Fire on Stage

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals!

-Hamlet, II.ii

 

Almost two decades ago, my parents took me to see Hamlet in the restored, Italian Renaissance style theatre that has alternately been a jewel, a near-ruin, and a jewel again in my hometown.

I don’t remember much about the production. I was too young then to understand Shakespeare properly, I might be too young to understand it now, but I do remember that there was fire stage.

I remember because this was the hook, the carrot the parentals dangled to get me to go quietly.

There had been write-ups in the paper and special permits issued by the Fire Marshall to make the pyrotechnics in the Perot possible and I was then (and now) a firebug, same as my Daddy before me.

When it arrived, the fire was carried on stage by what I now know are the watchmen who first meet the king’s ghost in the first act. From our balcony seats, my promised flames looked suspiciously like a sterno can nestled in a wide, shallow bucket of dirt.

In the short list of life’s great disappointments, the fire in Hamlet ranks… somewhere.

Probably pretty middling. It’s been a good couple of decades and a bit.

Since then, I have been blessed to see fire on stage again and again and again.

From a community production of Legally Blonde that Dad took me to when I was about 15, to that Queen cover band (on a school night) Mom and I saw my senior year just because we could, to the Royal Moscow Ballet’s Swan Lake early this year with some friends here in Ireland, there has been great theatre and music and stage-fire across my life.

There’s magic in it.

Magic in the idea that there are people out there putting in the effort.

In a time when the world’s catalogue of film is a few clicks and an illegal stream away, the idea of getting dressed up, buying a ticket, and sitting in a crowd of strangers to watch actors who could fail at any second—it’s almost ludicrous.

Not paying for the cinematic polish of a movie theater. The cemented product that is a film.

But, paying for people. People who miss cues or forget lines or drop the curtain too soon or move the spotlight too fast—all things I have seen—but paying nonetheless.

Theatre in some form is possibly our earliest form of entertainment, from travelling bards and musicians to the Greek chorus and the religious pageants of the middle ages, to the incredible spectacle at La Monnaie today, we seem to have always had this fascination with telling stories and watching stories told.

It’s instinctual, intrinsic.

Part of what makes us human.

What makes that ticket worth the cost.

There’s a production of The Merchant of Venice being staged next month at the little theatre near my house here in Cork, and I think I’ll go. At twenty-six, I’ve learned a little more about Shakespeare than that first, Hamlet production.

I’ve learned appreciation for the people who breathe life and change and meaning into texts long since pinned and petrified by print and ink and centuries.

Appreciation for the firemakers.

6 thoughts on “Fire on Stage

  1. I have to agree. My friend Maureen has been an opera lover all of her 70+ years of life. She had vinyl recordings and radio and, more recently, streaming from the Met. She had never in all that time been present at a live production. Last summer she finally went with us to a production at the Santa Fe Opera–her favorite, Madame Butterfly. By her assessment there is no comparison between the radio and seeing it performed on stage.

    My earliest memory of theater was a community production of Arsenic and Old Lace. My father played the lead. He is a very good actor. When they came to the part where the old ladies try to put bamboo shoots under his fingernails my little sister jumped up from the first row and screamed, “Daddy!” At the top of her four-year-old lungs. You can’t really make those kinds of memories at a movie. 🙂

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    1. Maureen sounds lovely! If she’s into the live streaming, La Monnaie in Brussels streams everything that’s staged there for at least 6 weeks after the production. There’s an operatic version of MacBeth going up in a few weeks that looks incredible and their version of Frankenstein was beautiful. Glad you enjoyed it, and thank you for sharing about Arsenic and Old Lace! I’ve never seen it staged, but I love the film, and the idea of your sister standing up and shouting in the middle is precious!
      -J

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  2. Again you are a wonder of words. Remembering special things and events while do young is a great asset . As you get older some of them will fade but I hope you have documented those you can now remember. I have not seen a play since your cousins were in them in school. Even with the Stark Theater here in Orange, I have not attended any of the productions they have yearly. Actually, nothing they have has appealed to me. Maybe someday they will and I will go. Enjoy the plays you attend and let them help you in your future writings. Love Aunt Sheri

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    1. Thank you! It’s a shame that y’all haven’t been to a live production in so long, but if it’s not what you enjoy then it’s just not what you enjoy. Thank for always reading! Love you so much!

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  3. Great thoughts Jenni, on the subject of fire – how many times have you been to see ‘Texas’ in Palo Duro Canyon? not just for fire scene, but the lightening strike presaging the storm.

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