Dunkirk NY – Last night I happened to catch the 1957 David Lean epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s one of those movies that, the older you get, the better it becomes. Towards the end of the movie, as he surveys the sunset from his completed bridge, Col. Nicholson (Alec Guiness) say the following:
I’ve been thinking. Tomorrow it will be twenty-eight years to the day that I’ve been in the service. Twenty-eight years in peace and war. I don’t suppose I’ve been at home more than ten months in all that time. Still, it’s been a good life. I loved India. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But there are times when suddenly you realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Hardly made any difference at all, really, particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking’s very healthy; but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts on those lines from time to time. But tonight… tonight!
Somewhere within my conscience exists the perception that what I do with my life on a day-to-day basis is essentially trivial. Three things have brought that home to me over the past few days.
The first is the earthquake in Haiti. No doubt all human activity seems trivial when stacked up against a natural disaster of such proportions, but as with Katrina and the Indonesian tsunami, I have a difficult time coping with the notion that a life in the theatre – or in academia – is anything but trivial compared with the work that is being done and will be done by human service organizations and NGOs in re-building Haiti. Being able to correctly scan Shakespearean verse is of no practical value to a child with a broken body.
The second are the mounds of statistics I have been seeing lately concerning the condition of theatres and theatre artists. When you stack up the general public’s statistical disinterest in theatre against the general economic condition of the art and the artists themselves, the rational mind has to question why anyone would continue to pursue such a statistically trivial career. Or worse – why anyone would ever educate or train someone to pursue this career. You can choose to take the high road and produce aesthetic arguments supporting such a choice, but only in a first-world country where basic needs are by and large taken care of can this argument actually take place. There are many places in the world where no one is arguing about how many plays or whose plays get produced every year. You own career, stacked up against these statistics, makes for a sober reckoning.
The third is related to the Kwai quote. Unless you know the movie, what you miss from reading the quote out of context is the underlying irony of the situation. The character, Col. Nicholson, has built this bridge while a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp in SE Asia. He has managed, under almost impossible conditions, to get his men to erect a magnificent feat of engineering, a bridge across a narrow gap in the river. He completely loses sight of the fact that he is aiding and abetting the enemy by building this structure, focusing instead on the achievement itself and its future as a monument to Western civilization in the face of hardship. The quote takes place on the evening before the bridge’s opening. He is entirely unaware that a British commando team has been dispatched to blow the bridge up.
I am also nearer the end of my career than the beginning. I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to do theatre, and I’ve spent a lot of time training others how to do theatre. At the climax of the movie, Nicholson mutters to himself “What have I done?”, and his last act is his dying body falling on the plunger that blows up the bridge. I can’t help but wonder – is that a plunger which I see before me? -twl