Dallas — Stop me if you've heard this—it's an oft-told tale of mine. One night one two-hour experience changed my life. In 1952, my senior year in high school, I sneaked out of the house, with enough money to buy a very-back-of-the balcony seat, to see something called Don Juan in Hell. I didn't know anything about it except it was bound to be grown-up stuff: the title had a swear word in the title, didn't it? And wasn't Don Juan some sort of womanizer? My somewhat confused teen age libido was raging, all right, but the real clincher was a chance to see movie stars in the flesh! Four of them!
I knew three of them as all Americans did: Agnes Moorehead was in movies but we all knew her, too, from her radio work (Sorry, Wrong Number). I remembered Charles Boyer, the suave matinee star as the man who had terrorized my beloved Ingrid Bergman (and me) in Gaslight. Then there was Charles Laughton (Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty) who could be funny or frightening. That fourth man on the stage was Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and though I didn't know him, he was, after all, SIR Cedric Hardwicke. He must be good, right? And here the four of them were in my hometown, Oklahoma City. All they had to do was just stand there to thrill this kid.
And, in a way, they did "just stand there." They had stools, and music stands with scripts on them. Miss Moorehead was in a glamorous gold gown with a kind of tiara in her red hair. The men (even the rotund Laughton) looked sophisticated in beautiful tuxedos. For all of a minute, maybe less, it was the sight of them that dazzled as they strode on stage. Then Laughton began speaking the narrative setting the scene—Shaw's perfectly composed stage directions perfectly pronounced suddenly transported us to a dark plane with only wisps of light revealing a solitary figure, an old crone of a woman, wandering in horrible loneliness. She was in hell. And I was in heaven.
The words (at least those I could understand) kept me captivated, and the extraordinary skill of the actors (even that SIR guy) kept me leaning forward to hang on every syllable. What made me more and more excited were their profound conversations that filled me with an appreciation I'd never felt ever before in any experience I'd ever had. It struck me like lightening this playwright guy, this George Bernard Shaw, was showing me—an Okie kid sitting on the edge of my seat in that back row of the theatre—the astonishingly permissible range of the human imagination. No moment in my life has been more illuminating.
Somehow I'd never been made aware—in school, at home or in church—that anyone was ALLOWED to think in such richly imagined ways. It took Shaw and the magnificence of great performances to realize there was a huge world of ideas out there that promised breathtaking discoveries ahead for me. Life...no LIFE was dangled before me as a great and glittering prize.
My folks, not formally educated, loved books. I raced home after the performance thinking I could perhaps understand even more of the play by reading it. Didn't we have Shaw's complete works as a bonus from the Book of the Month Club? Somewhat miraculously I did succeed in finding the text. I read (with an open dictionary hand) at the desk my father had made for me: I read until the dawn came up, circling words like "metaphysics" and "sophistry." Don Juan in Hell ignited a fire inside me to participate!
It wasn't that it turned me on to theatre, though that's part of it, of course. It was that theatre turned me on to life.
How could I possibly come up with a metric, a measurement of the importance of that to me as a kid? How can anyone rank its value? Funders to the arts reasonably want to make good decisions about what projects and which people to support, and I hear them speak of making data driven decisions. And they're busy gathering data. Numbers of bodies. Colors of bodies. Numbers of dollars. Ratios of earned and unearned. I don't begrudge this interest and agree there's something to learn looking at such measurements. In fact, there's quite a bit to learn. But that learning doesn't substitute for artistic judgments.
A friend of mine, the educator and playwright, David Marquis and I were commiserating about this emphasis on scores when it comes to creative endeavors. He pointed out that when Picasso chose to stick his brush in cerulean blue and then slash it across a canvas, he wasn't making a data driven decision. Nor did Shaw make a data driven decision when he set his brilliant metaphysical exploration of the life force in a kind of conversation pit in hell. What inspiration. How deeply grateful I am. And how fervently I hope those of us (and I include myself) can bring the arts ecology into balance in this town with due concern for both fiscal sobriety and for Dionysian intoxication. How we need both!
◊ Cover photo of Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Boyer, Agnes Moorehead and Charles Laughton from www.debbiereynoldsstudiostore.com/products/agnes-moorehead-2.
◊ Jac Alder is the Executive Director-Producer of Theatre Three in Dallas. Look for his monthly musings in Bit by Bit, which run on the second Sunday of the month. Here is a list of previous columns: