THE STUFF OF LIFE
There was great excitement in the town when a fit up company arrived during the 1950’s. These were groups of actors who travelled around the small towns and villages of Ireland putting on plays. They set up a barn-like tent in the Fairgreen with a curtained stage at one end and rows of wooden benches for the audience. Posters appeared on shop windows offering 7 nights of melodrama, farce, comedy, tragedy and romance.
Clutching our 6p entry fees we entered this magical place in our pre television world. The lights were dimmed and the curtain opened to reveal another world created by well-worn props and gaudy sets. Then the first characters arrived on stage and for an hour or two we were mesmerized as they created live drama for us – we laughed, we cried and we waited as the climax arrived. Finally, the curtain closed, the lights came on and we returned to the cold and grey world we had left behind.
Shakespeare, as an actor and playwright, began his career in a similar manner, as a “strolling player”. In his comedies, tragedies and romances he makes frequent references to acting and the stage when describing the stuff of life. This is no surprise as many of his characters seek to make sense of their lives, to understand the reason for their existence.
In “As You Like It”, one of his early comedies, Jacques, who is philosophical by nature, describes the 7 ages of man:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with a good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Even though these lines were written nearly 500 years ago we can still recognise the characters like the mewling infant, the reluctant schoolboy, the amorous lover and boastful soldier.
However, in a later tragedy, the hero Macbeth has a very different view of life having heard of his wife’s suicide and knowing that he faces imminent defeat and death:
“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”
Here a much darker picture of life appears. In the image of the actor strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, we have a visual reminder of the ups and downs of life, the good days and the bad days that are the stuff of life for everyone. The final image, of the tale told by an idiot, is very bleak.
“The Tempest” was one of Shakespeare’s last plays. It is classified as a romance because, while it deals with tragic events, it ends happily. Towards the end of the play, the main character, Prospero, speaks:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.