At the Theatre, falling asleep.

Or why I don’t stay for post-show Q&As.

I recently saw a play in which a young woman, Rebekah, bullied into despair and rage, allows her tormentor to die. She doesn’t kill her directly. But she wants it to happen. She lets it happen. After the killing, Rebekah falls asleep. Murder, then slumber. It was beautiful – unexpected but completely plausible. Nothing in Rebekah’s character, words or demeanour had indicated that she would act like this. It was a strange thing to do, even by her own standards. But freedom from her tormentor momentarily lifted the burden of insomnia, and so she slept.

The feeling of the play changed too. Up till now I’d been watching a monologue. Everything that had happened had already happened, off stage and in the past. But then Rebekah described going to sleep and everything shifted. Even though it was still past, still off stage, what was happening was happening now. In front of me, not a character or a story, but a young woman who, having just caused another human being to die, was finally preparing for sleep. What to do with freedom? Whatever you want, of course. In Rebekah’s case, nothing at all. She just went to sleep. Why wouldn’t she? And suddenly, I was with her. Unable to explain. Bereft of the desire to do so.

In the post-show discussion people talked about a number of things: the symbolism of the set, the significance of insects in the story, the meanings of a couple of other metaphors skilfully woven into the script by the writer. Then the director talked about how the play raises more questions than it answers and how it makes us stare closely at the contingency of our own moralities.

All of which was true. The audience’s observations were logically consistent. The activities they were implicitly invited to engage in were entirely possible, commendable even. And art does do this, right? In presenting a different world, you can, if you wish, compare and contrast yours to it. You can imagine what you would do in similarly impossible situations. You can call into doubt everything you hold to be true. You know, if you wants.

It’s also easy to see why plays gets talked about in these terms. Asking these kind of questions allows artists to plug directly into a conversation about politics, history and culture. It gives immediate relevance to an activity which in purely economic terms can not be said to have one. This intellectualising of theatre into a performed series of concepts and ideas not only justifies and aggrandises, it also lets artists and critics talk in the same language. Both are reading a text. All opinions count. Oh, and it looks very good on a funding bid. After all, informed and engaged audiences, comfortably at home around moral relativism, are ideal modern democratic citizens.

So, what’s your problem, Laurence? And why all this tone?

Simply, no one believes it. No one actually sits there picking apart the subtleties of their neo-liberal inflected moral codes while the performance unfolds around them. No one does it afterwards, either. And who really gives a damn about symbolism? When was the last time you went to the theatre and waited until all the pieces of a metaphorical puzzle slotted into place and all made sense before you? That’s not a play. That’s an essay. No one pays to read academic essays on a Friday night. Not even academics.

Seriously though, have you ever actually gone home and schematically pondered how best to incorporate into your life, in a meaningful and significant way, the ideas you have just encountered? Let’s face it, it would be weird if you had. People don’t live like this. They don’t even vote like this. In reality, you sit in the dark, watch uninterrupted and then leave. You might make a few comments to your friends during the interval or on the journey home. You might even stay behind for the post show chit chat. But do you really care?

So why am I here, and what’s all this got to do with a sleeping girl?

Because, at heart, sadly, the advertisers are right. We want to feel things, to experience stuff. Unfortunately, the word “experience” has been so tightly bundled into the commodified parameters of the aspinoun that we need to do some differentiation before we continue.*

This is an advert. I found it on the internet. Don’t worry. They won’t mind. They’ve got loads of them there.


Of course, like all adverts, it actually translates as this:


Or something like that.

In this instrumental model of feeling, the advert twinges your awareness of inadequacy, offers you the opportunity to take control of (or, buy) a solution, and enjoy the change. It reassures that you are smart enough and resourceful enough and sufficiently self-aware to make You better – you know, providing you give us your money. It’s basically a rational process kickstarted by envy and inadequacy.

And that’s bullshit, right? I mean, have you ever met you? You are a mystery to yourself, no? So the idea that a play can change you in a similar way – twinge you into recognition of a moral gap or highlight an ignorance bunker before allowing you, through unpicking symbolism, expounding metaphors or generally “getting” it, to be a better person – is nonsense. As playwrights we shouldn’t even be dabbling in this kind of silliness. We’re all very familiar with the idea that characters have known wants and unknown needs. (The latter are much more important for the attainment of happiness.) So the idea that the important stuff in our art form – the experience of watching a play – is happening on the level of rational consciousness is just downright hypocritical and, as a concept, can be roundly ignored.

The sort of experience we are talking about here is entirely different. I didn’t know Rebekah was going to sleep. Hell, I didn’t even know she was going to kill (let’s not split hairs). But it happened with such immediacy and veracity that I moved from one world into another. It forced me to become aware of that part of myself that longs for rest – complete, catatonic inaction. If pushed, I might have told you that this is an aspect of my character. I would not have told you that if I were a witness to someone else gathering around them the space for such a sleep, I would have felt so alive to their presence that the barriers between me and them would begin to break down. I would have denied that I cared that much. I still would, if we were just chatting. I don’t really understand the significance of that moment of blinding empathy. But it’s clearly important to me. When I said “I recently saw a play,” what I actually meant was, I saw a year ago. And I’m still feeling it.

But that’s the beauty of theatre. Exercising that capacity we all have for empathy, the play dragged me out of my mind and into another. It only lasted a second. But those are the seconds you never forget.

This model of art is not rational or liberal. It’s not about choices or engagement. In fact, as an audience member, you are essentially powerless. Your Guardian-reading, Toms-wearing, intellectual bravura can fuck right off. Here, things are done to you, not for you. Your feelings are aroused and dissipated. Fears conjured. Desires dissected. Everything (action, feeling, significance) happens in a moment, and only for that moment. In the liveness of theatre, you are afforded no understanding beyond your immediate experience. A post-enlightenment world this is not. (You left that at the box-office, sucker.) This is religion. In the dark of the temple, things happen which you cannot understand but which you are not required to understand. The blood of your risen God changes into wine; your sins are taken, held and erased; your marriage sanctified through the words of God the Almighty Father, who bestows upon your temporal love a grace irradiating from a further world. Or you heart bleeds for a child abandoned, a lover ignored, a soldier dying. Your bones tingle as you witness people fall in love. Your chest constricts as those things you believed were consigned to the secret underside of your childhood bed slither out once more, wrapping their tentacles around the chilled beating of your quaking heart.

When the lights come back on, you can think all these things through. And it’s fun to do so. But you know you are betraying the point of the experience. You emerge back into the real world changed, but from what and to what you cannot really say. Only that you feel you have been present to things greater than yourself. You have encountered something so real it cannot be, for isn’t this all pretend? The gods do not exist, neither does this play-world. And yet, and yet…I felt something. I entered a dream world. The rules were different but the feelings were the same. All my desires and fears. All my filthy longings and self-destructive urges. All my unspoken, unheard, unknown beings. All those versions of me I tell myself are not true. It happens in an instant and is gone. It happens again night after night, an alchemy of words and actions into meaning. It happens because it fills a need we all have to feel that even in our wretched, beatific, terrifying, joyous, bewildering, intoxicating isolation, we are nothing but not alone. And when it happens, I meet the self I have always known but never met.

And that’s why I don’t stay for post-show Q&As.


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