Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 673
Reality and Fantasy
The lines between reality and fantasy are blurred by certain aspects of A Life in the Theatre. For Robert, life is the theater. He plays the role of a professional actor both onstage and off, insisting on indoctrinating John with his accumulated knowledge. Throughout A Life in the Theatre, Robert does not draw many definite boundaries between the fantasy world of the theater and the reality of life offstage. Though he tells John in scene 6 that an actor must have a life outside the theater, in scene 5, Robert goes on about how ugly sounds, like voices and accents, bother him on and offstage. The reality of being human breaks into Robert’s fantasy life as an actor, however, when he begins to forget his lines onstage. Adding to this reality is John’s regular rejection of Robert and his values in the second half of the play. Still, at the end of A Life in the Theatre, Robert speaks his final words onstage to an empty house. At his core, he cannot accept the difference between theater and life.
Friendship, Growth, and Development
At the core of A Life in the Theatre is a tension between friendship and growth and development. In scene 1, the older actor Robert takes the younger actor John under his wing, befriending him. At first John welcomes the attention of the mentor, inviting him to dine with him after opening night and complimenting his performance. John takes Robert’s cues and advice seriously, though he does keep much of life private. As John grows in confidence and experience as an actor, and Robert continues to treat him with the same, somewhat overbearing attitude, their friendship becomes more professional. Though John becomes frustrated with Robert’s never- ending commentary and the decline in his ability to remember lines, he still can feel a friendly sympathy for the elder actor. In scene 8, for example, John insists on fixing the zipper in Robert’s fly when it becomes stuck.
Though John is disturbed by the fact that Robert is watching him from the shadows as he rehearses in scene 23, he is concerned when he realizes that Robert is crying. When Robert cuts his wrist—something of a suicide attempt—John tries to take care of him, but Robert will not let him. Though John has probably learned something about the theater through their friendship, he has also developed as a person because of this bond.
Human Condition and the Cycle of Life
Though Robert and John are actors and A Life in the Theatre concerns existence on and offstage, the problems and concerns brought up are universal to humankind. Both John and Robert need attention, an audience. They have chosen the theater as their profession, their place in the universe. Humans want the attention of others; Robert and John have made their livelihood by it. Each also acknowledges the other throughout the play, positively as well as negatively, providing a more intimate audience of one. They form a relationship that is not without tension.
Related to the idea of the human condition in A Life in the Theatre is the cycle of life. The older teaches the younger, who replaces the older. Robert is the elder actor. He tries to impart his accumulated knowledge and wisdom to John as a mentor/friend. John, as the younger and less experienced actor, willingly accepts Robert’s attention and respects his wisdom. But as John grows more confident as an actor, he becomes less interested in Robert’s words. Soon, Robert’s acting skills decline as John’s continue to rise. Robert forgets lines during his scenes and cannot accept John’s corrections. John no longer needs him and merely tolerates his mentor. Robert tries to hold on to John by watching from the wings as he rehearses alone in scene 23 and by making a suicide attempt in scene 25. By the end of the play, John pities the old man as he is forced to take his bow and exit the stage.
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