Our Morality Determines Our Art, Composing, 22/11/2014

Or at least our morals and central ethical concepts have significant foundational influence on how we engage them in art. Let me start with a brief memory from high school, when a crotchety old Newfoundlander Literature teacher named Mr Matthews taught us Sophocles’ Antigone. It was my first exposure to Greek tragedy, a dramatic tradition that has been revived in occasional forms and influences since the Renaissance, but never really had the impact that it originally did.

Read Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy if you want the details. In a basic sense, Greek tragedy doesn’t really have the same impact on us today as it did in its original setting because in ancient Greece, the theatre was more than thoughtful entertainment. It was deeply integrated with the religious rituals of the Greek people, particularly the worship of Dionysus, and invested with an ontological meaning that was integral to the worldview of that culture.

A lot of the humour in You Were My
 comes from Samantha (right)
reacting to Hannah (left) rant, the straight
man to her comic. Part of what the play's
structure does is slowly expose Hannah's
shattering soul under all that sarcasm.
That ontology was about fate. The widespread belief, the predominant tendency of thinking about the world, was that humanity was powerless before the forces of nature, including the chains of events that united us. The plots of Greek tragedies all revolved around the same general movement: the central characters attempt to exercise control over their world, make it bend to their will and desires, but a series of events and coincidences over which they have no control ends up utterly ruining them. 

The tragedy, so goes the major theme that, in this case, I take from Nietzsche’s interpretation, offers its audience the opportunity to meditate on our powerlessness before nature. Greek culture at this time had an ethical sensibility based around how miniscule we were compared to the gods, so their whims in shaping our lives were inescapable powers. Tragedy in its original, ancient Greek sense, was about terrible things happening to admirable people because there could have been no other way.

Modern sensibilities are a little different. I don’t really have the time, space, or desire to write about what makes contemporary humanity different from the perspective of the ancient Greeks, despite our important cultural heritage from this epoch. Going into every aspect of that history is, shall we say, a bit of a big topic.

But the central idea of the modern sensibility is that we as individuals and as societies do have some control over our destinies. Maybe we’re not totally in control, maybe some forces do still dwarf us. They don’t determine us, though.

I say this as a convoluted means of advertising the last show of You Were My Friend at the Pearl Company later today at 8.00 pm. The show didn’t do quite as well as I’d hoped in terms of sales and audience. My provisional assessment is that, in the most immediate sense, Theatre Aquarius down the road kicked our ass. They were selling out the house damn near every night with a production of Billy Bishop Goes to War whose performance schedule revolved around Remembrance Day weekend. And their show opened a week after Nathan Cirillo was killed.

So there was no way a dramedy about cycles of underemployment and skirting poverty in downtown Toronto was going to beat that jingoistic celebration of Canadian military pluck.* But everyone who did see You Were My Friend loved it. We’re planning a run in Toronto itself this summer, hopefully at that city’s Fringe. 

* You can see where my feelings fall on the subject of Billy Bishop Goes to War.

Toronto has a lot more younger theatre-goers than Hamilton. Although a lot of the older folks in our audiences have loved it — I had one older fellow opening night tell me that the play very accurately articulated the perspective of his grandchildren struggling with underemployment — I wrote You Were My Friend to articulate the struggles and pain of my own generation. These are the people I want it to speak to.

Many of Nietzsche's ideas have
turned out to be centrally important
to my art.
Getting back, however, to the question of tragedy, that cultural shift regarding our control over our lives has completely rewritten our conception of tragedy. A modern tragedy is that there could have been another way. We see a terrible destructive event, and the entire story that has come to us has presented countless opportunities to improve the fates of the characters. Instead, because of the characters’ own failures to see these moments for the pivotal events that they are, and act accordingly, everything falls apart. 

That’s modern tragedy. That there could have been another, better, way.

In the case of You Were My Friend, the entire set is trashed in our final destructive event. Samantha Nemeth’s award winning moment is an emotionally excruciating 10-minute sequence where her life has fallen apart and she, person by person, discovers that there is no one left in her life she can turn to for help. And if Samantha’s character had been there to help her friend through her emotional breakdown, or if Hannah Ziss’ character had brought herself to share a little more of her emotions with her friend, it never would have gone down like this.

You Were My Friend’s director, Mel Aravena, told me one day that he found the play very nihilistic. I understand where he’s coming from, but there’s ultimately a hopefulness to the play as well. If you come by the play tonight, watch how we turn up the house lights for Hannah’s central monologue. You’re involved in this play. The hope is that you’ll see the terrible things that can happen when we stop listening to the people we care about, and listen a little bit more.

We have power over the world, and if we know how best to act, we can make it better.

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