I had never seen the play before. I had wanted to, quite literally for decades, since its Broadway debut in the 1970s. But I never had the opportunity. I avoided the film version, because by all accounts, it didn’t work.
And so, when it was revived on Broadway a few seasons ago, I was thrilled. On the night I had tickets, I arrived at the theatre early, and sat waiting, expectantly. Then, as the lights dimmed, a phrase popped into my head.
“With one particular horse, called Nugget, he embraces.”
Moments later, Richard Griffiths came onstage and spoke those very same lines, the first words of Peter Shaffer’s Equus. How did they come to me? I am not clairvoyant.
As a teen, before I began going to the theatre regularly, I was an avid buyer of scripts, which I read over and over again. They were my introduction to theatre, and, unwittingly, I had committed bits of some to memory. I had not read Equus in some 25 years, yet the words were on my lips, unbidden.
In fact, this is not such a rare phenomenon in my life. I often find myself “singing along with plays,” moving my mouth at the theatre as if lip syncing. This happens when I encounter passages that I was required to learn by rote in high school English (“Friends, Romans, countrymen…”), but it also happens in the presence of many of the plays that fed my earliest interest in theatre.
My repertoire is highly eclectic, as is my collection of plays. Growing up just outside New Haven, I had access to a selection of used book stores, which were filled with the castoff texts of many a Yale Drama student. Brecht, Synge, Pinter, Moliere; Miller, Williams, O’Neill: I owned them all before going off to college. They remain on my shelves today (many with cover prices under $2). I’m not even sure which of them I know intimately, and which I’ve merely read.
Yes, of course, I sing along with Shakespeare; I imagine many do. Richard Thomas once told me that when he played Hamlet, he never worried about going up on his lines, since surely at least a half-dozen audience members could instantly prompt him on (he knew, however, that he was on his own if he dried while playing Peer Gynt, since no one knew that). The conclusion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – “If we shadows have offended” – is a profound entreaty to me, and I cannot help but whisper along whenever it is spoken. It could, I think, be spoken at the curtain call of every play; it is the international anthem of theatre.
I find the same incantory power in George’s second act speech from Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, when he speaks of the young man ordering bergin and water to the amusement of surrounding gangsters. It is hypnotic and familiar, sad and funny, and speaks to the beauty of a play that most think of as entirely harrowing. I hope that I share nothing else with George, but I know that in some way, I share something with Edward Albee.
To be sure, repetition, whether in speech or reading, can enable one to recite familiar lines, but it goes much deeper for me. I often tear up when I recite or simply hear the Hebrew words of the Kaddish, be it in a synagogue or on TV, because while I have no comprehension of the language, the sound of it comforts and upsets me all at once, so imbued is it with the spirit of those I love who have died. But to make an absurd comparison, I am also moved, inspired, by the opening lines of the Star Trek TV series, which take me to my childhood before I discovered theatre – “To boldly go where no man has gone before” – and I say them aloud, quietly, whether they’re heard in film or in person, as I did last week when George Takei invoked them at the TEDx Broadway conference.
I am not suggesting that audiences should begin to commit passages of plays to memory so that they may join in when at the theatre; that would be as annoying as the patron who sings along with every song at a classic musical or the candy unwrapper who thinks that by going slowly, the noise is less apparent. But it does suggest that perhaps audiences might come to understand and appreciate plays on a deeper level if they had the opportunity to truly know snippets, so they could recognize them as old friends when they are spoken – and perhaps also begin to discern how different productions can reveal the words anew each time if those words are already deep within them.
Playwrights’ words are the fundamental reason I proselytize for the theatre. They live not just in books and on stage, but inside me. These are my text and my stories. They are my prayers.