For the past month or so, I’ve been helping out on a production of Bent, a Martin Sherman play about gays in the Holocaust. Theatre@First, my local community theatre, is performing it, and the director asked me to assist. In rehearsals, I once again found myself in one of my favorite activities: working with talented actors, helping them to discover moments of connection and truth through a sublime text; Bent is as close to a perfect play that I’ve read in a long time. The material, as the subject matter suggests, is far from easy, and the demands on the actors are great. Still, working on it was a joy, and it was especially rewarding to see the performers blossom under my guidance.
So I wasn’t quite prepared last night, when I went to see the third performance of the run, for it to unnerve and shatter me the way it did. I’ve gotten to know the play well, and have seen the performers work on all of the scenes. I’ve even seen a full run of the show. But being in the audience, with the actors warmed up from several nights of performances, gave the play new resonance. By the end I found that I’d been tensed up all over my body, curled into myself, for the past hour and a half at least. I didn’t cry, but I felt enervated, sorrow and anger and fear all coiled up in my muscles. I kept shaking out my hands, trying to rid myself of some of it. Afterwards the only thing that worked was going out for drinks with the cast and talking about it, hugging each other and sharing the triumph. Still, I had nightmares, scored in part by a smoke alarm in my house that picked last night to chirp its low-battery signal through my dreams.
I was struck once again by the way our bodies hold our emotional experiences, and how profoundly art can affect us. On days like this it even occurs to me to wonder, after a lifetime of loving art, music, theatre and writing, why we put ourselves through some of these experiences – stories that feel so real that they hurt us physically and haunt our hearts. is it Aristotle’s catharsis that we seek, or the cleansing feeling of someone else’s problems being more profound than our own? Is it the response to that historic exhortation, “Never forget”? Or just a need to soak in beauty, even if it is the strange and terrible beauty of the horrors humanity is capable of?
Whatever the case, in spite of everything, Bent leaves me filled with hope, even given its treatment of the darkest of subjects. If you have the chance to see it next week – it plays Thursday and Friday nights and Saturday afternoon, at Unity Church in Somerville, MA – do so. Just make sure you have someone to talk to afterwards, someone to hug, and if you do such things, something strong to drink.