Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Thespian and the A-hole

Don't we all know the feeling?

To paraphrase a childhood hero of mine, it's a dangerous thing going out your door.  A-holes seem to be everywhere, cutting you off in traffic, mowing their lawn at 7am on a Saturday, and generally making life unpleasant for everyone around them.  Mo Rocca explored the A-hole in his segment on this morning's CBS Sunday Morning, and it appears that antisocial behavior is on the rise.

We should begin with some semantics, as almost everyone has used the word A-hole with gusto at one time or another but lack a working definition.  Much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (1958-1981) on pornography, we know it when we see it.  But with a little bit of thought, almost everyone can develop a working definition.  According to  the American Heritage Dictionary, an A-hole is either the literal, anatomical opening, the worst part of a place, or a stupid, mean or contemptible person.  Historically, this epithet was popularized by American GI's in the Second World War, who often used it to refer to officers that were particularly arrogant or unpleasant (George Patton may be held up as the Platonic Eidos of the A-hole).  It would replace milder epithets in the English language like cad or heel, particularly in American English.  One of the best working definitions of A-hole comes from linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, who defines them as "Somebody who walks around saying, 'Do you know who I am?' but doesn't seem to know themselves."

I find Dr. Nunberg's definition particularly compelling (which is understandable, he did write the book on the subject, after all), but feel the need to tweak it just slightly.  They ask "Do you know who I am?" but do not seem to grasp their place in the world around them.  Dr. Tom F. Driver, in his keynote remarks to the 2012 SETC Theatre Symposium, asserted that a number of our problems in the world today are symptoms of the fact that though our society fetishizes liberty and individualism, modern living conditions force us into closer and closer proximity to one another.  I find, in essence, that the quintessential A-hole does not grasp how crowded and unpleasant this room may be for everybody.  From the rise of greed is good capitalism (Gordon Gecko and Ayn Rand are Light years from De Tocqueville's Self-Interest Properly Understood) to the nasty and unpleasant place the internet can often be, it seems the whole thing might just be a lack of empathy.  A crowd can be a lonely place, after all.

The internet, with its insulation from direct contact, is a particularly strong example of what heights the A-hole can rise to.  This article on, for example, shows reactions to the reelection of President Obama.  The use of language that made my skin crawl just typing it into google to try and find the site seems common and almost casual for these individuals.  Though it is one of the marks of web 2.0 that anonymity is on the decline, it is still there and giving license to terrible behavior.  Nunberg pointed out in his interview with Mo Rocca that before the internet, if you wanted to criticize things anonymously in a public forum, all you really had was the walls of public restrooms (which seems the perfect venue for an A-hole).  But the world today has become a very large public restroom.

However, I would submit that there are no A-holes at a really good play.  If there are, they are congenital cases and that is why we have house managers (though there are times I would like to arm mine with a taser).  But if the modern rash of A-holes comes down, at most basic, to a lack of empathy, to a narcissitic isolation, then really good theatre is the perfect remedy.  When everything falls into place, and the audience is identifying with the characters onstage, the sense of isolation drops.  Even in plays or events which do not hinge on the emotional identification of contemporary Realism (Brecht, Boal, performance art), effective execution still creates a powerful shared experience among the observers and/or participants.  Though they may sit in the dark, come from separate places and experiences, there's little anonymity in the face to face contact and sharing that comes with the theatre experience.

It is incumbent on the theatrical artist to always remember the audience in this case.  It isn't a matter of pandering, but instead of opening up the windows and doors to invite them in.  I found myself thinking recently of an exercise conducted by physical theatre and clowning director Christopher Bayes which, for lack of a better name, is called "Hey guys, lookee."  It embodies the beginning of theatre as it gets one person in front of many and encourages them to share.  Not self-centered narcissism, but a fervent, almost childlike, desire to share oneself.  Almost an "Anti A-hole remedy."

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