Telling the Truth or Pleasing the Crowd?
My favorite things in this world are those that make me think. I love to watch or read something that causes genuine emotion inside me, even if it’s negative, because that means the writing or the portrayal of the story was strong enough to make me feel something. I respect writers, performers, and artists that can go to those places and I strive to be one of them.
Since reading The Pillowman, I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions asked in the play. Two of them especially stand out to me.
The first asks about the suitable content of a writer’s pieces. In The Pillowman, Katurian writes short stories that are quite disturbing: the four featured in the play all involve the gruesome deaths of children. The detectives interrogating Katurian are disgusted that a person could put such a thing down on paper, and so frequently. “The first fucking twenty we picked up was ‘a little girl gets fucked over in this way, or a little boy is fucked over in this way…’! [This] was a theme of your own choosing?” Katurian fires back, “Are you trying to say I shouldn’t write stories with child-killings in them because in the real world, there are child-killings?”
Content, and the censorship of it, is something that I think about often. While I support the rights of parents to have a say in what their child reads or sees for their formative years, I also think that there is a time to step back and allow the world to come to them. In a Writing for Children class I took in the fall semester, my class had a debate on what was too dark to put into children’s literature. I argued that there isn’t such a thing. One can’t be sheltered from real-world happenings forever, and the fact is that the real world happens to children, too.
Katurian’s demand sticks with me because those feelings- that the terrible things that happen in the real world should not be written about because they’re terrible things that happen in the real world- frustrate me to no end. I do not look down upon fluff. Sometimes a little bit of fluff, whether it’s on the page or performed, is exactly what is needed. But having performed, as well as simply loving stories that tell the truth of real-life pain and having the response be “I don’t think that’s appropriate” fill me with anger. I want to ask, “What exactly isn’t appropriate? The boy struggling with his grief? The girl coping with the after-effects of rape? The kid standing up for themselves and saying they refuse to be the victim again? A child in the real world has gone through that. Is that inappropriate?” Sadly, many of my actor friends have family members who refuse to see some of their shows because they “don’t understand why that has to be put onstage.”
I was ranting about this to Stuart over the phone yesterday and brought up the point that sometimes people mistake “bad” for “uncomfortable.” The example I used was Keira Knightley’s performance in A Dangerous Method. She portrays a real-life mental patient diagnosed with hysteria. Through the first quarter or so of the movie, when asked to speak of her home life, Knightley, as her character, suddenly halts in her speech, her breath locked in her chest and her face contorting into painful grimaces. I was stunned by this performance. It was brave, and it was true, based on accounts from the woman herself. It was also a risky move: the reviews of the performance on IMDB.com label Knightley’s performance as “terrible” and “painful to watch.” While everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion, I would argue that the people who found Knightley’s performance painful were actually just extremely uncomfortable. I understand; so was I. Her portrayal of mental illness was not easy to watch, but that’s how it is in real life, too. Those who wanted to see Knightley play the patient as a beautiful shrinking violet whose only outward sign of illness is a swoon or two didn’t get what they were expecting, and instead of recognizing the bravery in Knightley’s performance, they let their discomfort ruin her performance for them.
A similar story was told in a Ted Talk I watched over winter break. You can find the video here, but to paraphrase: the woman giving the talk is a theatre artist, and during one of her lectures, she could see one of the men in the audience looking impatient and disgusted by what she said. After the talk, he came up to her and told her that he had only ever been to one play in his life and he hated it so much that he never attended another. When asked why, he said that a character onstage got the news of her child’s death and made an inhuman noise of grief. “It was embarrassing,” he told the lecturer. “We didn’t like it.” He then went on to tell the lecturer that a few years after he saw that play, he recieved news that his own daughter had been raped and murdered, “And I made that noise. That actress told the truth, and I wasn’t brave enough to see it.” The lecturer says to her audience, “That actress must have known that as she made that noise, people in the audience were hating her. Bless her. She told the truth.”
So do we abandon truth at the expense of pleasing our audience? Is stashing away what could be our best ideas because they might make people uncomfortable worth it? Or do we bravely write what’s in our hearts- and the hearts of those who have gone through those things in their lives- and hope that it finds its intended audience?
To follow that a little further, the other question that The Pillowman asks is whether a writer is responsible for the repercussions of their work. In the play, Katurian’s disturbing stories are being reenacted in every detail, and the detectives are certain that Katurian himself is the doer. There can possibly be another mind as sicker than his, another person who would find these stories intoxicating enough to actually create them… can there? It’s obvious throughout the play that Katurian is not the murderer, but it does make one think: if he is the creator of these ideas, albeit not the one who carries them out, is he an accomplice in the murder? One might argue that a murderer will find some way to commit a murder, but had Katurian not written these stories, those children would not have died in the ways that they did. What is Katurian’s responsibility? What is any writer’s responsibility of the consequences of their creation?
I’d love to hear what you readers have to say on these subjects, so please comment below!