On Theater and Suffering

The last three plays that I have reviewed have been about suffering, or at least about falling apart:

Job by Thomas Bradshaw at The Flea: Sean McIntyre

Most directly (and, in my view, least successfuly), Job, an adaptation of the Biblical Book of Job by Thomas Bradshaw at the Flea Theater, the classic tale of a man suffering as a test of his faith.

Detroit by Lisa D’Amour at Playwrights Horizons: Amy Ryan, David Schwimmer

 Detroit by Lisa D’Amour at Playwrights Horizons, tells the story of two couples who live next to one another in a first-rung suburb that is in decline, as is its inhabitants. The character Ben played by David Schwimmer has lost his job as a banker, and is supported by his wife Mary, Amy Ryan. They have it better than the couple who have just moved next door, who have low-paying jobs with no security – and, as it turns out, a complicated past.  One of the running gags of the play is how nothing works – the sliding door to the patio, the umbrella; the house is literally as well as figuratively falling apart.

If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet by Nick Payne at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater: Annie Funke,Jake Gyllenhaal, Brian F. O’Byrne

If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, which has gotten the most attention because it marks Jake Gyllenhaal’s American stage debut, is about a family falling apart – the teenage daughter is bullied and neglected, the marriage of the mother and father is breaking up, the visiting uncle seems unable to sustain connections. It is also about the earth’s suffering as a result of climate change – both of which, playwright Nick Payne implies, can be saved “if we’re prepared to change.”

What is the purpose of such plays? Is it to bring attention to other people’s suffering, to raise our consciousness? There are whole genres of plays, such as those concerning the Holocaust (The Diary of Ann Frank, Bent, The Man in the Glass Booth) that seem primarily to have this purpose.

But can plays about sorrow help theatergoers better handle our own suffering?

Has a play ever helped you better deal with you own suffering? I asked this recently on Twitter.

“I’ve been to MANY plays that helped me suffer MORE,” Time Out New York theater critic Adam Feldman joked.

Others took the question seriously:

Cara Richardson: If a show speaks truth, and the truth is sad, so be it. It can connect with people on a very real level. Next to Normal spoke to me. I realized how much having an illness affects everyone else in the family. For me, the illness is diabetes.

Jason Capili Tom Stoppard’s Invention of Love; several members of the audience sobbed. A good catharsis will always help sort out issues. It did for me.”

David Lawson: My girlfriend saw My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow, at 59 East 59, when someone she loved fell ill. It was cathartic for her. It’s solo show where a young woman brings her grandmother to stage in a very abstract way; it’s about getting older, body & mind going, having a lot of years with a lot of loss. There’s plenty of beauty, but a lot of sorrow.

Monica Bauer: The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh just left me walloped, and grateful. I try to write plays with depth and grace, out of my own need for both.

Indeed, many playwrights have an intriguing relationship to sorrow, as evidenced by Don Nguyen‘s Sad Playwright project. Last year, he  launched a website called  asking his colleagues to post pictures of themselves sad. Hundreds submitted their pictures.

from SadPlaywrights.com

Nguyen later commented on playwrights and sadness, in a blog post entitled Sorrow, Depression, and Desolation in the American Theater, or How To Be a Sad Playwright in 10 Easy Steps. Some of what he said addresses the question of whether sorrowful plays can be beneficial:

“I think sadness has gotten a bad rap, and I think it can actually be good for you. Even Joseph Forgas, a psychology professor from the University of New South Wales, found that being sad makes people less gullible, improves their ability to judge others and also boosts memory.” (Details of Joe Forgas’ study.)

The enthusiasm with which so many playwrights embraced Nguyen’s quirky project, although surely with its share of tongue-in-cheek, may nevertheless offer another explanation for the existence of so many sad plays: The playwrights use their writing to work out their own sorrows.

It’s interesting that the same week as these plays of sorrow opened, two different actors talked of how the theater has helped them through their own sorrows.

Patrick Page, who originated the role of The Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, and is now about to appear as the villain de Guiche in Cyrano de Bergerac, sad that he suffered a breakdown and was bedridden with depression, shortly before Julie Taymor asked him to audition. He chose to sing Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to My Nightmare.”

“For all the bumps that ‘Spider-Man’ had, that show was a blessed event for me,”  Page told Patrick Healy of the Times. “…[W]hen cast injuries happened and other problems hit the show, people asked me how I kept such equanimity. A huge part of it was I knew what it was like to be in a life-threatening situation. ‘Spider-Man’ wasn’t one.”

Al Pacino, who is about to return to Broadway in a revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, recently told reporters:

“I think that being on the stage is a form of therapy and my way of getting through my life..”

ITwitter Badge (.gif)

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

2 thoughts on “On Theater and Suffering

Leave a Reply