Patron Saint Of The Humanities

revolutionary-road-book-jacketIn 1998 I moved to New York City with no plan and a hodgepodge degree from the University of Florida.  It basically covered: French, English, Theatre History & Psychology. The key elements for survival under this set of circumstances were:

1. a lack of emotional maturity
2. a fierce and overwhelming naivety and
3. a lack of comprehension of the phrase-risk assessment.

But it was a glorious time, even when it wasn’t.

When I arrived in the city, I started a theatre company. Can you imagine? Depending on your definition of success, there was nothing successful about it; but the work, the collaboration, the thrilling accomplishment of ten opening nights in five years time.   Even if the plays were terrible-and to my recollection, they were mostly terrible-they made the nights of cocktail waitressing worth it (at least for a year or so). Several factors contributed to my enjoyment of this time and one of them was Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

When my husband remarked to me last week how he was surprised by my reaction to the death of a man I did not know, I realized I too was surprised by my strong feelings. I didn’t know Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but it is true during my early years in New York, he was something akin to the Patron Saint of the Humanities. He was as prominent a fixture in the downtown theatre scene as he was in Hollywood. He made my Liberal Arts degree feel like something of a strong choice. It didn’t matter if no one else wanted to come and see the work we produced-the challenge was simply to do it anyway. Under his reign the overriding philosophy was:

Push yourself, see how far you can go and tell the truth.  The rest is icing on the cake.

There was no finer example of this to be set than by a man who iced his cake by allowing the world to glimpse his remarkable and very bankable talent in films like Boogie Nights, The Talented Mr Ripley and Magnolia. His work, however, on these higher end collaborations was not more important to him than the work on his lower profile, nitty-gritty productions with lesser-known New York artists. He showed up with the same enthusiasm for both. His example united everyone who loved the theatre, from audience members to the most brilliant of performers to those of us who always knew we shouldn’t quit our day jobs.

In my experience of him which was waaaaaaayyyyy, waaaaaaayyyy out in the outer rings of his giant sequoia tree, I, along with most everyone else around at that time saw him like this:

-A T-shirt clad man who took tickets at the front door of his friend’s show, Jesus Hopped the A Train.

-A fiercely contemplative man in the back row of a fifty seat theatre to watch his friend’s play, Our Lady of 121st St.

-A man whose performance in True West made an entire audience, unbeknownst to itself, hurl itself to its feet in a wild standing ovation. He had somehow rendered us all embarrassingly out of breath and kind of sweaty.

-A man who then held talkbacks to rooms of six people in a tiny, theatre in Chelsea.

-A man who sat on the stage for an hour and answered our questions with the same respect he would have used had we been a panel of reporters from the New York Times.

-A man who seriously answered my pseudo-intellectual in retrospect question:

How do you know when you’ve gone too far as an actor or writer or director, when you’re milking something for the sake of milking it and maybe leaving your audience out?

His honest to God answer (I’m paraphrasing) was:

There is a scene in the book Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, where a man, alone after an argument with his wife, cries so hard he starts to laugh. He visualizes what he would look like to someone else if they caught a glimpse of him from across the street. That brief moment of self awareness made him burst out into laughter. That’s how you know. That moment of self awareness is how you know you’ve lost the connection to the truth and you’re no longer serving anyone but yourself, which is boring to watch.

That wisdom is applicable in more situations then you’d think.

But, the thing is, I’m a grown-up person now. The majority of my time is occupied by much less existential questions like,

Do I need life insurance?


Is this organic apple really better?


Is Verizon really going to charge me this $15 fee AGAIN after I spent two hours on hold to verify it would be removed?

(The answer to all of these questions is yes, ps.)

So, I guess I do have strong feelings about the death of a man who actually took the time to seriously answer young kids’ burning questions about theatre without rolling his eyes and patronizing them with his answers.  It’s more than Verizon’s ever done, I can tell you that.

I’m so very sorry he’ll never be aware of the fact the whole world caught a glimpse of him from across the street this last time around.  It would have been the one time his loss of connection to the truth would have actually served his audience.

published on Maison Loup


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