Soul food: a fourth letter from a voluntary exile

Hello Greenroomers

Last night I watched Ratatouille, the excellent Pixar film featuring a rat (who is an excellent chef) and his adventures in a Paris restaurant. It also features Anton Ego, a critic of devastating reputation. Although Ego is used by the writers to satirize the role and cult of critics (as if his name wasn’t a clue) he actually has two moments that redeem him and critics generally.

When he sits down to write his review of the restaurant, that could destroy or make a career, he pauses for thought, then pens a review of unmitigated praise, that starts with these words:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

This is salve to anyone who has ever felt the brunt of the critics’ scorn (and felt the nagging fear they may be onto something). But for me, an equally magical moment occurs some minutes before this scene, when he is served the titular dish. One mouthful and his mind shoots back to his childhood and memories of his mother cooking him dinner in a beautiful bucolic and fleeting scene. We discover Ego’s drive – he wants food that feeds his soul. He is bitter because he finds it so rarely.

I think all the great critics – of food, of theatre, of art, of literature, hell, even sport – are trying to find their equivalent of that mouthful of food that goes straight to their soul. And I believe audience members too want that, though perhaps they are not so mindful. But when they receive it, they know. I believe that because that is my experience when I go to the theatre, a film, pick up a book, or watch TV. Yes, much of that may be purely entertainment, fluff or time-filler, and excellent as examples of such. But I also need those shots to my soul. They may be irregular, but they must keep coming.

F Scott Fitzgerald, he who penned the most perfect closing sentences of any novel, had a theory of emotional bankruptcy: all of us have only so much emotion we can give, and for us to keep giving, we must receive as well. Perhaps a jaded critic, actor, audience member, is someone who has not received from theatre as much as they have given. A cynic is a disappointed romantic.

There is an odd attitude in, well … art generally I think, that somehow the ugly and the dark are the only topics that should interest the artist. Sure you can do your happy endings and hopeful stories to make your audience happy but the only way to challenge them and to really engage with real life is to look into the abyss and make them look with you.

I had got to the point where I was so tired of going to the theatre to be confronted with a story that focussed on humanity’s worst aspects. For a while it seemed you couldn’t get a play on in Brisbane unless there was a dead baby in it somewhere.

I don’t think we should ignore these stories but I wonder why we have become so obsessed with the dark to the cost of all else[i]. It’s as if we managed to get out of Plato’s cave and, confronted with this world of such breadth and width, we decide we were best to examine the dung heaps, the garbage dumps and cesspools, because somehow the truth was in them, and in them alone.

I have had this conversation before; it’s something of a bugbear of mine. Those I have raised it with point out we live in a pretty dark world, and have just got through one of the darkest centuries. Certainly we raised killing to industrial levels and no side of politics came through guiltless. We’ve developed the means to destroy the world several times over, and a couple of other planets while we’re at it. And it seems we can also destroy the world with a much slower fire as well.

But here is my point. The first time I had this conversation, I was sitting in a Brisbane backyard, at a barbecue, surrounded by friends, some of whom had children. There was a table groaning with steak, sausages, salads and drinks.  The sun was out and a breeze was blowing. The second time was just before seeing Gatz at the Powerhouse in Brisbane surrounded by hundreds of people who had decided to pay their money to watch eight hours of theatre. In both these settings people of reasonable intelligence tried to convince me what a horrid world we lived in.

Are we so intelligent, so sophisticated, so sensitive, we cannot see our own lives anymore? Are our lives somehow unreal, unworthy or false? I cannot feed my soul exclusively with gruel and worms, dirt and faeces. Why do so many artists insist I try?

I am not looking for stories of blind optimism. Nor stories that congratulate us on being born into a lucky country, but stories that at least recognise life can be pretty sweet, that happiness and joy and love are as real and important a part of human existence as hatred, pain and suffering can be. Too many times we congratulate ourselves on having the courage to look at the darkness face on. But if we never look anywhere else, if we never challenge ourselves, what courage is that? Let us not kid ourselves that telling people what they already think, that the world is a pretty dark place, is somehow challenging their perceptions.

Actors and directors and writers feel a challenge in trying to imagine the world of the rapist, the murderer, the paedophile and all these other people who do things we would never imagine doing. And audiences feel confronted – well, they used to; I wonder sometimes if, by watching these horrid evil people do horrid evil things, they look at each other and think, “Oh not another murdering paedophile rapist!”  Looking in only one direction is hardly widening your perspective, nor is confrontation the only purpose of story-telling.

Shadows only exist because there is light. There is no reason these cannot be part of the same story.

Love and loyalty are in King Lear as well as murder, treachery and despair. In Sondheim’s musical, Sweeney Todd’s insane rage derives from great love, and among all the corpses at the end there are Anthony and Joanna together. I have seen a production which, of course, did not have them together at the end. I can only assume that, otherwise they would have been pandering to the audience and not challenging them, or some such directorial rhubarb. Waiting for Godot is a comedy of existential despair about two homeless men who love each other.

Others have assured me that, while they agree with me, the atmosphere is changing and more optimistic, more balanced plays are being produced. I hope they are right. Hamlet challenged the players to hold the mirror up to nature. Let’s try moving that mirror around more.

[i] I have some theories about why, but that is another topic, or letter perhaps.

GUEST POST: Nick Backstrom is an actor and writer, formerly based in Brisbane and more recently in Melbourne. He also sings, teaches and directs, though rarely at the same time. Nick’s Melbourne relocation forms the basis of his occasional posts to Greenroom. He would be delighted to respond to any comments or queries made here.

2 Replies to “Soul food: a fourth letter from a voluntary exile”

  1. At no point do I suggest that these darker themes are unimportant or should not be examined. Another example I could use is Charles Dickens. His books are searing indictments on the state of English society of his time, the neglect, the greed, the cruelty, the excesses of law, of government, of capitalism and everything else. However, he also created life-affirming stories and characters within the same stories. I suggest without these life-affirming aspects, we wouldn’t be reading his books today – or seeing excellent BBC adaptations. Keep an eye on the bad of course, but open your other as well.

  2. Dear Nick, Thanks for your thoughts, they are part of a very important debate. I live a very comfortable life but if I look outside of my little bubble of privilage there is a bottomless pit of need. Our culture is based on the immediate gratification of our own needs and anything apart from that is hardly noticed.
    A resident in an old persons home right here in Brisbane right now, who doesn’t have the money to buy any piece of equipment that might make their lives easier or less painful go without? That is only one infinitely small example of the state we are in. I for one am very grateful to those who are not trying to paper over our short comings and are not so self centred that they cannot see. Please don’t take that as anything other than a general statement and in no way personally. I appreciate you talking about it.

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