The last two days, my English students have been reading A Wagner Matinee by Willa Cather. For those of you not familiar, the story basically is this:
A 30-year-old, well-educated piano teacher from Boston, Georgiana, meets a young man named Howard Carpenter and runs off with him. He is dirt poor, and the two eke out a life on the Nebraska plains. She spends thirty years working for everyone, ruins her looks and her hands, and leaves her entire world behind, giving up music and her passion for thirty years. When she comes into an unexpected legacy, she returns to Boston to visit her nephew, Clark, who decides to take her to a Wagner matinee in order to please her. After the concert, she says to Clark, “I don’t want to go. . .”
It’s a story I don’t teach much, as my students don’t connect much to it, but I realized today how much Georgiana reminds me of myself.
Before I became a teacher, and before I was married and had a family, I worked in professional NY theatre. While I was never a star, and I never really made any money at it, I worked almost consistently, in a variety of areas, for almost two years. And even when I quit and got a real job, I ran a theatre company for several years, working as CFO, company manager, actor, designer and director. And as a teacher, I’ve been fortunate to continue my theatrical pursuits directing and designing shows in the various schools that I’ve worked at, and as an actress in my local community theatre.
So while unlike Georgiana, I did not completely leave theatre behind, I made a choice to leave that world behind and make a new life for myself. And while I don’t regret my decision, I often find myself, like Georgiana, crying at the overture to a musical, or getting so lost in a character in a play that I almost can’t find my way out. I often look at the life that I’ve built for myself and wonder what would be different if I had just done one more show, or stuck it out one more year.
At the closing of each show I work on, I stay behind after the final curtain closes, as the last lights dim, and I sit in the darkened theatre, staring into the ghost light and I often cry to myself. There’s no specific reason, but it is almost as if my heart breaks every time, with the loss of one more show–and I guess sometimes I wonder if it will be the last. And if it ever is the last–will I become like Georgiana, who when reawakened to her love, never wants to go back to reality.