The playwright David Ives appeared Feb. 24, 2010 at a Barnes & Noble in New York City, on a panel (promoting the new book The Play That Changed My Life) and made an interesting observation.
Ives said that he had thought a lot about what David Mamet wrote in an article in The New York Times: “All drama is about lies. When the lie is exposed, the play is over.” Mamet went on to argue that ordinary plays might ask what is true, but that the best plays deal instead with the lies that we cannot easily face, the lies we repress.
Ives told his audience that he believed instead that all plays are about self-knowledge: when the central character achieves some self-knowledge, the play is over. That certainly works for tragedy, whose recognition scenes are the most intense emotionally. We all enjoy seeing other people confront unpleasantries about themselves, but of course we do not like to do that ourselves.
Mass entertainment in America makes its profit by reinforcing the lies we tell ourselves. We want films and TV shows that reassure us that we are fine as we are, as individuals and as a nation, and that everything will turn out all right in the end. We are allowed to imagine ourselves as valiant heroes and persuasive lovers, and encouraged to identify with rebels, adventurers and avengers. The bad people in popular entertainment are not like us at all. They are serial killers, the arrogant rich scheming for more, moronic street criminals and swarthy terrorists. We empathize with the always attractive and always successful forces for good. A screenwriter once wisely observed that all popular movies are about the fantasy life of the viewer.
David Ives understandably admires plays whose central characters gain self-knowledge. I would go one step further, and perhaps he would, too. I believe that while the characters in a play gain self-knowledge, however painfully, the audience should gain self-knowledge, too. I have long felt that at one point or another in the best plays, everyone in the audience says to herself or himself some variation of “Oh, hell, they are talking about me, and they aren’t saying anything nice.”
The prospect of increased self-knowledge in individuals and cultures won’t sell many tickets, but it restores to theatre one of its traditional social and personal functions. We will not often find this in television, the Hollywood blockbuster, or Broadway shows. We reward the entertainment industry for reassuring us, even with illusions, not for discomforting us with unpleasant facts. As American theaters become increasingly dependent upon ticket sales, this grim waste of opportunity will only get worse.