Hushing the censors of theatre.
A few weeks ago, I went to see The Merchant of Venice, performed by the traveling Globe Theatre and starring Jonathan Pryce as Shylock. The play caused a stir among the critics, partly because of Pryce, and partly because of the play’s moral difficulties that seem so relevant to our moment — i.e., the protagonists’ shocking anti-semitism.
This performance built for me an almost intolerable conflict of emotions, feelings chasing each other like shadows beneath a disco ball. Pity for Shylock. Outrage at Antonio and Bassanio, who shout epithets and spit on him. Joy for the romance of Portia and Bassanio. Sorrow for Shylock after his daughter flees. Delight in the shrewdness of Portia. Fear for Antonio under Shylock’s knife. Disgust at Shylock’s vengefulness. Pity again for Shylock’s misfortune.
One review in the Washington Post argues that we should banish The Merchant of Venice from the stage. “Every time it is produced,” writes the reviewer, “the play introduces new audiences to vile medieval tropes of Jew-hatred that we should have long ago left behind.”
This reviewer’s zeal against onstage anti-semitism echoes the voices of many censors of the stage and screen. People decry a production because it features reprehensible themes: crude language, rape, illicit sex, violence, guns, racism, nihilism, chauvinism . . . . Name your evil, and you’ll find someone who thinks we shouldn’t allow depictions of it into our art, because it’s bad.
Theatre is full of the dark and the gritty. But so is life. When is it worthwhile to endure the emotional difficulties of disturbing material, and where is the limit beyond which we ought not to venture?
The key difference between theatre and life, which the censors always seem to forget, is imagination. To experience something in the imagination is not the same as to feel it in real life. Settled comfortably in our seats, we aren’t feeling real fear, but we do imagine what it would be like to fear the greedy Shylock, or to lose one’s only daughter. By engaging the imagination, art provides the safe space where we can enter into feelings that have no connection to our own real-world desires. If we don’t allow our theatre to be a place for wrestling with the issues and bugbears that haunt us, where else will we find real human answers?
“Moral imagination” is a term twentieth century philosopher Russel Kirk borrowed from Edmund Burke, to describe the type of imagination that belongs to the realm of art. Jonathan Jones defines this moral imagination as “a uniquely human ability to conceive of fellow humanity as moral beings and as persons, not as objects whose value rests in utility or usefulness.” According to Kirk,
Until very recent years, men took it for granted that literature exists to form the normative consciousness—that is, to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity, and their place in the scheme of things.
Art “teaches” without preaching or moralizing. A flawless character is one of the most irritating things there is (think of Elsie Dinsmore or Little Nell). Rather, art teaches through coloring our vision of the world and re-orienting our emotional response to it. The imaginative experience of forgetting our own interests and engaging with those of the characters ultimately enables us to feel more truly and more deeply.
Art is always forming our understanding of what it means to be human. To the surprise of “art-for-art’s-sake” purists, Kirk argues that art has a moral purpose. Theatre is always about the moral, because it is always about the human.
According to Kirk, art “teaches the norms of our existence by holding up the mirror to nature.” Some artists use this mirror mercilessly, as Gustav Flaubert does in Madame Bovary. Flaubert’s supremely unpleasant novel describes, in glorious detail, the longings and petty sins that lead Emma Bovary to her ruin. It’s a masterpiece of literature, and I hate it. And yet it fascinates many, including me (I’ve read it twice and will probably read it again), because of the complex moral vision it conveys without the help of any approving or disapproving commentary.
One might argue that Shakespeare accomplishes the same uncomfortable project, by showing the ugliness of certain humans mistreating their fellows. He wrings our hearts with the wrongs against Shylock, which feel like open sores in the midst of comedic joy.
We may never know whether Shakespeare meant this play to be a wrenching mix of comedy and tragedy. But I think modern eyes can’t take it any other way, and for us, that mix is its power. In our age of prosperity and poverty, where questions of racism vie with debates about immigration, Shakespeare’s Merchant throws a mirror back on us.
The particular production I saw was beautifully executed. But an added scene at the very end diminished, for me, its artistic power. Before the curtain falls, we watch a desolate and bare-headed Shylock submitting to a Christian baptism, while his daughter sings a Hebrew lament. It feels moralistic, as though the directors are wagging a finger and intoning, “In case you didn’t notice, in case you didn’t feel sorry enough for Shylock, take note: anti-semitism is very bad. Shylock is the victim, and the Christians are the abusers. Don’t be like them.”
You might say that art succeeds in inverse ratio to its preachiness.
What to Do with Explicit Material
But before you rush off to subscribe to all this season’s most depressing plays. . . . There is a second way in which the theatre, in presenting dark themes, may fail. The performance might impede the imagination when explicit material touches our own real desires. Roger Scruton draws a distinction between pornography and erotic art, to highlight how the explicit can detract from the artistic. Pornography, he argues, awakens desire by offering viewers an object for their personal fantasies. Erotic art, on the other hand (think of a Titian Venus), leaves the desires asleep, and stirs the sympathies for what it might be like for someone else to feel desire, or to be desired.
The imagination needs room to work. The wise old Greek playwrights, who scripted all their deaths to occur offstage, knew that hints can be the most effective way to horrify an audience. The details of raw grief or a graphic rape scene can easily get in the way of the emotions the audience is supposed to feel. The discussion about where the boundary lies between the artistic and the overly-explicit belongs in another place — maybe in an article about the flaws and merits of Game of Thrones. But it’s a question worth considering before or after you visit the theatre.
And before you judge a show for its dark themes, give it a chance. Let yourself try its emotions on for size, even if they hurt. You may find that you grow more sensitive for your own painful real-life scenarios, and also more human.
This article is part of an August series on theatre, hosted by the Play and Create channels at Humane Pursuits. Read more here.
Liz Horst studied music and English literature at Grove City College and now lives in Maryland with her husband and two children. While working from home, Liz has found a precarious balance for her many loves. Besides writing and editing for the Play channel at Humane Pursuits, she runs a Suzuki violin studio and serves as executive director for the Eliot Society, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.