Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Play's the Thing

Tillerman's Theme this month is “Play”  and I am jumping into the game.
Of course “mere” play is very important for both young and old, although in different ways. But I started thinking of how curious are a couple of English linguistic choices – the fact that we call a theatrical work a “play” and the verb we use for musical instruments is “to play”.
Hamlet sets the stage for the upcoming mayhem and deaths in outing the previous skullduggery, when he tells us “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”.  Both the play and the play within the play have little to do with light-hearted recreation we associate with “play” and are in many ways the opposite – cold, calculating, angst-ridden, psychological brooding, not to mention death.   If we were inventing a new language, would we apply the same word to describe the creative pastime of children, a dark psychological drama and a Neil Simon bauble?  Perhaps the commonality is that in acting out a play we are like children trying on different persona, trying out different ways to dealing with people.  And the cathartic effect works because we can experience difficult emotions without the real danger usually associated with them.  But still, very curious to have the same word apply to such different things.
Giving life to music through playing an instrument is certainly more akin to the common meaning of play, but it is quite different in that it takes a lot of skill and endless practice to get it right. For most of us it is far from spontaneous and it is based on a mathematical precision of scales and rhythm.  But it nevertheless taps into something quite deep in all of us – as very ably explained by Michael Tillson-Thomas. Ted Tillson-Thomas
One common denominator to both a play on stage and playing an instrument is an audience. But, in our daily playing, while we may do it with others, it is rarely in the context of performer and audience.
Perhaps it is all just a curious happenstance of etymology with no deep meaning, but I wonder….

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