Oscar Wilde, a man familiar with wit, drama, and disaster, is reputed to have once made the following quote: “The play was a great success, but the audience was a disaster.” Considering the near uniform success of his comedies like Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman Of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance Of Being Earnest, it is unlikely that his comment was directed at any of those plays, as he had one success after another before his peccadillos destroyed his reputation, sent him to Reading Gaol, and wrecked his marriage. Before those four plays, he had struggled with some of his dramas, and after that time his career was done, so it remains unclear whether Wilde was just being witty and ironic as was his fashion or even whether he was referring to one of his own plays or the writings of other contemporaries. At any rate, what makes this comment particularly striking is that we are used to thinking of a play as successful because of audience response, not in spite of it.
We must remember, after all, that no playwright has known success without any struggles or difficulties whatsoever. Not all of Shakespeare’s plays have had enduring success, not all of them were popular in their time, and there have been long struggles over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, not least because of the existence of artful forgers in the Jacobean world of drama, as well as the shadowy lives of many playwrights during the time of Queen Elizabeth. During his lifetime, Lope de Vega was an immensely popular playwright, but after his death the long and slow decline of Spanish military strength led Spain’s cultural contribution to be largely forgotten in Anglophone realms. Among France’s playwrights, Moliere struggled to be taken seriously and other playwrights sought to write more religious plays to have a better reputation among the complicated cultural currents of their time. So it is in our time. There are few people considered superstars as playwrights, and among those people there is a great deal of variety in how their works are taken, which revivals and originals are popular, and how a reputation of a play or a playwright endures over the decades.
Yet as enjoyable as it is to talk about drama , it is not only when we deal with plays that we find a disconnect between the possible success of a play and the response of the audience. Two examples should suffice. The first comes from Exodus 20:18-21: “Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.” So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.” The second example comes from Luke 7:31-35: “ And the Lord said, “To what then shall I liken the men of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, saying:
‘We played the flute for you,
And you did not dance;
We mourned to you,
And you did not weep.’
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by all her children.”
In both of these cases, we have a vindication of Oscar Wilde’s comment that the play was a success but the audience was a disaster. The consequences are usually fairly low if an audience is a disaster for a show on London’s West End or Manhattan’s Broadway. One might get razzed a bit for having not appreciated Alexander Hamilton or Cats or something else of that nature, just like one would likely have been razzed a bit for not enjoying one of Wilde’s witty and urbane comedies of manners, but the stakes are not very high and the enjoyment of art is something that is usually viewed as being a matter of personal choice. The stakes for Israel at Mount Sinai and the Jews’ of Jesus’ day, on the other hand, were much higher, and things did not go well for them as a result of their refusal. The children of Israel, with two exceptions, who were adults when they saw God’s majestic show ended up dying on the wrong side of the Jordan River. The glorious temple and its corrupt establishment of Jesus’ time was destroyed within forty years of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the length of time that it took for the children of Israel to die off in the wilderness. In both cases, no one can fault the performance of God or of Jesus Christ, but the audience was weighed in the balance and found wanting with terrible results.
How do we live so that we are not found wanting as part of the audience of a show of immense importance? How can we properly learn to appreciate something when it is viewed without the comforting distance of hindsight and historical perspective, to recognize what is good and noble when it is still surrounded by a messy and awkward context and is not being viewed from years or decades in the future? Perhaps as they faced starvation or Roman execution or slavery, some of those inhabitants of Jerusalem remembered the warnings given to that city by Jesus Christ, but by then it had been too late for a long time. Perhaps as they were nearing their death in the wilderness, some of the children of Israel wished that they would have longed for intimacy with God rather than been terrified of the thought, but by then the chance had gone. In our own life as well, there are chances that we have to build intimacy or to take advantage of opportunities, and when those chances are gone, they may not return, but may be lost for the rest of our lives. How do we live so that we do not miss out on the opportunities that God has laid before us if we will only recognize them and act on them accordingly?
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