Theater and Dramaturgy have changed my life and my view of the world. As Shakespeare once wrote in Hamlet’s advice to his players, “to hold, as twere, the mirror up to nature,” we see our lives through the experiences of others before us.
Through reading plays and watching them, we can identify and understand the social construct of different cultures and society, as well as people and families, from private moments made public. From reading the classics to modern plays and learning the history of cultural theater through texts and plays, I’ve learned that life affects people in different yet similar ways. In storytelling, we can inform and change each other as well as entertain, live, partake, breathe, and live through stories and characters.
I grew up in a traditional Catholic background, born in America but raised on European etiquette. My parents were born in Italy and emigrated to the U.S., embarking on a dream for a better life than their World War II-torn country. I grew up in an immigrant family, mostly women, and was one of the few men around.
One of the men that was around was my father, who developed a mental disorder that deteriorated over time, because of medicine that, at that time, was experimental. The effects were not known and, more often than not, more harmful than good.
My mother was left to raise three children, put us through private school, went through financial hardship, took care of a sick husband, and worked. I watched her day, in and day out, and she is one of the strongest women I know. I became a better man because of her.
We lived in what was considered a middle-class neighborhood where kids played outside, fathers took their sons to baseball games, and mothers took their daughters to shopping malls. I had friends, and tried to surround myself with likeminded people, those who understood me. I grew up watching other kids live in a nuclear family, while I was taking care of my father and trying to help my mother by any means necessary.
I didn’t relate to other people, and wanted to do “normal” everyday activities like everyone else did. I had a false sense of reality with no structure around me. I did the best I could to be normal, though I did not know what that really meant.
Dramaturgy has helped me understand who I am, and that there is no such thing as normal. There are your given circumstances and then there is you, the journey you go on…the person you become. To become the best person, and the best man I wanted to be, I embarked on a similar journey my family did when they came to the U.S. I read, and I studied and lived through storytelling.
Reading “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen helped me relate to my mother and how important a woman’s role is in the family unit. The character, Nora, goes against her ethics and forges a check from her father, who had just passed away days before, to pay to save her husband, who was deathly sick. When he eventually finds out how she acquired the money, he feels deceived. Rather than understanding the moral ground that she took to help him survive his ailments, he treats her like a convict, caring more about his reputation than what was done. She leaves the wedding ring and Torvald behind, as well as a very oppressive nature.
Ibsen’s writing was highly influenced by his family life. His mother played a central role in his life and he used his life experiences to target the issue of the oppression of women. “A Doll’s House” was a march towards the movement for women’s rights, and showed that the “Leave It to Beaver” family dynamic always looks shiny from afar, but up close you see between the cracks what happens behind closed doors. The pain underneath is difficult to bear and is buried to keep a normal persona.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” by Edward Albee, is a dark comedy about a married couple who drink. George and Martha, who have a dysfunctional relationship, engage each other emotionally and push each other over the edge. The nature of their marriage is destructive, having disdain for each other while retaining a codependent relationship. They can’t live without each other, yet they can’t live with each other.
To deal with their marriage they fabricate a child that was never born, hindering their perception of reality and deceit. They meet with a younger couple, Nick and Honey, and it becomes a competitive game of who can loathe the other person the most. Martha tries to make advances to Nick, while George shoots it down. Martha then changes her strategy and goes after Honey. Nick and Honey stay through the ordeal as the verbal abuse carries on between George and Martha, and soon starts to include them.
I found it interesting that there really was no mother figure and that the father figure is a dominant character, even though he is not a visible character in the play. Upon further investigation, Martha and George exhibit signs of Borderline Personality Disorder, and their drinking was a way to self-medicate and cope. This was not spoken about in that time period, as mental health issues were shamed and not spoken about. You were expected to have a nuclear family with kids, yet underneath the microscope, it was anything but perfect.
One of the last plays I want to bring up is one of America’s greatest plays, “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams. I realize this is one of the most well-known plays, and everyone has seen it, but I really wanted to delve deep into the characters and the world they live/d in.
Stanley is a strong character and has control problems, along with drinking and gambling. He is the dominant male figure but is unable to control the environment around him. Stella, underneath her soft personality, is rational and strong and keeps the balance within the household. Blanche has no position in life and is stuck in limbo after becoming a widow; her husband committed suicide and was a closeted homosexual.
For a woman back in that time, you only had one chance at a “normal” life. Blanche’s short marriage causes a series of events that spiraled out of control. From being accused of having relations with a student, and other affairs, to staying in a hotel considered to be a brothel. She is left penniless and has nothing left and nowhere to go, and goes to live with her sister.
After Stanley finds out the truth about her background, he does not tolerate her and ends up raping her, triggering her breakdown, and has her committed. But what choice did she really have in that place as a woman? She was a beautiful woman that no one could touch because of social stereotypes and discarded as damaged. One can only feel sorry for Blanche as she had a whole life to live, but the construct of society in that time broke her spirit.
Life is tremendous pain, great victories, beautiful cultures, happiness, sadness….talented actors, and wonderful writers. Men are not perfect. Women are not perfect. I’m learning to be a better man through the eyes and souls of great characters and writers.
These stories come from living through life experiences, through truth. Truth is not always the silver lining we seek. It’s not the freedom we think that will make us happy forever. Truth is what the world does not want to see sometimes; brushing the dust off and sometimes painting it in another picture.
Sometimes the truth depends on the perception of the person that is seeing it. There are different shades of colors all around and we all live in a different bubble sometimes. I hope through great writing we become aware of social imbalances, mental illness, live life to the fullest, and just be as is without having to fix things all the time.
No matter where we are in the world, sometimes the stories are the same, just set in a different time, and seen through a different lens. The circumstances may not always change, but we have the power to make a difference in our own lives and the lives of others by telling the story.
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