Back when I worked as an assistant-director with a small company, there was this time when the director got sick, and I was left in charge of an open-air performance of a play about Odysseus coming home to Ithaca.
And I suppose it was because of my youth and inexperience that the leading man, an ancient archery buff, thought it was his chance of doing a stunt he must have had in mind for some time. You know the scene where Odysseus shoots an arrow through twelve axe heads? Well, about an hour before curtain-up, the fellow informed me he was going to shoot a real arrow. He even had brought his own period bow…
“But you can’t!” I squealed – and he proceeded to explain that he didn’t mean to shoot through our prop axes, just somewhere offstage…
Now, even discounting the awful danger of shooting at random in a crowded public place (just think of Tamburlaine Part II at the Rose!), our Odysseus was completely missing my point. And please, don’t think I wasn’t worried about our leading man shooting some unsuspecting member of the audience. I was, very much – but, since all my knowledge of archery comes from historical novels, my standing on the subject was clearly non-existent.
Still, the point I meant to impress on Odysseus was that, theatrically speaking, we had no need whatever of his real arrow. His job as an actor wasn’t shooting real arrows, but showing the audience the truth of an arrow that wasn’t there.
And if he did well his job of nocking, aiming and releasing, if everyone else onstage did well their job of starting, flinching, being astounded – then the non-arrow would be much more effective and meaningful, much truer than any real arrow shot for real.
Because what happens on a stage is, you know, fiction painted with colours of truth. It is not real, never for a moment – but it is true inside the circle of the suspension of disbelief: do tell me a story, and, for the time it takes, we’ll all pretend it is true. But the story’s effectiveness, meaning and beauty have nothing to do with how real the arrows are.
It is, after all, the very essence of what we do: we use means to create an effect. We pursue truth by way of lies. We shoot imaginary arrows to amaze in truth. And we (should) never forget that truth and reality are not the same.
Why, realism sounds even a little out-of-place on a stage: should we really seek reality in theatrical fiction, whose governing law can be summarized as “Please, lie to me – convincingly and gracefully”?
Oh, and in the end there was no real arrow – thank heaven. I’d like to chalk it up to my convincing bit of theatre philosophy, but I’m afraid it was more a certain wariness of legal consequences…
Ah well – at least we killed no one.