“I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play/Have been struck so by the cunning of the scene that present/ They have proclaimed their malefactions.” In this celebrated passage, Hamlet not only suggests the method will use to expose the guilt of Claudius. He also lays the foundation for his poetics of the drama. For just as Shakespeare rewrote on old Hamlet play for tragic purposes, so his protagonist proceeds to adapt an old play called The Murder of Gonzago for moral purposes, adding “some dozen or sixteen lines” about his mother’s adulterous marriage. The revision may be designed to chastise Gertrude, but Hamlet’s literary objective in selecting this material is to expose the criminal conduct of his uncle—“they play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”
The belief that the critical function of drama is to arouse the remorse of “guilty creatures”—the use of the theatrical apparatus as a means of identifying and condemning offenses—was probably more congenial to the average Hamlet, who was an ethical Platonist, than to the more objective Aristotelian artist who conceived him. Nevertheless, this belief has been at the heart of Western theatre ever since the Middle Ages. It has also been at the heart of the very Christian tradition that originated this theatre in the form of mystery cycles and morality plays, though it cannot be explained away as a purely religious conviction. Indeed, the Theatre of Guilt has, if anything, grown more popular under secular liberalism. In fact, it probably reached its culmination in Realism—which, from the 19th century to the present day, has built its drama on a foundation of accusation, recrimination and atonement.
Like Hamlet, Realist playwrights generally look for an illicit secret buried inside a character or an action, first to be exhumed, then expiated and punished. Since this is also a process of police departments and legal systems, the Theatre of Guilt often reproduces the atmosphere of the precinct or the courtroom, complete with investigations, arraignment, indictments and sentencing. Lacking access to the constabulary or the judiciary for redressing wrongs, the hero must undertake the investigation and dispense justice by himself, just as Hamlet, after his initial procrastination, takes things into his own hands and executes the guilty culprit-king. Hamlet’s quasi-patricide resembles that of the Greek matricide, Orestes, who kills his mother after Clytemnestra has helped to murder his father, Agamemnon. But implicit in the last play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, The Eumenides, is the hope that society, through such newly created legal structures as the Court of the Areopagus, will relieve the tragic hero of his responsibilities for blood vengeance, putting an end to retributive remedies (and possibly tragedy) for all time by establishing impartial formal agencies to resolve disputes.
Despite the presence of a sophisticated judicial system in modern times, not to mention increasing access to litigation by plaintiffs, Western Realist drama has still continued to center on guilt, expiation and punishment through the intervention of a central dramatic character. The classic play in this genre, and the presumed model for so many later works of the kind, is Ibsen’s Ghosts. Ibsen’s protagonist, Mrs. Alving—like her prototype in Greek drama, Sophocles’ Oedipus—becomes aware that something is poisoning the atmosphere of her ancestral house. The Alving inheritance is built on lies, and now her own son is afflicted with a disease he contracted from his profligate father. Bit by bit, she exhumes the guilty secret—only to discover, again like Oedipus, that the culprit is herself. By failing to bring joy into her husband’s life, by obeying dead, outmoded conventions of morality, she started inexorable engines in motion that eventually destroy her family line.
Note, however, that, in Ibsen, as in Sophocles, the same person plays the role of investigator and malefactor. It is as if Hercule Poirot, after being hired to identify a murderer, discovered, following exhaustive investigation, that he himself was the unwitting culprit. Or if Perry Mason, in his role as defense attorney, were to learn that his client was indeed innocent because Mason himself had unknowingly committed the crime. The sin both of Oedipus and Mrs. Alving is not pride—or in Oedipus’s case even patricide and incest. It is ignorance. The play may be a thing to catch the conscience of a suspect, but the conscience belongs to the questing protagonist.
This pattern conforms to Yeats’s definition of poetry as proceeding from our quarrel with ourselves—as opposed to rhetoric which results from our quarrel with others. Many of Ibsen’s plays, particularly his more doctrinaire early dramas, are more rhetorical than poetical both in their use of language and in their indictments of the social world and the pompous philistines who run it. But if Ibsen always claimed to be “more of a poet and less a social philosopher than is commonly believed,” his conviction was based on a belief, as he wrote in another context and realized in his best plays, that “to write poetry means to pass judgment on oneself.” It was not, in short, the artist’s function to chastise others without exploring the sins in his own soul.
This is hardly to say that Ibsen expected us to spend our lives in guilt and remorse. In The Master Builder, Hilda Wangel exhorts Solness to develop a “Viking spirit,” to free himself from a sickly conscience by rising above traditional Christian concepts of good and evil, right and wrong. Strindberg also subscrbed to the transvaluation of moral values announced by his favorite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, as a method of escaping the limitations of Christian-Liberal-Socialist victimology and creating a superior breed of tragic hero, worthy of the Greek myths. So did Bernard Shaw, who believed throughout his life that the Life Force was helping to breed the Superman, “omnipotent, omniscient, infallible, and withal completely, unilludedly self-conscious: in short, a God.” Even Chekhov frequently urged his weakly characters, most of whom identified themselves with Hamlet in their remorsefulness, nervousness and vacillation, to refrain from self-flagellation and “get some iron in your blood.”
This perspective suggests not only poetic but heroic dimension for the theatre. It proposes a protagonist who takes his fate in his own hands, who is capable of braving the furies in his own soul, who acts on the basis of self-knowledge and who is responsible for those actions: Ibsen’s Brand, Solness and Rubek; Strindberg’s Jean, Father and Stranger; Shaw’s John Tanner, Caesar and Saint Joan. But compare some of the later playwrights assumed to be writing in the same tradition, particularly in the United States. Their characters are usually victims rather than heroes. They cast blame on others without engaging the self. They indict not the protagonists but their oppressors. They assume that the prime function of theatre is to arouse the spectator’s guilt. Their style, in short, is more rhetorical than poetical.
In fact, in its American manifestations the Theatre of Guilt has tended to be not just rhetorical but even shrill and self-righteous. Beginning in the ’30s, this country experienced a kind of radical political play more akin to melodrama than tragedy, in that the forces of good were invariably associated with poverty and the forces of evil with wealth, the objective being “a life which wouldn’t be printed on dollar bills” (Odets’s Awake and Sing!). In the ’40s, the availability of Nazism as the embodiment of absolute evil encouraged an extension of this melodramatic formula in the plays of Lillian Hellman, Robert Sherwood and others, while William Saroyan, in The Time of Your Life, imagined a totally innocent and virtuous world marred only by a single evil character named Blick whose murder redeems the entire human race.
After World War II, admittedly, American drama grew considerably more sophisticated under the influence of more mature playwrights. But even our most poetic dramatist. Tennessee Williams, was unable to imagine a universe without victims at the center, usually the casualties of an unfeeling, brutal, sexually repressed society. As for Arthur Miller, he brought the Theatre of Guilt to a new level of intensity, combining the social-political concerns of the ’30s with the deeper psychological motifs of his own time, in a series of works that were often compared to Ibsen. Although they do bear some resemblance to such polemical Ibsen plays as Pillars of Society and An Enemy of the People (which Miller adapted), most of his writings—rather than being about liberation through self-discovery, as in mature Ibsen plays—center on guilt and expiation, following a climactic confrontation that leads to catastrophe.
This confrontation usually involves the culprit’s son, who brings the plot from a simmer to a boil: a high-school Hamlet catching the conscience of a business-class King. The typical Miller drama, in fact, has a code that might be deciphered thus: The son exposes the father’s guilt and shows him the way to moral action, sometimes inadvertently to suicide. This is most obvious in All My Sons, but it also informs Miller’s best-known play—often called the finest tragedy of modern times—Death of a Salesman. At the heart of this play, whatever its social implications, is the guilt of an errant husband. Coming to visit his father in Boston one day, Biff Loman discovers that Willy has a woman in his room.
Clearly, Miller is willing to risk a great deal of credibility in order to establish a moral showdown between father and son. Consider how much of the plot, theme and character development hinge on this climactic hotel-room encounter. Death of a Salesman purports to be about false American values of success. (Biff is another young man who won’t accept a life “printed on dollar bills.”) But underneath the sociological surface lies the real drama—a family drama of guilt and blame. The source of Biff’s hero worship, the model for his own life and behavior, has been discovered in Boston cheating on Mom.
If Willy has been cheating on Mom, however, someone has been cheating on Willy. Willy may be guilty of adultery, but Howard, his boss, is guilty of callously sacking an aging employee who has outlived his usefulness, throwing him away “like an old shoe.” Nor is Howard the only guilty culprit. Some other entity is involved—a large amorphous entity without a name. As Linda Loman tells us in a famous subject-less sentence, “Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a man.” The passive voice is deliberate. Miller is unwilling, in 1948, to make his characters face the audience, as playwrights did in the ’30s, and accuse paying customers of failing to provide enough sympathy or substance for the jobless and unemployed. Still, the implication is there, and Linda Loman’s exhortation is a clear call to the conscience of society as represented by the wealthy middle-class audience.
In later plays, The Crucible for example, Miller continues his preoccupation with guilt in society and guilt in the family. John Proctor, like Willy Loman, has cheated on his wife and must be punished for it. But more important than the personal adultery is the social parallel: The witch hunts initiated in Salem, Mass., during the time of the Puritans are a metaphor for the persecution of Communists and Communist sympathizers initiated in Washington, D.C., during the time of McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. The play represents an effort, extremely courageous at the time in that it later exposed Miller to congressional retaliation, to indict contemporary Red-baiters and shame a passive nation into recognizing its own guilty compliance.
Although he was more often likened to O’Neill, David Rabe first came to prominence as a disciple of Miller. And although his powerful recent work, particularly Hurlyburly and Those the River Keeps, has led him in entirely different directions, his earlier Vietnam plays would seem to be orthodox contributions to the Theatre of Guilt. Following the end of the Vietnam War, Rabe managed to escape the sterile cycle of guilt and atonement, writing works that derive their strength from a firmer understanding of the self. In this he was joined by a significant number of dramatists—among them David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Ronald Ribman, George c. Wolfe, Craig Lucas, Howard Korder, Jon Robin Baitz, Christipher Durang, and others—who, whether using realistic or satirical or expressionist devices, manage to complicate the melodrama of accuser and accused. Some of these are among Amerca’s finest playwrights, but most of them write from the fringe: The Theatre of Guilt continues to be our dominant dramatic form after the war. To be sure, it undergoes a shift in focus if not in approach as our national issues change from imperialism against other nations to such domestic problems as racism, sexism, homophobia and indifference to the disabled, including those suffering from AIDS. But the tone, form and format of these drama remain substantially consistent with the tradition.
African-American theatre had always displayed an activist bent, particularly in the plays of Ed Bullins and LeRoi Jones (known today as Amiri Baraka). With the arrival of the prolific August Wilson, and his cycle of plays examining racism through the American decades, this tendency is more subtly embodied within a naturalistic framework, but the intent is clear enough: to provide black and white audience alike with a documented history of oppression, whether in the music industry (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) or in baseball (Fences) or on chain gangs (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) or in the expropriation of slave property (The Piano Lesson) or in urban ghettos (Two Trains Running).
Like Rabe, Wilson is often compared to O’Neill, though his debt to Arthur Miller is much more pronounced. (Fences is virtually a rewrite of All My Sons.) He is like O’Neill only in the size of his ambitions. O’Neill was a tragic writer because of his capacity—crude in such early works as Mourning Becomes Electra, sublime in the later plays culminating in Long Day’s Journey Into Night—to probe the guilt and lacerate the conscience of the surrogate-hero. Wilson remains entirely fixed on the sins of the white oppressor in his treatment of black victims. He has yet to create a character who reaches understanding of the self as a consequence of self-motivated actions.
This is equally true of Miller’s Willy Loman, who commits suicide without ever learning the source of his anguish, and it is true of most of the characters in the Theatre of Guilt. They preserve their own virtue through being represented as innocent victims of others, generally from the wealthy white masculine ruling class. Which aspect of this class is guilty depends on the political perspective of the author. Feminist theatre invariably sniffs out villainy in the male society; homosexual theatre finds it among homophobic heterosexuals; racial theatre indicts the entire white world. (David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly does all three.) And the rash of sickness and disability plays, beginning with Michael Christofer’s The Shadow Box (cancer), extending through Children of a Lesser God (hearing impairment), right up to Marvin’s Room (leukemia, strokes, mental illness and damaged vertebrae), not to mention the current anthology of AIDS-related dramas (As Is, The Normal Heart, Eastern Standard, Falsettoland, Lips Together Teeth Apart, The Raft of the Medusa), treat illness not as a metaphor so much as an opportunity to score the indifference and insensitivity of the audiences who watch them.
I once described this genre as “plays you’re not allowed to hate” because they feature such inspirational themes and morally elevated characters: “In the past, this used to be a political drama—people resisting a corrupt politica system or fighting for the Loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War. More recently, it has almost exclusively featured ethnic and sexual minority groups, thus increasing the quota of moral extortion. To fail to respond to plays about blacks or women or homosexuals, for example, is to stand accused of racism, sexism, homophobia or getting up on the wrong side of the bed…Meanwhile, the theatre becomes an agency for consciousness-raising, with audiences being tutored and entertained for considerably less money than a modest contribution to an effective rehabilitation program.”
My tone is flip, not because I find the causes unsympathetic—far from it—but because I do not believe the theatre to be an effective place for social reform. It may be even less appropriate for moral blackmail. Activist plays will always be with us, and the theatre should be able to accommodate every variety of expression. But this is different from confusing quality with good intentions or the emanations of talent with the effusions of a warm heart. For although major artists can sometimes write powerfully from such motives, they are more often incentives of second-rate plays and minor playwrights. Buying a ticket to such works is usually like putting a mall contribution in the church collection plate and ignoring the needs of the neighborhood. One is reminded of audiences at a performance of Nicholas Nickleby, having been moved to tears by the sight of Nicholas holding a helpless waif in his arms, gingerly wending their way past the homeless beggars between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.
Theatre people have always had a soft spot for causes–rarely the cause of theatre. Smarting over charges that their work lacks social dimension, American playwrights often try to display their conscience by preaching liberal sermons to already converted parishioners. American star-actors, ashamed of a profession that lacks any serious respect in our culture, would often prefer to be seen at benefits than on a stage. (Award ceremonies often seem like benefits, with the winner making speeches on behalf of a pressing cause or representing some oppressed group.) We have moments of silence, days without art, addresses from the stage, demonstrations, petitions and marches. What we don’t often have in our mainstream drama is a distinguished dramatic expression.
And one of the reasons we don’t often have it, in my opinion, is because we are losing a sense of distinction between our function as theatre artists and our function as political witnesses. Those who feel strongly about such issues can help eradicate social evils by participating in the political process, by helping to elect people in a position to reform society, by voting, lobbying, proselytizing, agitating, contributing generously. But as theatre artists, their obligation is to penetrate the puzzles of the human heart: to honor complexity, expose secrets, invade dreams, seek out the unknown. It seems to me important to disclose not the symptoms but the causes responsible for our condition, not the results but the sources of errant and aberrant human behavior, including our own. We must learn, in Nietzsche’s words, to be tragic human beings instead of social victims, creatures of mystery rather than vessels for sociological inquiry. And that means exploring what Cocteau called le gloire obscure, both the criminal and heroic elements of the human heart. For the play’s the thing not just to catch the conscience of the king, or to accuse guilty people sitting in the audience. It is an occasion to expose the obscure elements, the hidden unpredictable qualities shared by every human soul. The rhetorical indignation characterizing the Theatre of Guilt results from a failure to recognize that the accusing finger may not always belong to a blameless hand.
Robert Brustein is theatre critic for The New Republic, the author, most recently, of Reimagining American Theatre, and artistic director of American Repertory Theatre.
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