A week down the line from my course at Schumacher and I’m still deep in the land of story. We were warned that we would be bitten by particular stories and that images would keep welling up for a long time after our return. While there was one story that seemed to claim me during the listening, another seems to be resonating more strongly as I settle back into daily life, that of the Handless Maiden. I’ve searched for a link to the story, but all I can find are bloodless, Christianized versions or the barest bones of the story, or re-tellings packed full of their own psychology, none of which is what I want to say. The story I heard was vivid and earthy; I’m not going to insult it by attempting to set it down here, so I’ll stick with the relevant facts. A girl unwittingly sold to the devil by her father, who must then chop off her hands for the devil to be able to claim her. The girl evades the devil but chooses to leave the home where she was betrayed and sets out into the deep dark forest. After a series of adventures, including finding love and having a child, she must return to the forest, but this time she is sheltered and before her lover can find her again, she has found her own peace and grown back her hands. If you chase the story online, there’ll be much talk of God and angels whereas in the version I heard (more likely to be closer to its roots) we’re dealing with magic and one’s own innate powers. She grows her own hands back, dammit – get that image into your mind and keep it there.
I’m finding that I’m falling out of love with theatre. I’m falling out of love because I’m sick of leaping fifty feet into the air and turning three somersaults topped off with a double reverse pike to try and please somebody who is just not interested. I’m falling out of love because I’m tired of sitting through plays that just don’t speak to me. Plays that are clever or cool or violent or shocking or obscene but which have an echoing void where their heart should be. Plays that hold up the dark mirror and loudly announce Look how shit the world is, and leave it at that. Or worse, plays that shout Look how clever I am as if that’s worth the ticket price.
At this point in the proceedings, I’m struggling. I don’t normally tend to call out the names of plays I haven’t enjoyed, so I won’t give the title here, but if you saw it, you’ll recognise the description. It’s not my intention to offend the writer or anyone involved with the production; I’m using it as an example as I happened to see it, and I haven’t seen much this year. Firstly, it’s entirely subjective. My worst night out at the theatre might be the production that you’re praising to your grandchildren, years down the line. But that particular production has niggled and niggled at my brain as an example of everything that I’m not loving about theatre at the moment. It has a well-known, well-respected writer behind it and was performed by an accomplished actress. Technically, it was brilliant, memorable writing and an incredible delivery.
I hated it.
Everyone else seemed to love it. So it’s perhaps just me. But. Where everyone else saw originality, I saw the same old story – what I’m coming to call the one-man Child Called It school of theatre. You know, the play in which the solo actor tells you how terrible their life has been in appallingly graphic detail. The End. And given that this was a girl’s story, I knew within seconds where we were going – why hello there sexual exploitation, I didn’t see you coming (NOT.) To sum up the bare facts of the story in the manner of the Handless Maiden – girl is emotionally neglected, cast out from the home too early, falls in love with the wrong man who then drugs her and pimps her out to his friends before abandoning her, pregnant and her mental/emotional state deteriorating rapidly. She lies her way into a family caring for a comatose, paraplegic soldier, performs sexual acts on him while everyone is out and convinces herself that he’s the father of her child. Once found out, she’s thrown out, ends up giving birth in the woods before ending the play with the baby having disappeared and claiming it was the foxes what done it. Cheery, huh?
To be honest, by the time we got to the foxes I was biting down on my hand to stop myself from laughing. I’m fairly sure that this was not the expected response. And to re-iterate, everyone else thought it was brilliant, so very probably it’s just me. Got to be said though, I found it melodramatic and more than a little insulting. Having spent a large portion of last year working on a project that involved speaking to women that had been victims of domestic violence, including a young girl who had been abused in much the same way as the character in the play, it felt as if I had no choice but to reject the play’s premise. In real life, rape and abuse are depressingly mundane. I know a ridiculous number of women who have experienced it. None of them have wound up finger-fucking comatose paraplegics or screaming that the foxes ate their baby. Perhaps I’m being too literal, perhaps I’m failing to understand the metaphor, perhaps I’ve got no real understanding of what a play should look like, but I spent most of the performance wanting to shout FUCK OFF, mainly because I’ve spent a a good couple of hours talking to a woman whose husband put an axe through her head and who told me her story without the merest hint of melodrama or self pity or baby-eating foxes.
The play annoyed me but it was nothing to do with the quality of the writing, the direction or the acting. The story of the Handless Maiden gave me a clearer picture as to why. It’s basically the same story. A young girl betrayed by those who should protect her, staggering out into the world maimed and alone. Here’s the rub – the Handless Maiden matures, evolves and learns to grow back her hands. In the play, the girl is left wandering the deep dark forest, entirely mad. There is no chance of redemption, no hope, no healing, only despair.
I don’t think this is healthy.
Equally, I’m not suggesting that all plays must have a happy ending.
Dr Martin Shaw talks about looking at whether stories have protein, whether they will sustain you through the Winter. So much of what passes for entertainment or even culture is merely candyfloss, a few wispy bites of sugar that will give you a quick high but will be instantly forgotten. Some stories however will be presented as a hearty bowl of stew… and yet the meat is rotten. Rather than sustaining you, it will slowly poison your soul. We have far too many stories like this, whether created with a deliberate urge to shock and provoke, or whether poured out in a confessional rush without too much thought about where it might be heading. I imagine the aim is to show that terrible things are taking place under our noses, to make us more aware. Thing is, I think we’re already pretty aware, aren’t we? I think we know that plenty of kids are served neglect rather than love, plenty of girls are groomed into the sex trade, hell we’re even aware about fossil fuels and climate change and the links between corporations and government, but not much is happening about any of it. Plays aren’t documentaries. They’re stories. And stories slip inside us and stay inside us and affect our thinking and our feeling. So we might want to check whether those stories are in fact toxic before we swallow them down.
Perhaps, most of all, this is why I’m falling out of love with theatre – that we seem to have lost sight of what is good for us. That the stories that are being told are ending in the wrong place, the characters still maimed and hurting and lost in the forest. That nobody is learning how to grow back their hands. Growing back her hands does not lessen the Maiden’s previous ordeal. It does not weaken the story, although I suspect that the arbiters of taste sitting in judgement as gatekeepers of the Literary Departments have been taught to believe that it does. Rather it shows a deepening of both story and character, and a natural conclusion. It shows the evolution of the psyche. Leaving the character lost in the forest does not create a more authentic experience, but rather an incomplete one; incompleteness is a hungry ghost in terms of the psyche.
Artistically, it’s a difficult quandary to solve – obviously we don’t want to sit through the same production of Pollyanna over and over again. But this is an industry in which happy ending is a dirty word, aesthetically displeasing to the powers that be, where domestic is seen as disgusting. An industry in which shock value or difficult subject matter will always win out over heart. An industry which increasingly feels like a bad case of The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which audience members stagger out into the night, wide-eyed and tormented while no one dares to ask Yes but what’s this about? Or even Yes, but is this helping? An industry in which, as with much of the world, youth is emphasized as a god in itself and writers are groomed for fame before they’ve ever truly lived in this world. It is difficult to be wise at twenty three. Perhaps this focus on youth is part of the problem – you can’t bring the Maiden out of the forest until you’re out of the forest yourself. And a lot of our writers have never even had the chance to enter the forest yet.
It seems that deep within myself sits a wrinkled old storyteller in a multi-coloured coat, sniffing at stories to see how they will taste to the soul. An instinctive understanding that something is not quite right with the food in the bowl that I’m being offered. And a feeling that as artists we maybe need to move on from the Dead Baby and the Eyeball* school of writing. A lot of the stories that we’re serving up are heartless, empty and unfulfilling. Or perhaps merely incomplete. There is room for tragedy, for shock, for questions that can’t be answered – but I for one am looking at the world outside my window and wondering how my work impacts it. Am I part of the problem or part of the solution? It’s a question I think we all need to ask.
photo credit: Medieval Karl via photopin cc
* I have a theory that it’s not New Writing unless it involves a dead baby and somebody loses an eye. And yes, the play in question had a dead/missing baby and the stated desire to gouge out a toddler’s eyeball. CAN WE PLEASE GET OVER THIS, WRITERS?