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Legitimate Theatre

The play's the thing.

by Everett Wilson
November 5, 2005

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Legitimate Theatre
I realized that legitimate theater was one of my favorite things the day after seeing a local production of Romeo and Juliet.

I wouldn't have gone to see it because Romeo and Juliet is my least favorite of Shakespeare's major plays. The audience is expected to spend its emotion on trivial people making stupid mistakes.

It has the same sort of farcical plot tricks as a comedy. All it would take to make Romeo and Juliet into a comedy is for a missed message to get delivered. All it would take to make Much Ado About Nothing into a tragedy is for Benedick to kill Claudio because Beatrice asks him to. For tragedy, give me MacBeth's villainy, Othello's jealousy, or Hamlet's fixation any time. You couldn't fix those guys with a quick re-write.

But Romeo was being played by a twenty-something neighbor who has become something of a veteran actor in the community theatres of the county. So we went. He did well, as did the rest of the cast, but at points tedium overtook me despite their best efforts. It wasn't their fault. It was Shakespeare's. (I am also hard of hearing.)

But in the end I was moved in spite of my prejudices, and the next day I found myself thinking often about the play. It wasn't Shakespeare that did it for me, but that I take few opportunities any more to attend legitimate theatre, and I have missed it more than I realized.

I first heard the phrase "legitimate theatre" when I was playing Mr. Stanley in a high school production of The Man Who Came to Dinner. Sheridan Whiteside (the man who came to dinner) refers to Katherine Cornell as "the first lady of the legitimate theatre," making an invidious comparison with the character in the play who was vying for that title herself.

I had no idea what Whiteside meant and wasn't intellectually curious enough at the time to find out. I don't remember when I learned that a "legitimate" play is a non-musical. A play mainly or entirely in speech rather than song was, oddly enough, protected by law in Victorian England from the incursions and innovations of the music halls.

I couldn't find the logic of this law in my browser. My memory is that it had something to do with Sabbath observance, but it may just have been the fear of theatrical producers that without legal protection both the money and the audience would flow away from the "legitimate theatres" to the lowest common denominator of entertainment in those days, the music halls.

I enjoy musicals, but the intensity and compactness of a good legitimate play well-performed draws me into it at a level that a musical cannot do for me. Perhaps it is the three-dimensionality of it; more likely it is the living, breathing characters moving about. The thing about live theatre is that it is alive .I am not identifying with an idea, or a tune, or a representation like a videoed or filmed picture. The emotion and humor are right there, not only before our eyes but available to all our senses.

I'm not getting any younger. Maybe it's time to get some season tickets and kick myself out of the living room a few evenings a year.

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