The Last Word : The democratic season, theater for free
Ah, April. The air is damp, and the daffodils struggle to find enough sunshine to bloom. Once referred to poetically as the cruelest month, April is also the month of town meetings, which endow it with the sense that it is, indeed, the cruelest month. Or, as another correspondent to this paper has said, the silly season. As Oak Bluffs heads into its fourth evening of scintillating drama, I have been casting around for the most apt analogy for this uniquely small town phenomena.
Town Meeting is the best theater for free. It is audience participation theater, like the old-fashioned game shows, "Come on down!" Sometimes it's like watching a work of Eugene Ionesco or Samuel Beckett. My old friend Wikipedia says that Theater of the Absurd, among its several distinctions, frequently portrays characters "caught in hopeless situations, forced to do repetitive or meaningless acts." Of the other qualities, we've got it all at Town Meeting: comedy, drama, pathos, Pierrot in his ruff, parody, cliché and cyclical plot, the "dismissal of realism," long-suffering main characters, the selfless and the self-absorbed, plus an audience.
Now an author is responsible for character development, plot, pacing, setting, and all that goes into drawing a picture with words. Much like in creative writing, I've come to realize that all Town Meetings, including those staged by national politicians, have set characters. In this column, I have discussed the need for certain kinds of stock characters, those whose role is clear by tradition and who perform a service. Life, after all, does offer a baseline of experience in order to create fiction, and so, like fiction, Town Meeting has its standard cadre of characters whose appearance determines the direction of the plot. There are the stock characters: the defender of pocketbooks, the suspicious, the confused, the needs-to-be-educated on the town meeting floor. The solid citizen. The eloquent orator.
Then there are the minor players. For instance, the guy who has just discovered his voice and that he is no longer afraid of the microphone, but rather enthralled by it. Hence he has assigned himself a speaking role. Over and over and over. This isn't the right to free speech, this is close to filibustering. Town Meeting is also an opportunity for people to reprise a former role, a ghostly reminder of past decisions; or, the doom-saying of future failures.
Maybe a more apt analogy is that Town Meeting is like an opera. From our elected and appointed officials, we have the recitative of the main characters; the telling of the story. Then we have the chorus of townspeople chiming in. This year we have endured Les Miserables without costume. There are those who have practiced the roles, and those who are auditioning for a future production.
It's up to the town moderator to conduct this opera. A good director has to control the prima donnas and make sure that the script is kept to. A little improvisation is the democratic way, but no one enjoys an out-of-tune soloist hogging the stage. Winston Churchill put it rather well: "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.