By Louise Haile
Take a look around our televisual and cinematic world; extend that to our music, our reading and our general stock of entertainment and leisure ‘consumption’, and it soon becomes clear that we are quite keen on making ourselves unhappy, exposing ourselves to grief, suffering, frustration and general human misery – on a regular basis, and all largely by choice.
WHY …. I hear you ask? And indeed this is a question often asked by my intelligent – but non-literary husband ( usually by way of avoiding either the theatre or more a more challenging cinema trip)… It is an obvious question and one that we rarely seem to address, the big one – why TRAGEDY as a genre is generally regarded as the highest endeavour in the arts, and why we may feel the need to apologise for art that offers comic or happy outcomes. Aristotle has some big propositions about it, and even some esoteric words to add to the mix…. Including the catch-all offering – catharsis… that when we watch something ‘sad’ (read ‘tragic’ if it has some literary legs) it is a process of identification and experience, that we can FEEL but also move beyond, the horror or distress of the narrative in question. All sounds rather unconvincing? You’re not alone, believe me.
Once you start to think about the happy/sad debate the problems multiply. One concerted consideration of music and lyrics is enough to confirm that only unfulfilled love really satisfies…. Hmmm I hear you say – and I do understand – this is getting self-indulgent; there are plenty of happy-ever-after tunes… ( what, otherwise, is the point of ABBA?) But , the real energy is in the negatives. You know it’s true. Why? My theory – and again, I am not alone – is that it is in tragedy that we face up to our worst and most haunting fears, acknowledge what we would normally relegate to the margins of our consciousness. There is always going to be the appeal of the worst happening to others, and not to us, and the obvious extension of the relieved laughter that ensues from slapstick physical comedy. It’s ok – I didn’t slip on that banana skin, or get the custard pie award; that idiot deserves it because they didn’t see it coming, and we did. Hmmmm – it only washes for a while, doesn’t it?
So why are we prepared to sit through over three hours watching two elderly men being emotionally and physically tortured on stage, having eyes gouged out, being abandoned to the storm of elements, having a youngest child with whom you have only just reconciled ( and yes, you’ve guessed it – this is KING LEAR and not its modern manifestation EASTENDERS ) dragged from your arms only to watch her being hanged? And the crime ? Not knowing or understanding yourself, your motivations and most especially not understanding your children. Is it becoming clearer? Has the soap opera reference illuminated the dilemma? We are incapable of understanding ourselves – except through the representations of others…. We know we need to be educated: we need to FEEL the dilemma, the high stakes, we need to sympathise and also see what we have to lose, as much as what we have to gain. That is precisely why we have a greater need for tragedy rather than happiness (which is not the same as comedy of course). Only through process can we reconcile ourselves as we must, with the necessity of suffering. The good stuff is an end in itself; put it back in its box and let it entertain itself with fluff and bubble(y). It is the lost opportunities, the cruel deprivations, the brutal inequalities of the world that we need help with. So now I hope the mist is clearing. All those soaps ( and of course GAME OF THRONES) are mere extensions of the blood-soaked gore of Greek theatre and the battle zones of our own lives and families. We NEED this kind of affirmation, that we can learn and we can survive; we can take refuge in the heroism of the human spirit, ideally without being tested ourselves. We need to weep – or at least come over all misty-eyed, to pause in the pursuit of material rewards and popcorn– and then move on. LEAR is redeemed by extraordinary language, the beauty of which is – at times – breath-taking; Tennessee Williams gives us in Blanche du Bois a vision from the gutter, of the stars, stars that she will never reach. But her determination is unbowed, and to the end she sustains a vision of a redemptive compassion and a finer existence.
Yes, I hear you say – that’s Game of Thrones all over. It is. We are indeed poor miserable wretches crawling between heaven and earth, but we wait for that moment when the worst is faced down by love, by spirit, by guts and blood. Phew…. That got rather intense. I wonder what’s on telly tonight? Something mindless I hope.