Saturday 22 January 2022 – La Minute Monocle
Over the years, when my other half or good friends have performed in plays in the West End, there is often a nice addition after the curtain call. While most people fall into the dark to find a place for supper or wade through the dizzying melee to catch the last train home, you head behind the theater, often down a piss-scented alley, until the stage door. Here you will find the stage porter, usually a wise old man who is a good mix of bouncer and master depending on whether he or she likes the cut of your jib. You give them your name, explain who is expecting you, then they call to the lodge or announce your presence on the Tannoy.
Then you walk down the stairs, impressed by how the people who were on stage a few minutes before are already walking past you, the job is done. The stairwell walls are lined with old theater bills and artist photographs dating back decades. As an outsider, it’s funny how the star’s dressing room is no bigger than a closet, with a mirror festooned with lucky cards and maybe a small abandoned bed. When you met people in that after-show moment, there was often a bonhomie and a quick glass of wine that even included intruders.
Illustration: Mathieu De Muizon
Twenty years ago and more, when I had more actor friends, there was always another group of people installed at the door of the stage: the autograph hunters. Now, these weren’t people who had seen the show or cared whether it was a hit or a flop; they were men and women who spent their time stalking the stars looking for a signature on a piece of paper to prove that they had encountered them to capture some of their brilliance. You would see the same people over and over again; they had been there for years. It made you realize how much being around fame warps us, whether I’m trying to play it cool or that this now bygone generation of autograph collectors is considered by many to be too obsessed with the comfort. But these men and women have nothing against us today. Except it’s not autographs that people want now; this is the picture. And the results of this endless cataloging of celebrities show up in a weird way: when people die.
Seconds after someone famous popped their hooves, social media is filled with photos of the dearly departed with the account owner. Were they once at the same fundraiser? Appeared together on a panel in 1988? Had a friend had them backstage at a theater (gulp)? Whatever the link, the words always follow the same pattern: “So saddened to hear of Meat Loaf’s passing. I will never forget that moment in Des Moines in 1992. Legend. Or, “So broken by the passing of Betty White, who I had the great pleasure of spending time with – my thoughts are with her family.” These “moments”, the “past time”, probably represented seconds. But that’s the world of social media obituaries. (In the meantime, what the message should say is, “I forced them to have their picture taken with me; they were uncomfortable about the whole thing. But hey, it’s 2022. “)
What Insta-obituary writers, like these autograph collectors, are looking for is a fleeting moment of connection and equivalence: “Look, we’re here in the same place, at the same time. So I guess everything is innocent and fine except, well, it’s not. These posters are kind of a fantasy, meant to twist the narrative, to – like Woody Allen’s character in the movie Zelig – become part of the story.
We live in a time when memories are rarely enough (and I know it affects me too). But even though we now have those photos of amazing people on our phones, of seconds spent in the company of our heroes, maybe that’s where they should stay, because once thrown there, their power wanes and you risk looking a bit shabby. And the Insta-obit is more about the person posting it than the dead. However, would you like to see the picture of me and Meat Loaf? Because, really, wow, what a day it was!