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by William H. Benson

August 24, 2006

     The fall sports season at the high schools is now in full swing.  The schedules are set, and participants will soon play their first games or compete at their first matches and meets.  Some will win, others will lose, while spectators will watch and cheer.

     Preseason for professional football has begun, and baseball’s World Series, the final games, is just weeks away.  As the seasons move, so do the sports.  

    The word “play” holds within it at the same time a variety of meanings.  Players play football, baseball, basketball, cards, chess, and a thousand other games.  An audience walks into a theater to watch the performance of a play.  Children play their own games.  Musicians play their clarinet, saxophone, harp, piano, or organ.  The literary genre of drama includes plays.  And comedians play tricks with words by telling jokes and puns.

     Play is the slice cut out of life.  The moment we stop doing the ordinary or the routine and seek out performance—by ourselves or by others—we step into the world of play.  People can read dramatic literature or sheet music or a football rule book, and find it dull and lifeless things, but once acted out, or performed, or played in a stadium, each comes alive, enriching and captivating an audience and spectators for a moment.  And then the curtain falls, the game or the concert ends, and the humdrum beckons us.

     Play has a performative quality about it, in that it must be acted out, and that it takes place in both space and time.  The words “perform” and “play” have a special association with acting, and together they produce an effect upon the spectators, able to sway and even persuade an audience.  This performative aspect underscores games and sporting events, music concerts, theatre, film, and yes, even dreams.   

     A century ago the Viennese doctor Sigmund Freud tried “to decipher the grammar of dreams.  A dream performs a psychological function for the dreamer.  Like a game, a dream makes perfect sense according to its own rules.”

     About this relationship between games and dreams, the Viennese literary critic Ludwig Wittgenstein said: “A dream is all wrong, absurd, composite, and yet at the same time it is completely right; put together in this strange way it makes an impression.  Why?  I don’t know. . . . things [in a dream] aren’t like that—and yet at the same time it’s quite right according to a law of its own.”

     What makes a performance great—whether it be on a football field or in a gym or a basketball court or on a stage or on film or in a dream?  It seems that those moments that stick in the mind, that are memorable, are the great ones.  I cannot ever forget John Elway’s leap into the end zone in the final minutes of his first Super Bowl win.  He made the play.

     Theatre is a vast collection of games.  Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen, and Sophocles wrote of games.  They wrote about children coming to terms with their parents, and also about a boy and a girl falling in love.  King Lear feared his daughters’ lack of love for him.  Richard III, a crippled and lonely man, ruthlessly sought out power.  Richard II lost his power.  King Lear, growing old and approaching retirement, renounced his power.

     In Shakespearean theatre, there are games within the game, cross-dressing, and dressing up, with actors using masks and disguises.  Boys pretend to be girls, and girls pretend to be boys.  Each play-world has its own peculiar rules, and for a season, the audience accepts those rules.

     Shakespeare, of all the great dramatists, understood the power of the dream in the midst of play.  Both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest contain plays within plays, and both cut away at the distinction between reality, performance, and the dream.

     “Methinks I see these things with parted eye, when everything seems double.”  “These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits . . . We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”  “The play is the thing.”  “To sleep; perchance to dream.”