When a pandemic arrives at the playhouse door
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When a pandemic arrives at the playhouse door
Elaine Stritch, Alvin Epstein and John Turturro in the Samuel Beckett play “Endgame,” in which illness is blamed on the obliteration of community, at BAM’s Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, April 29, 2008. From the bubonic plague to the AIDS crisis, theater and public health have a long history of shaping each other. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- On Thursday afternoon, the school nurse called. My 6-year-old daughter had run a fever and complained of a sore throat. Could I come and get her? It could be the flu, we agreed, or possibly strep throat. Neither of us wanted to name other possibilities. I called our pediatric practice as I walked to her school, securing an appointment for a strep test. While we were waiting, with her sucking a dripping Popsicle, and me twitchily checking my phone and trying not to spiral, I saw the announcement that all Broadway productions would close immediately, reopening in mid-April at the earliest.

As we walked to the medical practice — the first strep test was negative, but the doctor insisted on running a second and honestly I’ve never felt so grateful to have a bacterial infection confirmed — then headed for the pharmacy, my phone kept buzzing. Each notification was an email announcing a new postponement, a new closure, as though theater in New York were some gaudy chandelier and I could see its bulbs blinking out, one by one. I had a show to see that night, another on Friday and more over the weekend; they all disappeared, except, inexplicably, for Taylor Mac’s “The Fre,” in which cast and crew jostle together in a ball pit. That one I canceled myself.

To go to the theater, to engage in any activity in public life, is always to assume a certain hazard. (Then again, hundreds of people die every year from falling out of bed. Nowhere is safe.) To put ourselves into community means to make ourselves vulnerable to infection, from a virus, from an idea. It’s possible to forget that, sunk into some plush seat while a chorus line ululates, but threat remains. And live art, like most sporting events or religious services or flying economy class, puts us into particular proximity.

At the doctor’s office, waiting for test results, I worried about how I had put my daughter at risk (she attends a public school, which was open) and whether she might have infected others. Which is to say that I was and am sympathetic to the mayoral directive shuttering venues that seat 500 people or more, including all Broadway theaters, even though it caught me by surprise.

I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating theater and epidemics — about a decade ago, I defended a doctoral dissertation on their relationship — without ever really thinking I would experience something like this. I remember following the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 and reading how Mexico City had closed its concert halls and theaters, and thinking how that could never happen in New York, with its emphasis on autonomy and individual choice.

But it has happened. On Twitter Thursday night, as artists shared news of more closings, mourning opportunities lost, getting behind the public good, feeling — let’s go to Stephen Sondheim, whose “Company” was among the canceled — sorry-grateful, regretful-happy.

Theater has always had a vexed relationship with illness, from the ancient plays of Sophocles, which remain ambivalent about the role of the ill person in society; to George Bernard Shaw’s “Too True to Be Good,” an early anti-vax play that places a talking microbe onstage; to the plays galvanized by the AIDS crisis. Renaissance theaters closed often in an effort to stave off bubonic plague. And writers of anti-theatrical tracts, who collated any theatrical practice with terrible sin (I should be so lucky!), often laid blame for the plague at theaters’ doors. Here’s how the mayor of London put it in 1584: “To play in plague-time is to increase the plague by infections, to play out of plague-time is to draw the plague by offendings of God upon occasion of such plays.”

And ever since the Enlightenment, theorists have argued against representing illness onstage because it makes audiences uncomfortable, because actors can rarely play physical suffering convincingly. (Even now, stage deaths are still a problem.) As Sigmund Freud complained, “If a spectator puts himself in the place of someone who is physically ill, he finds himself without any capacity for enjoyment or psychical activity.”

Yet theater has also provided a place to think through the fears and realities of communicable or otherwise dangerous illness and to do that thinking in community. If you have seen plays like Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” which situates the AIDS crisis within social, political and spiritual matrices, or Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” which asks audience members to take personal responsibility in preventing the spread of HIV, maybe you have done some of that thinking, too, and even altered your behavior.

Theater, we know, can create a conduit for empathy and provide a means to process complicated situations and feelings. It’s only a matter of time before the first COVID-19 plays emerge, and we can — retrospectively, and assuming theaters are still a thing — be nudged toward compassion for the afflicted, be constituted as a community of support. Because that’s what theater can do: It can ask us to think and feel beyond the confines of our own experience and find fellow-feeling, immediately and intimately, with those around us.

But right now, community is the problem, not the solution. And if we want fellow-feeling, we’re going to have to look for it on Zoom and Skype and FaceTime.

Besides, as someone who used to really cheerlead for theater as an empathy vector but has watched too many audiences rage and cry and then go out for a nice dinner and may have enjoyed the occasional nice dinner, too, I know that catharsis isn’t as useful as action. And the actions we can currently take are to stay home and try not to hoard Purell.

There are ironies here, of course — that in order to maintain an already dangerously atomized society we have to atomize further, that in order to preserve communities we have to back away from communal activities. Some great modernist works, like Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” or Karel Capek’s “The White Plague,” blame illness on an obliteration of social bonds. But let’s go with the epidemiologists on this one.

I should probably say that I don’t really want to stay home, and that I’ve felt a fair amount of self-involved panic alongside the it’s-the-right-thing-to-do vibes. I enjoy my work, my family depends on my earnings as a critic, I lift on drama to lift me out of myself and I don’t really know what a week feels like without frantically rushing out the door at 6:45 p.m. and frantically rushing back in again moments later because I’ve forgot the unlimited MetroCard, of swiping on some lipstick on the subway, of sitting and breathing together with a dozen or a hundred or a thousand others, in the audience and onstage. (Or, I do know, and it’s weird.)

But I will stay home. Because it’s right, because it’s responsible, because I don’t have any alternatives and because I have kept my kids home whenever they have come down with strep or stomach flu, because to live in community means to work to protect community. Catharsis or a laugh or even the comforting ritual of rolling my eyes at other people’s alcohol sippy cups is what I could really use right now.

Even at the end of “Endgame,” when everyone is seemingly dead or about to die (Beckett, never change!) the play reminds us of our mutual obligation. Here’s a line from the play’s final speech: “It’s we are obliged to each other.” Maybe that’s something for theater-makers and audiences to remember, even as we sit at home, apart.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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