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Casey at the Bat

By ROBERT W. BETHUNE
ART TIMES December 2006

Iím a baseball fan. I say this so that what follows will not be read as the disgruntled musings of an anti-baseball curmudgeon. I admit to the curmudgeon part, but not to the anti-baseball part.

Itís not at all hard to sit in a major league stadium and see more people in that one place than a very successful theater company will see in an entire year. And even the bit players make six-figure salaries, to say nothing of the millions made by major stars. It seems like an unattainable paradise to someone who goes to quite a few professional productions in the course of a year, which he shares, with a few dozen people.

Yet baseball and theater are not that far apart. At the heart of each is a struggle, an agon, a mutually exclusive hypothesis: this or that must come to be, one or the other, the one excludes the other. Both sides are represented by distinct personalities and the audience identifies with those personalities, forming powerful attachments to one or another. The contest is often personified by a leading individual; most often the opposing pitchers serve as protagonists. The resources, skills, powers, strengths and weaknesses at play are similar, often complementary. There is a play of changing advantage, alternation of good and bad fortune, often involving highly dramatic peripetia: Casey comes to bat, bottom of the ninth, scoreless tie, bases loaded, two out—will he or wonít he? One of two outcomes is clearly and obviously in store; no one can tell which result will come to be, and by this time the audience of fans is strongly involved with the outcome. Grown men cry when Casey strikes out, and women shriek for joy when he hits that grand slam. There is a clear final victory and defeat, yet both sides survive to play another day.

There are classic character types: the grizzled veteran, the young phenomenon, the tough guy playing through injury, the has-been making a come-back, the player who canít hit who suddenly connects. There is even a chorus, especially if you watch the game while tuned in to radio or TV, but even if not, there is a rudimentary chorus in the form of the stadium announcer.

It is powerfully emotional, esthetically it is often strikingly beautiful—the 6-4-3 double play is one of the most beautiful evolutions of human movement ever performed. Beyond basic metaphors about life and effort, it is not intellectual. In particular, it is not about words.

What can we of the theater learn from this highly successful performance form? Can we get ourselves out of our habit of being small, and being intellectual, and being, well, maybe not a lot of fun? Can we let our audience in on it, bring them something they can deeply identify with? Could there someday be a market for bobblehead dolls of actors? That may sound stupid, but think about it—we could do worse. We are presently trying to do much worse indeed. We are presently trying to go out of business.

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