This place matters

This place matters

Sunday, July 24, 2016

That's show biz

One of my theater profs, back when I was majoring in something even more useless than English, told story about Ed Wynn. Ed Wynn was an old man in the twilight of his career. He'd started out in vaudeville, made a name in Hollywood, but these days it was mostly television and voice acting. One day he was invited to give a lecture to a bunch of young theater students and during the break, he gave them a rare treat - with the grace and agility of a much younger man, he performed one of the physical comedy routines on which he'd built his name. He played a man trying, and failing, to climb a free-standing ladder - up a few steps and back down, climbing and sliding and falling as the students laughed and clapped. When he finished, one student noticed that Wynn was crying. When asked why, Wynn replied that the routine only worked if the audience believed his sorrow.
That story is almost certainly made up, but the message behind it rings true: the things that capture audiences the most are the things that come from artists' deepest pain. Vincent van Gogh painted The Starry Night while in the asylum at Saint Paul-de-Mausole, just a few months after he severed his ear in a violent psychotic break.
Ludwig van Beethoven's string quartet number 15 was inspired by the month he spent bedridden by disease in 1825. Though not an old man, he must have known, by his ever more declining health, that he was reaching the end of his life. He was deaf, in pain, and probably a fairly severe alcoholic by then. The piece marks the triumph of his recovery, but is among the last he wrote - he died, slowly and painfully, two years later.

I've just read Lindy West's Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, which I plan to write more about soon. In one chapter, she writes about her father, saying "I sometimes told people my dad reminded me of Robin Williams, and they would assume I meant the drive to entertain... but really it was that ever-present Pig Pen cloud of kind-eyed sadness." It's funny - there were performances of Williams' - his stand-up in particular - that I simply couldn't stand to watch. All I could see in him was this impossibly infinite well of sadness boiling over into some manic purge - words that brought abject joy to everyone except the one saying them. I could not understand how other people didn't see it - I could not understand how other people could laugh at someone so obviously in agony. Now I know the only reason I could see it was because I was just the same. 
I tell people Springsteen's been my favorite musician since I was five, but that's probably not entirely accurate. The truth is, I don't remember ever not loving him. I've loved Bruce since the first time my sister put on one of his records for me. So many of his songs are so big, so joyful, but he once said that his career has been driven by "pure fear and self-loathing and self-hatred." Bruce has been really forthcoming in recent years about the depression he's lived with all his life - he's been in treatment for the disease for the past 30 years. I used to kind of wonder what drove a kid like me to worship this old man who sang about cars and sex and working for the man, and other stuff I wouldn't understand for decades. But I think that somehow that piece of him reached out to that piece of me - that little germ of madness that would grow one day into pure fear and self-loathing and self-hatred. I think that's why he's been a light for me in my darkest times.

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