If I could just rehearse
one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday again!
But Friday’s already here,
With a script in hand I’ve never seen.
-- Wislawa Szymborska, “The Improvised Life”
There’s an old showbiz joke that always makes me laugh. I’m laughing as I write this down now. An actor – let’s call him George Spelvin – says that a certain producer doesn’t care for his work. “He wouldn’t cast me in The George Spelvin Show!”
And “George Spelvin” is another old showbiz joke. It’s the name that an actor puts in the playbill to conceal his identity. But of course each of us has been cast in The George Spelvin Show. We’re all, as Shakespeare said in the Scottish play, poor players strutting and fretting. And the script is late. Very late.
It’s one form of a common dream: they’re looking at you and you’re unprepared. Perhaps it’s an examination and you never studied. And you have no clothes on. You forgot to put them on. And you forgot to do the reading. And to go to class. Or you’re on a stage and you never rehearsed. When was that rehearsal exactly, the one you didn’t go to?
This isn’t a rehearsal. It’s the show. Whatever you do now, whatever you don’t do – it’s on the record. The house is full of people who paid the price of admission. They have high expectations. The reviewers are in their seats. They’re making notes and judgments. You’ll hear about it in the morning.
No do-overs. Not unless you incorporate the do-over in the plot. From now on you’ll be the person who spoke out of turn, or made the bad investment, or forgot his lines, or betrayed the one she loved. You’re blotted and there’s no eraser. You must either fake and hope to get away with it (soft-shoe, “Tea for Two,” take a card any card, a funny thing happened on the way to my life), or confess and make up as best you can. If they give you a second chance, it will be on a bare stage, with merciless lighting. There’s hope, but it’s a hard hope.
If you make the trick of course, fill the moment, deliver the punchline, draw the tears, stop the show, get the laugh, earn the encore, then it’s done and can’t be taken from you. If you love kindness, and act justly, and comfort the afflicted, and take care of your loved ones, the Lord requires no more of you. You’re not just practicing to do stuff, the show’s been open for a while now and you’re actually doing stuff. Didn’t they tell you? It all counts. Is that all there is? Yes, this is what there is; you were expecting something better?
Perhaps you should have paid more attention. You’re already in the middle of things, and the finale is coming on. You missed the feather-dusting scene, where the maid tells all, what the issues are, while she whips the sitting room into shape. “Oh, oh, oh! Six o’ clock and the master’s not home yet!”* You missed that scene, so you’ll have to suss things out on the run.
Finales matter, but we don’t like to think about endings – our own endings or, for that matter, anyone else’s, because those other endings remind us of our own. So we don’t give enough attention as the thing winds up. We don’t get ready.
I pay attention to endings. I’m not a perfect audience, and sometimes my attention wanders. Sometimes the protagonist no longer holds the stage, and I watch the supporting players, who have more need of my attention. But by giving the best attention I can, I bring these events to light, these events in which I have no part, events that I do not script or manage. Let there be light, says the stage manager, let the curtain rise; and life, including its beginning and its end, becomes what it is under the eyes of others. That’s why, as Donne said, the passing-bell always tolls for thee – it means that your audience is diminished, and your stage has shrunk.
But the script just arrived. You can see it in the hands of the stage manager; it was just put into her hands. She’s showing the script to you from the wings, but what’s that to you? Too late now, you’ll have to find your light and make it up as you go.
I saw a man die who was far from perfect. He struggled with addiction all his life, and went to prison for possession of cocaine. But he had come back again and again, had taken care of his sick mother for decades, and loved his sons. Two of them were at the bedside when the breathing tube was removed. His brain was dead and he didn’t breathe on his own, but the heart struggled on for ten minutes without oxygen, as the sons stroked his head and whispered tender words into his ears. The best of him was there with me.
In Shakespeare’s time they didn’t write plays in “acts;” but publishers later arranged them in five acts to honor the ancients. Fourth acts have a stillness in them. I’m doing my fourth act now. The plot’s in a lull, but the catastrophe is winding up. Hamlet says the readiness is all; if it be not now, ‘twill be to come. The audience is waiting, a little impatient. They’re talking amongst themselves while I say wise things. They’re hoping the finale will be worth the fuss. If it’s worth the fuss, it will expiate, explain, excuse a lot. Finales matter.
*The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder