Truth in the Guise of Illusion

By


“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket. I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

–From The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

 

I sat in the theater, huddled around the stage with a hundred strangers, and watched as the narrator sauntered out of the darkness and smirked at us. Those words, the first of his opening soliloquy, made me nod and smile and whisper to myself, “I’m going to enjoy this.”

I’m not sure what it is that keeps me from the theater. Every time I go, I’m glad I did. But it seems I usually hear about productions after they’ve come and gone. There’s no marquee next to the mall to remind me of what I’m missing, and there’s no stage version of a Fandango app to feed me show times and reviews. So, too often, plays by local theater companies slip by under my radar until I hear about them from someone else long after the curtain has fallen.

But seeing Studio Tenn’s production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and most recently, The Miracle Worker (now playing), reminded me once again what I forget all too easily: that the stage is a magical place. For all the explosions and special effects and cinematic trickery that movies offer, there is no substitute for sitting twenty feet from a cast of actors and watching their lives unfold and fall apart right there in the room with you. It’s easy to maintain emotional distance from an eighty foot movie screen, but when you sit in front of a gifted actress and watch her weep, hear her heaving breath, see the quivering of her lips, the redness in her eyes, and the pain in her voice, there’s no getting away from it. That’s the power of the stage. It’s right in front of you. It’s inescapable. In demands your attention.

Tennessee Williams knew that when he gave his narrator those words. He’s telling us that the stage may not look like a St. Louis tenement, the room may not have walls, the actors may be mere pretenders in the end, but despite all of that, something real is about to happen. Something important is going to be said. He’s going to paint a picture of the truth with a palette of illusion. And he’s going to do it right in front of our eyes.

That’s a bold goal but it ought to be the mission of every storyteller no matter the medium. My job as a writer is to whittle my story down to the bare truth at its heart and then build around it the best illusions I can muster, illusions that support and even illuminate without distracting. The failure to understand this is precisely why so many films fall flat—the storyteller is enraptured by his own illusion and forgets to paint the truth. If there’s not a kernel of truth at the heart of the story, then all the action sequences, precise prose, and emotionally manipulative music on earth can’t save it.

And the opposite is true as well. If your story has a solid foundation, then the audience will want desperately to believe in your illusions. They will want to believe because they’ll see the truth in the story. They’ll forget that the set doesn’t look like a St. Louis tenement or an Alabama mansion. They will pay no attention to the props as they roll onto and off of the stage. They may even forget that the theater around them exists at all, because for a precious few hours the truth is unfolding before them, inescapably, right in front of their eyes.

When the lights come up at the end of the show, they’ll feel like they’ve returned from some far away place, having briefly been voyeurs at the window of another life. The truth of the story has sold the illusion. And they believe it. That’s great storytelling. That’s what every teller of every tale ought to aspire to.

If you’re in the Nashville area, check out Studio Tenn’s website (www.studiotenn.com) and find out what’s playing; they’re casting spectacular illusions.

Profile photo of Pete Peterson

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


34 Comments

  1. Leighton

    The Glass Menagerie… never heard of it. lol

    St Louis tenement? Sounds like my life. JK Only… I do live in St Louis. 😛

    Any RR writers going to be in St Louis for the upcoming ACFW conference?

    – Leighton

  2. JWitmer

    Pete – your third from last paragraph describes to me what you did so well in Fiddler’s Gun.

    I started the book as I do most historical novels, spending half my attention on puzzling how the events and characters correspond to what I already know about the historical period, trying to build a continuity in my head. But the more I read, the less I cared about the “illusions” until, before the end, I was responding purely to the truthful themes.

    Thanks for this concise and insightful summary of a story-teller’s calling.

  3. Becca

    Beautiful post, Pete. I love it when you write.

    Same feelings here about theater. I will take it however I can get it, even when Henry V is played by an Appalachian Fonzie who smacks the spray-painted scenery like a jukebox during the St. Crispian monologue. It’s alive, at least.

    I took a quick break from thesis coding to check this Rabbit Room post. The transition was particularly interesting, because I had just finished marking up quotes form Robert Henri’s _The Art Spirit_ that seem to connect a little to what you are saying here.

    Henri was an American visual artist and teacher from the late 19th, early 20th century. His book of lectures and letters is often referenced as primary in that field, though many concepts transfer to all the arts. Particularly, his emphasis on singularity of vision applies here. If you look at his work (Google “Agnes in Red”, for instance), you will see how he has carefully chosen core visual elements and disposed of the peripherals. By pulling out the most vital things, the power of the whole piece is greater. I can’t look at that painting without my heart beating faster. It has been reduced to near perfection.

    How he goes about selecting core things is interesting. He isn’t as lucid as Sayers, but he does value initial vision highly. He urges the painter to circle back to the very first impression a model/landsape/idea strikes within him. This reminds me a bit of Sayer’s “Idea” against which the manifestations of energy must constantly be measured. He urges reduction through focus on that first sight.

    Anyway. Here are some Henri quotes, if you are interested:

    “I don’t care about your drawing and your values-they are your affair. They will be good if you make me sense the houses and they will be bad, however “good” they are, if you do not make those houses live. I want more than the outline of houses and I want more than the frames of windows. It is impossible for me to see only what the eye takes in, for the surfaces are only symbols. The look of a wall or a window is a look into time and space. The wall carries its history, what we see is not of the moment alone.”

    On the painted object: “It is to be rendered according to its nature, but it is not to be copied.”

    “Completion does not depend on material representation. The work is done when that special thing has been said.”

    “There are many craftsmen who paint pleasantly the surface appearances and are very clever at it. There are always a few who get at and feel the undercurrent, and these simply use the surface appearances selecting them and using them as tools to express the undercurrent, the real life.”

  4. Becca

    Oh shoot. Left this one out:

    “That final bringing of things together, tying up, accentuation of the necessary, and elimination of the unnecessary, requires a force of concentration that few are capable of attaining. It’s the last, final spurt of energy-the climax of all that has gone before. The majority fail at this point. Those who become masters do not.” (Henri)

  5. Tyler

    Pete – Thanks for your insightful observations. It’s refreshing to see both Tennessee Williams and the craft of theatre get a mention at the Rabbit Room. As an actor, one of the things I love about plays is that they are, if you’ll forgive the expression, “naked movies.” When a film is stripped of its lavish spectacle, cinematography, ever-changing locations, and manipulative (well said, my friend) music, what is left?

    A play has to stand on its own feet in terms of story, emotional honesty, truth, and connection with the audience. Film (an excellent and equally important medium) often relies upon layers of device and extra elements to (sometimes) fabricate a thin connection with the audience.

    We often say, “Theatre is life, television is furniture.” I love what you said about the inescapable power of a real person embodying story mere feet from your eyes on the stage. By performing live, the actors are taking a risk that something could go wrong, creating an irresistible tension and possibility that truly “demands your attention,” as you said.

    Perhaps someday the Hutchmoot might feature a session on live theatre, a concert reading by professional actors, or even the premiere adaptation of a literary work for the stage.

    Pete, I hope really are able to journey to the theatre as much as you can! We could all use a little more Shakespeare, Miller, Williams, Chekhov, Ibsen, O’Neill, Albee, Shepard, and Simon in our lives.

    Peace,
    -Tyler

    “[I was trying to write] plays that would grab an audience by the throat and not release them, rather than presenting an emotion which you could observe and walk away from.”
    -Arthur Miller

  6. Jess

    I read The Glass Menagerie for English this year. I liked it. But even though I thought it was a good, well-written play, I can only imagine what it would be like actually seeing it. Same with all the plays I enjoyed reading, including Macbeth and “The Necklace”. Stage is something that delights me even when I just hear about it, and all too often I JUST hear about it. I think I need to try and see some plays this summer.
    At any rate, thank you for writing this. It is beautiful.

  7. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    It’s difficult to appreciate a stageplay on paper. If you read a play instead of watching an actual performance, it really helps to read it aloud. As anyone who’s read Shakespeare can attest, reading it silently on paper and reading it out loud are two vastly different experiences.

  8. Canaan Bound

    “They may even forget that the theater around them exists at all, because for a precious few hours the truth is unfolding before them, inescapably, right in front of their eyes.”

    So very true. It’s amazing what a few guys on stage with some words can do.

    Get thee to a theatre!

  9. Dryad

    Here in Houston, there are several free theatre performances every year. It’s probably the only thing that makes living here bearable. 🙂

  10. Stacy

    There is nothing quite like watching the words of a play come leaping off the page and becoming a living, breathing moment right before your eyes. Film has never held the same magic for me.

  11. Julie Silander

    Nothing quite like the theatre. I saw Cats (again) a few weeks ago and was startled by the difference that a few years (decades) can make in what I experienced. I’ve been a T.S. Eliot fan since high school, and spent the first 20 years of my life as a dancer. The blending of the music and poetry has always moved me. But this time it was different. Bringing age and experience to the theatre allowed me to see with new eyes. I never noticed the sadness and reality of getting older (even in a cat)… But I did this time. I won’t go on through the long list of feline characters and my experience of them, but I will say that I was moved in a new way. The truth had been there all along, but I hadn’t lived enough life to see it for what it was. Truth through cats. Almost to the point of tears. Now there’s a powerful illusion.

    This morning, I finished “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott, and I loved one of her closing statements on writing:

    “You don’t even have to know how or in what way, but if you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”

    And so do well-written plays, and songs, and all true art…

  12. MargaretW

    Leighton – I am in St. Louis and am *gasp* missing Hutchmoot to attend the ACFW Conference. In fact, today I am hammering away at my manuscript, trying to make the truths look pretty with allusion. We RR’s should meet up at the conference and swap stories. Have you been to an ACFW conference before?

  13. Leighton

    Actually, I know about the conference and have many friends who are going, but am not attending myself. lol

    I’m a CG artist and not a writer, however most of my friends are writers. My sister and dad are writers, for example. On a side note, I live in St Louis, as I said, so I am going to be around.

    Also, a note about RabbitRoom2.0: I downloaded the new version of firefox and it looks very different. The text is squished to a border that it had not been before. It looks good, just changed. lol

  14. Tenika Dye

    Thanks for your words Pete! The things you have to say in this post are very near and dear to my heart. So, to this Actor/Storyteller it was encouraging to read the appreciative words of a fellow Artist from another medium…reminding me why I love doing what I do and why a theatre is “home” for me.

    Scripts are never only meant to be read they must be seen and experienced.

    Tyler-I agree with your post…especially:

    “Perhaps someday the Hutchmoot might feature a session on live theatre, a concert reading by professional actors, or even the premiere adaptation of a literary work for the stage.”

    This was actually one of my suggestions after last year’s Hutchmoot. As an Actor/Storyteller I did feel a little “left out” amongst all the writers and musicians. As I said in my Hutchmoot suggestions it is great to hear an Author read his/her own words but it would have also been interesting to have some of the readings done by Actors whose training gives them the keys to unlock more of power and emotion of the written language.

    If there is the possibility of adding something like what Tyler is suggesting to Hutchmoot 2011 I can help make that happen! I have connections. 🙂

  15. Nicole M

    I feel this way every time I see live theater.

    My younger siblings are in a homeschool co-op that puts on absolutely phenomenal performances every year. In February, they did a dramatic reading of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”. I was apprehensive about how well it would come across seeing as there were no props or costumes or staging. Just 16 or so high schoolers dressed in black sitting in two rows on stage.

    That performance was astounding. During the last scene, I literally could not breathe because I was so totally enveloped in what was happening on stage. That is something that live theater can do so well. The emotions are right there, the passion is twenty feet in front of you, so palpable you could almost touch it.

    I need to see more live theater too, Pete.

  16. sid

    Thanks Pete, haven’t seen a good play in a long time. And WA LA, checked the local paper and “Fiddler on the Roof” is in Milwaukee this week. I’ll be going tomorrow night to “watch these lives unfold” right before my eyes.

  17. Leighton

    A very different play that might interest many of you would be the Gospel at Colonus. Greek mythology and black church… very different. Just watched it last night. You can see it live (or could, anyway) but there is a DVD recording of it that’s good.

  18. Laura Peterson

    Great post, Pete. I found myself at two local theater productions this week, both comedies, and it was delightful to walk out feeling lighter and more glad and happy than I would have been if it had been a different medium of entertainment. There’s something about seeing such joy in front of you that makes you glad to participate.

    Is ANYONE here at the RR familiar with the Kingdom Tales series by David and Karen Mains? I’ve wondered that often but never inquired. There’s a beautiful story (well, they’re all beautiful) in their book “Tales of the Resistance” about a girl named Thespia, and I’m going to spoil the ending here – “And Thespia became a street player in the back alleys and dead ends of Enchanted City, acting out the King’s story in such a way that all who saw her suspected–then hoped–that there was a real kingdom.” I think theater may be my very favorite way to experience the Story.

  19. Stephen Trafton

    Thank you for this post Pete. You have summed up perfectly a central reason why my wife and I are in theater. I love this “It’s easy to maintain emotional distance from an eighty foot movie screen, but when you sit in front of a gifted actress and watch her weep, hear her heaving breath, see the quivering of her lips, the redness in her eyes, and the pain in her voice, there’s no getting away from it. That’s the power of the stage. It’s right in front of you. It’s inescapable. In demands your attention.” The act of sitting and watching theater is not a passive observing from a distance but an invitation for an audience to participate in the lives and share in the emotions of those on stage in a live, immediate, and physical way. Thank you for the encouragement and the challenge to be more truthful in our storytelling. Oh and I’m super excited you are going to marry my sister. 🙂

  20. Fellow Traveler

    What’s this, what’s this? Pete is tying the knot with Jennifer Trafton? Were we supposed to know?

  21. Stephen Trafton

    Love this Pete. You are able to articulate and say things I’ve wanted to say about my own discipline. You say them much more eloquently and help me understand them more deeply. Thank you.

  22. Liath

    This is wonderful. I discovered this website not long ago and have been going through some of the past posts. I have been looking for a site like this for a while and this is just perfect! I can’t believe I’ve found a place where people love both Sara Groves and George Macdonald! I will visit this site often :] Awesome post by the way!

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