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Joel Derfner's Blog Entry

Theater and tikkun olam

Posted by: Joel Derfner (August 24, 2009)

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I posted a version of this on my regular blog a few months ago, but I figure it's a discussion that bears extending.

In the 1960s, my parents became civil rights workers—they were largely responsible for, among other things, the twenty-year extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guarantees black people's right to vote—and my father, in addition to continuing that work, has more recently also done a lot of work on behalf of labor unions (as would my mother be doing, I'm sure, were she still alive). So I grew up in an atmosphere in which working to make the world a better place (in Hebrew, tikkun olam—"the healing of the world") wasn't just a virtue; it was an imperative.

I am therefore somewhat ambivalent about having gone into the theater; in a way, the fact that I'm not in a third-world country working to create food distribution systems makes me feel like a moral failure. (When I'm at my most self-loathing, I say, "My parents secured black people the franchise, and I write pretty music that makes upper-middle-class white people feel nice.")

But my self-loathing aside, the fact is that theater does have the power to inspire its audience to tikkun olam; actually, we seem to be getting closer to measurable evidence that it does. I recently read an article on Slate.com about "elevation," one of a group of self-transcendent emotions behavioral scientists have recently identified and begun to study.

Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental 'reset button,' wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration. . . . Elevation is good at provoking a desire to make a difference but not so good at motivating real action. But . . . the elevation effect is powerful nonetheless. . . . It does appear to change people cognitively; it opens hearts and minds to new possibilities.

Juxtapose this with the article in the New York Times Magazine a couple years ago about a scientific study showing that when people think about morals, religious or otherwise, they are more generous—4.33 times as generous, to be exact—than at other times. We talk about how theater (and art in general) can make people better, but we're talking about an abstract idea, immeasurable and unproven. Now, however, we seem to be discovering that moments of elevation—including, one presumes, elevation induced by art, music, theater, and the like—have the power to make people quantifiably more open-hearted.

Which to me means that we who write for the theater have an absolute responsibility to use that power. When I see theater that doesn't seem to take this responsibility seriously, I find myself getting angry. Every season I see at least one musical that is brilliant and hysterically funny and through which I sit fuming more and more violently by the minute because, as I look at it, though the writers could have invested it with immense power for tikkun olam, without making it a jot less brilliant or a jot less hysterically funny—and very possibly more brilliant and funnier—they chose not to, which to me makes the show both a waste of their talent and a moral failure of its own. I'm not saying that a show's morality has to be Big and Serious and Important. Little Shop of Horrors is deeply moral.

And I don't mean that a show has to Have a Message or Enlighten the Audience. I've sat through any number of shows about how Greed Is Bad (or Racism, or Intolerance of Others, or Whatever), and I've wanted to put my eyes out. They were turgid and sententious and ghastly, because the story and the characters were subordinate to the Message. I've never been able to figure out how to express the difference between what makes a show elevating and what makes it ghastly—until now. The other day I came across an essay by D.H. Lawrence, an analysis of Walt Whitman in Studies in Classic American Literature, and he had this to say:

The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral. The essential function of art is moral. But a passionate, implicit morality, not didactic. A morality which changes the blood, rather than the mind. The mind follows later, in the wake.

The morality in a show needs to be passionate and implicit—a morality which changes the blood. If we write a show—or create any work of art—in which we're trying to change people's minds, we're being preachers first and storytellers (a distant) second, and the story will ring false. But if the work's morality is directed at the blood, if it communicates itself in how the characters treat each other and themselves, then we're simply storytellers, fulfilling the responsibility with which the power of art has invested us.


Hannah Kohl:

I loved your post. I also like to think of the amazing things that happen when you create theatre in a school, providing a safe place for kids to express themselves, learn, and establish themselves as people.

In our school, we specifically reached out to kids having a hard time in traditional social and classroom settings and brought them into theatre. At first, I would have other teachers pull me aside to tell me I was making a mistake putting "that kid" in the play. Later, they were asking me what I'd done to turn the kid around. All we did was provide an opportunity for kids to feel important and be successful outside the traditional structure of the school. Well, that... and we put on pretty fantastic shows. That feels good too!

Tikkun olam-a-rama!

(2279 days ago)