Theater and the Seamy Side of Life
Write a play about two middle-aged couples and a polyamorous co-worker (plus her two boyfriends) who welcome in the new year with an orgy. End act one with one of the couples’ 17-year-old daughter surprising them en flagrant déit. Critics will hail the work for its penetrating insight.
Write a musical about a bunch of good-hearted Canadians who come to the aid of stranded travelers after 9/11. Critics will grudgingly approve but wonder why enough attention wasn’t paid to the darker side of human nature.
Why is it we find any type of human misbehavior mature and thoughtful, while we mistrust philanthropy?
As a matter of fact, the second story is true, while the first is most probably an invention. What’s more, the premise that couples would invite a stranger (and those two boyfriends) to an intimate New Year’s Eve party solely because they know she has an interesting sex life and kills her meat is sort of ridiculous, even if it does raise interesting dramatic possibilities. While the probability that people will help a group of strangers in need has been proven over and over again.
The truth is most of us experience daily much more goodwill than nastiness. Of course there’s the guy who cut us off on the highway and the lady who wouldn’t hold the door a moment longer at the grocery store. But trip and fall on any street in New York City and at least half a dozen people will stop to pick you up and gather your scattered belongings. To say nothing of the real help most of us get from family and friends over a lifetime.
Perhaps all the negative news we learn about on television, radio and social media overwhelms the occasional heartwarming human interest story. Or maybe we just enjoy wallowing in our misery.
But back to theater.
It’s the playwright’s job to present life in all it’s complexity. This includes the evil that lurks in human souls. But it also includes the kindness and generosity.
That doesn’t mean plays should offer lessons in good living. Nor does it mean plays must be uplifting or reassuring. But surely we have not become so cynical that we cannot admit of the human capacity for love, kindness and generosity without eliciting the condescending smiles of the cognoscenti.