Growing up in the socialist Yugoslavia I read and heard a lot about self-censorship: The writers just didn’t want to go where the whip of the government was waiting. Later on, I’ve noticed that most of this self-censorship is unconscious. The idea is killed or changed even before it reaches the consciousness – this is the way the brain cares for us: it leads us out of the danger before we even know it; leaving us safe and with our self-respect intact.
Last year I finished my stage play Safe about a man in the world of total surveillance, internet of things and safe machines. He tries to drive his car over the cliff to kill himself. The car is smart (of course) and doesn’t obey him, just notifies the authorities. He finds himself in the hamster wheel of therapeutic bureaucracy and in the end (spoiler!) he finds a way to do want he wanted at the beginning.
After sending the play out, talking with directors and dramaturgs, it came to this: audience doesn’t want downbeat endings. They pay for the optimism. (Imagine where has well known East European gloom come to!). You set up a problem we will soon be facing, but please, find an upbeat ending, maybe on a personal level?
I can’t. Even Orwell couldn’t – his Nineteen Eighty-Four has no happy ending.
When system gets totalitarian, there is not much we can do on a personal level. I lost my friends in Serbia when Slobodan Milošević got going. Most of them emigrated abroad while those who stayed cut themselves from the world – for instance, becoming Buddhist priests and meditating for days.
Under total surveillance, our hero sets the world record in continuous meditation – is this upbeat enough?
(BTW, every totalitarian system wants you to retreat to your personal level.)
I remembered this after reading stage play Lampedusa by Anders Lustgarten. It starts with poetic description of the sea but it soon becomes a pamphlet, a deluge of information we’d rather not hear about the immigrants coming to the shores of Italy and the rest of the Europe, their suffering, pain and too many deaths. This part is told by Stefano, while Denise is roaming through aftermath of consumer society, trying to get money from people way over in debt.
The world really is a bleak place.
What can we do about it?
And Now for Something Completely Different: The play suddenly moves to the personal level (spoilers!): Stefano and Denise befriend an immigrant, he even saves immigrant’s wife from drowning, and there is a wedding, while Denise quits her hated job and move in with the immigrant single mother. Happy end.
We can leave theatre satisfied. Fear gripped out hearts when we heard the numbers of people coming to our shores and realized how enormous the problem is, but we cried out of pity when Stefano and Denise got new friends. They’re out Jesuses, our saviors.
This is the definition of catharsis: “purification and purgation of emotions—especially pity and fear”. I got both and it worked on me – why was I feeling like having a sentimentarsis instead of catharsis?
I’m asking myself: is it better to write a totally escapist musical, for instance, or to write about hard problem not having an answer for it? If art should hold the mirror to the world, isn’t it writer’s task only setting up the mirror? Isn’t this enough? Isn’t taking lovely rabbit out of the hat afterwards so the audience cheers throws a cover over the mirror?
And as a writer, interested in creative process: was the switch to sentimental written even in the first version, or changed or added later, after suggestions from business side of theatres? If the writer did it himself immediately, which part of the brain did it? Reason or unconscious realizing “this won’t sell” and moved the idea towards something commercially acceptable? And in the end, what’s the difference between the whip of government and the paying audience?