Sunday, April 17, 2011

At play in the land of wrongness

There's a terrific book recently out by Kathryn Schulz, titled Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. Schulz doesn’t argue in favor of error, exactly, but she makes a persuasive case that we urgently need to acknowledge and make peace with our bottomless capacity to be wrong. She describes the myriad ways that our perfectly natural fear of mistakes (and the psychological upheaval that mistakes sometimes entail) can stunt our growth and stifle our noblest impulses. Our terror of error has an especially corrosive effect on our ability to feel compassion: it compels us to reject, sometimes violently, any perspective that challenges our own. Only a humble appreciation for our limitations (of apprehension, of intellect, of moral standing) can restore a healthy suppleness to our lives and interactions.

Schulz also notes that, while the gap between the world as it is and the world as we perceive it can sometimes gape terrifyingly wide, without it we would lose a vital element in human experience: Art lives there, and only there. As she charmingly puts it, “Art is an invitation to enjoy ourselves in the land of wrongness.”

The theatre seems an especially inviting place for the exercise of humility and compassion. Sitting more or less safely in the audience, we can vicariously rehearse a thousand ways of being horribly, catastrophically wrong. In their very structure, plays insist on a multiplicity of perspective, and the best of them never come to rest in any definitive point of view. Moment to moment, they encourage us to embrace one truth, then another, to inhabit competing theories about our place and purpose in the world and to live out their repercussions for an intensely distilled hour or three. Some see this as a means to teach the avoidance of error: here’s what not to do. I see it as a means of insisting: we err, we have erred, we will err again.

I am drawn as a writer to the murky territory where good intentions collide with reality, where common passions steamroller “common” sense. I favor smart characters who do stupid things for excellent reasons. Problems of scale fascinate me especially: in a world that technology has virtually collapsed, we live at once too close and too far from each other. The temptation to abstract other people’s suffering seems dangerously high, so that compassion itself sometimes becomes a blunt instrument, and the law of unintended consequences prevails.

Errors of scale and distance lie at the heart of Trailing Colors. The play is set in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and its characters face the challenge of responding compassionately and responsibly to unfathomable horror. Victims and would-be saviors, they struggle to reinvent their sense of humanity in terms that are not fatally cynical; paradoxically and sometimes disastrously, they depend on each other for whatever they can salvage of their own strength.

Many of our dominant modes of knowing – scientific, religious, political – subsume the specific in the general and the personal in the universal. Narrative may gesture in the same direction, but it harnesses its power from a stubborn devotion to the indelible particulars of individual lives. I think the dramatic form, with its fractious multivocality and its reliance on the unruly imaginations of strangers gathered briefly together for a performance that can never be repeated, insists most forcefully on the importance of intimacy, immediacy, and interdependence in our shared search for meaning.

We hope this production will be a catalyst to varied individual explorations and to dialogue among members of the larger community. We will also be using it as a springboard to raise funds for four organizations working on the ground to mitigate the suffering that the play addresses: Partners in Health Rwanda, MSF/Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and the Elephant Sanctuary. The ticket proceeds from every Thursday and Saturday night performance will go to one of these groups. From this great distance, we cannot presume to teach anyone anything definitive about Rwanda's bitter history or its present complications, but I hope we can give some tenacious moral questions their embodied, human (and animal) weight.