Thursday, September 2, 2010


I’ve just finished reading an excellent book by the witty and dashingly erudite self-appointed chronicler of "wrongology," Kathryn Schulz. In 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.” Yes, it's good to make Plato roll in his grave, and keep him rolling!
The theatre seems to me 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, disastrously 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 reminding ourselves (because we continually forget): we err, we have erred, we will err again. We had better get used to it.

Thus I am drawn in my playwriting (and elsewhere) to the murky territory where good intentions collide with reality, where common passions steamroller “common” sense. I love 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 a play that lies close to my own heart, Trailing Colors. It's set in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, not in the midst of evil but in its confused wake, and it concerns most centrally a species of blundering that may not be uniquely American but appears endemic: call it oblivion heroicus. It leaps tall buildings in a single bound! Then it lands splat in the boggy boggy mud. Graham Greene skewered it beautifully in The Quiet American, and Philip Caputo made a palpable hit with Acts of Faith. I'm too sentimental to be so mercilessly satiric, but I do have sharp words for privileged women writers who feed their fictions on others' pain.

It's never too early or late to embrace being wrong, which is why I have tentative dates set for a production of Trailing Colors next year: May 5th-29th, 2011. More details to follow.

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