Oscar Wilde, who spent time both celebrated and incarcerated in late Victorian London, once wrote: “don’t try to be cynical. It’s perfectly easy to be cynical.” And indeed it is easy. Watching the spectacle of Danny Boyle’s Acid Trip Opening Ceremonies at the 2012 London Olympics, there was much that might inspire cynicism. The scene was initially set in some sort of pastoral idyll complete with real grass and meadow flowers, and Kenneth Branagh, top-hatted like a Dickensian businessman, quoting from Shakespeare’s Tempest. Hundreds of costumed volunteers then revolutionized the Olympic stadium floor into a scene of bustling industry, painstakingly carting away the tons of fresh sod and hand cranking billowing smokestacks into the air. Momentarily looking up from her iPhone game of Fruit Ninja, my sixteen-year-old daughter observed: “They could’ve done it a little quicker.” And sure it was weird to mix James Bond, a fictional character, with Queen Elizabeth II, but isn’t an impossibly rich, titular queen a semi-fictional character too? Deaf children in their pajamas singing “God Save the Queen” while the Queen herself sat frowning also struck me as a bit strange, I’ll admit. Then there was the nightmare sequence where ragged black figures with glowing green eyes terrorized countless children in their rows of brass beds. True, the British have come up with some haunting antagonists in their children’s literature – Captain Hook, Voldemort, Gollum, Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, even Mary Poppins is a little creepy as nannies go. Even still, a bewildered architect friend of mine commented via Facebook that this production was “a f@#$ing hot mess”, and that Matt Lauer was only increasing the confusion.
But relying on Matt Lauer’s atonal narration was not a sufficient strategy for successfully viewing this pageant. You had to use a little bit of your imagination, your inner Lewis Carroll. You had to be open to the live art. Let’s give the participants and the artists a little credit for their enormous effort, dedication, and creativity. Isn’t that what we try to do for the athletes even if their performance falls short of our expectations? We use our imaginations to give life to the stories we are watching. We ask ourselves what it would be like to be this person who has trained for years for this moment in this arena? This person is so good at running, at diving, at gymnastics. We as human beings are capable of this excellence! Yes, the Opening Ceremonies were certainly surreal and eccentric. But, as the artistic director Danny Boyle said, “We [the British] are good at that sort of thing.” We can celebrate this too. Besides, by the end of the night, the proceedings had become so emotionally moving that even Paul McCartney couldn’t help but get choked up while singing the first few notes of “Hey Jude”. There’s so much to love and appreciate about the Olympics – weren’t the copper petals, one for each participating nation and employed together to create the Olympic flame, a beautiful idea? So let the Games begin, and let’s not get too cynical.