The Little Prince Has No Practical Use, and So Is Essential
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It was an obvious choice. What was not obvious, however, was how we were going to pull it off. My wife Olivia and I had not planned on directing a high school play this year, but there was a complicated administrative fiasco and suddenly the task was in our hands. We had a tight budget, no cast or crew, almost no equipment, and less than three months until opening night.
Olivia and I are masters of feigned confidence. We both laughed coolly. I got into the bathtub with a book on stage-lighting theory and she began designing audition flyers.
We were terrified.
The next several weeks were a frenzy of scenes, lines, costumes, sore knees and spray paint fumes, DMX cables and all-nighters, paper roses and Sigur Ros, lighting orders and staring down at an empty stage from a cherry-picker.
These weeks formed some of the fondest memories of my life.
Striking Because Ephemeral
While the Prince sits on his tiny planet, he moves his chair back a few steps to watch the sun set over and over. During production I realized why he did this.
The dramatic arts are spectacular and devastating. After a magnificent scene happens, it’s gone. You can’t hold on to it. When you direct a play you’re struck with the realization that the thing you are making is ephemeral. It disappears right before you and you are left with only a longing to play it over again.
During act one, Emma and Paul, our Prince and Aviator, sit and watch the sun descend to close out the scene, amid an explosion of color via the programmed lighting software. Their dialogue was simple, and they delivered it with delicate vulnerability. The scene was altogether perfect. My eyes misted over each time and I made them replay the scene over and over.
Prince: “One loves the sunsets when one is so sad.”
Aviator: “Were you so sad then? On the day of the 44 sunsets?”
Me: “AGAIN FROM THE TOP!”
Essential Because Not
I have a two-year-old and I survived graduate school, so I know what exhaustion feels like. The Little Prince, however, redefined sleep deprivation for me. I think it nearly killed me. This is the fact of which I am most proud. A play like this comes with the great risk of collapsing into cheap sentimentality. Giving it the emotional depth it deserves requires immense and vulnerable attention. It requires exclusive dedication to the work for its own sake, even to the point of intense exhaustion.
When art is not loved for its own sake, it becomes propaganda—a billboard. Everyone on set, from cast to crew, loved The Little Prince for its own sake, and so what we produced was worthy of the title: A Work of Art.
I still think about that show. Sometimes I dream about it. A completed work becomes like an old friend that you return to in your memory to converse with, even to learn from. I know the cast and crew feel the same. Creating art with other people produces a unique kind of bond—you become family.
This is why I am offended when people thank me for “doing the show for the students.” I understand the sentiment, but I am offended. We produced The Little Prince together. We learned from him together, and we remember him together. We all produced The Little Prince for his own sake, and for no other reason.
We have this idea that the most valuable things are useful things, practical things. What The Little Prince taught me is that nothing could be further from the truth. “Matters of consequence,” like banking or economics, although very practical, rarely touch the most profound depths of human experience. These are the depths into which art is able to reach. These are the depths into which The Little Prince is able to reach.
Of what use is the little prince?
He is of no practical use at all.
And that is what makes him so essential.
Shane Dabney teaches high school theology and philosophy, and is a songwriter and composer.
This article is part of an August series on theatre, hosted by the Play and Create channels at Humane Pursuits. Read more here.
Photo by Tim de Groot via Unsplash