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Theatrical vs. Real-Life Tragedy
An Essay by NPR's Bob Mondello

audio Listen to Bob Mondello's commentary on Broadway's re-opening after the terrorist attack in New York.

Photo of Bob Mondello
Film critic Bob Mondello

Sept. 13, 2001 -- When I was growing up, I saw the theater as a place where I could escape the troubles of the real world. Watching some splashy musical, I forgot my problems for a couple of hours, and those of everybody else. Later, I came to see theater as a place that could help me understand the real world. Lorraine Hansberry articulated better than I ever could, how I felt about family and race, and in Shakespeare, I found evidence that the problems politicians were grappling with in my own time, had always bedeviled leaders.

Drama has the advantage of offering closure. And I don't mean that in the sense that evil tends to get punished and good rewarded, because in substantial works, it often doesn't. Stage tragedies, though, have form ... a rising action that leads to a climax, orations that inspire, gestures that find eloquence in movement. And if they're well orchestrated in production, they can bring catharsis -- a release of emotion that lets us return to a less-ordered "real" world with a feeling that life somehow makes sense. Even a world as seemingly unstable as the one I've been walking through this week.

I will come to terms with it eventually, as we all will. And I know that one of my strategies for doing so will be the one I've used all my life: to look for meaning and closure in stage stories that can offer it, when real life cannot, and to find humanity where it resides even when humans seem inhuman ... in art.

Film critic Bob Mondello has been with NPR since 1984.