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Theater of the Face

One of the good things about living in New York City is that people do a lot of walking, and one of the good things about that is that a whole parade of people end up walking toward you on the sidewalk everyday. This is especially good for guys like me since I have always been a fan of the theater of the human face.

Face theater is what you see when people are playing out some silent drama, either in retrospect or prospect, behind the fourth wall of their minds.

I'm not referring to crazy people railing against their demons. Nor am I talking about people lip-synching to the music in their ear-buds. True theater of the face is what dances across people's mugs as you (surreptitiously) watch them wrestle with life's little antagonisms -- trying to get the subway entrance to accept their Metro Card, or worrying over a wad of cash as the line moves them closer and closer to the cashier.

That is light-weight face drama. Kitchen-sink stuff, really, though I do find it engaging to watch. Even more interesting is when the faces of people walking toward you show clear evidence of scenes being played with bosses, or loved ones, or other people clearly important in the lives of the face-dramatists. This is often very serious stuff. Today a woman passed me on the sidewalk and her face was playing out a quiet drama of such grief that I could hardly bear to watch it.

People say the thing that killed vaudeville, and what brought low a lot of legitimate theater, was the invention and popularity of movies. I mention this because it occurred to me the other day that I have been seeing a lot less face theater lately. I don't know. Maybe I'm crazy, but once this thought occurred to me, I started actively seeking out face theater and it really did seem to be on the wane. I suspect cell-phones. People don't have to act out their sidewalk-scenes behind a personal fourth wall anymore. Got a drama you want to play out with somebody? Get them on your speed-dial. The grace and subtlety of the interior drama disappears in an orgy of "reaching out".

Just think what it would have been like if that woman who passed me today had been playing her drama out on her cell-phone. Not knowing her material, I can't say precisely what my response would have been, but I think I probably would have been embarrassed for her, or at least too ashamed to keep listening.

By attending the theater of her face earlier today, I was recalled to my own sorrows and maybe comforted a bit. There is cathartic value in the private theater of the human face as glimpsed on the street so I hope our precious "reaching out" doesn't eventually kill it deader than the Palace.

Seems unlikely, I guess. But then I never imagined the Beatles would break up, or that endives would make it big.


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