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Smile - Nat King Cole

Today is World Theatre Day, initiated in 1961 by the International Theatre Institute, the worldwide organisation for the performing arts. Every year a drama luminary presents a message to the world promoting the performing arts generally, and theatre and acting in particular.

This year's messenger is the 2023 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Jon Fosse, the Norwegian playwright and novelist. In this year's address, Fosse begins by saying that the arts celebrate people's differences, the uniqueness of every individual, while recognising too, the things we have in common, concluding that people, through the arts, develop and increase their compassion, their understanding of others. He concludes, therefore, that:

"....All good art contains precisely.....something alien, something we cannot completely understand and yet at the same time do understand, in a way. It contains a mystery, so to speak. Something that fascinates us and thus pushes us beyond our limits and in so doing creates the transcendence that all art must both contain in itself and lead us to. I know of no better way to bring opposites together.

This is the exact reverse approach from that of the violent conflicts we see all too often in the world, which indulge the destructive temptation to annihilate anything foreign, anything unique and different,.......There is terrorism in the world. There is war. For people have an animalistic side, too, driven by the instinct to experience the other, the foreign, as a threat to one’s own existence rather than as a fascinating mystery. This is how uniqueness—the differences we all can see—disappear, leaving behind a collective sameness where anything different is a threat that needs to be eradicated. What is seen from without as a difference, for example in religion or political ideology, becomes something that needs to be defeated and destroyed. War is the battle against what lies deep inside all of us: something unique.

And it is also a battle against art, against what lies deep inside all art. I have been speaking here about art in general, not about theatre or playwriting in particular, but that is because, as I’ve said, all good art, deep down, revolves around the same thing: taking the utterly unique, the utterly specific, and making it universal.  Uniting the particular with the universal by means of expressing it artistically: not eliminating its specificity but emphasizing this specificity, letting what is foreign and unfamiliar shine clearly through. War and art are opposites, just as war and peace are opposites—it’s as simple as that. Art is peace. "(Translated from the Norwegian by: Damion Searls)

While this is an excellent message for our times, it also reflects the divisions between nations at the moment as well as the divisions in the artistic world. Fosse's unwillingness to specifically mention the conflict in Gaza, presumably for fear of being pilloried for showing sympathy for one side over another is the elephant in the room. This contrasts with the deliverer of the World Theatre Day message of three years ago, Helen Mirren, who in February joined other performers to write a letter opposing a previous letter signed by 1,000 Swedish musicians who were requesting that Israel be excluded from the Eurovision song contest due to be held in 2024 in their country, in Malmo, in May, because of the continuing bombing of Gaza.

It is interesting that while the silent movie era lasted for a good 14 years, the average person today will know few if any films or film stars from this period that aren't vehicles for comic actors, specifically, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Of these, the most famous and most lasting has been Charlie Chaplin, a man who was finally hounded out of Hollywood due to the political content of his later films.

Not least among these was the 1936 masterpiece "Modern Times", an essentially silent movie starring, written and directed by Chaplin. "Modern Times" is nowadays on every critic's Top 100 Films ever list, if not in their top 20, yet was not even shortlisted for Hollywood's Best Film Oscar, won curiously that year by the biopic "Life of Emile Zola". (Who ever heard of that?) While the official reason was that "Modern Times" was essentially a silent movie in the time of talkies (did they miss the irony here?), the unspoken truth was that the film's subject matter, the exploitation of common people by industry, the poverty of the depression years and the suppression of the labour movement did not meet with Hollywood approval.

In the film, Chaplin's Tramp character and Ellen, the main female protagonist, played by the wonderful Paulette Goddard, having survived prison, hunger and the factory assembly line, find themselves lonely, homeless and unemployed on a remote roadside. "What's the use of trying?" she asks despairingly, and he replies, "Buck up - never say die. We'll get along!". These words are shown on the usual silent movie caption cards, but her rousing reply, "You betcha! Come on, let's go!" needs no subtitles, it's there, plain as day, for us to lip read, They get up and start walking, hand-in-hand, the road stretching out behind them, her face serious, fierce and determined. He notices this, stops her and draws his forefinger across his mouth, clearly speaking the word "smile". She smiles too, infected by his optimism, and the last shot is of them walking down the long, straight road into the afternoon light.

Silent or not, this was a message by an actor to the world, one that everyone understood, whatever their language, colour, religion or nationality, speaking of a universal understanding of compassion and humanity. The Tramp has a partner now, and we never see him again, a happy ending because there is love, and, the film suggests, love is all that counts; after all, they have precious little else.

Chaplin wrote the music for this scene, as he did the soundtracks for all of his feature films. The words were added by two London-based English songwriters, John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons eighteen years later, very much in keeping with the message of hope in the film. And who better to record the first of many versions of the song than the silky-voiced Nat King Cole, a man whose delightful, full-throated word enunciation would make a toothpaste jingle sound sincere.

"Smile though your heart is aching.

Smile even though it's breaking.

When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by

if you smile through your fear and sorrow

smile and maybe tomorrow

you'll see the sun come shining through for you.

Light up your face with gladness.

Hide every trace of sadness,

although a tear may be ever so near,

that's the time you must keep on trying

smile, what's the use of crying?

You'll find that life is still worthwhile

if you just smile.

That's the time you must keep on trying.

Smile, what's the use of crying?

You'll find that life is still worthwhile

if you just smile."


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