Screens, Curtains, and Partitions – Part One
When you see a play, there are four layers of concealment for what happens onstage:
1. The Curtain.
2. The Flats.
3. The Backdrop.
4. Costumes and Makeup.
The curtain completely conceals everything happening onstage. Its rise starts the play, its fall ends it. Actors can do a close scene in front of a closed curtain, but the curtain’s positioning is absolute.
The flats conceal some things happen onstage and add dimension to the presentation onstage. The flats conceal less than the curtain, but they define the portions of the stage that the audience should watch.
The backdrop and side curtains conceal the techies and actors entering and exiting the audience’s view. This level of concealment is absolute and never changes; nothing backstage is a secret, but the audience should not see it during the performance.
Costumes and makeup conceal the actors’ real appearances to present them as something other than they are. The audience knows that the actors are not Romeo and Juliet, but they take the roles of other people during the performance.
The theater provides a useful metaphor for the dimensions of appropriate concealment in life in general. On the one end of the concealment continuum, everything is concealed. On the other end, very little is concealed but it is very carefully presented. Everything assumes a certain perspective on the part of the audience, for none of them is God who knows and sees everything; theater is made by humans for humans. Even the director, who knows everything about how the play was made and how the cast and crew do their jobs, cannot see them working but judges the process by the product of their efforts.
Anyone may know what goes on “backstage” in the lives of fellow citizens, in businesses, and in government. Even when life is conducted openly, we operate by trust that the processes that produce the appearances we judge are good. Life would be unbearable if we had no trust whatsoever for our neighbors and colleagues. Correspondingly, we assume that if we see certain parts of people’s lives that ought to remain hidden, we assume faults in their ability to generate a good appearance.
Actors speak openly about the tricks and tools of their trade, and techies have conventions to learn about how better to generate the experience of a play. An audience has understanding for a lack of professionalism in the Sunday school Christmas play or in the junior high’s theater program; although they expect better performances from high school theater productions, they understand that high school students are still amateurs. There is little understanding if professional actors on Broadway fail to present a good show.
Children’s faults are apparent and we treat them specially, but adults should either have improved their faults or learned to conceal them until an appropriate time. As humans living with humans, we only have appearance to judge, and we communicate our true selves through our appearance. The ability to present a good personal appearance is not necessarily deceptive, and a wretched appearance may be false. A good actor may play a businessman and no audience would expect that he hold a comprehensive business strategy in his briefcase, while an ordinary man might look particularly despondent and I would expect him to get his act together and be the man that he knows he is.
Ultimately, all people should learn how to present themselves in society. Sometimes we think that continual raw discussion of hardship is genuine and that a refined appearance is deceptive; sometimes we think that people should identify themselves by their difficulties and sufferings. Such identification is appropriate at times, but it is not appropriate at all times. If the right time does not exist, you must create it; if the right time does exist, you must use it. Hardship is no excuse for people not to excel where they may; difficulty is no excuse for duty unfulfilled. We do all of this with love and charity toward our neighbors and colleagues, but it must be done.
Shifting layers of concealment are the means by which we demonstrate our true selves, because we cannot truly see each other as we are. More on this later.