I Am Not Here To Amuse You

In an introduction to Aristotle’s Poetics, Joe Sachs addresses the idea of catharsis, commonly understood as a release or purging of repressed emotions, and compares it to a sense of wonder one is left with at the conclusion of a tragedy. He writes,

“What is characteristic of wonder is the sudden loss of the sense that we understand what is going on. What it knocks away are all our habitual assumptions and opinions.”

This appears to be a positive outcome: We leave the theatre with our perspectives challenged, our eyes wet with tears. But Sachs goes on to say this:

“But it does not follow that the poet [i.e. playwright] has taught us anything. His impact is on our feelings, and we can recover our usual habits of judging as soon as those feelings wear off… The state of wonder holds in abeyance for an extended moment the natural flow of our opinions. That is an amazing gift that the world or a poet can sometimes give us, but if anything is to come of it, it will have to be our own doing.”

Enter Bertolt Brecht, the playwright who would post banners in the theatre demanding disengagement, that audience members not become overrun with their emotions.

And then Augusto Boal, who clarified: “We must emphasize: What Brecht does not want is that the spectators continue to leave their brains with their hats upon entering the theater.”

This morning, I put on a play.

A group of former prisoners stood before a church audience and offered deeply personal stories of fear, shame, hope and redeeming love.

Church members were profoundly moved, they cried, their assumptions were shaken. They told us as much after the church services.

This is what we wanted: to spread the word that they're not all bad, these men who had spent anywhere from nine to 25 years in prison. To stir the hearts of those who would hear.

Still, I am dissatisfied. I do not feel this is enough. 

As a student of Boal, I cannot be an accomplice to catharsis. I can't allow these men to show such vulnerability so that folks can have a good cry.

And yet: change can start there, can't it? Yes. But I am still unsettled.

One of the men suggested today that this might be his last performance. He needs to move on, he said, and no longer dwell on the past. He'd done so to help others understand his plight but now, he admits, it's too much to stay there. It's time to step out of the darkness that the bright lights illuminated, and on to a new stage in his life.

During the course of the script, another of the men tells the story of stabbing his best friend in a drug-induced haze. This man has completely turned his life around, and it pained me each time to hear him tell it, and to rehearse the fine print ("You need to emphasize the word 'stabbed' there").

As the writer and director, I can't live with myself if these men bared themselves only for a good cry. And yet there is no way to know what can move someone to action. A word can, I know. And maybe someone will invite one of these men to dinner, or give a former felon a job, or donate money to a ministry.

I won't necessarily know what will come of these performances, which is probably why it doesn't feel like I've done enough. I know I rehearsed this well, got it in good shape, put on a solid piece of theatre with men who hadn't acted before. But I don't know--may never know--what all this work amounted to.

Boal did think of catharsis as a purging, but "of detrimental blocks"--hindrances that would stop a person from working to make change. Boal would want the tears of today's congregation to move them to do something, just as I do. “To create disequilibrium which prepares the way for action."

If anything is to come of this play, it will have to be of our own doing.


  1. The only person I saw shed tears also leaned over to me immediately after the reading and said "I have an idea." I am going to invite him to our next CONTACT meeting to share with ALL of US his idea.

  2. Well, that's a start. (Though you may want to vet the idea before it goes public...!)

  3. I love your piece, Amy. It has such soul and all I can say is that from where I sit you are in this for all the right reasons!!!

  4. Thanks, Malissa, that's great to hear. I'm starting to feel more at ease with the idea that good was done there, and that's the only part I can control.


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