“To Hold As ‘Twere the Mirror Up to Nature”: Purpose and Perspectives in Art

In his masterpiece Hamlet, Shakespeare has his title character explain to a group of actors that the “purpose of playing” is “to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” In other words, Hamlet proposes that what is seen onstage reflect what is real in our lives and in our world. And for many people, that idea of a work of art—a play, a painting, a poem—showing and telling it “like it is” is what calls them to create and respond to that work of art. Often playwrights and artists are celebrated for the “truth” of their work, the realism that is infused in their creations and reflected back to the audience. Therein, though, lies a series of questions: is what is true for one artist also true for all? Is what is true for one audience member, one observer, also true for all? And if truth in art is not universal, if the artistic experience from one human differs from that of another, then what is the purpose of art?

These questions become essential when examining a contemporary drama such as Bruce Graham’s play White Guy on the Bus. Set in the present, set in what is essentially our community—a recognizable city and a suburb each within a thirty-minute drive from this theatre—and featuring characters who look and speak in a manner with which we are accustomed, the play invites audience members to get to know these people a little better and decide if we want to keep them at arm’s length, a nodding acquaintance at best, or draw them closer and engage with them more personally. Graham introduces us to each character in a fairly benign way. Ray, a financial executive, is frustrated with his job and looking to get away from the money and the people he manages as well as the fancy trappings of his home. Roz, a teacher, tries to understand her husband’s disenchantment but reminds him to be practical. The couple’s dialogue is realistic, and perhaps their sentiments—spoken or implied—are familiar to many—stress about work, a desire for something new, a concern for a spouse or family member. The same is true for Christopher and Molly, young and in love, as they share their hopes about their studies, their work, and their home together. Shatique

too, wearing her work scrubs, riding a bus, and making polite conversation with a stranger, speaks in a relatable way as she talks about deviled ham, shopping habits, and changing diapers on babies. Nothing seems too out of the ordinary for these characters. But not everything is peaceful and happy as playwright Graham gives the characters sources of discomfort to accompany the positive elements in their lives. For example, Roz and Molly’s points of view become sharply divisive disagreements in the company of the foursome, and Graham acknowledges this social discomfort through having Ray and Christopher attempt to smooth things over and get the conversation back on track, with the hope that the relationship between the two women will also improve. Conversations that teeter on the edge of becoming a full-blown argument are recognizable to most of us, and in seeing these small conflicts onstage, we may recall family dinners, meetings at work, or social gatherings when moments like these erupted. Perhaps Graham’s characters are not us; perhaps they are not our best friends or are in our own familial or social circles; but certainly these people and their everyday lives and concerns seem believable and real as the play opens.

Yet as the play progresses, tragedy strikes our characters in the form of violent crime, and the play takes a darker turn. It is at this point that the stakes are raised and no longer will a graceful change of topic soften or stifle the conflict. Instead, the circumstances become starker and social mores are ripped apart. And after the resolution of the play, audiences are left thinking about the characters of Ray, Shatique, and the others, and the choices each has made in word and action. And so, the questions return: is what Graham has written a mirror of nature—a reflection of truth in our world? And if some audiences say “yes” and some say “no,” what does that mean about the play—and about us as a collection of people responding to the same work of art?

One way to examine these questions is to consider the word “reflection” in terms of the science of light, in what we see. Nearly 2500 years ago, the Greek mathematician Euclid described what is meant by “reflection,” noting that if a beam of light hits a smooth surface at a particular angle, it bounces back in an identical manner—same angle (though in the other direction), and same speed. Five hundred years later, the Egyptian Ptolemy studied why some visual images were not identical when they hit a surface, but instead appeared different. This is the scientific concept of “refraction.” He described the phenomenon of what occurs if a beam of light hits a rough or wavy surface, such as when sunlight meets water. The light, instead of bouncing back smoothly, bends in the water, creating a wholly different visual effect. Refraction explains why, if a beam of white light hits a glass prism, the image produced is a spectrum of colors: the light has bent and been changed by the facets of the prism, in just the same way that a rainbow is the result of sunlight refracting—shining into and bending—through raindrops. The same science of reflection and refraction can be thought of in a concrete way—a tennis ball bounces cleanly, predictably when thrown on the smooth surface of a gymnasium floor, but careens sideways when thrown on a grassy or rocky yard.

It is a fascinating parallel to think of the scientific views of reflection and refraction and the way an audience might respond to a play like White Guy on the Bus. Often in novels and plays, the author draws the audience in by giving them a character to relate to—either in that character’s experiencing the stages of a story at the same time that the audience does, or in that character’s having traits akin to those of the audience. Bruce Graham begins his play with characters from our recognizable world. There are no flying monkeys; no magic wands; no heightened comic situations requiring us to suspend our disbelief for the sake of humor. No one is completely wonderful, a champion for whom to root. But no one is completely terrible, either—at least at the outset—for us to root against. And so each audience member sees, instead of a smooth surface of predictability, a bumpy world, and as the world of the play becomes more agitated, the view likewise bends in an unpredictable manner. What we get is not what we thought we would get. We get refraction. Furthermore, each person sees the play from a different starting angle, and when the play ends, the image of who these characters are and what they are to ourselves—the members of the audience—changes because of the conflicts that churn and build to the climactic moment.

And so, we return to our original questions: is what we saw in this play “truth”? Is this a reflection of our world as it truly is? And if so, then why might my reaction be completely different from that of the person who sat next to me for two hours in the theatre? Why might we not see the same truth though we watched the same play? If we bring science back into the conversation, if we think of that sunbeam when it hits a prism, the sunbeam does not cease to exist. It is the same, and yet what is inside that beam of light is illuminated differently. The spectrum of colors that can be seen as a result of refraction always existed in the light, but perhaps we did not notice it in our everyday world. Refraction, as reflection, is truth, too—simply a view from a new perspective. It may not be that smooth “mirror up to nature,” showing everyone life as we all know it. Instead, Bruce Graham’s White Guy on the Bus is that rocky surface, that multi-faceted prism, that curved lens that bends our view just enough that we see something we did not anticipate. Taking an audience on a journey and showing them a new way to look at a part of the world, or creating an opportunity for them to build an appreciation for another person’s angle, another’s take on what is seen onstage—perhaps that, if not the purpose of the player, is the purpose of the playwright.

© 2017, Johanna Schloss, Delaware Theatre Company.

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