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Candles or Dreams: Which to Snuff First?

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"The unexamined life is not worth living," said Socrates, and birthdays, I find, are the perfect time to pause and reflect on your life's journey. Socrates, of course, killed himself by drinking poison. Which is pretty much how I feel every year at this time.

Since my annual birthday meditation inevitably leads to lacerating self-pity followed by a monthlong depression over the state of my acting career, let's skip all the thoughtful reflection, all the wise "life is a journey" crap, and go straight to the scoreboard, shall we?

This June I turned 44. By the time Mozart was my age, he was already dead. Jesus, dead. Martin Luther King Jr., dead. John Lennon, dead. Gershwin, dead. All five Brontë sisters: dead, dead, dead, dead, and dead. James Dean, dead. Poe, Van Gogh, Monroe, all dead. F. Scott Fitzgerald, almost dead. Elvis, pretty much dead. Shakespeare, not dead, but with Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and 30 other plays already under his belt. Woody Allen, also not dead, but by the time he was my age, he'd already stopped making funny movies.

When I was a kid, I thought about the future constantly. I had my whole career planned. Now, poised midway between past and future, my working life half over, I find I spend as much time looking backward as forward and asking myself: What the hell happened?

Faced with that, what choice do I have but to look bravely forward—a pessimist in optimist's clothes—to my incredibly shrinking future? Not that I feel old. Not usually. But for the first time in my life, I think I'm beginning to understand old. When my parents were my age, their nest was already empty. Their kids had already grown up and moved out of the house. I don't even have a nest. I can't believe I forgot to build a nest. What the hell was I thinking? Is it too late to build a nest? Could somebody help me find some twigs?

Sadly, I don't even know how to build a nest. Career always came first: Establish yourself in the industry; think about a family later. In hindsight, probably a bad plan. Because if the career doesn't pan out, what are you left with?

Not that I've given up on my career. No, that would require a grasp on reality far firmer than mine. In fact, I often still feel optimistic. Isn't that incredible? Further proof of my theory that the most powerful force in the human psyche is the power of self-delusion.

Increasingly, however, I find my adolescent dreams of showbiz success have less and less power over me. I'm resigned to the fact that I'll never be an enfant terrible; at this point I am neither enfant enough nor terrible enough. While once my Oscar acceptance speech was fully memorized and rehearsed, today I barely remember what I'd planned to say. Today I find I just want to be happy and comfortable: to relax, have a nest, and every now and then do some work I'm proud of.

So every day I lower my sights—or, more accurately, my sights lower themselves. Every day my dreams grow more prosaic. But the thing is: They won't die. Not entirely. I can't kill them. And believe me, I've tried. Suffocation, strangulation, poisoning—nothing works. My dreams are like late-night guests at a party: I desperately want to go to bed, but they refuse to go home.

As a kid they helped me survive adolescence. Now I feel shackled by them. So what do you do? Kill your dreams before they kill you? Or hold on tight for as long as you can, praying they don't suck the marrow from your bones and hoping that when the time comes, they'll slip away as we all hope to go someday—quickly, painlessly, and of natural causes?

Somebody once said there's no greater curse than to be blessed with a little talent; combine that with the aforementioned power of self-delusion, and you've got the life story of many who loiter forever on the fringes of show business: the tragedy of the moderately gifted.

So I keep asking myself which is worse: the pain of living with the dream or the pain of living without it? Yet every time I decide to hang it up, every time I make peace with the fact that three lines on Law & Order was the pinnacle of my career and that I really need to do what the self-help books say and focus on the journey and not the destination, every time I feel I've finally achieved the emotional maturity to jump off the industry treadmill and just act for the joy of acting, that adolescent voice inside me says, "No! I can't accept that. I refuse to believe it. There's got to be more for me."

And you know what? That refusal to believe, that actor's stubborn optimism may very well seal my doom. It may cost me any chance at happiness. And ultimately it may destroy me. And I know that. I know it as clearly as I know anything. And yet still, stupidly, like a moth flying into the flame, I refuse to believe it.

I can't go on. I'll go on.

There's no business like show business.

Happy birthday to me.

David Fairhurst is an actor and freelance writer, a member of SAG and Equity, a lifetime member of the Actors Studio, and Back Stage East's copy editor. You can reach him at DFairhurst@backstage.com.

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