Wednesday, May 02, 2012

theatre notes. the pitmen painters.

It was about ten minutes into the first act of The Pitmen Painters when I started crying and I didn't stop until the intermission. I don't mean full-on sorrowful, heartbroken weeping, or tears of laughter, although it is a funny play and I did cry tears of laughter. I mean the kind of tears that well up when you see something that sweeps a wave of recognition over your heart and mind as the drama plays out across the stage. Like Red at Seattle Rep a few months ago, it's a play about art, the meaning of art, how and why we create it, and why it matters. "Art isn't about answers," says Mr. Lyons, the art lecturer, "it's about asking questions." It's about creating something that wasn't there before, something that only you can see or imagine, and then share with the rest of the world. It doesn't matter than none of these men have ever seen a painting before, spending their days as they do in the dark pits of the coal mines. They paint what they see - the houses of the town, the darkness of the pits, the people in the streets walking against a deluge of rain, a vase of flowers on a table - and it becomes art. This is one side of the play.

The other side of the play is about identity and longing. These men, they know who they are, absolutely. They're miners, except for the one who was gassed in the Somme twenty years before and is now a dental assistant, and another one who is unemployed. Their life is difficult and painful, leaving school at the age of 11 or thereabouts, spending ten hours or more a day crammed deep into the mines, always the fear that a beam will crush you or the earth will suffocate you. In the morning they put on their one-and-only striped suits and walk to work, strip down for the heat of the underground, come back up hours later to shower and put their suits back on and then spend an evening at the pub or perhaps learning about art. The art changes everything. They could be something different besides the identity they were born into, and it opens a world of possibility and at the same time a fear of the unknown. This is the inescapable human condition: our never-ending search for who we are and what we might become.

coda: R. Hamilton Wright has this one line, near the end of the play: "Twenty years, they go by in a flash." It was twenty years ago this summer I saw him for the first time, in The Revenger's Comedies at ACT Theatre. It feels like yesterday. I hope to see him again and again, for twenty years more.

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