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Forever Young: The Cursed Quest of the Performer

Jimi Hendrix: Forever Young - Staszek Szybki Jest
While no one wants to be old, performers chase any elusive butterfly to stay forever young. Technology may answer their prayer, but is it curse or blessing?

Pete Townshend of The Who stuttered in “My Generation”, “hope I die before I get old.” Many did just that: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Karen Carpenter, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Tammi Terrell and Marc Bolan.

Those who didn’t and lived into this century found themselves with renewed careers in their old age, touring the nostalgia circuit, reliving the memories, retelling the songs they sang in their teens like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Eric Burden, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Eric Burden, Van Morrison, Paul McCartney and Ray Davies.

In a sense, and as their audiences have grown old with them yet attracted younger generations too, they have lived Bob Dylan’s prayer in his “Forever Young”(1974), “May God bless and keep you always/May your wishes all come true/May you always do for others/ And let others do for you/May you build a ladder to the stars/And climb on every rung/May you stay forever young.”

Holding Back the Years

This was addressed as much to those rock stars who died young, as to those who lived on. Nowadays the post-war baby boomer generation refusing to grow old gracefully take the lead in cosmetic surgery, drugs and unguents. Bodies are tattooed and ornamented, while breasts/faces/eyes/teeth/stomachs are nipped and tucked by people of all ages now.

It’s as if collectively and individually only youth is valued; old age is disregarded, as court cases and arguments over “ageism” at the BBC, for example, showed in 2010-2011. However, the ideal of eternal youth, physical immortality without aging, has been around for centuries. Waters, seas and mud have been popular regeneratives at times. Ancient Egyptians used creams for the skin. Even their dead were embalmed, forever.

In traditions, mythologies and religions, continuous youth has featured, from Abrahamic to the Hindu, Islamic, Greek and Roman to the Norse legends. The elixir of life or philosopher’s stone, the alchemy of existence was the mythical liquid potion that granted such eternal life.

One sip from the Fountain of Youth was sufficient to restore those halycon but unspecified periods of life. It survives as a metaphor for anything that prolongs longevity, and has long been of obvious appeal to writers and film makers. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Dr Heideggers’ Experiment (1837), Tim Powers‘ On Stranger Tides (1987) and Disney’s Don’s Fountain of Youth (1953) are just some of the works inspired by the notion.

The Arts Are Ageless

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) and Dorian Gray (2009) are but two movies from the catalogue of the mystery of perpetual youth and its consequences. Gray was from the Oscar Wilde Story, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), about a painting of an impossibly beautiful young man which grew older as he stayed young. It is a Faustian-soul-to-the-devil plot, in essence. Matthew Bourne worked a major choreographic piece from it, too.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) employed life suspension, but not eternal life for humans. Forever Young (1992) was a cryogenics experiment movie set in 1939 and 1992. Stephen Holden, NY Times film critic, reviewed Italian movie, The Last Kiss (2001), later remade as American in 2006, as “contemporary seriocomic bedroom farce,” while dealing with the sense of aging brought on by impending parenthood and grandparenthood. Clearly, neither states can be prevented, but a nostalgic wish in people to stay young is in the poignant line many say “But I’m too young to be a grandparent!”

Immortality in the arts touches on man’s fears for his future beyond the mortal world. Sci-fi and fantasy genres have tapped this with success. In Britain’s TV series Dr Who, the central character transformed/regenerated his body periodically (to coincide with a new actor taking over the role) and continued his eternal life as a Time Lord of the Galaxy. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, the Harry Potter world of immortal witches and wizards, and movies like Highlander exploited the idea.

The Child Is Father to the Man

In his Daily Telegraph (Feb 2011) review of the National Theatre’s Frankenstein, Harry de Quetteville, wrote about the responsibilities of creation, underlining the reflective relationship, vanity and megalomania, reinforced by having two actors who alternated roles of creator and created “I will unfold to the world the mysteries of creation.”

It is man’s driving force to procreate, to reproduce himself down through generations he will never see, but will be in his image. It is God creating man in His image, and giving him offspring more numerous than grains of sand on a shore. It is poetry and drama.

The wonders of modern technology mean that the performer can now be immortal too. Early sound recordings of singers, early surviving film give actors, directors and writers of forgotten material an eternity denied before. Plays have been made into films, or a few simply recorded for future generations.

Now, cloud computer digital technology and whatever comes next means that when the curtain comes down, it’s no longer the end. The pleasures of live theatre (sharing something unique, spellbound suspension of disbelief) and the displeasures (transport, expense, visibility of stage, people coughing/talking, poor sound quality of theatre) may now to be consigned to niche marketing.

Digital downloading gives the home viewer the best seat in the house, enhanced with camera shots unavailable from the distance of a theatre seat. Film and theatre are merging; new art forms are evolving from the fusions, as they do in music, movie, effects and sounds all the time.

In that sense, the holy grail of eternity for performers will be realized. Not all the cryogenics, Botox, potions, soul-selling in the world will do it. Medical science may slow the advance of the years in future, but on live/recorded sound/light fusion shows, performers will be truly forever young.

Read On

First published on Suite 101, 26 February 2011.

Image: Jimi Hendrix: Forever Young – Staszek Szybki Jest

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