September 7

The Dumb Show of the Apocalypse (Part 2)

[…continued from September 6 entry…]


As your community gathered in the auditorium, the buzz of excitement about the upcoming show made you think you’d been too churlish in your initial judgment.  The visitors wove through the crowd performing acrobatic tricks, comical pantomimes, and small feats of magic, and you decided these entertainments are just what everyone needed: a distraction from their day-to-day troubles.

The members of the travelling troupe have managed to clean themselves up a bit, but you wonder what they’ll do for costumes or props when it comes time for the main event.  They seemed mostly empty handed when they arrived at the front gates of the facility.

One of the performers separated himself from the crowd and raised his floppy-brim hat in the air.  This is the same man who spoke at the gates, petitioning for entrance, and you gather he’s the leader of the troupe.  The director.

He waved the hat in a circle, a kind of gather-round motion, and the individual members of the troupe stopped their dancing or their back flips, mimed closing a door or slid silk scarves back into coat sleeves, and they all formed a circle around their leader.  The arrangement looked very much like a football huddle, and an excited murmur from the audience served to mask any whispered strategies among the players.

After a few minutes, the youngest actor rolled away from the huddle with a series of cartwheels.  The other actors followed him to the raised platform at the front of the auditorium — typically used for speeches from the President of your containment facility as she assigned chores or explained the latest reduction in food rations…but tonight, the platform would be a theatrical stage.

The actors stood in a line, taking an initial bow in unison.  The troupe’s leader flung his hat aside, then raised his forefinger perpendicular to his lips as a signal for silence.  Other actors made the same gesture, then they parted to assume their places for the start of the show.

Again the child scampered into action, pulling a large burlap sack to the front of the stage.  He untied the loose rope at the top, and reached in to retrieve several items in turn, which he distributed to various players.

Some of the items were articles of clothing. Others were cans or packets of food, or tools, or sentimental items such as jewelry or ceramic figurines or a child’s rattle.

You recognize the rattle, since it belonged to your son when he was a baby and you could never bear to part with it.

A few agitated cries rise from the audience, as other viewers recognize clothes or valuables from their own homes in this gated community.  In the hour leading up to the main performance, the scampering child must have stolen the items.

The lead actor steps forward, waving his arms to calm the crowd’s dissent.  He held his hands over his heart, then unfolded his arms with cupped hands in a gesture of offering.  The implication, you realized, is that all items would be returned to their rightful owners after the performance.  Other viewers must have arrived at the same conclusion, since they settled down without further complain.

After all, if these visitors were actually planning to rob them, they would have been foolish to reveal their stolen items to an angry crowd.

While the audience settled down, the actors began to work with various items, one man buttoning a clean shirt over his own patchwork smock; a woman fitting an emerald necklace over their sunburnt, grimy neck then admiring herself in a pretend mirror; an elderly woman holding an unopened can of food and waving an invisible spoon over it to soothe her hunger.

The child fell into a fetal position on the floor, one thumb suckled in his mouth while the other hand held a rattle high — your rattle — and shook it in a steady rhythm that seemed to inspire the other actors to commit fully to their own pantomimes.

You realize the troupe is following an old-fashioned theatrical tradition by beginning with a “dumb show.”  That is, a brief wordless prelude, miming the general actions that will be explored more fully in the actual play.

The leader of the troupe didn’t have an item, but he strolled self-importantly from one actor to another, sizing up each of their possessions.  He stepped to the front of the platform, smiled, then brightened in an exaggerated “light bulb” moment.  The elderly woman gets his attention first.  He crosses to her quickly, mimes slapping the spoon out of her hand, then wrenches the can of food from her grip.

In response, the old woman contorts her face in an expression of agony and disappointment.  She drops her hands to her belly, rubs it to show her familiarity with hunger — and you get the clear sense the actor’s performance is based on long and painful experience.

The leader places the can of food in the burlap sack, which represents his store of plundered treasure.  As the rattle continues its frantic beat, he crosses to strip the clean shirt off an actor’s torso, and the man responds by covering himself in a mime of naked shame.  Next, he forces a woman to surrender her lovely necklace, and the actress deflates as if her whole world, her entire concept of beauty has been stolen from her.

It is the same with each of the actors, but the cumulative effect is overpowering — one person after another, robbed of whatever they valued most.

Finally, the leader takes the rattle from the infant, and silence engulfs the large auditorium.  He places the rattle in the burlap sack, then ties the sack over his shoulder, while the remaining actors convey their awful sense of loss.

This isn’t escapism.  These actors who entered their safe community have forced everyone to relive the horrors of the apocalypse — all in the pantomime summary of a ten-minute dumb show.

The scripted performance that follows is even more brutal.  Every word, every gesture strikes home.  It is a terrible reminder.

At the conclusion, nobody in the audience applauds.  But some of them go back to their homes, and return with gifts for the performers.

You let them keep your son’s rattle, and offer them a packet of dried fruit and a blanket of soft cotton.

That night, the troupe leaves with two burlap sacks full of gifts.  You shut the community gate as they exit, and you hope they never return.