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.

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  1. This is fascinating. I look forward to reading the rest of your thoughts on this. Maybe I’ll do a post related to it at some point.

    “As humans living with humans, we only have appearance to judge, and we communicate our true selves through our appearance.”

    This is particularly interesting to me. When considering the language we often use, there is a sense in which we think of relationships as either deep, constituting reality, or shallow, constituting falsity. We think that a shallow relationship, one that is only based on external representations of a person (not merely speaking of physical, here, but actions), is one that is not as true as a deep relationship. The person I’ve known for 15 years, and have known intimately, is the person with whom I have the most true relationship with.

    Does your understanding of the external as a true representation of the internal defeat this supposition? When I have known someone for fifteen years (or in your case, about four), am I knowing and understanding their presentation better, rather than digging past the presentation to their ‘true’ self?

    I think I’d argue the true=deep and false=shallow relationships are not necessarily true, but I’m still working through my thoughts.

    Thoughts?

    • I tend to think holistically, the parts in relation to the whole and the whole in relation to the parts. To continue the stage analogy, the workshops and dressing rooms are the heart of a theatrical production. Although they produce and move the stuff that gives life to the rest of the show, they exist to serve the show; they are a means and not an end. You may know the heart of the production very quickly, but it takes years to become an excellent techie, stage manager, actor, or costume manager. The “depth” metaphor for relationships bottoms out pretty quickly.

      Perhaps my issue with the “depth” metaphor is a matter of articulation rather than an argument about an idea. People might say, “It takes a long time to develop a deep relationship.” If they mean that it takes a long time to create a highly accurate impression of a person’s character in their minds, then they are correct. However, people are dynamic. Knowing them for a long time helps us guess what they might do in the future, but we go by probabilities rather than certainty. We always exercise faith and trust when we deal with anyone because we are not always experiencing their past, present, and future in the same moments that we are with them.

      While we fiddle around with forests and trees and missing one for the other and the other for the one, the Ents kick us out for being in the woods past curfew.

      We must finish and dispose of thoughts but never finish and dispose of thinking. Knowledge just sort of is, whether it is about people or theater or Ents. Perhaps I am regurgitating my Plato.

      • If you are regurgitating Plato, you are doing so with enough Bennett that I choose to forgive you.

        Then again, I praise your regurgitation of Plato, since Plato deserves to be heard more.

        So to rephrase your response, in an effort to make sure I understood, it sounds like you would argue that there is truth in saying that knowing someone for a very long time gives us a better view of who they are, though this term ‘depth’ is only significant if it means ‘can predict them more accurately, since we have a greater measure of their actions.’ I suppose to that extent, then, I agree with you.

        My question, however, steps away from ‘depth’ and ‘level of knowledge’ and into something more along the lines of ‘truth of knowledge.’ Consider the situation where you meet someone, have an initial impression, and even share an experience for a time, such as a class together. You have a conception of who they are floating around in your head. Then suppose you get to know them better, by spending more time with them. If your conception turns out to be wholly wrong, and your new understanding is ‘deeper’, to what extent can you trust your initial impressions?

        From my understanding of the original post, your argument would be that the external is just as true as the internal, even if they seem to contradict.

        Forgive me for staying past curfew.

  2. My ultimate point is twofold: one, that concealment is very often okay and we should not expect to see everything at once, and two, that we need to be content with not knowing before we do know. We need not be satisfied with ignorance, but a little more contentment can help us when there is not a “deeper” to get to. For instance, a painting is ONLY a surface. You cannot go beyond a surface-level understanding of a painting. There is a distinct possibility for a horribly, horribly mixed metaphor, and perhaps I am risking saying something beautifully but not accurately.

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