The Play Of Masks Unites Us

Schiller once wrote a Prologue for one of the performances of his Wallenstein Trilogy, and this Prologue, in my not-exactly-humble opinion, is far pithier and provides more word-for-word enjoyment than the three plays, themselves.

In the Prologue, Schiller extols the art of acting, practically conjoling his audience to appreciate what is being offered them, and not to throw tomatoes or obscenities at these earnest artists. Expounding upon the art of play-acting, he observes that “the art is hard, inconstant its reward,” and “swiftly flies the actor’s wondrous art before our senses, leaving not a trace” and that, before the speaking actor can even cross the stage, “the echoes fade within our ear, the moment’s swift creation is dissolved, no lasting monument preserves his fame.”  In other words, these are artists and what you are about to see is an ephemeral work of art, like an exquisite summertime ice-carving or a beautiful autumnal sunset-– so enjoy it while it lasts, you ingrates!  

Schiller implies that nothing can match drama for making characters real and arousing the emotions. For most in the audience, for instance, the person of Wallenstein, long dead by the time of the play’s performance, will never feel more real than he will during the play. “Art shall bring him closer, as a man, both to your eyes, and to your feeling hearts,” says the playwright. Drama can provide what no treatise, no history book, no lecture can ever provide: a moment of the human condition conjured from the air into living, breathing reality.

And there is yet more to be thankful for when it comes to this privilege, this marvel, this art of theater… “The play of masks,” writes Schiller […] “unites us.”  During a performance, we each can escape our narrow, individual lives into something larger, something shared. And “Art upon its shadow-stage” can strive for the highest, most sublime goals before our eyes, stirring us to emulation and broadening our experiences.

I applaud Schiller for using his skill with words to encourage the audience become conscious of the treasure being placed before them. A play or a movie is like a little miracle of creation, a shared dream which– at its best– is filled with some of the best music, philosophy, wit, and visual artistry humankind is capable of producing. It is all too easy to take for granted the enormous gift that is dramatic performance. I know that in my own life, movie and stage-plays have delivered me from more than a few miserable days, transported me to wondrous lands, and broadened my mind with sights and sounds and ideas of which my little life would have otherwise been eternally devoid.  Thanks for the admonition, Friedrich.  And some of your plays aren’t so bad, either.

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