Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Outlawing Tragedy

My director's notes for two Irish one acts, both from 1904:  the darkly brilliant "Riders to the Sea" and the spritely hilarious "Spreading the News."

Actor Sir Ben Kingsley spoke to an audience at the National Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. Kingsley, who won the Oscar for his the lead role in Gandhi, is admired and known the world over for his work portraying characters in films about the Holocaust. Paraphrasing playwright David Mamet, Kingsley took a moment to speak about tragedy during his talk:

“David Mamet in his book, Writings in Restaurants, defined, let me slightly paraphrase and say western civilization, western civilization is a civilization determined to outlaw tragedy. If you remove the presentation of tragedy from the shaman that's sitting by the bonfire, you're telling the tribe nothing of real life. And it doesn't prepare us as adults. It infantilizes us and it dodges an enormous responsibility. And all great mythology that we love and respect has included loss and tragedy as well as great moments of salvation. It's braided in.”

Stories are the human race's greatest treasure. We are constantly telling stories, listening to them, watching them, and making them. Anthropologists tell us that we encode these stories with lessons and wisdom, passing them from one generation to the next. Stories that get told and retold become a sort of cultural genome, a DNA of our values and worries. Think of your favorite fairy tale or TV show. The characters from our stories are like members of our families: they inspire us, scold us, entertain us, and comfort us.

When Mamet tells us that we are outlawing tragedy, he is issuing us a warning of a storyteller. He tells us: don't forget the tales of woe. Don't forget the stories of loss. We need these stories.

In our schools and homes, however, we don't like these ugly stories. We loathe loss; we cringe from risk. We are baffled by tragedy and, often, we push it to the corners of our lives. We need to clean it up; put things into boxes. When we hide our eyes, we often lose the wisdom than can only be won through loss.

Kingsley ended his talk with a story:
“After a performance I gave of Hamlet I was walking across a field near Stafford-upon-Avon and I saw a young woman on the other side of the field walking towards me... She was determined [to get to me] and she faced me in the middle of this field. And she said (because I played Hamlet on stage the night before), 'I saw Hamlet last night. How did you know about me?' That's [a theatre-maker's] job. I know you. I'm trying to know you. And through knowing each other and holding onto that tribal bonfire, it will be okay.”

Drama remains the most vital storytelling we have. I invite you to see how special it is to see young people tell our oldest stories. When we see our kids act, sing, and dance, we are reminded just how tribal we are. Listen to them. There is old wisdom here.

Here's to our human tribe's great stories. May we never stop telling them.

Thanks to NPR and Ben Kingsley for the story.

The Irish Plays, at North Shore High School, Glen Head, NY.
An evening of Irish drama, poetry, music, and dance.
Friday, 25 March, at 7:30pm
Saturday, 26 March, at 2:00pm and 7:30pm
Sunday, 27 March, at 2:00pm

No comments:

Post a Comment