It wasn’t the first time somebody has died on stage.
Two of recent theatre’s great comedians, Dick Shawn (The Producers) and Sid James (pick any Carry On . . . movie) both did final pratfalls that convulsed their audiences –- until the realization dawned that they were never getting up again.
Genesius, the patron saint of actors, was also murdered on stage by Roman Emperor Diocletian in the third century AD.
He’d been doing a show satirizing Christians when –- so the story goes –- he suddenly converted for real in mid-performance and refused to recant as the final scene required.
Since he was one of Diocletian’s favorites, the Emperor even gave him a second chance to go back to what was scripted.
But he didn’t.
Maybe he had truly seen the light. Or maybe he was just one of those actors who has trouble getting out of character and, in the parlance of the profession, “goes home like that.”
Either way, Genesius also breathed his last on stage.
But this was different.
A few months ago, the ISIS jihadi-genocide army captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, where Emperor Diocletian, ever a patron of the arts, built a magnificent theatre that still stands.
And in May, following the usual crucifixions, infanticide and rape of non-Muslim women, ISIS fighters paraded 25 captives onto Palmyra’s stage where, after a long monologue by the fanatic in charge and with video cameras capturing not only the onstage action but the appreciative audience, they were executed.
Like a lot of ISIS video, this event was presented to both attract new supporters and enrage the civilized world, who surely, as Palmyra is a venerated site protected by the United Nations, would have understood the underlying message of the atrocity.
That message was: ISIS has no use for the arts, human decency, or anything known as the humanities. Like the ignorant early Christian priests who knocked the dicks off Greek and Roman statuary because they found them offensive, their intent is to erase every culture but the sick and twisted one they embrace.
Many summers ago, with barely a year of theatre school under my belt, I walked the stones of an ancient Greek theatre.
It was a profound experience standing where Sophocles first staged Oedipus for audiences that wept en masse and to walk where Aristophanes transformed Athenian sadness to laughter with The Birds — between them epitomizing the double masks of Tragedy and Comedy that still symbolize theatre today.
In that place, I felt myself part of a long line of artists stretching across thousands of years, reminded of the truism that life is short but Art endures, enriching the lives of those that follow long after the original cast has been forgotten.
It was also an insight into how important to society this theatre thing of ours is and the commitment you must make as an artist to what it brings to those with whom you share the planet.
Theatres like Palmyra are a reminder that Art is made so we can all experience a fuller spectrum of existence and hopefully understand that the human journey encompasses all manner of cultures, creeds and belief systems, all of them of value.
I expected this desecration of a site revered by those of the theatre would arouse strong emotions. And to be fair, a few in my social media circles expressed their disgust or outrage. But only in passing, for most of them and the rest of my fellow artists had more pressing concerns . . .
Some railed against the Confederate flag, demanding this symbol of a 150 year old slave state be removed from public display –- completely ignoring the thousands brutally enslaved daily by ISIS.
Some celebrated the legalization of gay marriage in the USA, taking little notice that ISIS marked the same occasion by tossing four gay men off a rooftop in Iraq to clarify where they stood on what’s been a non-issue in Canada for more than a decade.
And in the weeks following, artistic progressives have lobbed accusations about a “war on women,” blind to the fact that ISIS now circulates price lists for sex slaves and summarily executes any young woman who resists being raped by one of their fighters.
It would seem there is passion for skirmishing in the culture wars, but none when it comes to standing up to real evil.
Admittedly, our own Prime Minister hasn’t done a lot to stem the tide of ISIS spilled blood and depravity. But it is odd to see so many arguing that even his minor steps are “scare-mongering” and “dictatorial.”
For there appears to be even less stomach for fighting these sadistic animals among the politicians most Canadian artists would rather we support.
Last week Thomas Mulcair of the NDP stated clearly that “This is not our fight,” perhaps exhibiting by such a surrender to evil that he comes by his French passport honestly.
Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau has characterized the Canadian jets dispatched to President Obama’s coalition as pointless dick-swinging and prefers the matter be handled by the UN and our forces only deployed in a peace-keeping role.
But the UN has done nothing while the innocent have been slaughtered, raped and enslaved for over a year, putting that strategy on a level with waiting for a budget to balance itself.
One wonders if Trudeau has ever bothered to ask his own Liberal Senator Roméo Dallaire how effective our UN Peacekeepers were in Rwanda during a similar genocide that also wasn’t our fight.
The sad reality is that as the politicians supported by most in the artistic community defer, and those of that community snipe at American cops, conservatives-in-general, and the writer of “True Detective,” Palmyra is being erased.
Its shrines have already been blown up. Its columns are wired with explosives and its cobblestones mined. Any attempt to free the city will destroy it. And in the hands of ISIS, its culturally priceless antiquities are being obliterated little by little every day.
In the hours or days to come Palmyra will be gone, soon to be followed by many more links to our shared past in the region.
And with them will go the potential for Art to create thought, introspection and contemplation, which is its purpose. Neither will there be a place to celebrate humanity and the best of what we are.
These will be replaced by a madness that belies everything to which we aspire and a darkness that will smother all hope.
While my fellow artists focus solely on lesser evils, a great evil rolls on unchallenged, putting the lie to everything we claim we hold dear.
First published on The Legion of Decency.