The great playwright August Wilson wrote, “it was the ability of the theater to communicate ideas and extol virtues that drew me to it.”
I think a lot of people feel the same.
Plays, movies and TV have the potential of transmitting ideas that have some value for individuals seeking to live a better life.
Too often today, entertainment seems to concern itself with presenting any sort of idea, just to create an effect. Virtues, those attributes that guide one to a happier, more harmonious life, are considered off-topic or irrelevant.
A grisly car accident will always draw attention. Some shows offer the commensurate value of a car accident, and enjoy huge viewership.
A visitor to a modern play or television show might find themselves peering into a world of all sorts of degradation, without any judgement expressed as to whether it is right, wrong, redeemable or reprehensible.
To someone like myself who grew up during a time when most movies, plays and TV shows had a “message” of some kind, expressing, if obliquely, a moral viewpoint, (by which I merely mean an expression of what might be considered ethical or positive) today’s series can seem like a huge waste of potential.
To illustrate that mankind is doomed is a waste. To dramatize that nothing matters is a waste. To communicate that hope is lost, people are evil, and sensation and stimulation is our only recourse is a waste.
Authors, directors and playwrights not that long ago were dedicated to creating shows that could “communicate ideas and extol virtues”. The better ones still are. Today, they are in the minority.
What happened? Did positive messages get a bad name? Were kindness and empathy just too bland? Or did they just prove to be a tough sell?
Car accidents, murders and bloodbaths are, apparently, very easy to sell. The safest thing these days in television seems to be to make a crime or a horror story, the ghastlier the better.
But grisly, upsetting and discouraging scenes are not what drew August Wilson, or you and I to the theater.
(Not that grisly scenes are bad. Macbeth and Hamlet have their moments. Even Game of Thrones has some humanity. But to omit the leavening factor of virtue in favor of mere spectacle is to under-utilize the power of the arts.)
If it’s true that “the theater is dying”, as has been claimed by critics endlessly, then perhaps it’s because a viewpoint of decent behavior has been so often and so continually omitted in place of just “behavior.”
We humans love to watch stories that agree with the direction of our natures, that validate what we feel is right, and entertain us with the threat, perhaps, that if we neglect our virtues, we might not win the day.
We like to experience new points of view, but with an eye towards what is shared, not merely what is irrevocably alien, and to be offered some solution that might shed light upon our own particular situation.
Cruelty, apathy and lack of empathy are attributes not of Man, but of the brutal universe against which he struggles. The grander, finer attributes, his empathy, enthusiasm, intelligence and his ability to dream are those things that will always engage an audience, because they can harmonize with those feelings more easily, being of the same fundamental inclination.
The unprecedented success of the Star Wars saga is inconceivable if one were to extract the message of hope and freedom.
In the short term perhaps, while still in fashion, empty, soulless and pointless plays, TV shows and films may continue to gain attention, and dominate the markets.
Eventually, that attention will, like the famous pendulum, move back towards the center, to themes that don’t regard virtues as meaningless, but recognize them as inseparable aspects of our own natures.