Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction Masquerading as Truth

Last night I went with a group of friends to see "The Exonerated", a play about the death penalty in the United States. The 5 cases featured are real and no names have been changed to protect the innocent. A voice solemnly informs you as the lights go down that the writers wish to remind the audience that every word uttered by an actor portraying a real person was said by that person either in interview, court testimony etc. This I am sure was done to reinforce the horror of the miscarriages of justice described.

Except that I don't believe that it did. I have been thinking a lot recently about works of art that, in a highly representational way, purport to describe real events. Mostly this is because the place at which I work has been involved in two of the September 11th film projects and there's been much discussion here about the whys and wherefores. I knew that I felt uncomfortable with these projects but I couldn't for the longest time pin down why.

The conclusion I have come to is that these works of fiction claim to be representative of the truth - "it's exactly as it happened, in real time", "the words are taken from transcriptions" etc. but they are no more true than any other piece of fiction and often dramatically and emotionally much less affecting. We can try to imagine the horror of being on "Flight 93" or what it might be like to be incarcerated on death row, but an artist will heighten this experience. The trouble with these real event facsimiles is that the people featured are often not particularly articulate and their homilies are trite and clich├ęd however heart-felt. A documentary of the person saying their piece would have impact, but an actor reading their lines feels ersatz and cheap.

Beyond this is the inevitable editorialising that must go on. Objectivity in any artistic medium is impossible to achieve and by making claims to veracity at the start of these pieces it appears to me that their creators are trying to claim that their work is more objective because it takes pieces culled from the records. Not good enough. Elements will inevitably be heightened, subjugated, omitted or emphases changed through performance, editing or whatever. It is simply not "true" and worse than that it may lead people to unquestioningly accept it as so. History is of course open to interpretation and documentaries are also editorialised and biased, intentionally or not, but there is a difference, and that is you can rely a little more on documentary content, provided you keep your critical faculties, whereas you can rely on nothing in these works of fiction as they are, in all important respects, total artifice.

My other criticism is slightly crass but I'll list it anyway. As satirist P J O'Rourke commented, if you want to get a rise out of an audience it's a lot easier to say "I've been diagnosed with cancer" than it is to get up and do five minutes of good stand-up comedy. By extension because there is a direct link made with horrific real events people feel reluctant to criticise these works of art on artistic grounds, and as discussed above I believe these are the only grounds upon which they deserve to be judged since they are no different than any other work of fiction. These works are described as "difficult" and "challenging". They are not. Anyone with a little patience can trawl through court records and cull the bon mots of the wrongly accused. An artist would use these as a starting point to make a wider more deeply felt comment (Picasso's "Guernica" or Shostakovich's 7th Symphony "The Leningrad" immediately spring to mind) but to repurpose these sources merely chopped up and out of context is poor art in my view.

After leaving "The Exonerated" I felt nothing, the horror of what these people undoubtedly suffered had not been made any more real by these readings of their statements. My understanding of the condition of the soul of the incarcerated had not been deepened and my anger at a political institution with which I utterly disagree had not been reinforced nor challenged. Perhaps an American audience, for whom this is more of an active issue of political import, would view the piece differently. There has been no capital punishment for civilians in the UK since 1965 so perhaps we view the play in a more detached manner than in the States. But surely a tale of human suffering is universal and had it been a good play it would have moved its audience wherever they reside?

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