Peter Craw­ley won­ders if there is a for­mula for em­pa­thy

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - OPINION -

Pic­ture this. A man spends a long bus jour­ney groan­ing over a very full blad­der. The bus fi­nally pulls into a sta­tion for a brief stop and the guy rushes out, leav­ing his bag on board. But there’s a prob­lem: all the toi­lets are closed. He runs around, one mus­cle-twitch away from hu­mil­i­a­tion, look­ing for some­one to open them. Then, out of the cor­ner of his eye, he sees the bus pulling away, with his pos­ses­sions. It’s a dilemma wor­thy (well, al­most) of Ham­let: to pee or not to pee?

This is a sce­nario de­vised by two char­ac­ters in a re­cent ver­sion of Un­cle Vanya, by the Pol­ish writer Pawel Demirski, who worry that no­body can em­pathise with the in­ef­fec­tual sad sack at the cen­tre of the play. If this bus vs blad­der vi­gnette of re­lat­able mis­ery could be his in­tro­duc­tion, they think, then maybe the au­di­ence will give a damn about what hap­pens next.

“That’s the rule,” says Sonya: “Get to like the pro­tag­o­nist, so that later we can care about his fate on stage and not be bored – much.”

They may be fret­ting too much. Vanya has been un­lucky in love for more than a century, yet people still in­vest in the con­se­quence: There but for the grace of Chekhov go us. But char­ac­ters won’t com­mand em­pa­thy by sim­ply be­ing pa­thetic. “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of lit­tle Nell with­out laugh­ing,” said Os­car Wilde, and there’s al­ways been a fine line – or some­times a banana skin – be­tween pathos and bathos.

These thoughts came gal­lop­ing to mind while watch­ing War Horse, whose an­i­mal cast of im­pres­sive pup­pets seem to live and breathe, arous­ing com­pas­sion, while their much thin­ner hu­man coun­ter­parts are gunned down with barely a blink of sym­pa­thy. It’s not just the artistry that makes Joey be­liev­able, but the pup­pet’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity, while our imag­i­na­tion fills in the blanks. How can flesh-and-blood ac­tors ever hope to com­pete?

That doesn’t quite ex­plain how vil­lains work, from Richard III to House of Card’s Frank Underwood to the child psy­chotic in Genevieve Hulme-Bea­man’s Pondling, now on in Smock Al­ley. So­ci­ety de­pends on re­pu­di­at­ing these mur­der­ous anti-he­roes; in­stead, they earn our sneaky ad­mi­ra­tion. Is it be­cause they live out our dark de­sires or be­cause they ad­dress us di­rectly, like con­spir­a­tors in their schemes?

Even Mollser, whose main pur­pose in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars is to die trag­i­cally, re­quired an imag­i­na­tive makeover to en­dear her to school au­di­ences in the Abbey’s re­cent Me, Mollser. Writer Ali White wisely gave the char­ac­ter a his­tory, a sex­u­al­ity and, crit­i­cally, a mo­ment out of the house – in short, a per­son­al­ity . Mak­ing her re­lat­able helped to bring home the in­jus­tice of her short life.

It’s a tricky busi­ness: one of the rea­sons we go to the theatre is to iden­tify with oth­ers, and one rea­son a play can fail is if we don’t. If there was a for­mula for au­to­matic em­pa­thy, you might ex­pect to see a del­uge of plays where an­i­mal pup­pets deliver so­lil­o­quies about em­bar­rass­ing bod­ily func­tions.

It doesn’t sound promis­ing but, hey, at least it’s a pain you can feel.

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