“Deliberate Distancing” On Screen…and In Real Life

The Howard Gilman Opera House, located on Lafayette Avenue in New York City, operates as a venue for the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). This past week, a limited, four-day run of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera” was staged at BAM by director Robert Wilson…with the collaboration of the famed Berliner Ensemble, no less! While it seems “fairly unlikely” that I would ever be able, at this stage of my life, to drop everything and drive 1,077 miles to take in what I am sure was an amazing performance, I have to admit that the idea nevertheless held a fair amount of appeal for me. (If interested, please see “Toxic Dispatches From Weimar” and the related “Brecht in Bold” slideshow for more information.)

Every now and then my “theatrical blood” reasserts its influence, and an event such as this inexplicably captures and holds my fascination. As an undergrad at Adrian College, I was passionately consumed with the theater, and in particular the written works, staging theories and enduring influence of Bertolt Brecht. I wrote more than one paper on Brecht’s considerable contributions to our culture and perhaps even considered him to be something of a personal hero, someone to emulate. (We Germans do tend to stick together!) Of course, that time period in my life feels like it was roughly a thousand years ago – in point of fact, it was 1979-1983. More importantly, though, all of those events took place more than a decade prior to my conversion to Christianity. So, except for one rare, ill-advised foray into an unfortunate April Fool’s joke, it seems clear that my days of grease paint, stage direction and Fresnel lighting are long gone. I strongly suspect that the world is better off for my change in career plans.

For the uninitiated, I think it would be hard to overstate the enduring influence of Brecht on modern musicals, plays and films. What is (for me, anyway) most memorable about Brecht’s theory and practice of theater is his central idea that it is vital to periodically jolt the audience out of its willing, escapist suspension of disbelief. Stated another way, Brecht intentionally wrote and directed his productions such that the audience was often “encouraged to remember” that it was, after all, only watching a play, nothing at all like participating in real life.

Portraying the part of a monk in Brecht’s “Galileo” back in college, for example, I was encouraged to always try to make the audience painfully aware of the fact that I myself was aware that I was merely a performer on stage, i.e. that I had zero “real” emotional involvement in the unfolding arc of the play’s storyline. If you think that Brecht has not had any influence in our modern era of entertainment, I would quickly point to the musical artist Prince coughing loudly/clearing his throat before he starts to sing in the “Raspberry Beret” video, all of Matthew Broderick’s camera-aware monologues and in-on-the-joke side-glances in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the show-within-a-show manner in which popular sitcom series such as “The Office” are written and filmed, and the near-entirety of Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in “The Dark Knight.” In fact, I would venture to guess that the Brecht-influenced “distancing effect” features so prominently in much of our modern “reality TV” version of entertainment today that we scarcely are able to recognize and label it as a “practice of theater” anymore.

This may be a stretch, I’ll grant you, but I’d like to suggest that the Brechtian form of “deliberate distancing” – once considered a groundbreaking, exciting new theory – is something with which we are now so familiar that we have very adeptly begun to apply it to our own, very real lives. Social media – yet another gift from God that can be used both for good and for evil (1 Timothy 4:4) – has further assisted us in the task of “distancing our online selves” from our real selves such that we have, in a very real sense, taken on the roles of writer, director, choreographer and lighting technician for the great drama which we now, tongue in cheek, might wish to label as “my real life.” What was true about human beings prior to the advent of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and its social media ilk – that we all wish to present others with the Best Possible Version of us – is now exponentially more true now that technology has brought within everyone’s grasp the tools and expertise once available only to industry experts and insiders. We can now fake it with the best of them.

I once heard a professor I deeply respect quip to the effect that social media has made us less social than ever, less willing to allow others to enter into the ongoing drama of our actual lives, more isolated, increasingly caught up in controlling the aspects of our “outward-facing” selves that we are able to choreograph, and (interestingly) less and less satisfied with the real relationships we have once the time comes to logout and go to school, eat dinner, or take another meeting with our coworkers. It does not take a genius like Brecht to draw a line from the glossy, cropped, idealized portraits we paint of ourselves to the disappointment we face when we encounter raw, “unfiltered” human beings and their too-messy-for-Facebook life situations. How can anything even begin to measure up to the image we present to each other?

As we all increasingly participate in the act of “executive producing” ourselves for the ongoing delight of the masses, it seems to me that we are quite possibly being pulled in the opposite direction to which we as Christian believers are being called. Where the Christian is called to community (Romans 12:10-18; Hebrews 10:24-25; Philippians 2:4), truth spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15-16), bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:1-5), and opening up our flawed selves for the good instruction of one another, the all-too-natural competing urge is to airbrush, Photoshop, mask, and/or softly light who we really are such that we become “acceptable” in the eyes of man rather than accepted in Christ by God Himself. We so easily fall victim to a mentality that ultimately does the exact opposite of what God intends – our lives, instead of being trial-and-error experiments lived out in love, become instead theatrical showpieces that, while intended to draw people in, backfire as our “audience” invariably catches up to us; polishing our image effectively serves to “deliberately distance” anyone who might suggest that we have some work to do.

Jesus Christ, deeply troubled by our sinful tendency to play-act and live out “roles” we have written for ourselves – see Matthew 23 – is singularly unique in His unwillingness to sit in the back row of the theater and cluck His tongue as He writes out a review of our flawed and pathetic performances. As opposed to applying critical theories similar to those of Brecht, the triune God does not in any way seek to “detach” Himself or others from the ongoing, jacked-up drama of our lives. He does not sit apart from the action, judging and critiquing our performance, “giving us notes,” as it were, with the cold expectation that we will faultlessly obey his commands from this point forward.

Quite to the contrary. Where Brecht advocates for distance, the Lord draws near and weeps with those who weep and are broken (John 11:32-37; Luke 13:31-35). Where Brecht might suggest cool detachment and heightened critical observation, the Lord goes for sweat, blood, passion and full-on engagement. God is the fully-engaged Observer Who chooses, in love, to become a Player in the failed performances of our individual lives. Rather than gasp at our dropped lines, missed entrances, and shoddy costumes, choosing to safely remain glued to His seat in the opera house, Jesus is instead the entirely-involved God Who watches us all stumble badly, and scandalously chooses to leave His seat and jump onto the stage of human history to bring about the only possible conclusion that offers us salvation and deliverance from a lifetime of sin, folly and rebellion.

There is, perhaps, nothing quite as authentic as a willingness to enter into someone else’s life – their real life – pain, messiness and all. May the Lord give us all the courage to put down the mask, stop distancing ourselves and pursue authentic living with Him and with each other.

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