We often live in a world apart and with fewer and fewer shared experiences. One of the most powerful things about live theater is that you are sharing an experience with an audience. Everyone brings their perspective and their experiences to the table. You can see the same performance and come away with different reactions. That said, it is rare that I attend a performance and have the act of another patron set me thinking about a piece in an entirely new light and yet that is precisely what happened.
Recently, I had the great privilege of attending the final performance of Cold Mountain at Opera Philadelphia. Composed by Jennifer Higdon, Cold Mountain is based on the Charles Frazier book of the same name. Set during the Civil War, the opera centers around journey of WP Inman, who exhausted by war has deserted his post in the army to return to Cold Mountain and the woman he loves Ada Monroe. He is pursued by the Home Guard, whose job it is to bring in deserters; the most notorious being Captain Teague.
As I watched, I was struck by the bleakness of wartime life- the never ending search for food and a safe place to sleep, the inability to trust anyone. As Inman struggles to find his way, I found myself rooting for him wanting the couple to be reunited as he walks miles upon miles meeting an endless barrage of swindlers, murderers, and desperate people who are just trying to survive. When he finally arrives, exhausted and half starved, in Cold Mountain and is reunited with Ada, I was thrilled by expected romantic development. I wasn’t surprised when Teague and his gang showed up for a battle that left Teague and most of his men dead. All that was left was Teague’s young assistant, a mere boy, whom Inman tries to placate. The boy refuses to back down and shoots Inman killing him instantly. Shocked and saddened by this turn of events, I was even more surprised by what happened next.
As Inman fell to the ground, a member of the audience loudly and unapologetically applauded. How could someone applaud the death of our romantic hero whose fate agonized over for the past two hours? A thought occurred to me; Inman is a deserter. Suddenly, the story was thrown into an entirely new light.
In our society, deserting is shameful and yet for two hours watching endless hunger, exhaustion, and fear I overlooked this small but important part of the story.
It is not my intention here to delve into the political or make a comment either for or against war. My point is that with out that audience member, I would happily have allowed the story to unfold with out question. I would not have spent the train ride home contemplating war, desertion, and the recent case of Bowie Bergdahl.
That is the power of communal experience. That is the power that theater and art has to encourage thought and empathy. And that is why it is so necessary in our lives.