities of your thematic development, your audience will get neither ahead of you nor behind.
Like Samuel Beckett’s, like Caryl Churchill’s, your plays will get shorter. Perhaps they will shorten over the course of your career, yes, but also each singular play will shrink—“coalesce” or “cohere” is probably better—from rough to finished draft. In truth, my plays tend to expand and contract with succeeding drafts, as if breathing organisms, until they “set,” if you will, locked for opening night, or publication if I’m lucky.
When I was younger I wrote plays that tried to include everything. I suppose this was a Shakespearean ambition, or like Thomas Wolfe, whose title I’ve nicked and tweaked for my use here. But there’s a reason James Joyce only wrote one (very bad) play. As Pound said of his Cantos, “I picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them into a bag. But that’s not the way to make a work of art.”
The more I write the less I include: only what feels most necessary, potent, dangerous, often what comes to feel destined, if not obvious, like “Why didn’t I think of that before?” I ignore my notes and, frankly, the notes of most others. Things that occur to me while I’m not writing will most likely be of no use to me while I am writing.
My first “finished” draft (draft 50? 60?) is almost always a third too long, maybe longer. But day by day, beat by beat, I learn what should be left out. This has nothing to do with short attention spans. This is how a story happens.
This is why unfavorable theater reviews, in print and conversation, are hostile if not abusive. We feel our time’s been wasted. Because our time is—I say this personally, passionately—precious.
This is why audiences riot in the theater. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but do readers really riot over novels and poems? Not so often, I’d wager. But if booing and affronted exiting can be considered riotous, then such behavior happens all the time in the theater. I saw Harold Pinter walk out of a Neil LaBute play (he found the music oppressive). If I may humbly brag: I was told Alan Rickman slept through most of a play of mine.
When you or a loved one are gravely ill you can’t help but feel that now is undeniably, inescapably now. Nothing matters aside from doing everything you can—and then some—to keep her alive, right now, keep yourself alive. . .
You can’t help but take things one day at a time, as they say in recovery. As I suppose I am, or hope I am—recovering. As we all are, says the pseudo-Catholic in me. One moment. One beat at a time.
When one is gravely ill, anything can happen, and sometimes does. In a play, anything can and always does happen. Must do. Every moment a potential calamity. We’ve all seen an actor go up on her lines. Disaster. Beautiful. You can hear a pin drop.
From the Winter 2017 of The Missouri Review. Used with permission of The Missouri Review. Copyright © 2018 by Dan O’Brien.