Life as a Play
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Categories: Ancient, Modern

Life as a Play

A flyer for a business in Innsbruck: "NABU RECORDS: Schallplattn An- und Verkauf.  Exotica - Reggae - Dub - Hiphop - Austro Funk - Soul - Jazz - Rock - Metal - Pop - African - Arabic - Electro - Turntables - Poster"
Deliberate allusion or accidental choice of a name? Just like the river shrine to a certain Lady, parallels with ancient motifs are all around you in Innsbruck!

Epictetus, Enchiridion 17 tr. Manning

Remember that you are an actor in a play, in whatever kind the producer chooses: if short, then short, if long, then long. If he wants you to play a pauper, or a cripple, or a ruler, or a private citizen, you should play it the best that you can. For this is your job, to play the part that is given to you well, but to chose it belongs to another.

‘Jacques,’ As You Like It, Act II, Scene vii

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. …

‘Prospero,’ The Tempest, Act IV, Scene i

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

‘The Great Lorenzo’ in Robert A. Heinlein, Double Star (1956) transcribed by Brad Delong

But even a dog has rules of conduct. What were mine? How did I behave—or, at least, how did I like to think I behaved? “The show must go on.” I had always believed that and lived by it. But why must the show go on?—seeing that some shows are pretty terrible. Well, because you agreed to do it, because there is an audience out there; they have paid and each one of them is entitled to the best you can give. You owe it to them. You owe it also to stagehands and manager and producer and other members of the company—and to those who taught you your trade, and to others stretching back in history to open-air theaters and stone seats and even to storytellers squatting in a market place. Noblesse oblige.

I decided that the notion could be generalized into any occupation. “Value for value.” Building “on the square and on the level.” The Hippocratic oath. Don’t let the team down. Honest work for honest pay. Such things did not have to be proved; they were an essential part of life—true throughout eternity, true in the farthest reaches of the Galaxy.

My gentle readers know that I tend to be skeptical of claims that the Greeks were the first to say, think, or value something. The idea that different kinds of people have different honour or excellent appears all over the world, but I think that the analogy with drama must have been born in archaic Greece, because not all cultures have theatre plays. The seven ages of mankind (or ten seven-year periods in a human life) from As You Like It go back to archaic Greece too, even if the Bard had to get them through English and Latin summaries.

Edit 2019-04-22: And Heinlein would have known Ecclesiasties 9:10 (“Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going”)

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2 thoughts on “Life as a Play

  1. Aaron says:

    I’d say that this saying from Epictetus has the potential to make our lives easier and less stressful. But if only there weren’t all those gruesome stories Attic dramatic plays from the 5th B.C. tell us 😉 E.g. I wouldn’t be happy with Pentheus’s fate as depicted in Euripides’ Bacchae.

    And yes, Sean; I can see them all the time, wherever I am XD

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Danke Aaron! I don’t enjoy tragedies either, there are enough in real life.

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