I got out of town last week, well away from the theater and civilization as we usually know it. I went down Utah's Green River on a canoe expedition with my four sons and a friend. No radios, no cellphones, no flat screens, no election news. We saw a total of eight other people in five days on the river. We did see a whole lot of each other, which hardly ever happens. You'd think this was about as far away from theater as you could get, and it was. But even so, theatre is everywhere. It just comes in different forms. For example:
1) The amazing production values of this show were pretty hard to beat. You're moving down a smooth strong river that carries you from one spectacular scene to another better than any stage machinery ever invented. The brown river is the stage floor, the red canyons rise like giant flats ahead and from side to side. It's hard not to see this as the American sublime (though my oldest son insisted it was more like Wily Coyote)---the still grandeur of the silent unspoiled American west, where the loudest sound was often the drip of the paddle in the water. I regretted not bringing my Walt Whitman, but this was a setting that pre-empted language.
2) There was language aplenty in the camp. My boys are not the quiet cowboy types. Give us a warm night, a campfire, and some box wine and they just take off, never happier than when they are interrupting each other. An all male cast is an unusual show in our lives--no spouse control was around to kick us under the table, reminding us to quiet down and not hog the conversation. Get us guys together and we must be the loudest family in the world. It's a very good thing there was no one within ten miles. I was amazed the grand setting seemed to have no effect whatsoever. You'd think the immense star lit sky, the long line of the canyon wall, and the pouring dark might have filled us with wonder. Not a bit. We covered the civil war, the death of newspapers, the Greek and Romans, CEO compensation, cows in India, what would happen if we cut off Saudi oil right now (nothing good), Chinese history, and the election campaign; we made lists of great comedians, best 20th century actors, ten worst states, best childhood pranks, the value of the CIA, the not so noble American indians. For starters. We told tales whenever we could wedge one in. We did not talk about relationships or beat drums or pass the talking stick. The talking stick was in everyone's hands all the time. This was a real wild west show. So maybe the open landscape had its effect after all, removing all barriers and regulation.
3) You carry your world with you, even in a new land--your own collection of images. The days were hot and after a few hours paddling we'd pull over and swim in the river. Imagine that--swimming in a deep river in America every day, no one around, having the water all to ourselves. It seemed to me a scene out of a Thoma Eakins painting--white male bodies on the banks of a river, arranged like a "scene". Looking at that picture again, I see obvious diffences--even in Eden we wore bathing suits (the male bottoms in the painting look almost alarmingly unsuitable for a modern family outing, which is a rather sorry comment on our apprehensive culture). And the landscape is so east coast.
4) But most of all in the river I thought of Noah, the first born son of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Noah's the strange one of the family--as Steinbeck says, "he moved slowly, spoke seldom . . . he lived in a strange silent house, and looked out of it through calm eyes. He was a stranger to all the world, but he was not lonely."
When the Joads finally reach the Colorado River (where the Green is headed), feeling hot and tired, they do what we did. They strip off their clothes, set them in the willows, wade out into the water and splash and sit down lazily in the river. It's just about their happiest moment on their journey--and very beautiful on our stage too.
But Noah doesn't just take a swimming break. He tells his brother Tom, "I ain't a-goin' on. I ain't a-gonna leave this here water."
Tom tells Noah he's crazy, but Noah says, "It ain't no use. I was in that there water. An' I ain't a gonna leave her. I'm a-gonna go now, Tom--down the river. I'll catch fish an' stuff, but I can't leave her. I can't."
Tom says, "Listen, you goddamn fool---" But it ain't no use. Who knows what's going to happen to Noah alone on that big lonely river. But it doesn't matter. He's found his home, whihc is more than the other Joads, who have lost theirs, ever do.
Putting my weary old body in the Green River after a day of paddling, feeling the strong current tug and wrap around me, looking up at that great blue western sky, I felt a lot like Noah Joad. I didn't want to leave that there river.
But of course I have.