Wednesday, September 01, 2010

emotional orgasm

I guess I'll have to do some explaining when I attempt to use the term "emotional orgasm" - if you Google it, the results are all about sexual orgasms with an emotional component.

That's not what I mean. I am talking about catharsis, basically, but I like the expression "emotional orgasm" because catharsis is a little too one-size-fits-all.

Not all sexual orgasms are equally intense - they are not all quite the level of the "cleansing" experience of the classical Greek term.

I've seen the epigram "This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel" quoted on many occasions and I'm sick of it. It's from a letter written by Horace Walpole (who?) I don't know if Walpole meant for this to be interpreted as an either/or proposition, but that is the way it is interpreted by those who quote it.

The implication is that you either think or feel. This is clearly how many people in the arts see it, and they have all firmly come down on the side of thinking. That's why so much art - particularly theatre, which I'm most involved in - consists of dry little exercises in erudition and irony. The playwright wants to show off his or her cleverness. And that's really all the play is about. How many knowing asides can the playwright squeeze into the plot? How many famous names can be dropped? This does not give the audience an emotional orgasm - instead it allows the audience to watch the playwright masturbate. And so many playwrights are such egomaniacs that they truly believe that that's what the world really wants - to watch them have a wank - and pay good money for it too.

The idea that you either think or feel is a bullshit dichotomy, that owes much, I believe to our culture's obsession with pushing everything into either a feminine or masculine box. The apotheosis of this way of thinking is in the theories of the evolutionary psychologists, particularly Simon Baron-Cohen (relative of Sacha Baron-Cohen):
Dr. Baron-Cohen builds on this theory, suggesting that low levels of testosterone result in a female, "E type" brain (for empathy); medium levels yield a balanced brain; and high levels a male, "S type" brain (for systemizing). Medium levels account for the fact that some girls are systemizers and some boys are empathizers.
In the evolutionary psychology universe you are either a male systemizer or a female empathizer - thought vs. feeling. (An excellent refutation is available in the just-published Delusions of Gender.)

Men of course, naturally want to escape the stigma of being feminine, and so obviously they are not going to choose to be "those who feel." They sit back and laugh at this comedy of life - and when it comes to playwrights the laughter is most often of the smug, self-satisfied variety.

Not only men are like this, plenty of women want to escape the shame of femininity. These women are most likely to join with men in deriding an emotional focus as weak and stupid.

This thought vs. feeling dichotomy is why, for example, a former member of NYCPlaywrights wrote a play that was a parody of OUR TOWN. I mentioned it in my essay Why OUR TOWN is Great. Even Martin Denton, who usually loves everything he sees, had a problem with that parody.

What I believe Venters was trying to do was kill all those soft, weak, feminine emotions on display in OUR TOWN and replace it was some kind of misbegotten critique of American life. Something hard and "edgy" and merciless. Something to demonstrate that this playwright is a thinker, not a feeler. Not like that gay Thornton Wilder.

I believe it's no coincidence that three of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century, Wilder, Tennessee Williams, and Tony Kushner are gay. Their gayness allows them to step back from the standard macho bullshit of American masculinity - the masculinity that has turned David Mamet into a right-wing asshole teabagger.

Their gayness allows them to be "weak" and empathetic, to dare to step away from shallow intellectualism and towards what really makes a play work - abundant empathy.

That's why Shakespeare's plays work so well - he was able to have empathy even for the villains of his plays. Shakespeare wanted to evoke an emotional orgasm from his audiences.

The first time you see HAMLET, if it is done right, you will tear up when Hamlet dies at the end. Because you have watched Hamlet wrestle for three hours with issues of mortality, and after all that you watch Hamlet himself die. But even more so - Laertes poisons Hamlet with the envenomed sword fairly early in the big death scene - and the audience knows, before Hamlet does, that he's a dead man. So the entire scene is watching Hamlet be poisoned, watching Hamlet watch his mother die, and then watch Hamlet realize that he himself is about to die.

Watch Derek Jacobi do it here:

To be a proper playwright you have to aim at giving the audience an emotional orgasm. The play isn't about you showing off - the play is about you connecting to the audience, and taking them beyond thought into their innermost, visceral core. And they will love you for it. Not that smug self-satisfied love that comes from an audience congratulating itself for getting the various shallow intellectualisms of a typical modern play, but the love of an audience who has truly felt something intense.

That's why the sexual analogy is appropriate - a skilled lover gives themselves to their partner - and that's what a skilled playwright does - the partner in this case being the audience.

A skilled lover doesn't just stand there wanking, and then expect to be loved for it.

It's all about the emotional orgasm.