Yesterday I went with a dear friend to see Audra McDonald in Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill and when this amazing show ended my friend turned to me with tears in her eyes. She said she could not bear the tragedy of Billie Holiday’s life. And I told her that I could not believe the wonder of her gift. It was an odd moment. My friend riddled with sadness and me with admiration and, I’m not going to lie, even a tinge of jealousy.
Don’t we all – well at least those of us who are artists - in some way want to dig that deeply, but the fact is how many of us can? To me it is a little like spelunking. I’ll only go so far and then the darkness, the narrowness makes me stop. Fear takes over. This is something I’ve puzzled over for most of my adult life. There are moments when I have dipped that far down and it has terrified me.
I recall many years ago seeing Equus on Broadway. It was one of the first plays I saw when I came to New York and there was one line and one moment that has never left me. The play, for those who may not know it, is about a boy who blinds six horses with a railroad spike. Clearly the boy is insane and most of the play takes place in the asylum where he has been sent along with the fleeting images of the horror he has committed. There is a moment when the psychiatrist says (and forgive me I do not recall the context), “I can cure him of his madness but I will take away his passion.”
Isn’t that the tightrope all artists are walking? Between our madness and our passion. It is a delicate balance, to say the least. While Flaubert told us to be ordinary in our lives so that we may be wild in our imaginations at times I find it difficult to reconcile the two.
It brings us back to the age-old question. Do artists have to suffer? What was it about Billie Holiday, Piaf, and most recently Robin Williams that made them so destructive? I suppose I’m one of those who always go back to the mother. That somewhere in our core we are shattered.
On the other hand Billie Holiday had a loving relationship with her mother and in the play it seems to be the revoking of her cabaret card after she pleaded guilty to a felony she did not commit. But Billie was already hooked on heroin so again who is to say. Is it the art that makes us dig deeper until we have perhaps dug our own graves. Or is it the art that is our rescuer and enables us to climb out of the holes of despair, at least for a time, in which we have found ourselves.
I don’t know. I have my thoughts, but I cannot know for sure. Once a read about a Harvard study that showed that creative people remember their childhoods as unhappy, even if they were not.
I still see my friend, her eyes welling with tears over the tragedy of Billie’s life. And I feel myself in the audience in awe of her gift, and I think that the truth lies somewhere in between in a place few of us can ever really understand.