I was watching a segment of CBS Sunday Morning today, when a segment was presented about a new Broadway production, “It’s Only a Play.” During that piece, Lesley Stahl asked the cast about the expected fortunes of this new work and what the reviews might be. The reactions of the players, whether feigned or real, bothered the hell out of me and were of the tenor of “you don’t EVER talk about that in the theater!” Eventually, there was conversation on those issues, but that the superstition was much of the cast’s initial reaction was more than a little disturbing. I realize that there is a lot of superstition in the theater business. Witness such traditions as the “superstition lamp” lit and placed in many (if not all!) stages of the world when the facility is idle, lest the stage be totally dark, and of course the positively clichéd phrase, “Break a leg!” I understand why those traditions are there, and I expect that many of those who work on the stage appreciate them as well.
And still they bother me. I am not down with superstition, regardless of the venue, and to see it still in play in a 21st century world, even in a non-religious setting, is disturbing. When are we going to recognize that there are no demons in closets or under beds? Can the time finally come that people can recognize that coincidence is not causation and a word casually spoken is not going to bring down the house, literally or figuratively? Are we capable of looking forward to a positive future without needing to knock wood?
This kind of woo is at least as endemic to our society as religion is, and it may be considerably harder to kick out than those irrational beliefs. In Islam it may be even more so, particularly when characterized by a single word: “inshallah” – literally “if god wills it” – which I suspect may be even more a part of their culture than our rapping knuckles on ash or oak. The sad fact is that we’re sons and daughters of people who either didn’t or couldn’t apprehend how their world worked and imagined supernatural mechanisms which could be theoretically invoked to move events in a more favorable direction. The fact that these inventions DON’T work, that they have neither functionality nor efficacy hasn’t changed the fact that they continue to occur all over the place. Reason and rationality and objective understanding of how the world works is a relative newcomer to humankind, with a mere handful of centuries under its belt, as opposed to millennia of beliefs, folk tales, fireside stories … and fears passed down from generation to generation.
It is as much the general irrationality of Homo sapiens as it is the specific madness of religion that we have to overcome, when you boil it down and the enormous social inertia behind it … and I would prefer to find some way to be shut of it without having to throw salt over my shoulder, relying on four-leaf clovers or rabbit’s feet … or telling a fellow performer to “break a leg.”