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Steinberg: With theater, a little knowledge goes a long way

Dress rehearsal Strauss' 'Elektra' with soprano Christine Goerke  title role (right).    On left is

Dress rehearsal of Strauss' "Elektra," with soprano Christine Goerke in the title role (on right). On the left is | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: November 16, 2012 6:21AM

Horrible things are supposed to be horrible, to jar and linger. We forget that, so accustomed are we to our easy, instant-gratification culture where, when trouble hits, the grief counselors are rushed in, the popular pills are prescribed, and we’re all expected to dance upon the fresh graves of our personal heartbreak.

This spills over into entertainment, where tragedy is reserved for the past, the Greeks and Shakespeare, and sometimes not even there. I’ll never forget when Robert Falls presented “King Lear” at the Goodman in 2006, some toff from the Wall Street Journal rolled into town, jammed a perfumed hankie under his nose, and complained that Falls’ vision was too disturbing — “the worst production of a Shakespeare play” the reviewer had “witnessed in a lifetime of theatergoing . . . an endless string of let’s-be-ever-so-modern shock effects.” I read that, dumbfounded, thinking: a play where a character’s eyes are torn out onstage SHOULD be shocking.

What threw the Journal’s reviewer off — in keeping with that newspaper’s general misappraisal of reality — is the confusion between finding an experience pleasant and deciding whether it is any good, the ordinary calculus being fun = good, or, worse, what-I-like = good. I usually know that, but that understanding eluded me last week, for a time.

Maybe it was the strain of seeing two intense tragedies within four days — first Strauss’ “Elektra” on opening night of Lyric Opera of Chicago and then the National Theatre of Scotland’s “Black Watch,” presented by Chicago Shakespeare at the Broadway Armory.

To me, “Elektra” was an ordeal — misery set to music, and shrill music at that. But when the lights came up, everyone I spoke with rhapsodized the production, and I had to conclude the opera had flown past me — it can take a certain base of knowledge to properly appreciate a work of art, and given that I just learned that same evening that Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss are different people, after opining that “Elektra” was kinda dark for the guy who wrote “Die Fledermaus” — perhaps I’m not the right person to form, never mind publish, opinions about opera.

“Black Watch” recounts the experiences of the famous Scottish regiment in Iraq. I know what I expected — “Henry V” updated — but what I got was two hours of young men screaming obscenities at each other in a heavy brogue, punctuated with explosions. No speeches, no poetry. It wasn’t pleasant so I didn’t like it and wondered what all the fuss is about.

When “Black Watch” ended, my son and I didn’t say a word, just exchanged glances and fled gratefully into the night, and the thought that we had experienced something extraordinary only gradually dawned on me, because of two things.

First, when I awoke the next morning, the end of the play was still ricocheting around my head. The actors perform a frantic close drill march, across the stage, back and forth, in tightening circles, some falling, returning, as the pipes grow faster and faster, shriller and shriller. It was almost ballet, yet shocking in some elemental way. Someone said the play is worth seeing for the last five minutes alone, and I agree.

Second — and I probably shouldn’t say this, it violates some pundit code — was Hedy Weiss’ review, which explained the work to me. It shocked me how much I missed, starting with the scene where the soldiers silently read letters from home, “a haunting quiet moment as the men stand apart, using nothing but small gestures to suggest their immense longing, loneliness, heartbreak.” That’s it, exactly, I see now — while I was watching it I was merely confused to the fact that the same actor who played the writer quizzing the men in a Scottish pub also was the Monty Pythonesque sergeant screaming at them in Iraq.

That last detail — completely obvious, in retrospect — really threw me. Have I become the Wall Street Journal guy, snapping open my lorgnette, taking a glance at the world and misunderstanding it? To be fair, Hedy had seen “Black Watch” before — it played here last year. Sometimes you need to be prepared for what you’re seeing — I had gone knowing only the play is about Scots and Iraq, not expecting the “hybrid of pure theater, cinematic motion and the powerhouse balletics of military life,” as Hedy aptly put it, something new that “creates a language of its own, just as war does.”

Never before have American wars unfolded so far outside the public consciousness as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have, and it is incumbent upon us — as the people who sent these soldiers off to die — to try to grasp a glimmer of what happened to them there. “Black Watch” which plays until Oct. 21, strikes me, now, as an important, necessary work of theater, an education and a penance. But it isn’t fun. You’re not supposed to enjoy it.

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