An Arts Essay

ADULT CHILDREN’S THEATER

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All illustrations but one adapted from Yelp review content.

 Liz Mackie, 2019, for Nostalgistudio

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ADULT CHILDREN’S THEATER

The adult children gather singly or in pairs on the early side of the performance. Shunning the cold Off Broadway pavement they form more or less impatient clusters in the theater lobby until finally allowed  to disperse among the empty rows inside. There they’ll shed coats, sit, open programs, open phone screens. If any two strangers among these early-comers wind up feeling too closely-packed, they’ll look annoyed;  these adult children will be cursing their luck, feeling something to have been spoiled for them. Better by far to be surrounded at a slow pace.

Now begins the adult children’s hour. Which of course is half that, at most; twenty minutes more commonly the span of time before the probably metaphorical curtain goes up. Meanwhile in doing this—sitting here, adult persons sitting in a theater—they have their sole existence as active independent beings. To be in this seat or pair of seats before the show is what they’ve chosen. On either side of them, in space, in time, choicelessness extends.

Compulsion trailed them through the cold city up to the lightfall on the pavement by the entrance. As much as once a week, often more, taking all sorts of trouble to get there, the adult children are drawn to that peculiar light outside theaters and its never-failing properties. Across Off Broadway thresholds they flock, to the staff’s irritation. The adult children know very well they’re a bother, their lobby clustering unwelcome. But the callow youth in Will Call don’t understand. They don’t know yet, what it’s like. They’re still choosing who to be and who to be with, when they like and where; they’re still making choices all over the place. The adult children, no. This is it for them, all they choose is to be here (these precious moments!). Just ahead, the play will start, continue, and conclude, everything in others’ hands to make a failure or success. Meanwhile what’s left outside, behind, awaits. They’d rather not be children still but they’ve no choice. There is no choice; they are. What happens to them lies within parental hands, just as it has all their decades. Cats-cradled, entoiled, their dangling feet kicking, reaching, frictionless; arrested in dependent states, they’re bound to caring roles.

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Snazzier: a word they grew up hearing describes it, how just entering a theater lobby makes them feel; smart, attractive, alive. They’re half-convinced it’s a property of the lights around the street door. And Off Broadway’s fine, there needn’t be a theater marquee or even an awning to produce the same effect. Even since they’ve quit smoking it continues to happen.

Aging middle-aged people, two by two they’ll share complaints through prix-fixe menus and then rush the waitstaff for the bill so they can be at the theater early, early again. The parents’ debts and extravagance, the parents’ lies and demands; the many snares they set, how scheming they are; how some are exhibitionists, others just lazy, but all grow more incontinent than necessary; what more can be said about the bureaucracy, incredible; the very uneven competence among the parades of caring and uncaring personalities in health care insurance and government; of course the expense, the staggering sums not to mention the telephone hours and travel time, the unrelentingness, the sorrow: from frisée salad to sorbet or flan, then out the door to hurry fleeing from their own voices and woes towards tonight’s numbered seats. The adult children shove past tourists standing grouped like fattened cattle and snap at all dawdling young workers on the cold pavement:

“Excuse us! Trying to get by, please!”

What they’re rushing to see, for instance this pair of sisters I’m part of in life: does it matter? A little, of course. Beyond the relief of observing a story we’re not standing there powerless in, we adult children have strong imaginative powers and high dramatic standards, too; this being about all we’ve been allowed to develop in our parent-shadowed existences. Vocal critic-connoisseurs whose eyes stay trained on freer people’s choices, we annoy the ushers every night when we rush the house doors but all cultural life in every city would collapse without us.

We’re the paying crowd: mature, habit-bound, solvent. At the thought of ever being able to afford to take employment Off Broadway in a Will Call window, we laugh, roll our eyes. No family subsidies for these adult children; we’ve always had to work real jobs, as our parents sucked dry each successive financial state they happened to pass through. Any adventuring we did in search of self, back when we did that, was paid for with our own money we’d earned (and were often likewise squandering). We spend more on theater now. Our work lives have been many, many years long.

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Are Will Call window workers even paid Off Broadway? Are they mostly interns? What do they do for their other seven work hours? The adult children spare a minute for these questions, then go back to asking how many petty sadists it takes to keep the house doors closed upon a crowded lobby.

Being Off Broadway we might get a Playbill, otherwise we expect something printed. Even with our shelves at home groaning with them, the trend away from paper collectibles towards programs on-line is one we deplore. As for the play, trends of other sorts prevail; they come and go.  Some seasons teem with plays about orphans or otherwise parentless young people who undergo the most gruesome and humiliating trials over the course of the plot, often to tragic conclusions. The adult children will sit looking past all that surface incident to train our eyes on what we see: these characters’ essential luck. We envy them the pared-down family life they have, one that spares them our fate and its consequences. Our sympathetic identification is very hard won. This becomes a form of objectivity.

Problems of our own: an understatement.

Observe our erotic lives, their resemblance to some near-empty theater, the way they stretch around us, before, behind, our figures alone erect in a blasted vacancy dotted with dead passions, a killing ground. Nothing moves there but scraps of memory, sun-bleached, fluttering like prayer flags from rib cages in every direction—the time since our last defeat is well-advanced, no lie. Isn’t this sad enough? Even sadder is when we’re also unhappily married and tied to what’s become a lifetime’s lack of privacy; although the unmarried are likewise objects of the married adult children’s pity, too. Both sides are right, we’re all pitiable.

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What happened? We were unlucky and we were also too nice, too trusting. We had the kind of parents who distracted us; whose influence drew us off course; whose enmity towards us was always present outside our defenses, tents for miles. We kept falling every time for their hollow horse trick, it didn’t matter who pulled it; in the end, spooked and mistrustful, afraid of mistaking again between gifts and chains, intimacy and invasion, we chose self-exile.

Not alone, though.

Gray heads, bald heads, dye jobs: it’s like they’ve got windows, so easy are they to see through when yours is one of them. Look: in each a love-light burns for someone elsewhere. A work colleague, maybe a social friend; or an internet-resuscitated high school crush; it could be a priest or a nurse or doctor active in the parents’ case, or a kind neighbor: living people turned into steady preoccupations by adult children in search of relief. Quite often we don’t even know them, we give our love to strangers; movie stars, in my case and how many others, I’ll wonder.

Three rows down, the handsome scarf, the hearing aids: which does that one love? In cases of all sorts I’ll often guess George Clooney: not my own choice, but I understand the confidence involved. Now that we’re older and they’re older, too, our chances feel better. Crucially, we’ve got more to offer than we did back when they were more beautiful. We were better looking once ourselves; but messed up, drinking, living at our parents’ beck and call; we were still young when their big-ticket health emergencies started. Twenty-five, thirty years or more can pass between the first goodbye at the hospital bedside and the funeral. Decades like that take a toll and the adult children don’t often enjoy the sights our looking glasses show us. Fortunately, the movie stars we pick aren’t shallow. Love makes everyone a little blind, too.

If we’re lucky we’ll be there to see a play by Mr Tennessee Williams; not The Glass Menagerie again, though. Watching an older play, one from that era, by someone really good like that is just so satisfying; we purr a little in prospect. With it always comes an odd phenomenon peculiar to the adult children in attendance. Drawn into the past through an old play’s plot, at some point it will dawn on us that parents used to die more. It gets established in the dialogue if it’s not simply assumed when there’s no call to mention them. Endgame excepted, their advanced old age care’s not much depicted in the great post-war theater. We may well feel The Glass Menagerie to have been rubbed in our faces too much for the simple reason that Amanda looks likely to hang on like one of ours, it hits too close to home.

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The parents’ heyday; Times Square, 1957, Andreas Feininger

The fact is that not so long ago—in my own parents’ Manhattan heyday, in fact—young adulthood not to mention middle age was far less encumbered than presently. Eight decades was a great old age for a parent to reach and not that common; nine very rare. No more. The adult children are living proof, sitting here in our numbers; something big has shifted with the change when seventy feels fairly young. As, yes, it is. It’s a child’s age still, very often.

Here, in this truncated hour of ours before the show, is when adult children like me and my sister find time for the question of whether this utter knee-capping and diversion of healthy middle-aged energy into caring roles can help explain why the culture around us is so grotesque and theater in general so shrunken from its past greatness. Old enough to have seen lost heights for ourselves, from earliest childhood we also heard a lot of Broadway lore around the home. So much to see, the real stars, so inexpensively: who even needed Off Broadway then, in our parents’ heyday?  As we grew up learning, they had it better. Not much can stop them boasting of it still, every chance they get:

“I pity you girls!” we hear for the fifth or sixth consecutive decade. “I’m just thankful I got to live when I did.” To be followed soon by another demoralizing round of “I worry about you!”

The bigger a captive audience adult children have provided for remarks like that, the fewer of us who’ve been free to give our all to our culture. No one can deny the result: there’s less skill and experience out there, less knowledge, less developed taste.

Not to forget, of course, never, the countless million watts of expertise and star power we watched AIDS extinguish from the profession, the blacked-out wastes in place of so much promise, the fruitfulness that wasn’t; certainly we’ve watched too many plays about AIDS to ever forget. But seated here beneath our bushels, we too have been missed.

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We still show up, that we can do, though with increasing dismay. The irony stings each time we register some further decline that our own freedom might have forestalled if not prevented—freed en masse, that is, how could we not have done better by the cultural life of our respective cities? We took our parents to Broadway shows when they visited town during their ambulatory old age which lasted for twenty years, with ticket prices rising constantly; but that’s what they liked. So that was our contribution.

Then, too, we hid from them in our secret love lives, slipping off to cerebral pleasures that slowly consumed us. Finally inside the adult child is left a smooth core of persistent longing that hangs there, a love-light to reflect the radiance of our common dream state with its beams and waves and solar flares of love untrue—unreal, at least. It feels true. It feels like the best of us, all we’ve kept in reserve finally showing up at the table, every time. We keep going to love and back, shuttling between parallel lives, sometimes only momentarily; we can meet and marry in the time required to resume a center aisle seat after a restroom visit.

What is real?

Our poor peers! Their poor light-stained faces, all alike: each one’s smartphone a scene of past and future catastrophe; screen reflections turn the lenses of their glasses into countdown clocks. It’s as if, in choosing to remove themselves from caring roles to sit here instead, they’ve pulled a pin that does something; and now they can’t wait to see what. Their fingers speed among their message systems. Vital news could pile up and up if something drastic were to happen between the phone being turned off as requested (from the stage, by the ushers, in scripted recordings, by sound effects—theaters have tried everything) and intermission. Being Off Broadway, there could be no intermission at all. Some things are too important to miss and everyone knows the result: ringy-ringtones, shattering artistic moods in all performances without exception. The adult children will suspect our own kind, guessing that the culprit’s hopes have reached a desperate phase. “When parents cannot die fast enough, no earthly show ought to interfere with the sounding (at last!) of the call to cry Hallelujah!” Such would be the basic thinking here.

We expect to feel reborn.

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Our parents live and live. They’ve over-lived. Theirs an age beyond sense, beyond use: excessage, I suggest it should be called.

It’s hard when practically everyone you admire from the past was dead by the age you’ve reached—dead and buried, much less orphaned—and you’re still waiting to begin. For now, there’s a wound where your heart is and life flows backwards out of you always. It’s like being caught under a terrible spell and maybe related to encounters with all this apparent immortality. The astounding decrepitudes reached with no end in sight: no, it’s more like a comet struck us; Earth, that is. The living piled upon the living to extinction, such would be the general outlook.

Plays about money amuse us. Most of us hoped to inherit—planned, that is, for our parents’ deaths to better our late middle age; even for years ever so slightly plumped by a life insurance pay-out or two, we’ve looked forward. No more, not most of us. (Lucky outliers—yes, we see you, we know you by your good fresh haircuts.) The rest, recognizing one another as the adult children who’ll get nothing from the nothing that’s left, share a melancholy shrug of pity as we look around and spot the ones who still believe they won’t get shafted: we might as well be raising a toast to their innocence, even as we think our own laughable and pathetic in retrospect. Poor fools have hope.

Personally, I power down, skip the intermission (if any) re-boot, and keep my phone turned off until I’m waiting for a subway train to bring me home—so far, that is, I do this. I might become just as unable to wait for news as my peers with the rude phone habits do; one good push might see me slipping to their side. We could all of us be or become one another, adult childhood generalizes us so insistently; Same Boat Syndrome, an aggravating condition that takes what we should have been, as individuals, and stunts us to fit patterns.

The responsible ones, the latent perfectionists, the good grade getters, the striking talents: marked out from an early age for something special, they always told us; our parents kept this in our ears. Who knew they meant we’d been chosen to serve them? All that lifetime learning to embrace our moral responsibilities and then to find out it’s like being a hunchback. Abundantly kind, we wound up short on independent status: the big world with its problems and rewards eludes us, we can’t quite reach it. Love, guilt, fear, rage, at best just barely in balance, keep our focus close. We’re experts of self-denying attention. No wonder it ranks among our greatest pleasures, for it suits us so well, to sit in an audience watching a play.

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Sometimes we’re still blocks away, running late to the theater. Between needless worries about missing the curtain (Off Broadway shows never start on time, as management waits as long as possible for someone better to arrive) we carry on close, smiling, confident love relationships with movie stars whose jealousy flares up so that we need to comfort them, reassure and soothe them with caresses. This happens while we push through a subway turnstile and take the stairs past a person wrapped in a grimy sleeping bag who’s counting coins out of a plastic iced coffee cup. Then we’re at a big party with movie stars, our very own movie star among them where maybe we just met, and we’re fascinating a whole tableful. No, we’re skirting someone smelly—no, it’s just another goddamned food cart the city doesn’t need; no, we’re fascinating famous people at a party we’ll be remembered for in biographies. We’d be there now if our parents had only died sooner.

Myopia: dog or baby?

But our parents lived to keep us caged in caring roles. Much in us is ingrown. Along with our nagging loneliness, we blame them for our fear of failure.

They moan and groan. “I was so much happier when I smoked!” We agree, they were. So were we, when we smoked. Although how much was the smoking and how much was being younger, free and thoughtless of the caring roles to come? The cigarettes lit on the pavements outside theaters, those we do miss, no question, not least for the way they prolonged our door-light showers; leaning against bright bricks, glamour-struck, we felt ourselves to be in our natural element. Now, not stopping, we sometimes feel rounded up, tamed.

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We recognize one another. We’ll buy a discount ticket if it’s offered. We’ll take a free one if a friend can’t use it. We see too many plays to keep track very thoroughly. When at two minutes to show time the line at Will Call looks long, restive, and stationary, we can guess why it’s stopped moving. We’ve seen it many times; we’ve done it ourselves. Another adult child’s ticket situation has applied the brakes:

“Joy is my name.”

New plays we welcome, desiring surprise. We know what we like but we’re not resistant; we invest easily, we root for the new play to work on us. Youthful playwrights we welcome and sometimes over-praise; they make us so grateful to live for a night in their forebrains, a space so innocent of what could await if they’re unlucky and wind up like us. They’re not even worried, some of them! It’s like visiting a spa, lovely for a couple of hours; after that the cracks start to show. So someone gave them backing and a chance to fake it. Where was our chance like that? How come some people are born so indulged? New playwrights are well-advised to bring it in at one hundred minutes or less.

We mete out little unqualified praise. Our raves are very few.

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Why the idealism? Why choose, for instance, to love pretty people whom we’ll never meet? Look around: pick someone. How long before we’d feel stuck with them? That’s where it always ends with us, anyhow. Disillusionment chills, closeness feels smothering; our time feels consumed, our talents thwarted, our bodies and happiness fed on; the familiar routine.

It started in our cradles. The world was a standing stripe of light we waited to see broken by a figure, the one to fill us; fountain and root of all rapture, encircling arms we pine for and wail for and without whose ministrations we’d truly die; our parents’ figures, ever more magical, glamorous, to the children we became. Were ever lives then or since so interesting as theirs? A marriage between an orphan and a motherless daughter, can you believe it? Their things, their tastes, their peculiar lore, their Broadway and heyday: we were raised as votaries to become adepts. And might have kept their cult going, or at least maintained a shrine more or less dusted in a corner somewhere, if they’d only ascended into heaven or done whatever it was they were planning; instead they lived long enough to disillusion us so thoroughly that we turned apostate. Then they lived longer, on and on, to force their bitter unbelieving adult children into caring roles.

Such is the lesson we bring to all our personal encounters.  At the same time we want love as much as ever, maybe somewhat more. Our hearts lie watching a stripe of lighted doorway, longingly.

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We show up, no matter how far Off Broadway; anywhere, really, as long as there’s a play on, and a street door with lights to bathe the adult children in that numinous spray of never-failing effects. An innocent but frankly sexual excitement tied to the profoundest solace: isn’t this sensation we seek the same that used to flood us whenever our parents walked into the room? Our infant joy, regained? We reenact that one-time twinning of our primal comfort and arousal when we gather like this before a performance, when we indulge these cultural life habits we couldn’t shake even if we wanted to; not if the fascination we seek in theaters is a surrogate for the first we ever knew. Side by side we’re chasing echoes of our parents’ old grandeur, recollections of their lore—and maybe finding them, again, as we once needed them to be; tall, strong, knowing. For we also feel very safe here.

Not to discount, that is, the soothing effects of our grateful relief at having once again got the night and theater correct, and at having been on time again, even on the early side. We  foresee all these points becoming preoccupations as we age but for now, to get them right feels somewhat rejuvenating.

As the lights finally dim, the adult children relax into positions of obedience. We love what our parents always loved and reverence what they taught us to, while adding reasons of our own. As for their debts and extravagance, a large share we accept, even with gratitude. Thanks to their habits of mind we squandered everything for years, the way they taught us; cashed in pensions to travel. Now we’re glad of it. You Can’t Take It With You: a play very unlike The Glass Menagerie in being due for revival. Hearts could break for our peers who waited on a certain death or pair of deaths to start adventuring, the saddest being the ones still waiting and the way they’ll inhale at the sound of foreign place names in plays, putting out regrets with air.

Sweet joy befall them. Sweet joy befall all of us.

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2 comments

  1. Everything you write here is so dear to this theater-obsessed Adult-Child who goes out almost nightly and is familiar with all these experiences. Beautiful pictures, too. Thank you. Kaori

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  2. Dear Kaori, Thank you! Of course I was thinking of so many nights with you as I was writing, happy to recollect many excellent plays and always wonderful companionship. With more to come, easily tempted as I am. With love, Liz

    Like

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