Theatrical Therapy

Movies we love or hate or are indifferent to tell us more about where we are emotionally than most realize. When I was 11 in 1954, I fell in love with a movie called “There’s No Business Like Show Business”. It was about a theatrical family in the Vaudeville era just after World War I and ended at the outset of World War II.

It showed a few of the hardships such people experienced, but briefly and with a light touch. Mostly it was a candy-coated, warm, feel good picture of nearly perfect family life, innocent romance, and the requisite happy ending when a prodigal son returns. I latched onto what I needed at the time and disowned the rest. It made me want to be just like those people, in that time, doing what they were doing and never come out again.

My own real world outside it sometimes seemed chilly, threatening, fragmented, monotanous, and I could not seem to engage with it. Rather I sensed I was watching it at a slight distance, only touching down at intervals. In this movie, their children were part of their parents’ act. They were doing something they loved, doing it well, and were as totally engaged in family life as in the act. They had a sense of purpose and total validation.

When this family fought, they fought fair and good and got things out in the open and everybody made up every time with everybody. There were no hidden agendas, suppressed emotions, pregnant silences, inferred threats, closed doors with voices saying things that should not be said (even behind closed doors). Everybody showed their feelings and those feelings were usually good.

Being on stage seemed exciting, but frightening. Still they all did it together and there seemed to be a sort of warmth and security in that. There were no egos among them to to compete with or salve or save. I saw this movie many times thereafter at various stages of  my life. Then it suddenly occurred to me that I was seeing it anew at each stage.

As I went through the occasional tough times of adulthood, I (at first) found solace in watching it (momentarily retreating into a time warp coccoon). However, as I developed a more positive sense of self- worth, I engaged with real life with more confidence. “Threat” began to be seen more as “challenge” that I could withstand and overcome. 

Now I found myself preferring  gritty films that challenged my mind rather than salving it. I wanted to see other “real people” meeting the “real world” I was meeting. I wanted to see how they were handling it and compare notes. I could identify with them rather watching them at a safe distance. It was sometimes tough, but now I saw myself in their shoes and them in mine.

 Insipid happy faces pasted on real life now seemed irritating and trite (even depressing). I watched this wonderful old movie again and wanted to re-write it with all the lurid, bleak details of real life that it  seemed to leave out (or failed to explore in depth).

Did the children really like being in the act or did they do it under duress to win parental approval. When they were temporarily away at Catholic boarding school, did they feel abandoned by their parents? Did they have problems adjusting to other children there who had not been in the theater? Did they ever question their religious faith?

Did their parents sometimes secretly wish they did not have children and could be totally free of responsibility? Did that make them feel guilty? Had the parents grown weary of the constant travel between engagements, especially if they were sick. Had they come to hate their work but had no other professional skills.

Clearly I could have turned this dear old musical bon- bon into “A Long Days Journey Into Night“. I was writing some gritty novels at the time and wanted everything creative to conform to  my own (ostensibly) sophisticated taste. There is, of course, a place for “A Long Days Journey Into Night“. However, I have ,since, realized its type is not the only literary art form of worth.

Being “challenged” constantly is debilitating like over working a muscle group is. Sometimes we need to step out of the abyss and paste on a happy face until it becomes a real one. Movies can help us do that. Even the theme song of  “The Man Who Came to Dinner” lifts my spirits. Now I can enjoy the gritty and the gorgeous and the gaudy. 

I think that means the theatrical therapy has formed a sybiotic union with the shock treatment real life somtimes gave me and has turned me out cured (or so crazy I don’t give doodly-squat and just smile a lot).