Ageism & “The Secret Lives of Extremely Old People”

Theatre has traditionally served as a mirror, often challenging and reflecting the assumptions of society. The “Theatre Against Ageism” movement revolves around Rachel McAlpine’s play “The Secret Lives of Extremely Old People,” which defies age stereotypes by presenting the lives of people who are 90 years of age and older. The play, which just had its highly successful release, allows us to see the many experiences and hidden depths of people who are often overlooked by the society. The overwhelmingly positive response has caused discussions about the lives of our senior citizens that are at times neglected.

“People in their 90s are not a homogenous group. They’re full of surprises, contradictions, and a wealth of experience.”

Rachel McAlpine

There is a double meaning in the title itself. The documentary “Secret Lives” challenges the notion that senior citizens have typical, predictable lives. The lives of senior citizens are often viewed through a lens of weakness and deterioration, which can make them seem odd. This drama reveals the colorful, complex, and even shocking experiences of its characters through stripping layers from the surface. Their hidden passions, goals, and struggles are exposed throughout the play, creating a tapestry of rich experiences and unknown narratives. Unfortunately, people who are 90 years of age or older are often marginalized by the society and written off as irrelevant or unimportant. “Extremely Old People” emphasizes this overlooked group even more by giving voice to individuals whose experience and resiliency are all easily disregarded.

Drawing from conversations with real nonagenarians, McAlpine creates five fictitious characters whose narratives defy stereotypes and honor the eternal essence of existence. The piece exposes the ageism that is widespread in popular culture. The feeble, dependent people who were once associated with very old age are long gone. Instead, we meet Tom and Peggy, a still-loving couple who are slyly happy as they go on adventures at their retirement home. There’s Iris, a former singer struggling with fading memory but not her love of life, and Una, a feisty activist determined to carry on her struggle for social justice. Every character has a unique past that has been shaped by both past events and their own experiences. They share their recollections of the Great Depression, World Wars, and changes in society, offering invaluable insights into the past and striking links with the present.

However, “The Secret Lives of Extremely Old People” offers a lot more than just a historical description. It explores the current aspirations and difficulties of the protagonists. Even while Peggy is happy with Tom, she struggles with her physical limitations. Una faces discrimination because of her age and sexual orientation. Iris struggles to be independent and longs for connection. These topics strike deeply with us because they act as a constant reminder that growing older is a journey that, like all life stages, is not without its challenges and rewards. The characters created by McAlpine are anything but dull. They are bizarre, humorous, and blatantly authentically human. Humor and warmth are introduced into the play by Peggy’s love of balloon volleyball, Una’s rebellious spirit, and Iris’s clever repartees. Because of their flaws and shortcomings, they are acquainted with us and serve as a reminder that people are constantly changing and growing, even as they age into their 90s.

The message of the play doesn’t just apply to the stage. Through stimulating dialogues on ageing and mortality, it allows people to face their own fears and appreciate the beauty of life at any age. It inspires us to honor the wisdom and accomplishments of the elderly, creating a more civilized and inclusive environment.

Written by- Vanshita Kanjani | Edited by- Apurv Nayak