John Guare and emotional truth

John Guare is the playwright best known for Six Degrees of Separation, which became a terrific film starring Will Smith and Stockard Channing and is now being revived in London. There’s a funny and insightful interview with him in today’s Guardian, including his thoughts on his current obsession, Amanda Knox:

“She’s a complete blank,” he says. “You can project anything on to her. Is she Henry James’s Daisy Miller, an innocent young girl who goes to Europe for experience? Or is she Louise Brooks, the woman who takes what she wants and destroys everything? Or is she Nancy Drew caught up in Kafka?” … “When the police started questioning her, her response was to do cartwheels and the splits. I love that. That’s when I fell in love with the story. That’s when I thought” – he smiles, potential building – “this is my kind of murderess.”

Guare’s plays haven’t always been successful, but they’re always ambitious. And he’s a passionate advocate of the importance of emotional truth over literal accuracy in drama:

[Guare] combines the fantastic and humdrum in accordance with the Henry James principle of the “balloon of experience” – that is, “an audience will go anywhere with you as long as you, the writer, keep your hand on the string. You don’t want to lose the balloon. I love that image.” … When he first saw John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, he was amazed and disappointed. “Where is the revolution?” he asked. Now, he says, “What I hate about kitchen-sink dramas is [this idea] that the set is real, therefore you’re going to be seeing truth. You have to earn truth. Truth can’t be a part of the fact that people appear to talk that way and live in that room. You’re looking for the poetry in something, and I don’t mean poetry in the fancy sense. Naturalism believes by just replicating a thing you give the truth, rather than earning the truth.”

Theatre in Britain at the moment is great shape, partly because it’s happy to aim higher than reality (and which is why Enron is a better play than The Power Of Yes), but our film and television often (with honourable exceptions like Lynne Ramsay) feels hamstrung by its determination to feel “real”, and its reluctance to soar beyond the everyday. While this is well-intended, it’s short-sighted: Doctor Who and Torchwood, with their manipulative politicians, over-weening corporations, secret prison systems, sweat-shops and eco-collapse feel like more accurate barometers of Britain in the Noughties than a slew of more “realistic” television dramas, just as Trainspotting and 28 Days Later feel like truer reflections of our times — and our fears — than any number of more supposedly “authentic” portrayals of contemporary life.

One of the few things that truly differentiates humans from animals is that we talk naturally in metaphors. Metaphors are, in essence, the application of emotion to fact: not “this is what I saw” but “this is how it felt”. And that’s really what stories are: the feeling of what happened.

So let’s hold onto that balloon.


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