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A Mother's Gift: Stoppard, Shakespeare And A Cultural Awakening

03/05/2012 07:05 am ET | Updated May 07, 2013
  • John Montorio Editor-at-Large and former Executive Features Editor of The Huffington Post

My mother never went to the opera or attended the ballet.

She never read Shakespeare or listened to Chopin.

Her theater experience was limited to once-a-year outings at second-rate dinner theaters in New Jersey where has-been TV stars and C-list actors tried their best to resurrect Neil Simon, and their careers, for a night or two.

But my mother had dreams, and there was poetry in her. And she had an intriguing beauty, with chestnut hair and one blue eye and one green. When I was very young, I asked her about her eyes. She smiled and told me it gave her the ability to see the truth. I believed her. She had a way with words, too, and reading the diary I asked her to keep in the last six months of her life was all the proof I needed that, in another time, another place, she would've been a novelist. Or a poet. Or perhaps an editor as her son would become many years later.

So maybe I shouldn't have been surprised when, on my 18th birthday, she introduced me to culture. Culture came in a plain white envelope that contained two tickets to a Broadway show along with a simple note in her looping script that said, "I know you'll enjoy this. Love, mom."

The show was Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, hardly a likely choice for the wife of a bricklayer and daughter of an immigrant day-laborer, who worked as a secretary at a car dealership.

It was an unexpected gift on many levels. What had prompted my mother to present me with theater tickets in the first place? I had not yet shown any particular passion for the arts and none for the theater. My idea of culture at the time consisted largely of going to see Doctor Zhivago twice (mostly for Julie Christie) and never missing an episode of The Twilight Zone. When it came to aesthetic refinement, I was, as they say, a late bloomer.

And then, of course, I have to wonder even now, why was she inspired to choose this chilling and funny play about death? That year, as I look back, there were other more fanciful options on Broadway -- Annie Get Your Gun, I Do, I Do and Cabaret were all playing to packed houses. Why didn't she pick one of those musicals?

On the night of the performance, I put on the one corduroy sports coat and solid tie I owned and took a bus into the city with the girl I'd taken to the senior prom only a few months earlier. She wore a red dress and heels and smelled of White Shoulders Powder. We settled into our mezzanine seats only minutes before the lights went down.

The week before, I had read Hamlet and a summary of Mr. Stoppard's play, so I understood the gist of things: this was a re-imagining of the great Shakespearean tragedy, but not as seen through the eyes of Hamlet. Rather, we watch the action unfold from the bewildered perspective of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two insignificant and foolish functionaries in the original drama. In Hamlet, these two have no lives of their own. In Mr. Stoppard's rendering, they are the lead players.

Well before the curtain came down, I was mesmerized and helplessly in love. Not with the young woman who accompanied me, but with the art of the theater. It was electric -- the audience, the actors, the music and, most of all, the power of Mr. Stoppard's words to transport me and create an exquisite and temporary moment in another time. The next day, I told my mother about all these feelings. I know it gave her happiness. Or maybe it was satisfaction that she expressed. She never told me why she chose that play, except to say, "I thought it was the perfect gift for you."

Since that night I've read many reviews of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and I know as a teenager I missed a lot of its deeper meanings about identity and alienation and self awareness (though I'm sure that's not the kind of understanding my mother hoped I'd gain).

And since that night I've enjoyed many plays in many cities, and I have been to the ballet and to the opera and I have listened to Chopin.

But nothing can compare to that night, now long ago and far away, when I sat in the audience at the Alvin Theatre and was first struck by the notion that there was a magical world out there just beyond the small horizons and modest ambitions of my blue-collar neighborhood. And I could reach those worlds if I only tried.

So thanks, ma.

What was your first cultural experience? Let us know in the comments, or drop us a line at culture@huffingtonpost.com.

This story appears in Issue 48 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, May 10.

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