Yesterday was a day of high hopes: kids’ first theatre excursion with close friends to see Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Black patent leather high heels worn with tube socks (glamour meets cozy)! Preparing for the adventure by watching a fun kids’ video version, reading Anne Barton’s interesting notes in the Riverside Shakespeare, and talking with our wise friend Bella about her analysis of the text.
Why isn’t the show starting, Mommy? Well, let’s imagine all the reasons: one of the actors got stuck on the train; someone needed a donut; someone backstage is telling a really long joke!
High hopes dashed: “the performance has been cancelled due to illness.” Oh dear. We hope that person is okay, what a tough moment for an actor and the company. No understudies? Nope, the parts are specially crafted for each actor.
Marvelously, no one freaked out (an achievement for 6 & 8 year old kids who had spent weeks in anticipation) and we decided to regroup at Greenlight Bookstore.
Our talk turned to tragedy and scholar/mom Tanya shared some surprising insights: King Lear, Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, but not popular with theatre-goers, was rewritten in 1681 by England’s Poet Laureate to have a happy ending with Cordelia marrying Edgar! This version was a huge hit for hundreds of years, audiences loved it.*
Tanya went on to say that it was only very recently that audiences were willing to see the original version of Lear, and found it deeply moving.
Two world wars.
Is that sufficient explanation?
Why do we choose to see plays (or movies, or tv shows) rife with violence and suffering? It seems perverse. Brutal killing and betrayal, as in King Lear, have characterized our species since time immemorial, but perhaps were easier for the average person to elide given the tremendous constraints on sharing information in earlier days. In the 20th century, suddenly we saw how red in tooth and claw we all are. There can be no denying our inherent violence.
Recent research suggests that tragedy as entertainment offers us a way to experience these intense and universal negative emotions in a way that we can control and contain. We buy the ticket, we feel fear and fury for an hour or two, then we go home, relieved that our biggest challenge is scrubbing the grungy bathroom.
Catharsis? Well, yes and no. Catharsis means releasing and getting relief from bad feelings. It seems that we actually want to feel the bad feelings (no one is being forced to watch King Lear, or the Wire), but in a fundamentally non-threatening way.
So, does a taste for violence, suffering, and tragedy in our entertainment show that we have an aesthetically elevated sensibility (and don’t have to be babied or protected as earlier, male, censors imagined?) Or that we are oppressed and overwhelmed by the violence of every day life in the real world, right now, but rather than do anything about it, we can watch a movie that lets us feel bad, then feel good, all like clockwork. And if we don’t like it we can just turn it off.
Freud said the goal of therapy is not happiness but the transformation of neurotic misery into garden-variety unhappiness. (Whatever other legitimate criticisms you may make of Freud, you can’t accuse him of over-hyping his treatment.)
Perhaps art can assist in this transformation.
I think art performs a transformative role in my life. As does meditation. Writing (and, I hope, reading) this blog is an opportunity for me to think about human experience and art and suffering. But I do believe that happiness is possible, and is even our birthright, though not unremitting happiness. Just as suffering is unavoidable, and characterizes what it means to be human, so is happiness unavoidable.
And I think for many of us lucky ones, it is possible to face suffering head-on, and become more happy, more of the time, and suffer less, through helping others suffer less, maybe through a play you perform or a book you write.
[*Digression here: the damning term ‘bowdlerize,’ comes from Thomas Bowdler, who lived shortly after Shakespeare, and dramatically cut the text of the plays so that they could be ‘enjoyed by women and children.’ Bowdler didn’t change Lear’s ending, and he felt there was a big difference between what he did: cutting text and changing individual words (like re-writing Lady MacBeth’s ‘out out damned spot’ to read ‘out out crimson spot’) vs. the wholesale revision of King Lear that is credited to England’s Poet Laureate at the time, Nahum Tate. Don’t denigrate Bowdler in your mind too harshly, the poor guy also fought for prison reform.]