Contemporary societies tend to associate the arts with some form of intellectually-sanctioned escapism – a ticket into a world devoid of the tedious and painfully ever-present reminders of the mundane struggles of life.
Often, a fresh breeze of carelessness is exactly what we need; at other times, diving into our situations, feelings, beliefs, can be the ideal way to process, and perhaps even understand our contexts, struggles, and worries.
I’ve noticed, in recent contemplations, that it seems to be an intrinsic property of the dramatic arts to lend themselves to the exploration of confinement. These arts are a medium restricted (traditionally at least) to a limited stage space, framed almost, in the same way our lives have been lately limited and framed by the walls of our homes, the nearest supermarket, the pharmacy. While the experience of being completely hemmed in has been new to us, it certainly is nothing new in the realm of dramatic writing.
For those of us who have found ourselves trapped with our parents, perhaps reading, or finding an online production of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” has hit close to home. Although this Pulitzer Prize-winning piece might not run exactly parallel to our experience of quarantine specifically, nevertheless, the main character’s struggle and conflict with his parents and family in general might be something you find intriguing.
Athol Fugard’s “A Place with the Pigs” is another play with inescapable contemporary parallels. It is based on a true story of a man who, after deserting the Soviet army during WWII, was so afraid of being found, and so traumatised by the events he witnessed, that he stayed hidden in a pigsty for 41 years.
Sartre’s “No Exit” is another play I don't want to fail to mention. A story of three damned souls trapped together with no escape, they act as mouthpieces for Sartre’s existentialist beliefs. The verdict on humanity, according to Sartre, is that we are “condemned to be free” – our complete free will and agency are exactly what sparks all forms of human suffering, anguish, and abandonment. You might recognise the famous quotation from this play: “Hell is other people”.
Perhaps, after reading or otherwise experiencing this text, you might agree. Or, maybe, you’ll draw from your own confinement and raise a strong counterargument to Sartre.
Across these plays, I find the diverse reasons for entrapment particularly intriguing. Sartre’s lively characters are the only ones trapped by factors external to themselves. The protagonist of “Buried Child” feels bound by obligation, and Fugard’s character is imprisoned by fear. Sartre’s lively scenario is the only one where the situation is out of the characters' hands completely.
So, is isolation, and the permanence of a confined, limited space something inherently human? Is it a phenomenon of self-protection? I feel quite confident that most if not all of us were frustrated, sometimes even enraged, by the situation in which we found ourselves. We’ve all had a moment of staring at the wall, racking our brains to figure out what we did to deserve this endless entrapment. (Personally, I came up with many reasons, but that is another conversation.)
Perhaps, as humans, we subconsciously seek isolation and separation from the world in moments of cognitive or emotional trauma or weakness. After all, surely there is a better solution to fear than living with pigs for 40 years? The similarity between this behaviour and the ostrich’s oft-mocked tendency to stick their head into the ground is hard to ignore.
If you share my natural penchant for lengthy contemplative introspection, or are willing to dip your toes into cold water for a change, maybe this has sparked inspiration to dig a little deeper into your experience of the past few months. Maybe you can now realise and identify the innate tendency to lock ourselves in, to remove ourselves.
Dramatic literature, and productions of plays themselves, are an excellent way in. Facing characters – figments of some distant playwright’s imagination – seem easier to access, to critique. Abstract, yet concretely human, portrayed by flesh, flaws, and wrinkles right in front of you – not by a swindling collection of letters and signs.
I hope that, like me, you will be able to use the bountiful opportunities that the Arts, in general, and plays and their characters, in particular, give us, and use them to help you begin to break down the limits and frames of your life, and strive towards a limitless existence.