The London School of Economics Literary Festival is relatively new – I attended for the first time in 2010 and having heard just how many subject areas were covered in a short space of time I hope to attend the one in February 2012. In this article I plan to review the areas of the two talks I attended, showing how they had a natural relation to drama and possibly belief/spirituality.
‘The Imagined Mind’ was a joint talk between the Institute of Social Psychology and the Department of Anthropology, focusing on the need for imagination, now more than ever before in the digitised world we live in. In the world of Developmental Psychology, research shows that adults have strong emotional reactions to the untrue, e.g., fictional films. Such genres help us to develop our moral judgement.
For this kind of moral development to take place, therefore, we need an imagination: we use fiction to consciously or unconsciously help us make moral decisions and judgements about real life situations. It is through images that we explore other minds – fiction in theatre, film, art and literature provides these images. The author William Fiennes (author of The Snow Geese and The Music Room) explained that in his view there is no need to divide creativity and science. The more specific a story, the more general its message because we all draw different things from it – this, he said, is the transcendent aspect of story, whether the written word or performed word. Likewise, the Psychoanalyst Susie Orbach (author of Bodies and Fat is a Feminist Issue) explains that the analyst has to study her/himself in order to reflect on the patient. One must watch the mind being aware of itself. Every moment in fact is both a real and imagined one because we don’t see things all the same way.
I think this is the same process in theatre and faith.
It could be said that our minds have begun to work like the gadgets we use in society – our minds can be like computers, categorising into groups, and we find ourselves less able to cross-pollinate. We are in fact constrained in the world of ‘free choice’, simply because the creative space between ourselves and the outside world is vanishing. A commercial world has taken over and we face ‘prescriptions’ on how the body is, not what it might be (Dr Sandra Jovchelovitch), and the only medium left which gives us space (and indeed where space is a necessary pre-requisite) is the arts. Being able to interpret gives possibility, even if we discover some uncomfortable truths. As Thomas Dewar says, “Minds are like parachutes – they only function when open.”
‘Theatre of Action?’ was the second talk, given by theatre director John Caird (RSC, National Theatre, musicals such as Les Miserables) and playwright Matt Charman (‘The Observer’). The talk focused on the political nature of theatre in its search for truth. Caird cited the Preface to Bernard Shaw’s ‘Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant’, 1898, as his springboard: “The theatre is growing in importance as a social organ. Bad theatres are as mischievous as bad schools or bad churches; for modern civilization is rapidly multiplying the class to which the theatre is both school and church. Public and private life become daily more theatrical…”
Caird’s belief is that one can’t look to the church or politics for the truth because both always have an axe to grind that isn’t the truth. Good theatre however does not have an agenda so can provide this kind of guidance because it is able to debate with itself about what life could be – a bit like the mind needing to have a conversation with itself in Orbach’s illustration above. Great plays trouble and confuse – they celebrate ambiguity. Charman points out that audiences do not want answers, rather they want an accepted space to ask questions. In Howard Barker’s superb book Arguments for a Theatre, 1989, he takes this further and says: “A braver theatre asks the audience to test the validity of the categories it believes it lives by…”. Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and Hare’s Plenty tackle idealism but neither comes loaded with an agenda and instead they allow the audience to step in to the character and make them wonder what they would do. Each member of the audience has to imagine what it might do and this is what makes political theatre.
In an article on the film director Michael Moore (controversial because he offers truth), Andrew O’Hagan writes: “Moore has built a global audience by remembering one of the basic premises of cinema: it was not invented to sedate people (though it very often does) but to inflame them … It’s worth remembering that when he was a child, Michael Moore wanted to be a priest, and as a film-maker, and as a character on film, he is full of evangelical brio. He wants to tell the truth, and part of the joy of his film outings is in watching the efforts…that corporations will go to in trying to shut him up.” (Evening Standard, 26.3.10, pp.34-35).
Similarly, Sebastian Shakespeare in his article If a film is good, must it take pains to be true?, focuses more on the psychology that “art is a lie that makes us realise the truth” (Picasso) and illustrates again the need for imagination and for the audience to do the work – it’s not about the actors and writer (and could be likened also to the church and its congregation: it’s not just about the Bible or priest but what the listener does with the words): “In the end it doesn’t matter whether a film is true or not, it only matters whether you believe it to be true” (Standard, 5.3.10, p.15). Now I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter if the words of the Bible or a sermon are true or not (I happen to think it does matter but this is another article) – I am however talking about the psychological process and saying that being ‘truthful’ is different from the truth.
I’ll explain: The Hurt Locker, for all its Oscar glory, was said to have portrayed EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) troops wrongly. It is however a brilliant film and director Kathryn Bigelow deserved that recognition. In many ways, however, Avatar and District 9 are more truthful as they engage with geo-politics, oppression and exploitation, through the giant prawn figures in the latter and the blue creatures resembling humans in the former, in a metaphorical and allegorical way. The fact is, “the plight of the Na’avi is being replicated all over the world, from the Amazon to Angola”: we know the victims are not blue and flying on huge bird-like creatures, but we also know that we ourselves are destroying the planet and this message is even greater in the film because of the fantastical way it is told to us. It is simply a paradox not only that drama can be more truthful than anything we consider non-drama, but that “our imaginations are the nearest we can get to reality” (Declan Donnellan, The Actor and the Target, 2002).
So long as there is humanity, there will be need for drama, in the many ways it can happen. After Avatar was released, statistics show that there was an outpouring of depression from people. This is no coincidence. People quite literally wanted to be part of that world of Avatar and not the one we all live in.
Bertolt Brecht said ‘Ghosts’ became irrelevant as soon as syphilis became curable. The play is not about syphilis Mr Brecht, and as Samuel Beckett replied, “You are human and there’s no cure for that.”