Monday, January 28, 2013

Street theater

via Gaetano Sacchi Rome, January 28, 2013—

A FEW MORE WORDS on street theater, if you don't mind. Rome is nothing if not theatrical.

I just told you about the (apparently) twin fakirs occupying a piazza last night off the Via Corso. Here's the scene on the Corso itself, the Sunday evening passeggiata, pedestrians (and that one rebellious cyclist) cheek by jowl ambulating the length of what was once a racecourse (hence the name) and is now a shopping street. Not a bar or cafe to be seen on this street, but plenty of bling and blue jeans.

I've been reading Robert Hughes's history Rome, a satisfying introduction to the history of the great city. He writes of the entertainments and indulgences of Imperial Rome, describing the sculpture, the gladitorial combats, the poetry and the (legitimate) theater; the baths, the jewelry, the feasting. But he does not write about street theater, and there must have been plenty. Dancers, acrobats, perhaps even living statues imitating the many hundreds of real ones — they must have come from every corner of the empire, as they do today.

I like to walk along streets like this holding my iPhone at my hip, recording random video. Some day perhaps I'll stitch some excerpts together. The random faces passing by are often bright with expression, too often at other times merely focussed on an unseen mobile telephone, listening to an unheard voice, then suddenly and volubly answering in a torrent of syllables that may be Italian, Turkish, Arabic, or who knows what language or dialect.

When we landed at Amsterdam two or three weeks ago the first thing we did was walk the crowded Harlemsestraat, and the first thing to catch my eye was a fellow piloting his Dutch-style very upright black bicycle through the crowd, a twelve-year-old girl standing just as upright on the carrier behind his saddle, her hands lightly resting on his shoulders. They went by too quick to catch in a photo, but the image is still vivid in my mind's eye.

The other day we saw a show of paintings by various Breughels, many of them of course street scenes. Except for the technology not much seems to have changed over the centuries. People are still fascinating; people are still fascinated by people. I think that at bottom the fascination lies in mystery, enigma, unanswered questions. What are these cell-phone conversations about? How does that guy sit on that pole? How do these break-dancers spin on their heads? Why does that girl not fall off her father's bicycle?

I think, too, about my late friend George's Filipino physicist friend, the student of turbulence, who held that everything derives from turbulence, turbulence and the desire of the turbulent for rest, and the desire of those at rest, what few there are, to be turbulent. Nothing expresses this better than the passeggiata. And no one realized it more abruptly, I think, or with more persuasive results, than the wife of an acquaintance of mine.

He had taken a job running an American organization here in Rome, against his wife's wishes. She hated Rome. She liked New York, London, Paris; she had some irrational distaste for Italy, Italians, above all Rome. She said she found Rome chaotic and disorderly and unpredictable. She fretted continuously about being posted to Rome, and could hardly wait for the expiration of his term. But, he pointed out, he'd signed a contract for a number of years. Very well, she said; he could stay here if he liked; as for her, she hadn't signed anything — perhaps they hadn't married conventionally; I don't know; I never though to ask.

After six months in Rome the container arrived with all their household possessions, and their car. I'm going out for a drive, she said. He cautioned her about driving in Italy, particularly in Rome, but she insisted. She was gone a few hours, and he feared the worst: she'd driven to the airport and caught a plane home, or to Paris, or London, or New York.

But she was back by dinner time, full of enthusiasm. I love it here, she announced; now I finally understand it. There's all this apparent disorder, but everyone knows exactly what they're doing. You just go forward. You don't have to follow lines, or lights, or think about the people behind you; you don't even really have to worry about the ones to the left and right. Everything flows. When there's something in the way the flow parts and continues around it, then comes back together. Now I understand Roman life, Italian life, she said.

It's a little different when it rains, of course, as it is doing just now. You do have to look out for the umbrellas, whose spokes really ought to be festooned with eyeballs, the way the menacing things approach you on a crowded street. But even there, somehow, umbrellas tilt to the side, or rise or descend, missing your own, and sparing your faces. Turbulence, flow, crowds, cats, motorcycles, doorways, cobblestones; sidewalks and the frequent lack of sidewalks. Roman street theater.

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