Sunday, November 25, 2007

Robert Dessaix on Acting: 'Why Do We Do It?

‘Why do we do it?’

It was one of those last night questions—not even a question….

It had been an exhausting evening—the first run-through of the whole play without a script, a dog’s breakfast of a performance, with everyone getting very snappish. ‘Why we did it’, however, I knew perfectly well. I’d known since I was eleven or twelve.

One summer in the early 1960s, down the side of our house in Largs Bay [Adelaide], under the magnolia-tree by the fence, my father took it into his head to put up a car-port. In those days everyone was doing it: alongside gracious old sandstone bungalows all over Adelaide—those showily prim but faintly sinister houses that bring to mind fine china, vicars and arcane perversions—men starting erecting car-ports often with a little shed out the back. They looked hideous, like gumboots on a debutante, but my brother and I were ecstatic. It meant we were modern.

And having just been to a matinée performance of The Pirates of Penzance, I knew instantly what our car-port’s higher purpose was: a backyard theatre.

It’s all in the curtain. Everything else—writing the play, the raids for props and costumes, the daily betrayals and clashes with puffed-up egos—is tumultuous fun, but it is that final moment, when the neighbours are sitting on cushions and chairs on one side of the curtain and we are poised with cardboard swords and a trunk of pebbles wrapped in silver foil on the other, that is alchemical. This is the moment, as my brother jerks the bed-sheets apart, when the mystery descends, and in the blink of an eye we are both ourselves (our tiny, backyard, childish selves) and not ourselves (miraculously, beautiful, even good). The parting curtain has wrought a miracle, a collision of worlds, and this miracle is witnessed with rapt attention. Everything now matters—every trivial word, every crooked finger, every raised eyebrow—everything….

When my brother yanked the curtain closed on the final scene of mass slaughter that first Saturday afternoon (every child in the street lying stone-dead among the grease-spots), I knew what wonder was. Needless to say, it wasn’t the kind of thing I could ever explain to my father, who in any case had spent the afternoon at the cricket.

‘We do it,’ I said to William now, ‘because it’s our way of making up for the utter ordinariness of our lives.’

Robert Dessaix, Corfu: A Novel (London: Scribner, 2003), 239-241.

Image: “It’s all in the curtain.”