Saturday, January 13, 2007

First Principles

The Invention of Empathy

The January issue of American Theatre contains a remarkable essay by Oskar Eustis, the new artistic director of the Public Theatre in New York. It's actually excerpted from a speech he gave at a Theatre Communications Group forum--and I urge you to read it all here.

Eustis talks about Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival (the free festival in the park that revolutionized American theatre) and the nonprofit Public Theatre--how Papp saw the Festival as the dramatic equivalent of the public library, providing access to everyone, for free. Eustis goes on to talk about the relationship of theatre in America to American ideals and founding ideas. He traces drama as a fundamentally democratic form back to the Greeks:

As soon as Thespis turned and spoke to someone else, as soon as he invented dialogue, everything changed. The storyteller—who has had this authorial, god-like, unified perspective—isn't right anymore. His point of view is not the authorial point of view. He is one of two points of view that are on stage. At that juncture we realize that truth resides not in the storyteller—truth resides somehow in the dialogue, in the space between two people. You're imagining that you're in my shoes: You empathize with me, and then empathize with whoever I'm talking to. That act—that empathic leap of imagination—is the democratic act. In order for a democracy to work you have to believe that nobody has a monopoly on truth. That there is no such thing as absolute truth—otherwise the whole idea of democracy is nonsensical. All it would be is a compromise. In order to really believe in democracy, you have to believe that truth resides in the dialogue between different points of view.

It is such a powerful idea and a true one: theatre is about entertainment, yes, but it is also about empathy. By creating characters that are basically real, and showing them interacting in dialogue, drama allows the audience a simultaneous objectivity (that's not me, I'm out here watching) and subjectivity (I feel that way, too; that person is like me) that allows both consciousness of self and empathy for others.

Drama tests preconceptions, the standard accepted view, and every ideology. Even great writers with strong ideological beliefs, like Tolstoy, could not ignore counter-examples and other points of view in his dramatic fiction. Eustis says it was that way from the beginning. He writes about the earliest Greek play we have: "Aeschylus's The Persians. It is one of the few Greek tragedies not based on mythological material." It is about the defining moment for ancient Greece--its triumph over the greatest power of its time, imperial Persia. Eustis writes:

It's a chance for the Greeks to relive the pleasure of having defeated the Persians. But you also can't read the text without knowing absolutely that Aeschylus was asking his audience to identify with the Persians—eight years after this war. He was asking them to imagine what it felt like to lose this war, what it felt like from the other person's point of view. And he was also doing something even a little bit more subversive than that, I think.

He was saying, "We've triumphed. We're the most powerful. We sit on top of the world. But look who, eight years ago, was sure that their empire would last forever. Look who was positive that God was on their side. Look who was sure that their armies could never be defeated. And think of what happened."

This is the power of drama. It is true on all scales and all levels. Read this essay--you'll be glad you did.

Two other comments: When I first started going to New York regularly in the late 70s and early 80s, I loved going to Papp's Public Theatre. I often stayed with a friend in the East Village, when it was still a kind of urban wasteland, and even though I didn't know any theatregoers (my friends were into music, my business was usually journalistic), I passed on CBGB's to walk over to the Public as often as I could. I saw the latest Sam Shepard plays there, and Kevin Kline's Hamlet. There were several plays going on at the same time, and there were usually rush tickets available to something, so the already relatively cheap tickets were even cheaper.

It was an exciting place. I always saw actors I recognized and other figures in the arts in the lobby and going in and out of the theatres. Once I was about to leave a men's room and had my hand on the door when it opened towards me from the other side. I found myself eye to eye with John Housman. The Public put on the newest work, and it was receptive to outsiders. I got one of the few real responses to a play I sent around back then--a positive, encouraging letter--from the Public.

The second comment is that I've thought about doing this blog for awhile, but I wasn't quite motivated enough to actually start it. I still don't know if it's a good idea, but when I read this essay, I was compelled to start it--because Eustis said so much that needs to be heard.

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