What kind of meaning do we need to derive from good, or even acceptable, theatre? What should it tell us about human nature and morality? And what about all this if the drama is comedy?
These are all issues that have been taken through the arts and letters pages of the Irish Times recently. The discussion was prompted by a play currently showing in Dublin’s Gate Theatre (having previously been a major success in the West End and on Broadway): The God of Carnage, by French playwright Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton. For those who have not seen it, the play tells the story of a meeting between two couples to discuss the fall-out from a physical attack by the son of one couple on the son of the other. The two sets of parents intend to reach an amicable settlement, but as the initially civilised encounter progresses they gradually strip away layers of composure and eventually civilisation. All of this is in the form of a comedy, and the play includes moments of extreme wit and slapstick.
I might add that I saw the play this week, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, but also one that prompted some discussion. This discussion in my household followed an earlier set of exchanges in the newspaper. It began with a critique of the play by Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole. O’Toole agreed that the play had an excellent cast, ‘roller-coaster dialogue’, ‘gorgeous designs, and ‘lots of laughs and intimations of some kind of underlying intellectual seriousness.’ So a good play, then? Not at all! In fact, O’Toole concluded that it was ‘among the crassest pieces of theatre I have ever seen’. The reason for this was that it was ‘morally tone deaf’. Why? Well, to cut to the chase, because it mentioned Darfur. One of the protagonists is an expert on the civil war there, and this is used once or twice in the play as a theme in the increasingly aggressive dialogue. And Fintan O’Toole doesn’t like that one bit. This is how he summarises his point:
‘The effect of Reza’s attempt to build a tower of moral importance on a swamp of banality is to shrink to nothing the difference between genocide and middle-class people behaving badly.’
But if that was the verdict of the critic, the cast was not necessarily taking this lying down (or even slumped over the sofa, vomiting, as was the case in the play). One of the actors, DCU graduate and Father Ted alumnus Ardal O’Hanlon, in the wonderful words of another letter writer to the Irish Times, ‘came down off the stage and savaged [the] critic.’ Writing to the newspaper, O’Hanlon suggested of O’Toole:
‘Might I respectfully suggest, as one of the cast, that he missed the point of the play by miles and, might I add, that a person of such a delicate sensibility should stay well away from the theatre, not to mention town centres, in future.’
The point of the play, he suggests, is that people can lose their veneer of civilisation and become capable of saying and doing shocking things – and the Darfur reference helps to provide the contrast between lofty ideals and social concern on the one hand and the reality of human interaction when it breaks down on the other.
There is, I believe, a serious point being made in the play, and it is not the first play to present its argument in the form of comedy. It seems to me that O’Toole thinks that theatre must never cut the cord between human outrage and a sense of serious proportion, and that outrage must therefore never be allowed to settle down alongside an exposition of human banality. For myself, I cannot even begin to see why our anger should be so deliberately mannered in assailing the world around us. Or rather, I thought that this view of things had been left behind some time around the emergence of Monty Python.
For all that, the critique and the responses have demonstrated one other, very welcome, fact: that theatre still matters and that it can focus debate. Maybe something that those considering further cuts to the performing arts might consider.