Setting the stage for social catharsis

By KATE TAYLOR, Saturday October 11, 2003 - Page R3

Canadian and American audiences are ready for some dramatic transcendence.

That was the hopeful theme that emerged from a debate at the Ottawa International Writers Festival last weekend where I was moderating a conversation about whether theatre matters between two successfully serious playwrights determined that it does.

One was Montreal’s David Gow, whose work ranges from his much-produced issue play Cherry Docs, about a Jewish lawyer forced to defend a neo-Nazi, to more psychological work such as his recent Sea’s Niece, about a woman’s mental breakdown.

The other was Carla Seaquist, a writer from Washington, D.C., who has recently moved to Washington state and whose drama covers a similar span of social, political and personal issues.

Her most recent play is The Washington-Sarajevo Talks, in which an American writer named Carla carries on a series of telephone conversations with a Bosnian radio journalist who is under bombardment.

Now, she’s rethinking the theme of the prodigal, in a play that will pit a bad-boy film director in the Quentin Tarantino mould against his social-worker brother and so examine the American exaltation of the outlaw.

Seaquist is deeply critical of her own society and its theatre, decrying a rush to entertainment in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

“Right at the moment American theatre is beside the point,” she said, citing the season of comedies, musicals and revivals that followed in 2002-03.

Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Seaquist has called for a version of the so-called new normal that would feature less of the edge and more of the core in American behaviour. She defines the edge as the extremes permissible in a pampered, self-absorbed society, from road rage to the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal to the violence-made-comic of a Tarantino movie. The core is the kind of behaviour that appeared on Sept. 11, true grief and real heroism.

She sees America the superpower as a tragic hero struggling to emerge from narcissism and, recalling the social catharsis the ancient Greeks achieved through their tragedies, she and Gow debated whether theatre could play a civil role in drawing audiences out of themselves. Of course, when it comes to reminding us of our shared humanity, theatre has a huge advantage over film and television because actors and audience are physically present in the same room.

At a safe Canadian distance from Sept. 11, Gow was very cautious in ascribing great powers to tragedy, suggesting it might be an exhausted form.

He recalled that the nationalistic Canadian theatre in the 1970s had assigned itself a social role, but he felt audiences had grown tired of that tone, and turned to lighter American and British fare. Now, like Seaquist, he thought they were hungry for something new but wondered what shape it would take.

Responding to a question from the audience about where the classics might fit in the debate, he noted our inability to understand the Greek tragedies because we insist on emotional identification with the characters. It’s not as though we can sit through Medea, in which the heroine kills her own children, thinking to ourselves “Gee, I’ve been having some trouble with the kids,” he said, to much laughter. In an age of irony and cynicism, we cannot suspend disbelief long enough in the face of a Medea to experience catharsis, he said.

Both he and Seaquist are seeking new ways of reaching audiences, hinting at some hybrid that would re-establish the life-changing connection that Gow recalled Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman made back in the 1950s, when its performances were reported to have reduced middle-aged, middle-American men to tears. Seaquist pointed to the success of the new American play Omnium-Gatherum, in which a group of racially diverse characters debate global events, as an encouraging sign. It’s the first play to directly address Sept. 11 and it allows audiences to laugh, she said, arguing that real, deep laughter can only emerge from tragedy.

For his own part, Gow is working on a new play entitled Stream that’s a satirical futuristic comedy investigating our often-visceral connection with our beloved computers. And Seaquist thinks that in her play about the prodigal son, the social worker’s wife may emerge as the key character who can find a way out of the stalemate between bad boy and do-gooder.

She summed up our debate with a story about a neighbour whose wife had just given birth to a baby with a birth defect. After some quiet reflection in the hospital room, he announced, “Once we get past the self pity, we’ll be okay.”