Pagliacci

Posted on 2017 July 2

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Laugh, clown, so the crowd will cheer! Turn your distress and tears into jest, your pain and sobbing into a funny face. — Ruggero Leoncavallo

Out of the blue, a friend played for me a famous piece of music, a tragic song about a man trapped in his own anguish. My friend felt deeply touched by the music and its expression of a torment most of us will face at some point in our lives.

The song is an aria from the opera Pagliacci (“Clowns”), in which an actor, jealous upon learning of his wife’s lover, must perform with her in a play that happens to be about an actor jealous of his wife’s lover. Fiction becomes reality as the angry husband stabs to death his wife and her paramour in front of a horrified audience.

The aria brought to mind an experience from years ago — weirdly similar, come to think of it — that I suffered through. (Don’t worry; nobody got killed; nobody got so much as a scratch.) I was backstage, waiting to go on with the troupe, which included my girlfriend, who lately had taken another lover. Miserable, I turned away from the others, found a quiet corner of the backstage area, and burst into tears.

I was young, overly romantic, and in agony. My hopes and dreams about her had dropped off the edge of the world. I had lost face and felt humiliated; worst of all, the loneliness seemed as if it would go on forever.

The curtain was about to rise. It was time to be funny and entertaining and lively. It was the last place I wanted to be.

Yet “the show must go on.” I couldn’t let the troupe down, much less the audience. Somehow I steeled myself, dabbed the tears from my face, strode onto the stage, and performed in my usual cheerful manner.

Unlike the jealous actor in Pagliacci, whose work inflamed his tortured feelings, I had compartmentalized the disaster and managed to focus on the job at hand.

Sooner or later we each go through the heartache of breakup. As most of us do, I got over it and moved on. In later years I realized that thinking of one person — or one thing, or one situation — as all-important is a prescription for disaster. And I came to see that placing my self-esteem in the care of another individual was like putting a collar around my neck and handing them the leash. These are hard lessons. We learn them slowly, if at all, as we journey through life.

But on that day, after the performance, all I could do was go backstage, retreat to a dark corner, and weep again like a foolish clown.

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