THEATER: Resurrection

Author Marya Hornbacher offers eloquent personal testimony to the mystery that lies at the heart of the theater's transformational powers, for performers and audiences alike.

Marya in winter

This essay was originally published by and is reprinted here with permission.

LISTEN: THIS IS MY FAVORITE STORY. A man, a director, sat alone in the audience, going over his notes. He used a yellow notepad, always, wrote on only one side of the page. He had a pack of cigarettes in his left breast pocket. He smoked, ashing on the floor. He called out, “Next.”

A woman, an actor, walked across the stage. She was beautiful, or was so startling-looking that she made you think she was. She waited while the man wrote his last notes, settled into his seat, and looked up at her, waiting.

This is my mother, about to act upon my father. This is my father, waiting to be acted upon. This is the agreement. This is theater. They make a pact: you listen. I speak. This is the pleasure of it. The give, the take.

She does her monologue. He laughs. There is a silence in the theater. He finally says, “You’re a very funny woman.”

These are the words repeated and repeated at my behest, for years, as I tried to piece together who they were and who they weren’t and who they really were. What piece did she do? What did you say? Did you love her right away?

The woman waited until she saw him leave the theater when the auditions were over, and then she followed him in her car. Rolled down the window. Asked if he wanted to get a cup of coffee. He did.

I imagine that over coffee, they did what all people who are about to be lovers do: they auditioned. They played a larger, lovelier, more brilliant role, based on themselves. They cast each other in their lives. The show began.


I grew up in the theater. Backstage, in the scene shop, sitting in the trunks in wardrobe, trying on a Charlie Chaplin hat. It was a kind of heaven, a perfect world of imagination come to life, where the trees and streets were put up and taken down at the start and the end of a show, where people spoke in English accents whenever they wanted, and I learned a decent Cockney and refused for a regrettable time to speak anything but, and there were sweaty swordfights and the one time in Henry V when someone actually took a sword in the side—he played out the scene—and I climbed in the catwalks and I carried a clipboard because they let me, and everyone roared and screamed and sobbed and flung themselves to the floor and kissed madly and were torn apart and stabbed one another or themselves, and died and drank poison and went up in smoke.

My parents were imaginary. Glamorous, furious, draped in pearls and trailing cigarette smoke. I worshiped them and their howling, laughing coterie. I adored my father’s plum-colored tuxedo with the ruffled pink shirt. I doused myself in Chanel No. 5. I watched them from the dim dusty velvet curtains backstage. Wrapped myself in the curtains and watched my mother shear her butt-length black hair to the floor in prep for Joan of Arc, watched my father heave a heavy glass as Volpone and collapse. That was when I was older, when I could tell the difference, a little bit, between who they were on stage and who they were offstage. I do not say “who they really were.” I am not sure, was not sure then and still am not, that the characters they played were not their real selves. It was never totally clear to me where rehearsal ended and real life began. You grow up in the theater, they’re largely one and the same.

Theater sucks you in whole. You cannot give it part. It takes all. It takes you, the creators, and if it’s done right, it takes me, the audience, as well. It will not work if given only part. It demands you give yourself over to it entire. You must move into another skin, occupy another universe. I, the audience, must disappear. Lose my grip on the world beyond your world. Erase my face. This takes practice, erasure. It is an emptying-out that I do when I step into the theater, as it is an emptying-out you do when you prepare. That we both do this is strange, and it is a strange tacit agreement: we leave ourselves at the door. Allow something other to act on us so profoundly that we become someone other than ourselves. You allow the language, the interior logic of the text, the totality and inevitability of your created world to act on you, become real to you, in order that it may become real to me. I, the audience, allow myself to be acted upon. Gently. With violence. With ugliness, beauty, things sharp and simple, things surreal. With whatsoever you choose. I give you control. Tell me what to believe, who to be.

These are the rules to which the audience agrees: we will sit in the dark. We will sit in silence. We will watch, not speak, not crawl onto the stage. We will believe, have faith, we will receive. We might as well spread our legs. You float before us, lit up like Las Vegas. Your light obscures us. You are what is real. You are the doing, the act. You act upon us: you make us think and feel. But always we feel first. We come because we want to be made to feel. We want to be overwhelmed. We want to be filled, drowned, killed, jerked back to life. I suppose we come to be entertained, but to me that entertainment, that pleasure, inheres in the utter absorption I feel when I go to the theater: I am no longer myself. I am you. This is because you are no longer yourself. You are everyman. You are me.


I, the audience, allow myself to be acted upon. Gently. With violence. With ugliness, beauty, things sharp and simple, things surreal. With whatsoever you choose. I give you control. Tell me what to believe, who to be.

This is the function of theater, or one of them at least: to blur or break the boundaries of reality so that our reality may be expanded and changed. There should be a sense of a tiny, instantaneous, critical collapse of identity, of what we know to be real about ourselves. What I know of myself when I walk into the theater is one thing; if the play succeeds, when I walk out, that self and all of its parts have been called into question. I have spent a couple of hours convinced of the truth of things that are not true, identifying with people who do not exist. This cannot take place if I cling to my own faith in an immutable world or an intact self. My world and I have to break.

In this sense, theater exists to create new space in the audience so that our comprehension of our own lives, ourselves, is broadened and deepened. Theater remakes us, allows us to enter worlds of possible selves. It shapes me into something I did not know I was, allows me to do things I did not know I would. I will wait for Godot as long as you say that I should. I will sell my soul to Faust’s devil, I will kiss the asp, sing the ship into the rocks. I will go with you wherever you say I must go. I will kill Ophelia myself. In remaking me, theater gives me the gift of more deeply comprehending my own limits, my own possibilities, and those of the world too.

When I was three, I climbed up on the bathroom sink and stood in front of the mirror naked. I started digging through my mother’s box of theater makeup—the shades of pancake, the dozens of blushes, the jewel-brilliant blues and greens, the lipstick in a rainbow of reds.

I painted myself. From head to toe. I stared at myself in the mirror as I went, checking my eyes often, to see if I was still me. When I was finished, I stood there like some tiny Picasso. Half my face was green. Concentric spirals of Revlon’s Raven Red spun around my navel. One short leg was blue; a foot was black.

And I found I was not still myself. I was myself, emptied out, filled again with a different self, a harlequin girl.

I am a different self each time I am acted upon—gently, violently—by a performance. It takes me apart, paints me in parts, and when I step out of the theater, I walk away new.

About the author: Marya Hornbacher is the Pulizer Prize-nominated author of three books, most recently Madness: A Life. An award-winning journalist, Hornbacher’s work has been published in sixteen languages.