Reflections on Springer, reality TV, tragedy and theatre
By Gaëtan L. Charlebois
I am going to be attending and reviewing Dan Bingham's play, Adopt This!, later this week. Bingham's piece played the Fringe here, made a lot of noise (we gave him five Charpies out of five - our rating system) and he decided to revive it. It is the story of living as an adopted child and then meeting the biologicals. In it, I've been told, he reveals his heart.
But he does it with humour.
...melodrama is teary, tragedy smacks your funnybone before smacking you in the face.
I have seen a lot of confessionals in the theatre - cringifying exposures of private lives. Gay men on their sexual adventures; women on their abortions; ex-alcoholics, drug addicts, shoplifters, whores, hustlers - sad stories told weepily.
I read a great quote this week: melodrama is busy, tragedy is not. I would paraphrase: melodrama is teary, tragedy smacks your funnybone before smacking you in the face. Mike Birbiglia's solo, Sleepwalk With Me, is terrific (I review the recording here). He discovered he had a sleep disorder that was actually dangerous. At the same time he was coming to terms with his father's coldness. The two stories collide in hilarious ways and the conclusion is profoundly moving.
...instead of wringing tears, this army of sluts looking to find out which mullet-head is their baby-daddy are held up for mockery.
I don't know where this trend in solos cum confessionals came from, but I have noticed that the best are also funny. And that got me thinking about the Springer Effect. Jerry Springer presents us people whose lives are truly tragic. But instead of wringing tears, this army of sluts looking to find out which mullet-head is their baby-daddy are held up for mockery. And we laugh our asses off. Why? Because the sluts and mullet-heads are so obviously camera-chasers we want to see a comeuppance. It's not tragic, it's bad melodrama. (Jerry Springer, The Opera, does a fine job of examining the strange triangle of tragedy/celebrity/comedy.)
I honestly believe that the best confessionals have learned from Springer and, also, from documentary and reality television. The most moving docs and reality TV are quiet and haunting because we see people with senses of humour living, surviving or perishing. I just watched a heart-breaking doc about a Swiss woman through the process of assisted suicide. The woman, to her last moments, kept her sense of humour if only to help the people around her let go. It reminded me of the Margaret Edson's Wit, or, earlier, Arthur Kopit's Wings - both which tell of strong women dealing with physical deterioration. Both characters have a vivid, mordant sense of humour.
Theatre is reality distilled and part of the distillation process - the thing that makes this distillation palatable - is humour.
Again...that is the key. Theatre is not reality. Theatre is reality distilled and part of the distillation process - the thing that makes this distillation palatable - is humour.
The worst theatre - and we've all seen it - is the kind that takes itself too seriously. The weepies. But all around us there are tragic tales - even tragedies (not the same thing) - which need to be shared (9-11, The Montreal Massacre) but must be approached not so much with sensitivity but with humour.
A young woman is cold-bloodedly murdered. That is tragic. If, however, the young woman is vivacious, and makes her friends (and the audience) laugh and is brave enough to bash her way into the male-dominated world of engineering when she is cold-bloodedly murdered...
That is tragedy.