This is a post about that old writing note ‘but why do we care?’ Sometimes also appears as ‘it was alright but I didn’t really care about her/it/them’. I’ve heard it and, god help me, probably said it enough times. There are many, many things we can get out of a performance – intellectual stimulation, information, challenge, amusement, shock, even (one performance by Forced Entertainment in particular comes to mind) the peculiar meditation brought about by beauty coinciding with boredom. Why does empathetic engagement (or ‘caring’) get privileged so much in criticism of plays?
To answer – a digression of sorts. I’ve just got back from holiday (it was very nice thanks). We were staying in a house my family have had since I was born forty something years ago. The books in it have accreted over that time period and are a mixture of classics, airport blockbuster types, children’s and sci-fi; four decades of family holiday reading.
Casting around for something to read in the odd moments I wasn’t chasing after three small children, I came across ‘The Summer before the Dark’ by Doris Lessing. Now I love Doris Lessing – Golden Notebook is up there as one of my all time favourite books and I reckon I had to have read this as the edition dated from early 80s (written mid 70s) and it was falling out of its binding state of well read. But funny thing was when I started reading it I couldn’t remember a thing about it. Which was odd because it is bloody brilliant. The protagonist is 45 year old mother of 4 children and every sentence utterly nails the experience of being a mid 40s woman.
Inter alia (us nerds like phrases like inter alia) the book contains this delicious passage: ‘everyone stood up to applaud and applaud, in the way we use in our theatre, as if the need of the actors to be approved, the need of the watchers to approve, feeds an action – palms striking repeatedly together in a fusillade of noise – which is a comment quite separate and apart from anything that has happened on stage…but is more of a ritual confirmation of self-approval on the part of the audience and the actors for going to the theatre and for acting in it.’
So I’m reading and admiring the book and wondering how I didn’t read it before and then three-quarters of the way through a young woman character enters the story. And I can remember everything. In vivid detail. Not only can I remember it the image of this young woman – sitting in an evening dress, eating baby food from a jar, has been lurking in my mind for years without knowing where it came from. And the answer is that when I read it I was (probably) a teenager, closer in age to the young woman and the state of a mid 40s woman was a strange and distant country.
Emotion points attention (there is a lot of good neuroscience research in this which at some time I am going to look into). Emotion makes memories. Emotions are easier to engage with people whose experience reflects our own. All things we generally ask for in plays – get the audience’s attention, engage them with what is happening, make them remember it. At some point in some way a good piece of theatre will engage with our emotions. There are a couple of things I take away from this.
First – there are a whole range of emotions that can be generated by a work – excitement, fear, surprise, suspense – caring for or about one or more of the characters is one option. A particularly useful option when it comes to protagonist dramas (on which much more to come) but still only one option. Rather than why do we care? maybe a better question is what does this play offer? or what will it feel like? Equally difficult/impossible to answer, especially if you are the one writing it, but at least not reductive to one mode of emotional connection.
Second – and this goes out especially to my fellow play nerd/literary friends who will tend to read rather than see the play – just because I can’t feel it doesn’t mean it isn’t there or that it isn’t good. I had a recent experience of this reading a play about three young men on a stag do. I couldn’t get any purchase on the play – probably the wrong age as much as wrong gender. That doesn’t make the play worth less because I can’t get a handle on it. It is always important to check what perspective, and assumptions, we bring when reading a piece of work, and get another opinion if necessary.
Which is not to say caring for or about a character in the play is a bad thing – a lot of the time it is a very important thing especially if you are writing a protagonist drama – but that’s a post for another day.