Brian Linden as Pavel Prus in Burning Coal Theatre's production of The Shape of the Table. Credit: Jason Dail.
North Carolina recently went through the most hotly contested political campaign in the state’s history, resulting in a US Senate seat for right wing candidate, Thom Tillis. In the North Carolina legislature, Tillis oversaw such ‘conservative’ efforts as instating a mandatory photo ID requirement in order to vote, slashing pay for most public school teachers and, my personal favourite, requiring nonprofits to pay sales tax on ticket revenue.
On the right, there are people who feel the left are full of anti-American trouble makers and effete intellectuals with no “real world experience”. They seem to believe that because they ‘made it’ through hard work, everyone should be able to. Having been born into stable, affluent homes, these people often forget how far ahead of most they are.
On the left, there are those who simply can’t imagine “how anyone could vote for a man like that” and believe conservatives are all backward thinking fascists. They squirm at the idea of giving credence to any idea that comes from the right.
There is very little room for discussion in between these two positions.
Hollywood and its progeny would have us believe that empathy is for 'suckers'. All too often, we paint empathy as a negative trait. Politicians circle like vultures, fiendishly seeking a sign of weakness. Unfortunately, their idea of weakness is often any retrenchment, any self-questioning. We must not doubt!
Playwright David Edgar’s Iron Curtain Trilogy is not only entertaining and thought-provoking, it is also a strong argument for empathy as a needed and frequently missing element in our increasingly polarized times. If we cannot feel for the other, how can we possibly understand them?
In Edgar's trio of plays, the audience finds itself being pulled emotionally and intellectually back and forth: swivelling heads at a hard fought tennis match. We come out of the productions asking not, “Whose side am I on?” but rather, “What would I have done if I had been in that situation?”
In The Shape of the Table, we meet Pavel Prus. He is an artist, a man of refined tastes, a good soul, a fighter for human dignity and freedom. In the fall of 1989, he is rapidly elevated from sideline theorist to leader of a massive campaign to democratize his nation’s government. Across the table, so to speak, sits Party Secretary Josef Lutz, a gruff, no-nonsense communist party crusader. When told “'The Tiananmen Option’ is unthinkable” as a way to quash a rising rebellion among his country’s population, Lutz replies coldly: “What’s unthinkable about it?”
But a funny thing happens on the way to the revolution. Prus, burdened with the harsh realities of actually running a government, moves to take some of the same actions that Lutz before him had done. He has to decide whether to execute the old guard, to lock them up and throw away the key, or to forgive. Though he undertakes these actions regretfully, he does so nonetheless.
The audience is challenged to change our perspective – to see the circumstances of the play not as a black and white issue, sides to be rallied round, but as a question central to all human experience: how can you chose the one when the other would personally suit you better?
Edgar isn’t asking us to choose sides. He is asking that we not choose sides. Instead, he wants us to hear all perspectives and imagine how we might react in the other person’s shoes.
In Pentecost, the canvas widens to include a range of political and religious refugees. In the US, the notion of political asylum seeking is sometimes thought of as quaint, mostly done by people on the extreme ends of the political spectrum: a stunt that might be tried by Lee Harvey Oswald or Patti Hearst.
Pentecost is about a mid-level functionary in an unnamed eastern European country who believes she has unearthed a fresco on the wall of an abandoned church that could alter the course of history. Just as judgment about the fresco’s value is about to be determined, a dozen or so refugees fleeing political persecution enter the building.
We are given the chance to spend time with these refugees, to listen as they tell their own narratives, to imagine: what would I do if I had to live through that? Edgar isn’t asking us to determine right and wrong. Instead, we are given an insight into the horrific past histories of characters who we may not meet in our day to day lives, and asked to empathise.
In the loose trilogy’s concluding play, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, a character who seems charming, self-effacing and wise turns into a bloody murderer before our eyes. He is driven to such a dark place by events beyond his or anyone else’s control, but when he acts, it is shocking.
We have come to trust him, to expect the witty remark, the caustically raised eyebrow. We don't expect violence.
This forces us into a position of empathy, of struggling to understand how ‘our friend’ could have gone so wrong.
When we can look at another human being and wonder if, despite our own preconceptions, the person across from us has a reason to take the position they have taken, then we are on the way to empathising with those who aren't born in the same circumstances as were we. Finding a way to live with people of differing experiences may be the key to political transformation.
Edgar intended to just write the first play, The Shape of the Table, immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. After watching the political situation in eastern Europe morph from euphoric positivity into something darker, he set out, not to “correct” his previous play, but to make sure that Pentecost reflected other possibilities.
Later, the two plays were brought into question with the effort, however imperfect, to find a resolution to the ongoing conflicts in places like Kosovo. As westerners lined up to try to “solve” the ethnic cleansing disputes, we also began to criticise our approach.
In writing the third play, Edgar not only questioned the characters and situations, he questioned himself. If we hope to narrow the widening political chasm, this kind of empathy is a great place to begin. It won’t be easy. There are those whose interest lies with rousing the rabble: right wing talk show hosts, lefty peddlars of agitprop and the media, where “If it bleeds, it leads” has been widely accepted as a standard threshold against which editorial decisions are made.
These and other powerful voices will work as hard as they can to divide the public, to make sure that we view political and social questions in black and white, that we chose sides.
In North Carolina, both our representatives in the US Senate are now conservatives. At the state level, the Senate, House and Governor’s mansion have all recently been taken by a virulent conservative strain of politics for the first time since before the Civil War.
Empathy is our only weapon against the “everyone for themselves” mentality that seems on the threshold of engulfing the Old North State.