The Audience Connection: A Philosophical Essay by Sean Fisk

Tragedy and ComedyMy son, Sean Fisk, is completing his degree in theater at Southern Oregon University, the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He recently posted the below essay to his Facebook page, and I asked if I could share it with my blog readers. Yes, there is a measure of motherly pride in such an articulate and deep understanding, but that’s not actually why I wanted to.

Creatives of every type and at every level are attempting to tap into the human psyche to make that connection which turns the audience from passive listeners to active participants. What Sean describes below is a dissection of two plays based on their ability to make that connection. He goes on to look at the different impacts offered by intense drama versus what’s traditionally considered horror.

Whether you are one of the aforementioned creatives, or just someone who is curious about how creatives make the transition between entertaining you and sucking you in, I think this offers some interesting, and articulate, insights. It’s a bit long, but worth the read. Enjoy.

The Audience Connection: A Philosophical Essay by Sean Fisk

Having completed my Long Day’s Journey, I stumble Into the Night.

Warning: I get philosophical ahead. Probably minor spoilers to be had for both Long Day’s Journey Into Night (LDJIN) and Much Ado About Nothing (MAAN) as well.

My Saturday was spent primarily at the OSF. I need to see and read a good portion of the current season for in-class analysis as part of my senior year at SOU, and part of that was a two-show day today, the two in question being the aforementioned plays. They just happen to be two of my favorite pieces of the theatre I have read. I know. My life is so hard.

But they are very, VERY different pieces of theater. Seriously, in Western canon, one might be hard pressed to find more divergent themes. It’s probably appropriate that MAAN was the matinee of the day, and LDJIN was the evening show, just theme wise. I can handle going from a light-hearted, comedic piece that ends happy-go-lucky to a nearly four-hour production of familial dysfunction and depression. I honestly don’t know if I would have had the will to see them in reverse order.

I’m not going to bother talking about production values or the performance. It’s the OSF; it’s great; go see them both. I am going to talk about how I react to the plays themselves, and how they relate to my greater worldview.

Much Ado is an excellent play. It’s Shakespeare, has high points of comedy counterpointed by serious drama, and everything works out in the end. It’s witty, irreverent, and a raucous good time. I can easily see three different variants of it performed and find things to love about each. But it doesn’t make me think on the same level, or want to talk about it, as Long Day’s Journey does.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is horror. It can be described as a drama, a tragedy, or any number of other labels that could be applied. To me, the one that best fits is horror. It isn’t something that goes out of its way to scare you, or even to make you cry. The lines are arranged such that every moment that should be a tearjerker is quickly cut with a string of lines so inappropriate, so irreverent, that the usual response is tense, nervous laughter. I’ve always thought of that as a strength for the simple reason that all of the standbys of tragedy, the easy sadness and pity, are bypassed in favor of inspiring something far more potent: despair.

The Tyrones are not special. That is what makes them so dangerous. What they present are situations that are so hideously mundane that an audience member will find something to identify with, just enough theatricality that the audience gets trapped in the conceit, and a touch of strangeness that causes people to think of the phrase “reality is stranger than fiction.” It is not safe theater, behind a wall that the audience can vicariously enjoy with detachment. It cuts right to the heart, and asks the hard questions.

For comparison, I was talking to a friend about it and mentioned that I thought of it as one of the more horrific pieces of theater out there, to which he responded by bringing up Ruined. If you know Ruined, you see where this is going. But they are two very different pieces of horror to my mind, and Long Day’s Journey comes out on top. The scenarios in Ruined are strictly more horrific, but are much less likely to be something that an audience member has come into contact with in their lives. For those of you who do not know Ruined, take my word for it when I say that it is a very good thing that these are not common experiences. LDJIN, however, is all too common.

Alcoholism. Addiction. Crises of Faith. Disease. Pain. Loss. Love even when the person being loved is incapable of responding to it. Escapism. Money.

I first read Eugene O’Neill’s work in High School when I recommended it to my English group for a project where we selected works to review. More than once during our weekly meetings, some of our group had to stop reading because it hit way too close to home. It’s just that relevant. If the reader hasn’t personally run into these themes, then chances are horribly good that they are only one degree of separation from someone who has. That is what makes it the more horrific production.

The comparison that comes to mind is that one of these is a walk through a haunted house. It is designed to inspire fear, disgust, even sickness. The other is a walk through a nursing home, one of those really bad ones. You know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t need to inspire anything, because the sheer fact that it exists says “One false move, make the wrong mistake, here but for the grace of your religious entity of choice, etc.” There is where the horror lies.

It might be easier to accept if it were easier to dismiss. After all, it is theatre, a show. Then you are reminded that it is a semi-autobiographical work. Stylized somewhat for the stage, I’m sure, but this was actually someone’s family. This happened, not in a time of strife when the world was threatening to blow up, but in perfectly ordinary times in a perfectly ordinary place with perfectly ordinary people.

It is not a fun play to watch. It is hard to qualify it strictly as “entertainment.” It is one of those plays where you are almost guaranteed to lose at least a few people during intermission.

What it is is an experience. A powerful, somewhat painful, and soul-touching experience. It is important, if not “enjoyable” in the same sense that Much Ado About Nothing is. It is just as important to my mind as Shakespeare’s work. It might not be something someone can, or even should, see multiple times in a season. I myself can only bear to see it staged every few years. But it should absolutely be seen. Shakespeare gives us a clear-cut villain who causes mischief and is ultimately defeated. O’Neill gives us a few people who need no evil, no villain. They manage to destroy themselves and each other perfectly well without outside encouragement, all while finding someone, something, or anything else to blame for their situation.

It was said somewhere, I can’t for the life of me remember where, that fear is a hot emotion. It is active, pushing the owner to action. Grief is much the same way, inspiring wailing, questioning, and a hotly debated number of stages. Despair, and horror for that matter, are the opposite. They are cold, inspiring stillness, shock, immobility. The clutching of yourself and hiding in a corner, staring blankly into the air in front of you, mind shutting down as the existential weight of the universe settles in.

I love it. I revel in it. It hit me once, when I was too young, too underdeveloped to deal with it, and it crippled me at the time. But I survived. Now, when I feel the cold, it makes me appreciate the warmth all the more. That’s why I write things like this, why I watch plays like Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I have a friend who attempted to run a game about vampires themed partially around the slow spiral of a reasonable human being into an unfeeling monster feeding on instinct, and while it lasted, I was all over it.

I love it because it is an experience. Experiences, good or bad, are to be embraced. When people ask the stupid thought experiment of whether you would rather die by freezing or burning, I choose the fire. Not for the reason that most give, that it would be over more quickly, but because I would rather go out feeling something, even if that something is horrific pain, than to gradually fade away into numbness. Look how well that works out for Mary Tyrone.

Absolutely see Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I love it, even as much as it hurts to watch. I love it, because even after nearly four hours of theater, which was preceded by two and a half of different theater, it still has me talking. That is what a true experience is all about.

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11 Responses to The Audience Connection: A Philosophical Essay by Sean Fisk

  1. Julie says:

    Thank you for posting this, Margaret, for for writing it, Sean. What a fantastic essay! It will be featured in our On the Bricks newsletter coming out this Saturday.

  2. Ashland, OR says:

    The raw honesty of Sean’s piece grabs one’s attention quickly. You see it coming and you cannot look away. I deeply appreciate such writing.

  3. Robert Miller says:

    Your review of LDJIN was most impressive.I saw the 1975 version and because of this one piece of theater I purchased a home in Ashland and have lived here for the past forty years. I especially liked the fact that you discussed meaning rather than production values. However I would like to make a few comments of my own. All of art is artificial in that exists in the realm of ideas and not in the realm of real experiences. In fact many years ago theater was called artifice as was painting and sculpture. Words such as horrific and scary are called emotive words in that they describe your emotional state but they have little to do with what the play is about. A play is important in that it is authored and offered by some one as communication and expression. Of course there are authors that falsely offer theater as real experience and that when you attend you will laugh or cry but this is commonly called entertainment. The worst review that can be given to a play or film is that the author really had nothing to say. LDJIN is important because of the what O’neill had to say. On repeat viewings you will find that almost all of the dialog is self serving. Hopefully you will find that a lot of your own family discourse might drift in that direction and avoid doing this. Robert Miller

    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      Thank you for your comments. Speaking as a writer as well as audience, it’s the goal to say something, yes, but that goal is better served by capturing people’s emotions than their mind. The analytical aspects come later, but rarely when the emotions are not engaged. It’s one of the strengths of Shakespeare in that he speaks on multiple levels and engages on all of them.

  4. Erin says:

    Interesting take. I’m the opposite — I totally cannot go from light to heavy and then find it at all possible to go home, to go to sleep, without having awakened a million worry weasels in my head. I would far, far rather do the heavy (if do it I must; I find enough grim in the world to not want to seek it out in fiction) first, and then lighten my mood after.

    Thank you both for sharing!

    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      Yr welcome. As to your comment, I’m with you. I wouldn’t want to end the day with something heavy and dark. I prefer to face demons in the sunlight.

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