Ouch! When it comes to pain, theatre can take it on the chin

  Lincoln and Booth in Suzan-Lori Parks’s masterful Topdog/Underdog

Lincoln and Booth in Suzan-Lori Parks’s masterful Topdog/Underdog


One sunny day in London, the critic Martin Esslin went walking with Samuel Beckett. “What a beautiful day!” Esslin said cheerfully. “It makes you glad to be alive.” Beckett turned and replied, “I wouldn’t go that far.”

Beckett was probably the most mordant poet of pain we’ll ever know. “Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts!” yelps Estragon when asked about his boot-squashed foot in Waiting for Godot. The most disturbing line in Endgame, delivered after two acts of pleading, is simply, “There’s no more painkiller.” Ouch! Even on a sunny day, the dull pain that you live with doesn’t get any duller.

Such thoughts came jabbing at my nerves while watching Debbie Tucker Green’s excellent new play in the National Theatre. Nut’s central character, Elayne, seems to revel in pain: her arms are pocked and scabbed from stubbed-
out cigarettes. To interpret this piece literally, it’s a like seeing somebody on fire and offering a Band-Aid. But Elayne is much more than a recluse, a self-harmer, or a victim. She is someone who seeks suffering, expects it, requires it, and enables her abusers.

Something similar happens in Suzan-Lori Parks’s masterful Topdog/Underdog, about two black brothers named Lincoln and Booth. The eldest plays Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, in a cheap arcade, where frustrated customers now pay to shoot him again and again. If you don’t understand the causes, some wounds – like racial tensions, cigarette burns and fatal gunshots – will never heal.

“Happiness writes white”, as every decent songwriter knows, but pain uses the whole colour spectrum. In theatre it’s also a short cut. I’ve lost count of the gasps that meet Gloucester when his eyes are gouged out in King Lear, or the moment anyone gets kicked in the face with a dull thwack during a stage fight, or when someone stubs out a cigarette in the palm of their hand.

You know the tricks (blood capsules, cupped hands, tinfoil patches) but you still flinch. It’s how we’re made. Theatre, much like the rest of the world, needs our empathy to make it work.

That’s why the brilliant comedian Louis CK’s recent criticism of smartphones was so on point. Smartphones are toxic for children because “they don’t look at people when they talk to them and they don’t build empathy”. Instead of seeing another child in distress when they say something hurtful (“Oh, that doesn’t feel good”), they can post something mean, without conspicuous consequence, and decide “mmm, that was fun”.

Is it a coincidence that popular culture in a desensitised world has become so shamelessly masochistic in recent years, from the Fight Club fantasy of men becoming more alive with every punch, or the endlessly flogged sexuality of commuter bonkbuster Fifty Shades of Grey? Like Beckett, I wouldn’t go that far. But feeling distress, and pitying it in others, can be as positive as a walk on a sunny day.

No pain, no gain.

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