Ellen McLaughlin on Theatre and Democracy
Recently, my friend (and amazing playwright/actor) Ellen McLaughlin sent me the commencement address she'd written for the students at A.R.T. This address came out of their collaboration on Ajax In Iraq, a harrowing play about the trauma of the Iraq war mirrored through the story of Ajax.
The address itself looks at the twin births of theatre and democracy in Athens, and how the gift of empathy from the former enabled the creation of the latter. For me, it further articulates some of the ideas living here, and continues the difficult work of talking about value begun here. It is an eloquent, moving call for theatre makers to consider our essential responsibility to civic life.
The address is 15 pages in total - it begins with words specific to the occasion, and ends with contextualizing the central ideas within the opportunities of our current political climate. I have excerpted (with her permission) pages 4-11, which constitute the heart of this particular agon. Please read and respond with your own thoughts!
"Don’t forget that when you’re feeling flattened and thinking why oh why did I choose this ridiculous, humiliating profession? Remember what you’re really part of when you’re engaged in a life in the theater. Times like that, you might find it heartening to think about the Greeks, because they basically came up with the profession you’re entering into, and while they were at it they came up with, well, Western civilization. And they did it at about the same time, in the same city and with the same hammer and nails. Theater seems to have come first, but not by all that much. The city of Athens birthed two extraordinary local creations: democracy and theater. And essentially she gave birth to them as twins. Coincidence? Probably not, as anyone who has ever worked in the theater can attest. Theater, like democracy, by definition can only be done in collaboration. Both must be responsive to the needs of the moment, and they happen in the present tense. Both are done on the breath, in public; both are dependent on speech and the mysterious human grace of empathy. They must happen right now, in front of us, and we all share the same air.
The Greeks didn’t come up with the rudiments of theater: ritual and storytelling. Remnants of early Greek civilizations show us what we see everywhere in the beginnings of human societies: people dancing and singing, often in groups, telling stories and talking about gods and heroes. The innovation happened when one particular singer or speaker--tradition has named him Thespis--became what we must call the first theater artist when he turned from the people watching him and spoke to another person on the stage, who could then respond in kind. Something momentous and essential to theater was created in that moment: dialogue. Greeks called that splitting of voice in dialogue or debate the agon, and once they’d invented it,
they fell head over heels in love with it. Ultimately, they would use the agon for everything and everywhere, from classrooms to courtrooms to halls of government, but its first home was the theater, and there it defined the form. Without agon or dialogue, what’s happening on the stage may be many things, but it’s not theater. It’s ritual, it’s storytelling, it’s one voice speaking one authoritative truth to a passive audience. It’s a useful form, and we need it. (I need it right now.) But it ain’t theater. Because when dialogue enters the world, something profound changes in the dynamic with the audience. I like to think that when Thespis broke all the rules and spoke to another actor, everyone watching sat forward for the first time, and they’ve been sitting forward ever since. Because suddenly they had a job to do. Much would be asked of them. Theater, like democracy, makes demands. We, as an audience, have to do more than show up and get our orders. Theater turns an audience into citizens instead of just spectators. With the advent of dialogue, the truth no longer belongs to any single speaker. The truth must be found in the exchange. An audience has to follow the agon, the debate, enter into a sympathetic understanding with one speaker and then another, try out each position in order to discover what’s really going on. It’s confusing. There are times when everyone seems to be right, just as there are times when no one in the forest of voices is saying what needs to be said and it’s everything we the audience can do not to warn the actors on the stage or comfort them or just yell at them for being so blind to the truth that would be apparent to them if they were only sitting outside it as we are, listening to the agon and watching the mess onstage.
This is what theater looks like, but it’s also what democracy looks like. The theater teaches us that the validity of ethical principles, beliefs, and laws must be debated in full view of everyone concerned, in the open air of the public space. Theater teaches us that the struggle to make sense of things is what we are here to do. And we must do it together if we are to do it well. It is our work. And we do it in public.
There is a kind of brilliance to the light in Greece that you don’t find elsewhere. Something about the angle of the sun. Things are simply more visible there than they are anywhere else. So it’s not surprising that Greek thought is filled with notions of visibility and hiddenness.
Ajax himself, not exactly an introvert, has a speech about how it is inevitable that all things will come to light eventually. For the Greeks this was not just an unavoidable truth, it was something of an injunction. “Know thyself” was the singular command and warning of the Delphic oracle, after all. Whether we will or not, the truth insists itself. It wants to be known.
Our natures are mysterious and terrifying. We all know this. There is a personal darkness we are familiar with inside us, even if we have never had to stare it in the face. We can shut it deep within us, but we’ve heard it thumping around in there on quiet nights when we are alone with the worst of ourselves. We all need help with that. The Greeks had this rather outlandish notion that if we could see ourselves from the length of an auditorium, look at ourselves outside ourselves, as played by actors, doing the awful things that we, human beings, know we are capable of doing, and suffering the worst that we can imagine, we might be purged of our own darkness by the terror and pity such experiences in the theater provoke in us. It’s not surprising that theater festivals were frankly religious events for the Greeks. That ancient notion that there is a spiritual component to what happens in theaters won’t strike this crowd as odd, I trust; there’s a reason so many here have chosen this profession. We’ve all felt it, onstage and off, that transformative thing that can happen as we watch actors, those intimate, necessary strangers, acting for us and as us out there in the merciless light.
What are actors after all? You are the spelunkers. The rest of us are standing in the open air above the ground, trying to guess at what’s beneath our feet—all that scary unfathomed darkness and intricacy and danger. Playwrights come up with maps of what we can make out of the hidden terrain beneath, but we give them over to the actors because actors are the ones who will strap on the headlights and throw the coiled ropes over their shoulders and go down into the deeps for us and thread their way through that blackness to find out what’s really there. We call them actors because they act for us. They venture into other selves and show us what they find. There are bumper stickers that say something like, “Got freedom? Thank a soldier.” I would suggest we campaign for a bumper sticker that says, “Got self-knowledge? Thank an actor.”
Of all the things the Greeks teach us, perhaps the most essential for our purposes today is that there are worse things than failure. If I could give you only one piece of advice today it would be to live by their example and risk failure. Just look at those plays. Look at the size of what they are grappling with—they’re sounding the depths of what it is to be human; time and again, the dilemmas they pose just seem impossible to contend with, yet they take them on. These are plays of astonishing ambition and they never cease to humble me and inspire me to reach farther and risk more as an artist. Why not try to address the hardest things? The alternative is to make nice, neat plays that offend no one and do nothing much because they don’t attempt anything much. Why not risk failure and try to make, well, art? What is stake other than the size of my soul?
Finally, I want to talk about empathy. The Greeks didn’t invent it, but with the creation of dialogue, they came up with a form that demands it and makes a home for it. With the invention of dialogue, an audience can move freely from one mind to another on the stage, entering different perspectives and judging their validity by holding them one by one against our own hearts. We must empathize in order to make sense. I have to put myself in her shoes, then his, then hers, and through that radical spiritual exercise I arrive at a new understanding of the world that I simply can’t reach when such demands are never put upon me. And the Greeks don’t make it easy for you. Often the characters who at first glance seem to be obviously in the right, or out of it, become figures of ambiguity or disturbing familiarity and pathos when we bring the force of empathy to bear upon them. Hundreds of years of use and scholarly analysis of these plays and still they defy reduction. They work an audience hard and wrack our hearts as we feel through them, searching for ethical balance as we struggle to find it in our own lives.
But that’s what civilization asks of people. It asks them to work. Civilization doesn’t let us get away with waiting passively to be told what to think. We have to engage with dialogue and connect with one embodied truth and then another and another. With the invention of dialogue, I realize that your pain is my pain because I am free at last to feel it. And as a participant in the world, as a citizen in this civilization, it is my right and my duty to feel it.
It is the act of empathy that teaches us how to be civilized. It is the act of empathy, which the invention of theater taught the people of ancient Greece, that makes civilization possible because it makes democracy possible. If you can learn, through the theater, what it is to leap empathetically out of the tiny circle of your own needs and concerns and enter into the souls of those apparently different from you, then you realize that the sufferings and desires of others are like your own. In theaters, we feel through the human dilemma together, in collaboration and breathing the same air. Here and now, we learn to make it up as we go along with this new knowledge of the connection between us.
It’s a strange profession you’ve chosen and no mistake, this alchemical business of what happens when one actor on a stage turns to another. So remember that when you engage in making theater, you are engaging in the business that began it all.
You are making civilization."
-Ellen McLaughlin, excerpted from her 2009 Commencement Address to the students A.R.T.