"I would teach the old that death does not come with old age, but with forgetting. I would walk when others hold back, I would wake when others sleep, I would listen when other talk, and how I would enjoy good chocolate ice cream."
On Monday, November 17, 2008, the Chicago theatere community came together with the fans of Studs Terkel to remember the man at Steppenwolf Theatre. Frank Galati gave the welcome speech and then the Steppenwolf ensemble including Artistic Director Martha Lavey along with guest artists including Joyce Piven and David Schwimmer performed A Tribute to Studs Terkel: Will the Circle be Unbroken?
The performance drew from Terkel's book Will the Circle be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith. The performance followed the format of actors presenting the various people Terkel had interviewed; common Americans from every walk of life. The performance was quite powerful and honest. Since there was no production framing the text, the words carried the power and emotion. It was perhaps one of the least pretentious performances I have seen in a long time.
The even reflected on death - all kinds: tragic, sorrowful, murder, spiritual, and joyous. Though the work is based on a book that has touched many readers, the event was much more powerful because of the shared experience between the audience. They were even sharing the experience with the actors who were simply conduits for the emotion of the words - they did not perform, but simply read their pieces well. The empathy and sharing was truly an expression of embracing a life and healing after a loss. We are loosing this type of exchange as we become more and more isolated by our technology.
To paraphrase one of the characters in the play:
"We know nothing about death. Those who lived in the 19th Century knew all about death - it was ever present and they had to deal with it. We do not. We know all about sex. Nobody in the 19th Century knew anything about sex. Sex is the new death."
An amusing little anecdote, but the point rings true. We've lost something that has taught us how to grieve and empathize. And not just as individuals - but as a society at large. Theatre helps us do that as a community. It brings us together to share something together. That is what happened at Steppenwolf on Monday night.