I don’t know why it is that every major life event for individuals and institutions all require the performance of really bad theatre. Oh, I do sort of get it–rites of passage are culturally universal–but what isn’t clear is why the ceremonials have to be so ridiculous. Because they really are.
What prompted this was an university-wide email my wife received about today’s
coronation inauguration ceremony for the new BYU President, Kevin Worthen. The memo directed everyone’s attention to the exquisite symbolism of the event, culminating in President Worthen’s being invested with the crown scepter medallion, which got hung around his neck like an Olympic medal. The actual draping of the bauble was done by his wife, a nice touch. Except, as my wife pointed out, the memo didn’t specify that it would be done by his wife, but by his (gender-neutral) ‘spouse.’ This, of course, opens up the possibility of a future female President of BYU, something that will never, ever, not in a million years ever happen. Which we all know. So having the wife do the trinket-dispensing isn’t actually a nod to gender equality at all. The BYU President selection process is, well, seems to be, well, actually nobody knows anything about it at all, transparency being a virtue with which BYU has had little difficulty in abandoning. But whatever process they use, it’s never going to result in a woman President, and everyone knows it.
(I see no evidence, BTW, that BYU’s non-transparent, entirely secretive search process ends up with radically worse university presidents than the far more inclusive and open processes in place at other universities. I can’t think of any more comically inept group of individuals in American life, except for the House of Representatives, than university presidents. When I point out the the leadership of the hopeless, idiotic, sensationally hypocritical NCAA comes entirely from university Presidents, I think my point is proved.)
I’m sorry, I’m sure it was a solemn occasion. I’m especially imagining the long walk off-stage by former President Cecil Samuelson, measured steps, to a drum roll, pausing briefly under a basketball standard, waving goodbye a la Nixon on the helicopter, then off into the darkness, followed by a moment of silence, and a single echoing gunshot. And then from the rafters, drifting quietly down, the ashes of his now cremated season basketball tickets. (I think probably they didn’t actually shoot him.)
No, I’m imagining a ceremony entirely risible, because most ceremonials are like that, fantastic exercises in laughter-suppression. My all-time favorite is one my oldest son’s school did when he finished 1st grade. All us parents were invited to the school, to attend ‘an important event.’ We showed up, and watched as our children were given identical certificates of ‘anticipated achievement.’ The kids were all lined up, and we parents were invited to contemplate the wonderful things these six-year olds were going to do. And, you know, that’s a lovely thought. I’m sorry now I found it hilarious. But come on: a certificate of ‘anticipated achievement?’ Seriously?
When I was in Boy Scouts, we had award-ceremony-things all the time. We’d get merit badges, and there’d be this whole event, and then we’d get an itty-bitty little tiny pin, which we were supposed to pin on our Mom’s blouses. This was not a bad idea, actually, since the earning of merit badges was always a two part process–the kid did the work, the Mom did the nagging. The pinning part, though required a mastery of fine motor skills of which of I was entirely incapable; I think I stuck my poor Mom with the pin for every one of my 21 merit badges, then once again when I got my Eagle. Plus it had that horrifying ‘pinning the corsage on your prom date’ horrifying proximity to, uh, female chest areas vibe. Not cool.
When my kids were in grade school in Utah, we had this annual event called the Patriotic Program. OMG it was horrible. Every grade in the school had to take its turn and stand up on risers and bellow tunelessly these pop-country songs about America. “Oh I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free!” they’d holler at us like zombies, under the gimlet eye of the school music teacher, who was 179 years old and absolutely looked like someone you did NOT want to mess with. I didn’t know there were that many pop-country songs about America, all sounding alike. And meanwhile, we were treated to a slide show, usual stuff, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone and Yosemite and Lincoln Memorial and Bush on that aircraft carrier: Mission Accomplished. (I couldn’t help notice than after Bush left office, the slide show did not feature images of the next guy. Wonder why that is?) My wife and I resorted to all manner of deviousness rigging the ‘which parent has to go this year’ sweepstakes. I’m a theatre guy; I was lucky. I often had rehearsal that night.
Without question, though, the most tedious, endless, comical, absolutely obligatory rite-of-passage American ceremonial has to be a high school graduation. There’s the long wait while all the kids file into the college gym where they hold the thing. There are the endless awful speeches, full of false optimism and boosterism. Then we have to wait all over again while every single kid goes up there and gets his diploma. it never takes fewer than nine hours to get through, and the only part that interests you–your kid getting his/her diploma–takes eight seconds. I’ve been through it four times. That’s fifty seven hours (I’m bad at math, sue me) of my life I’m never getting back.
There are tons of things like that. For a long time, my wife and I made extra cash singing at funerals and weddings. Funerals were way more fun. For one thing, you sing better music at funerals. The families don’t usually want tacky love songs at funerals; they want Bach. For another, the person being honored wasn’t likely to complain about the song selection and performances. Brides (and Brides’ Mothers) were less reticent about pointing out the specific ways in which our performances had Ruined Her Special Day. But funerals were relaxing. Peaceful.
I’m already making plans for my own funeral, and I don’t doubt that it’ll end up being as tacky as most people’s funerals are. The fact is, human beings crave ceremonial. We want to recognize achievement by making a public fuss. The fact that the theatre we perform is often hilarious is just part of being human. We’re ridiculous creatures, we human beings, and never more so than when we’re being solemn.