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Directing the drama of one’s life
02/11/2018 Katarzyna Popiołek

We encourage you to read the essay of Professor Krystyna Popiołek on the subject of “directing the drama of your own life”. The text comes from the festival catalog, which will be available during the 19th edition of the Interpretation.

Directing the drama of one’s life

An author of a literary work, a theatrical play or an opera libretto creates a piece based on the drama of human life, the depth and originality of human’s psychological set-up that manifests itself in their relationship with the world. A writer develops a plot to deliberately lead the audience to an intended end, experience and reflection. The work is completed by the director, who executes the play according to their own vision. In life, not all of the roles and scenes are clear and readily understandable and the endings are unknown. In a word, it feels better to live in theatre than to play in life.

Is theatre like life and life like theatre? Psychologists might think of it as a tempting parallel since it may inform new therapeutic and educational techniques, and I do not mean psychodrama. Let’s take a look at life as if it was a staged performance; let’s see how the play of our life unfolds and what our share in what goes on stage is. Each of us is simultaneously an author, the main character and the director of a play.

Human life is a drama. Let’s look at what Tischner would say: “To be a dramatic being is to experience certain time while having other people around you and the ground under your feet. A human would not be a dramatic being if it was not for the three factors: their exposure to other human beings, their exposure to the scene of drama, and the flowing time.”

The content of our drama is written irrevocably on an on-going basis, in line with the inexorable logic of time that one cannot rewind. The events that we take part in have their inalienable order. In everything that happened later, one can see a trace of what happened earlier. One can, however, act in a way that will change what has been done before. One may apologize for a bad word and go back where they had left. One can correct the past in this way. Who makes changes in what goes on the stage? It is evidently the director. It is the director that in everyone of us seeks to control the course of events in the subsequent acts of the play in which we act on the stage of the world, mostly within the part available to us. Not only does one seek, as far as possible, to make decisions about things that happen on stage but also about the cast, stage design, costumes, the elements that enrich the performance such as music, light, colourful smoke, and they can oftentimes also alter the composition and the size of the audience.


A prologue is not subject to the Director. Szymborska wrote that:

“I am who I am.
An unsolvable case
as any case would be.

Other ancestors
could have been mine after all,
and already I would have left
a different nest…”

Fate can be more or less fortunate. Sometimes, it might be later possible to adjust things it had sketched out. In other cases, it might not be so. What is important is what parts of the childhood memory, the memory of the time when the Director was not independent yet, will be given to the Director.

The theatre we enter provides us with a concrete start. It may be situated in the centre or within peripheries. It may have access to a bigger or smaller range of assets. Although a successful play may be staged on any stage, the stage with extensive tradition comes with certain opportunities. The beginning of one’s life has specific coordinates.


Youth, that is the imperative to make a choice

Poets aptly define subsequent stages of life. At the times when diaries were still used, one of the first pages in almost any of them would contain Krasiński’s words:

“Youth, my master, is a sculptor
that sculpts the whole life.
Although it passes quickly,
The hit of her chisel is permanent.”

The diaries have banalized this phrase, itself justifiably stressing the significance of youth. It is then and there that the Director behind the drama of life comes into action. Although they do so with some concern, they mostly act with impetus due to the young hope and strong desires to be fulfilled.

Here comes the need to make a choice, on the one hand blissful, on the other – cursed. The Director oftentimes themselves does not know where to position the main scene of life and whom to share it with.

In the fluid reality unfolding around them, they seek to postpone key decisions, including the one regarding their life partner. They see the abundance of time for them to make those decisions. Furthermore, they yield to the illusion that they are free in their choices, and the Cupid’s arrow will go wherever they want it to go. However, we let ourselves fall in love only when specific conditions, roles and rules applicable in our social scene of life are met. These coordinates are made up by customs, conventions and habits. Our most intimate relationships define the image of ourselves and we are aware of that. The director thus chooses their life partner as if with a free hand, yet this hand functions within a system, hence the sense of being forced to resign from a great amount of other options. This choice will shape the content of the play in the second act. At the end of the first act, the Director will mostly have the role of a partner filled, and stage design of their family life will have been underway.

No tensions of this kind come with the professional realm unfolding on the stage of life. Professional life may consist of different scenes with various decor because these days professional developments do not determine so strongly the life to come, as opposed to the time when the steadiness of choices was strongly valued. In today’s fluid reality, one can adopt any lifestyle at any given time, and so the scenes related to the Director’s career will be composed by them of various episodes that should somehow develop their career and lead to success.

Acting in both private and professional realms, the Director builds their foundation, the sphere of ideas and values meaningful to them; they establish what things are important or unimportant to them and build a hierarchy of obligations meant to characterize their internal world. The Director will always feel closer to those with similar foundations as manifested by taste, interests and the vision of future.


Maturity, or the burden of responsibility

The Director now needs to close their shooting script so that the themes commenced in the first act can develop consistently. Do they create a play based on their own beliefs or follow their internal censor who cuts out some of the Director’s parts? They also build their cast of people who accompany the main characters. What is he guided by? Their social status, possessed property, spiritual values or truthfulness of relationships they have established with them? Does he pick specific actors for some roles or does his environment have some influence on that? Is he a director establishing their own rules of the game or he gives others some creative freedom? What are they going to put in the limelight? The intimate realm, kindness and closeness, or the signs of success related to the subsequent stages of a career? Should stage design abound in expensive details or be rather modest? What will be the colour of it: light, pleasing, or dark, evoking an intimidating aura? This calls for some reflection.

The Director has to handle the ever-greater amount of themes they want to control, yet the on-going reshuffles bring more and more unexpected events. Family and private ones, as well as social ones. One has to somehow merge them into a single body. Furthermore, the previous choices now bring consequences one has to take responsibility for. This may give them the sense of fulfilment or failure. Should you bravely face it or defend yourself by shifting the responsibility onto the other? This would imply that it is them who have been at the helm, and yet this is the drama of my own life. This is the dilemma.

Some disasters might knock a completed script of a play out of Director’s hands. These events may disturb the expected structure of the play, lead to characters’ experiencing a grave crisis, and even destroy the scene. The role of the Director changes then. Their role is no longer to direct a script they are familiar with; the main goal is then to reconstruct their drama following a failure, change the script to fit a new situation and build hope.

However, the most important question for the Director is whether they can enter the dialogue with the individuals who come onto his life stage, whether they respond to the questions posed by their presence, whether they disregard them as the Director is afraid of the new and different.
If so, the stage will remain empty as the drama materializes through the dialogue with one’s environment and being ready to meet another human being. The sense of solidarity helps us carry the weight of existential loneliness. Our existence lies between solitude and connection.

Establishing a dialogue might be difficult due to Director’s not being brave enough to have a meeting full of honesty. Characters’ faces might be hidden behind false masks. Shameful things might be hidden from the audience behind the curtain, and the ones that the Director is not quite sure they want to incorporate into stage action might remain in the backstage. Safety measures are subject to what and how the Director wants to show to a specific audience. This will depend on how open and truthful they want to be with them.

Life has its music, or sound. The choice of music is also up to the Director. It can be the axis of a performance or just the background, a kind of colourful addition. Will it be the music of hope or resignation? A military march that imposes a specific gait or a casual swing?


Old age, or the need for fulfilment

At this stage, time starts to shrink rapidly. Everything in the drama of life needs to be somehow resolved, completed, buckled shut. Is it really so? Maybe the Director should continue the previous themes, or, on the opposite, introduce new ones? Maybe they should just go on despite being tired. “Show must go on.” On a number of occasions, the third act would surprise and change the expectations based on the previous two acts. Maybe it is enough if the third act is a retrospective character? Different life dramas unfold differently.

While beginning their work on the performance, some directors precisely foresee the form and content of the third act and incessantly prepare for it. Some directors are absorbed by the on-going tasks to the point that the sudden need to dot the ‘I’ hugely surprises them. Mostly, however, the show has no clear end to it. Instead, it has an ellipsis put down with a faltering hand. What previously happened on stage has been different from the expectations of the Director and their environment. As Shakespeare put it, life is not better or worse than our dreams. It is just completely different.

EPILOG – The trace, the echo of a performance

Each Director wants their performance to be remembered for a long time to come. They want their performance to have its own place in the history of theatre, social life and memory of their audience who passes its impressions on to the others. They want the play to stay in people’s minds and hearts. Whether this happens is unknown. One cannot be sure if what has aroused interest among the contemporaries will stand the test of time. Underestimated questions sometimes resurface many years later and start new life. Anyway, the Director who has not been an imitator and actively acted and managed their life has certainly trampled out a path that will remain forever in the space they lived in. Sometimes, it can be hardly seen as it might be covered in snow or road dust, yet it is there.

The epilogue in the theatre of life belongs to the audience, some performances being observed by huge audiences (politicians, dictators and artists). Each of us, however, even the ones producing very modest life plays, has their own audience claque, censors and reviewers. It is also worth noting that no tickets are sold for home or professional scenes; the audience has to receive special invites. It is this audience that carries the echo and keeps our traces within themselves. It is this audience: our children, significant others, friends, workmates, students and domestic help, that can for many years recall our monologues, jokes, ideas, quote us or repeat each of our words as if they were their own words. They can imitate our methods to solve the problems, use them to handle stress, a difficult partner, or celebrate, love and despair the way we would. For many years, they might continue to wear a scarf we gave them, go back to the books with our dedications, ask others for help saying they have been our friends.

For our individual drama of life not to end blandly and for our audience not to return in a cold and hurried way to their own matters, it is worth giving others many invitations to our theatre of life, jointly create and live the story about ‘our times’, look for new ideas for the life in the third act and obviously jointly visit other theatres.

Katarzyna Popiołek
Social psychology professor, Dean of the Katowice branch of the University of Social Psychology

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