The Playwrights Responsibility

by Andie Bottrell

What is the playwrights responsibility? Is this a question you ever ask yourself? I find, particularly when I am working on stories that deal with violence, that I start questioning why I want to put more violent images out into the world. I question if the “moral” of the story is strong enough to justify it- or if anyone could walk away from it “inspired” to commit further violence in the world. Obviously we can’t control what may trigger someone to go off the deep end- didn’t I read something about Catcher in the Rye being mentioned as inspiration by three different murders including John Lennon’s assassinator? Still, I find myself often struggling between what my responsibility may be as a person who seeks to put stories before the public and my desire to have free range to explore a variety of characters and circumstances without judgement or consequence.

I am a person who is vehemently opposed to violence. You could basically describe me as an optimistic, anti-war, vegetarian, pacifist and as such I feel I have certain responsibilities to, for example, not create a play that promotes or justifies violence. That said, my most recent play depicts the murder of a newborn baby and follows a character, who not unlike myself considers herself a pacifist and when this viewpoint is put to the ultimate test of fight back or die- she deciders to fight back. Violence for violence. To be honest, I was exploring my own theories and beliefs- something I like to do when writing- and was totally surprised by the decision to have her fight back. I then had to come to the conclusion that perhaps I am less of a pacifist than I originally thought and I had to admit that I could understand instances when violence may in fact be a necessary evil.

Then, just days after coming to this conclusion, I watched that Daily Show interview with Malala Yousafzai where she had this to say:

“I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do Malala?’ then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’ But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’ Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that ‘I even want education for your children as well.’ And I will tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.'”

And then I had to reconsider everything again. The point of this post, however, goes well beyond my own inner conflicts with pacifism.

Plays don’t have to have morals, they don’t need to have a “greater meaning.” Plays can just be plays. Art. If it takes you on a journey and makes your insides come alive, then I think it’s done its job. Interestingly enough, my favorite play of the last year was Tommy Smith’s WHITE HOT which was put up by The Vagrancy at this years Hollywood Fringe Festival. This is a play with a lot of violence that left many people feeling depressed (thankfully, the majority seemed happy with being made to feel that way!) Personally, I found it invigorating and refreshing because of the journey, because of my identification with the expression of those deep, dark, unnamable human emotions, because it made me laugh and cry and not feel so alone and get turned on and become scared. I feel that when a play achieves those things, whatever “meaning” or “moral” it may be spouting (if any) becomes almost irrelevant- doesn’t it? Or does it?

It all comes down to this basic question: What is the playwrights responsibility? Certainly playwrights, when produced, have a forum in which their stories will be presented to a community and this is a sacred, difficult to come by, and much revered privilege. It seems there should be some responsibility when it comes to what we do with it. Why is this a story that needs to be told? What are the potential desired or undesired consequences of presenting this story to a specific community? Or should you think about these questions at all? To me it seems like the primary difference between playing with dolls as a child and creating theatre as an adult is purpose and intent. As a child, you create for creations sake- to have fun- to play pretend. As an adult, you create (certainly for those reasons as well) but with the knowledge that you are also holding a platform in your community that has the power to effect lives and change. I’m curious to hear what everyone thinks on the playwrights responsibility!

1 Comment

  • By Nancy Beverly, November 13, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

    I think we have a responsibility to take audiences on journeys that tell a story, provoke emotions, enable reflections. The catch is… if something is super offensive or violent, the writer runs the risk of the audience tuning out or walking out. I wrote a blog about this several months ago when a writer in my writers’ group brought in a section of a play that featured a violent, sadistic character… and the bulk of the audience tuned out and was turned off. I asked the writer to consider what point he wanted to make and what he wanted to leave the audience with. Because if they’re not listening or watching, he’s lost them.

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