Noble Fictions and Sacred Texts

Note: This is my contribution to the book What Do We Do about Inequality?, the first such book from an initiative called The Wicked Problems Collaborative. The book just marked one year since publication, and with the blessing of WPC publisher and editor Chris Oestereich I’m posting it here. It has been very lightly edited from the original.

It has been asserted that the relative morality of cultures and practices can be scientifically determined—“scientific” not in the sense of people in white coats doing lab experiments, but in the sense of being empirically perceivable. The idea is that we can compare one cultural practice or norm or moral tenet to others, observe how they affect human happiness, and make an objective judgment. This is a controversial way of thinking, notably advocated by Sam Harris in his concept of “The Moral Landcape,” and I largely agree with it. To be broad, I feel very secure in saying that a culture or morality that, say, makes a virtue of the subjugation, demonization, or abuse of entire classes of people is objectively worse than one that values all members of society and works to see them realize their individual potentials.

In order to say that a practice is morally better because of its impact on human happiness, we have to first decide that human happiness is something worth achieving. For if we choose not to grant that human happiness is an assumed goal of any moral code (in favor of, say, maximized production or complete subjugation of a given class or ethnic group), what we then determine is and isn’t “moral” changes drastically. There is no Cosmic Rulebook that states with utter authority that human happiness is something anyone, humans included, should give a damn about, so we have to choose it as our goal. We have to decide for ourselves that we will base our morality on what best allows for the flourishing of human happiness, and then behave as though it is an irrevocable law of existence. If we behave as though this is a malleable idea, that human happiness is only sort of important, then all choices that flow from this change entirely. Not only do we choose human happiness as our moral bedrock, but we also act as though it could be no other way even if we wanted it to be.

Let’s leave this aside for a moment.

I used to make my living (such as it was) as a Shakespearean actor. In the theatre world, there exists the concept of “the sacred text,” a kind of secular devotion to the words on the page over all else. If, as an actor, you want to make some kind of bold choice with your character, it cannot be out of the blue; there has to be support for it, an explanation of that behavior, in the script. If one is playing Willy Loman, and one feels compelled to perform him with an outlandish Australian accent, one had better see something within the words written by Arthur Miller in the text of Death of a Salesman that provides the basis for this.

The idea of the sacred text is given extra weight when referring to Shakespearean drama, partly because Shakespeare is widely considered to be the English language’s greatest writer (and so we assume that he probably knew what he was doing), but also because his works are, to us, so very old. They are now part of the very foundation of Western civilization. Go ahead and muck around with a Neil Simon comedy, even get crazy with your Bertolt Brecht (he is practically begging you to, anyway), but if you think Hamlet is entering from stage right on a hoverboard, you better find the line where he or someone else on stage says something synonymous to “But soft, what yonder hoverboard is this?”

Even if Shakespeare’s genius is taken as a given, adhering to his text and treating it as sacred is still a choice. But to take this to its extreme, to decide that the Word of William is infallible as far as the production of one of his plays goes, something has to be sacrificed. Usually, this is the audience’s attention. I suppose one could remain entirely faithful to the text of Comedy of Errors and probably wind up with a more-or-less satisfied audience. It is rather short and intellectually light for a Shakespearean play, so it doesn’t demand much of the audience’s brain power, and it also has a lot of dirty jokes that transcend time and space. On the other hand, as someone who has sat through full-text versions of plays like Henry IV and Hamlet, I can tell you that a production’s reverence for the text can go horribly awry, causing some of the most beautiful lines of English ever written to syphon off the audience’s will to live.

This gets us into what it means to treat a text as sacred. Certainly, we keep every written line intact, but must it then also be performed exactly as Shakespeare himself might have? Complete with the accent and pronunciations of sixteenth century England? The same clothes made from the same fabrics, fashioned without any industrial tools? Should the actors not bathe frequently? You see where this can go.

The idea of the sacred text is fine; it serves as an excellent guideline, a starting point for the choices that will have to be made in the mounting of a theatrical production. But if we choose to behave as though the text of a play is inerrant (and I say “behave as though” because we assume the play was written by a fallible human), the production can become shackled, rigid, and, essentially, bad art. If the goal is an entertaining, moving, and enlightening performance, choosing to treat the text as entirely sacred is a bad strategy. Instead, a production can remain faithful to the spirit of the play, cut lines where needed, add elements where they enhance the show, and make the best of it. But if the goal is to rigidly honor the words of a 400-years-dead man at all costs, those costs will likely include the joy of the art itself. By restricting the production to what it “must” be, we miss out on the all the possibilities of what it could be.

Laws are like this. As with plays, strict adherence to the precise wording of a given law (literally, “the letter of the law”) is a best-intentions means of making sure a law is applied equally to all parties, but the spirit of a law, the problem it seeks to solve, can be lost. And if they were not considered at least somewhat malleable, the Supreme Court would not have much to do. The same goes for musical notation, codes of ethics, and, yes, religious texts.

Let us now then look at an example that covers a lot of these aforementioned bases, as both a kind of code of ethics and religious text, at least for a civil religion:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

American society, as well as the broader Western world, gets a lot of mileage out of this couple of sentences. It is not a law, really, nor a code, but an expression of values—a “founding document” in the clearest sense. It is a declaration that a new nation has been established, one basing its very reason for being on its statement of purpose, that “all men are created equal,” with a particular set of rights that cannot be revoked even by said nation.

For this to work, though, for the “mission statement” of the United States to make sense, one has to accept that all men are, in fact, equal. But, of course, the very men who signed this document did not believe this to be the case. The man who wrote it certainly didn’t believe it, or, if he did, he was primed for a very awkward encounter with his slaves (who would be explicitly decreed a fraction of a person each), and an uncomfortable night at home, with the wife that he and his colleagues had forgotten to include in the franchise.

We’re off to a rough start with what is more or less the single most “sacred text” on the continent, excluding of course religious scriptures. It did not have full buy-in from its authors and signatories, and certainly was not applied in any broad sense. If we presume that the word “men” in “all men are created equal” was intended to mean “humans,” it was an utterly unfulfilled idea. And if it was meant in the narrow sense of males, the fact that only white, landowning men were allowed to vote still gives the lie to this assertion.

Not much of a sacred text then.

Interestingly, subsequent generations have broadened the meaning of “all men” to include more or less all human persons, at least in definition if not in practice. Despite enormous resistance, it seems to get broader all the time. And a lot of that progress has to do with the fact that so many of us today treat the opening words of the Declaration of Independence as a sacred text, in a way that its authors and signatories clearly did not.

But let us be coldly rational for a moment. Are all humans created equal? Of course we aren’t. We are unequal physically: not only do we come in a bewildering variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, but some of us are born with catastrophic conditions, and some with mind-boggling natural talents and innate geniuses. Beyond biology, we are born into different geographies, each with its own advantages and disadvantages to flourishing depending on any number of factors from availability of natural resources to whatever form of government manages the people within one’s borders. We are born with different tastes in food, sex, art, and activities. We are born into different stations in life, some into wealth and rank, others (most?) into abject poverty, and desperation. We each, individually, then take our collected circumstances, and make vastly different choices about how we will go about our lives. To assert flatly that we are created equal is so astoundingly and blatantly incorrect that it implies a fundamental problem of word comprehension on the part of the speaker.

Does this throw the entire human experiment in democracy, and well, humanism itself, into the toilet? Of course not: we still have some degree of agency here. And the founders, narrow as they were in their definitions, helped us out with this.

As a humanist myself (and a secular one at that), as much as I revere the broadened meaning ascribed to “all men are created equal,” the most meaningful words in all of America’s founding documents are actually its first:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

It is most decidedly not self-evident that all humans are created equal, for the reasons previously mentioned and an infinite number more. But the Declaration says that we will behave as though it is. It does not say, “Whereas it is self-evident that all men are created equal,” but “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” We have decided, on our own, using our fallible human brains, that we will act as though all men are created equal and form our government around this noble fiction.

I derive great inspiration and resolve from this. In the face of staggering inequality among the human population (where, in America alone, there were slaves and royalty, aristocrats and massacred indigenous people), these men said that their new nation would begin its very existence with those words, which amount to an admission that this founding idea of equality was entirely anthropogenic. God did not say we were all equal, and there was nothing embedded in our genes to tell us this by instinct. We just decided to think that way.

That part of the text is particularly sacred to me. It is both humble, in that it admits to being wholly invented, as well as grandiose, in that it means to act on this invention and use it to build an empire of the people.

This is all very well; we have announced our intentions as a people to treat each other equally, but, why? Because it seems nice? To what end? Evidence suggests that treating all human persons as though they were equal, even if they are not inherently, increases overall human happiness. Throughout the democratic world, where societies have rejected the official codification of castes, class distinction, and discrimination and disenfranchisement based on race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation, things have been better. Where everyone gets the same relative shot at an education, at employment opportunities, at business transactions and patronage, at social interaction, the society as a whole flourishes, leading to more opportunities and more happiness.

We are, of course, fallible humans, so we still manage to screw it up, but because this is science, we get to keep trying. It takes a long time to go from experiment to experiment, and the failed experiments can often be devastating, but we do learn. And through all the twists and turns civilization has taken in modern history, and the roller coaster ride on which democracies have taken their citizens because of varying interpretations of equality, it remains pretty obvious that those societies that act on the fiction of equality across the board contribute more to overall human happiness than those that do not. That means that even for self-serving narcissists, it makes more sense to back a system based on equality than inequality, if for no other reason than that because it tilts the odds for happiness in your favor.

Many plays begin with an acknowledgement that what the audience is about to see is fake. The opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V is not only an acknowledgement, but also an apology:

…But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts…

This thing you are about to experience is a fiction, we are told, but we need you to buy into it. It won’t work otherwise. Excuse the fact that it’s obviously not true, and go with it, and we will all benefit. You’ll have a wonderful time at the theatre, and we actors will get paid. And when it’s over, we all know that it was just a show.

Knowing that these are our goals, to entertain a crowd and keep a troupe of performers employed, we can take the text given to us by the playwright and make the best of it, without treating it as immovable. We can remain true to the spirit of the play, but cut lines where necessary, make acting and staging choices that enhance the experience of the performance but may not be explicitly called for in the text. We can do all that because we know that our aim is not to robotically recite thousands of lines of verse, but to deliver an experience of art and entertainment. We need not treat the text as “sacred” in the theological sense, though we can revere it.

Ostensibly, the aim of government is to establish the parameters of societal behavior within which human happiness can be maximized. So we make rules and laws, and we establish systems and methods for carrying them out. If we follow each one to the letter, rigidly enforcing their literal meanings through all time and in all scenarios, we miss the chance to experiment and improve. If we follow the spirit of these laws and rules and systems, we offer ourselves more of a chance to make things better for everyone affected. If we were to treat “all men are created equal” as a sacred and inerrant expression of divine will, the majority of the American population would still be left out, and human happiness would be severely stultified, capped at the happiness of males, presuming we are at least not limiting this definition to white, property-holding males.

It is a remarkable thing, to see a theatrical performance in which the play itself acknowledges its own artifice. It is liberating for audience and actor alike to openly agree that we will all now consent to a fiction for the purpose of maximizing the happiness of the evening.

It is astounding that we could do the same when building a society. We can admit to ourselves that while our collective equality may be a fiction, yet we will hold it as a self-evident truth in order to maximize human happiness over the span of generations. The rest of the words in our play—in our constitutions, in our law books, in our manifestos, in our declarations and proclamations—are there to uphold the spirit of that idea, the idea of universal equality as a means to the general well-being. This suspension of disbelief is difficult, for some more than others, but once we all buy in, we can enjoy the hell out of the show.


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I Am Dreamcast (A Play)

This is an extremely short “play” I wrote in 1999. I recently rediscovered it in a folder of old projects, and it made me laugh. On the inside, because I don’t laugh out loud all that often.

Here it is, with a few tiny things cleaned up after a fresh reading, as I originally wrote it 18 years ago. Oh, if you don’t know, this is what a Dreamcast is/was. Enjoy.

I Am Dreamcast

A play by Paul Fidalgo

Blockbuster Video store, 1999.

PAUL, an employee, early 20s, and JUAN, the manager, late 20s, are behind the counter, working on scanning in VHS videotapes which are stacked up in various piles, or prepping new releases or some nonsense like that, putting tapes into cases and whatnot. We see them from behind the counter, which is upstage of them.

JUAN stops suddenly, straightens up, and says…

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

PAUL: You are?

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

PAUL: Really.

JUAN: You…

PAUL: Yes?

JUAN: You can play Crazy Taxi on me!

PAUL: My god.

JUAN: I am-

PAUL: Dreamcast.

JUAN: Yes, Dreamcast.

AMY, another employee, 20s, enters.

AMY: What’s with Juan?

PAUL: He thinks he’s a Sega Dreamcast.

AMY: What?

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

PAUL: See?

AMY: Why?

PAUL: I don’t know. Maybe too much exposure to all these games.

JUAN: I have a 128-bit graphics processor.

PAUL: Yeah, you see what’s funny about that is that I don’t think he would actually know that.

AMY: Wow.

JUAN: I am normally retailed at $199.99.

PAUL: This is kind of cool.

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

AMY: He’s just fooling.

PAUL: I don’t think so.

JUAN: Grrrrr!

PAUL: What?

JUAN: Grrrrr!

AMY: He’s growling.

PAUL: Why would the Dreamcast growl? I never thought of it as, you know, scary.

AMY: Well…

JUAN: Dreamcast!

AMY: Ssh! This is why I think he’s kidding.

PAUL: No, I think Juan believes the Dreamcast is a monster, that he is a monster.

JUAN: I am Dreamcast!

Enter CUSTOMER, approaches counter

CUSTOMER: Excuse me.

JUAN: I am Dreamcast.

CUSTOMER: What?

PAUL: Nothing.

AMY: Can I help you with something?

CUSTOMER: My kid wants this video game, um, Tony Hawk?

AMY: For which system?

JUAN: Dreamcast!

CUSTOMER: Um, no, the Nintendo one. N64.

PAUL: Yeah, Juan, Tony Hawk isn’t on the Dreamcast yet.

AMY: (To CUSTOMER) Let me see if we have it. (Types on computer.)

JUAN: Um.

PAUL: Yeah?

JUAN: Um.

AMY: Yes?

JUAN: Grrrr!

CUSTOMER: A monster! Run!

End

Immeasurable

I have lately discovered in myself a kind of sympathy with a certain flavor of religious belief and practice, which, when approached from a very particular angle, I find relatable, even laudable. To be clear, I don’t mean religion in the sense of unquestioning belief in absurd cosmological claims or even magical thinking about some silly “universal spirit” or what have you. This has more to do with things like yearning, reverence, discipline, peace, and one other thing.

That other thing, interestingly, is part and parcel with the very ideals I work to promote in my professional life advancing reason and secularism: Doubt.

It’s kind of a funny thing. I live a life positively drenched in doubt. My self-doubt is, of course, the stuff of legend, and it spills over into grave doubts about all manner of external things, from the intentions of others to the sustainability of human civilization. I’m just not so sure about any of it. No, that’s too flip. I deeply distrust all of it. Everything. It’s, as they say, crippling.

At the same time, I have a mind that strives for certainty. This is to be expected from someone with Asperger’s (which I only became aware of a few months ago), and true to the stereotype I grasp for recognizable patterns and hard-and-fast explanations for everything. Perhaps this was a primary factor as to why I found the secular-skeptic movement so appealing: Well at least I know those people are wrong!

This need for the concrete is, I think, a major reason as to why I soured on the arts about a decade ago. I didn’t feel like its benefits to humanity were sufficiently tangible. At the time I was making these considerations, things were very dark in American politics (which looks rosy compared to today), and I felt that all hands were needed on deck to fight back and make the world a better place. I did still believe that performing Shakespeare had the power to do some good, but that the effect I could have was too small, too localized. I needed to expand my do-gooder blast radius.

Politics, I thought, would bring concrete solutions, eventually. Successes there would do more than lift the spirits of a few upper-class theatre-goers; they would improve society as a whole, helping people who needed it, as opposed to just those who could afford a ticket to a play.

But I think I was missing something, something I couldn’t be expected to understand at that time in my life, at that age. I’m not sure I understand it now, but I do think I undervalued what I was doing at the time. But I couldn’t quantify it, I couldn’t see it. I doubted it.

I couldn’t live with that doubt. The irony of course is that I now utterly doubt the ability of politics and advocacy to make lasting positive change, given, you know, how things have shaken out.

But aside from the abysmal state of things in that particular arena, it remains that political advocacy is largely mechanical. Yes, of course, there is as much poetry as prose involved in the whole mess of politics and government, but all of that poetry is meant, in the end, to get some dials adjusted on the machinery of government; to get particular gears of society to move or speed up, and get others to slow or stop. Meaning can be measured.

I couldn’t measure what made a performance of Othello or As You Like It meaningful, just as I can’t measure the meaning of the songs I write and record, or even the meaning of these words. I have metrics for attention paid, surely, in clicks, downloads, listens, views, likes, shares, tweets, and all that. But there is no measuring the impact, no quantifying to what degree the world has gotten better as a result, if at all. Indeed, I have so little understanding of this that I often doubt the things I do have any meaning at all.

In the quantifiable world, the readings on the gauge are very grim. The wrong gears are moving, the right gears are being removed from the inner workings, and the dials are pointed in all the wrong directions. It is dark. And I realize this darkness is due to an emptiness, a void. It’s not a lack of good ideas or good campaign strategies. It’s a void in the human heart, a vacuum instead of open air. It is dark.

The thing about darkness, though, is that little lights become really freaking important. I’m directing a production of Into the Woods with the local university, and it might be great, or we might just eke out a passable showing by the skin of our teeth. But that’s not really the point. The point is that this group of young people are throwing their hearts and minds and energies into telling this beautiful story with this beautiful music that is full of joy and pain and fear and yearning. Whatever happens, I am certain that this show will be a little light in the dark. It already is. Before it’s even been performed, it’s already made the world a better place, made all those who have been a part of it, myself included, better people.

I can’t measure that. But only in this time of darkness do I realize how badly we need it anyway. How bad we’ve always needed it, and always will.

Here’s a thing I read recently by Dougald Hine that helped focus my thinking about this:

Art can teach us to live with uncertainty, to let go of our dreams of control. And art can hold open a space of ambiguity, refusing the binary choices with which we are often presented – not least, the choice between forced optimism and simple despair.

These are strange answers. For anyone in search of solutions, they will sound unsatisfying. But I don’t think it’s possible to endure the knowledge of the crises we face, unless you are able to draw on this other kind of knowledge and practice, whether you find it in art or religion or any other domain in which people have taken the liminal seriously, generation after generation. Because the role of ritual is not just to get you into the liminal, but to give you a chance of finding your way back.

If religion, for you, is something that is not about theological certainties or following the revealed will of the creator of the universe, but like art is about yearning, reverence, discipline, peace, and doubt, then I think I am beginning to understand that. I can’t take at all seriously any claims about some mystical being or force that has willed us into existence and interconnectedness. But I am interested in a way of thinking that yearns for this connection, that reveres the vastness of our knowledge and ignorance, that partakes in a discipline to explore and strive for this connection, that seeks and achieves moments of bliss, harmony, and peace in this practice, and that doubts every bit of it, so as to power the continuation of the cycle. Maybe that’s what faith is supposed to be about, or what it ought to be about anyway, having faith that there’s something to strive for. Against all evidence. 

This is what the arts, the humanities, are for. Not only their products, but the practice, the making, the discipline. That’s what’s holy about one more goddamned performance of a show I’ve been doing for a year. The ritual. This is what I think I missed all those years ago, or was not yet capable of understanding. It’s what I think I misunderstood about certain key aspects of religion, and what I suspect the vast majority of religious people misunderstand, or neglect, as well.

My Aspie brain struggles painfully with this. “Why bother” is the mantra of my subconscious mind whenever I even consider undertaking some effort in writing, music, or what have you, especially given that I am not making my living this way anymore. “To what end?” asks my brain. “What good will it do, for you or anyone else?”

Daunting, invigorating, and frustrating, the only response is that it is, in every sense of the word, immeasurable.


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Performing Artists, Kill Your Guilty Conscience

My amazing and talented wife Jessica recently did some voice work to help another actress prepare for a film, for which she was paid. She was told today, however, that the film project had been canceled. This, of course, happens sometimes, and it’s not has though Jess was going to be in the thing, so no harm, no foul for her.
But then she admitted to me that she felt a twinge of guilt for accepting payment for her work now that the film won’t actually go into production. When she said this to me, I think my eyes bugged out of my head, and I may have dropped whatever I was holding. Had I been sipping a beverage, I probably would have done a spit take over my laptop keyboard, necessitating a puppy-dog-eyed trip to the Genius Bar.

Guilty? For being paid for your work? I made the comparison to someone who might have built an object: If someone had constructed a set piece for the film, and the film was canceled, no one would think that the builder shouldn’t be paid. Work done is work done.

But somehow with artists, I think particularly performing artists, there is a feeling that what we do doesn’t really count as work, and that if we happen to get paid for it, it’s just icing. A happy coincidence.

Part of this is fueled by raw economics. The supply of performers (actors, singers, dancers, etc.) is far, far, far greater than the demand for them, which leads to performers doing ungodly amounts of work for nothing, and in many cases, actually paying to work in order to get “experience,” get “exposure,” and really, get “exploited.” (Say the word “showcase” to an actor and see if you can detect them dying inside.)

There’s also something about the evanescence of performance work, particularly live performance. You do it, and the work then flitters off into the ether, perhaps captured in recordings or memory, but now passed.

Finally, there’s the trope that’s related to the idea that one must “do what you love,” which can easily be misinterpreted as “since you love doing it, doing it is payment in itself.” Actors and other performers are made to feel that they are privileged just to be allowed to ply their craft at all, and that it is only a rarified few who should deign to feel entitled to compensation for it. It can feel to some as almost impolite to expect to be paid for performance-art work.

And I get it. I have been there. As someone who is usually drenched in self-loathing, I know what it is not to value one’s own labor. Adulthood and the oppression of debt and expenses has changed me a great deal, however, plus I’ve been out of the performing arts workforce for several years now. Raw necessity has hardened me somewhat when it comes to expecting fair compensation, even for work that I might do on my own time for nothing anyway. (Music, for example.)

Here’s the key difference: If I choose to do creative work on my own (and on my own terms) for no payment, all for me, that’s my decision. If you want me to do similar work for you, on your terms, you must pay me. The two are not related, but we sensitive artists types are primed to conflate them.

Back to Jess. Her work in this case was not even “performance” per se, but using her talents to help another performer with their vocal work. It was a kind of training. So it’s not even as though she got the chance to spread her creative wings and practice her craft at its fullest for the sheer joy of it. She did contract training work. And yet she still felt bad for accepting her compensation.

It makes me more than a little angry that our culture has been set up this way, so that my brilliantly talented and already overworked wife would feel bad for being paid for her services, done in her extremely scarce spare time. And it happens to all manner of creative professionals, not just performers but writers and designers too. Because it’s “creative,” it doesn’t count as real work.

Get paid. If you also happen to enjoy that work? That’s the icing. And it’s irrelevant. Get paid fairly for your work and treat it like the business transaction it is. Everyone else does.

If We Were Taught to Feel

As I’ve noted several times before, one of my favorite promotions of Shakespeare, and indeed of all rich and substantive art, comes from the panhandling man interviewed in Al Pacino’s documentary Looking for Richard, who says:

Intelligence is hooked with language. And when we speak with no feeling we get nothing out of our society. We should speak like Shakespeare. We should introduce Shakespeare into the academics. Know why? Because then the kids would have feelings. We have no feelings. That’s why it’s easy for us to get a gun and shoot each other. We don’t feel for each other. But if we were taught to feel, we wouldn’t be so violent as a people. . . . [Shakespeare] did more than help us, he instructed us.

I’ve always felt this to be true. I sense that I become a better person through deep exposure to things like Shakespeare. I believe that people who experience a quality production of Shakespeare (or any rich play), or who delve into meaningful works of literature, genuinely become better people for it. That’s why, even with no evidence beyond the anecdotal, I always felt that as small as the effect was, when I was doing great Shakespeare, I was helping make the world a little better.

But it never occurred to me that you could prove it.

Well hold on to your butts. Here’s Pam Belluck in the New York Times:

A striking new study found that reading literary fiction – as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction – leads people to perform better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.

The authors of the study, published by the journal Science, say that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity. They theorize that reading literary fiction helps improve real-life skills like empathy and understanding the beliefs and intentions of others.

Holy crap, right?

One of the reasons I left theatre to go into politics was to have a bigger impact, to do more to make the world better than galumphing around in dopey costumes and speaking in iambic pentameter could.

Now? Well, maybe it’s time to pull those tights back on.

Binge Theatre

Mike Daisey is doing something very different in the world of theatre: a 29-night monologue, which will clock in at 44 hours of performance. Mike says that every night of All the Faces of the Moon will be a stand-alone piece, to which anyone could “walk in cold at any point and have a very satisfying evening,” but that experiencing every night’s monologue will expose a fully realized story.

Now, I’m amazed at the pure chutzpah and daring of this kind of piece, but I’m also very interested in what ideas this might introduce into the art form of theatre performance in the context of the Information Age.

One fascinating part of Mike’s project is the reassuring fact that every night’s performance will be available as an audio podcast free of charge.

Now, that’s just nice to know for folks like me who very much enjoy his work and would hate to miss this kind of groundbreaking work. But upon consideration, the concept begins to resemble, say, a serialized radio play. Or, really, a “season” of a television show.

Well then, you have to think, what about video? On Twitter a few months ago, I asked Mike what to me seemed like an obvious question, but maybe wouldn’t occur to most folks who don’t think much about theatre: What about getting it on Netflix?

Mike had an answer, if slightly coy:

@PaulFidalgo Working on that now. And it will definitely be available for podcast binge listening, daily while it is running.

In a second tweet, he simply says, “We’re working on it. ;)”

So I wasn’t crazy. It’s not clear that Mike is working specifically with Netflix per se, but clearly there is an attempt to allow for “binge watching” of All the Faces of the Moon, just as someone might do with Game of Thrones or Orange is the New Black.

And this all makes me think, well shit, Mike, you might be inventing a new way to do theatre. I don’t have it all worked out in my head, and maybe it’s served best in the monologue/stand-up format, but I think we’re on to something: Theatrical, live-audience performances available on streaming video services, and not just single plays, but also series — long-running “seasons” of plays or one-person shows. There’s something here, and what Mike is doing with podcasts and potential deals with video streaming services may be the first taste. I think that’s exciting.

The Veracity and the Vicissitude of Mike Daisey

Listening tonight to the nearly-unbearable “Retraction” edition of “This American Life” in which Mike Daisey is taken to task for his fabrication of details about his experiences in China, I kept waiting for Daisey to more effectively counter the assertion by Ira Glass that people who come to see a monologue expect that every word of it is true.
Perhaps it’s because Glass and the myriad bloggers and reporters feasting on this story are themselves journalists, and therefore can’t help but expect something like this to be akin to what they do, a retelling of actual events. And perhaps it’s because my roots are in theatre that I feel like Glass is wrong; one may not even think about it consciously while watching a show, but I feel that people on the whole do understand that a show is a show. I know that when I saw Daisey perform his excellent How Theatre Failed America in DC a few years ago, I certainly had no illusions that he was giving a 100% factual account of his life in theatre. Of course he was going to embellish, exaggerate, and invent. Why? Because he was spinning a tale, based on facts but not relying on them, that told a larger truth.

I understand that at least as far as “This American Life” and, perhaps even more damning, his op-ed in the New York Times are concerned, it’s the packaging of his story that matters. It does indeed sound as though Daisey offered his play as an entirely factual retelling and therefore worthy of being used as such on the show (and that his manufactured experiences could be written as though they were actual reportage for his New York Times piece). There’s no excusing the presentation of fiction as fact to news outlets.

But I have to wonder at “This American Life” for even wishing to do so with Daisey’s play. If they wanted to use his piece as a springboard, why not simply excerpt some pieces of a performance, make clear that what we’re hearing is a story told by an actor in a play, and then delve deeper into the very real, no less serious issue at hand? Why even decide to hand essentially an entire episode over to what they know is a piece of theatre? Glass says not killing the show after being thwarted in their attempts to contact Daisey’s translator was their big mistake. I think their big mistake was in thinking that a play might possibly be, not just the inspiration, but the substance of one of their reports. I find it hard to believe, but I am forced to believe, that Glass and company are as naive as he claims they are when it comes to credulousness about the veracity of performance art.

I don’t know what Mike Daisey was thinking. He’s such a brilliant writer and performer, and I think it would be a genuine, substantive loss to the culture if we were to lose what he does because of this — particularly since his larger motive was so crucial, so real. I can only presume that the idea of getting his show on “This American Life” and of getting to be treated with a kind of reverence by the media became con-fused with that larger motive. He is an actor, after all, and we are nothing if not attention whores of the worst kind. (Hey! Go download my music!!!!) I wish so badly that he had handled this all so differently. All he had to say to Glass, to the media, to his audience, in any subtle form he wished, that his play is just that, a play, but that it is based on many true events and reports. Done.

I also wish that when Ira Glass pressed him as to whether it was acceptable for his play to be in part constructed of fictions that he had said, proudly, that the art of storytelling has a different goal than journalism, and that his job is to get his audience to think and to feel something. Daisey does that extremely well, and the things he wants us to care about remain worth caring about.

Side note: I am more than a little sickened by many of the tech bloggers and journalists whose work I usually think extremely highly of, but are now dancing on Daisey’s reputation’s grave, almost delighted that Daisey is facing this new firestorm. This seems to me to be borne out of nothing other than their own desire to not have to feel anything about the source of the gadgets off of which they base their careers. Now they’re off the hook, so they believe, and they have someone to put in the stockades for his heresy. It’s deeply disappointing.