I never understood the idea of alienating an audience. I thought, “Isn’t the point of theatre to experience something thoroughly, emotions and all?” That is what always drew me to the stage. I love catharsis as an audience member, and I love experiencing a life different from my own as a character. How can one experience a true life if they leave emotions out of the picture? That was how I looked at alienation: the absence of feeling. One of the most revered playwrights of the twentieth century, Bertolt Brecht built his whole philosophy of the stage on this concept. Alienate the audience so that they will understand. So that they will see the whole picture, unclouded by emotion. But, without emotion how can we see the whole picture?
These thoughts (with less big words) ran through my head as I watched the first few scenes of “Wit” playing on Broadway at the . This space is the home of Manhattan Theatre Club, a prolific New York production company that brings intellectual, word-driven plays to a subscriber-based audience.
“Wit” is the story of a brilliant Poetry professor diagnosed with terminal cancer. Two things make this production of “Wit” special: it stars Cynthia Nixon (best known as Miranda from “Sex and the City”) and it’s the first time the revered 10-year-old play has been on Broadway.
So, back to that whole alienation thing.
Taking a cue from Dr. Vivian Bearing, the star of show, I will look the word up for educational purposes:
To make unfriendly, hostile, or indifferent
especially where attachment formerly existed.
Who wants to feel unfriendly, hostile, or indifferent? I mean, really? Cynthia Nixon’s Vivian embodies all of these characteristics. She’s about as cuddly as a cactus and as warm as a block of ice. Despite having too much experience with her illness and seeing her standing there bald, eyebrow-less, and sweating, I found it very difficult to feel for her. I felt, in a word, alienated.
Now obviously, it is a very tricky thing, keeping an audience from feeling very bad for you when you are suffering through cancer and chemo (which is worse, is a real toss-up). Nixon has her work cut out for her. Every time we start to feel real affection for her or really sorry for her, she makes sure to snap that in the bud. She’ll harden into a brittle spinster, she’ll scream like a maniac, she’ll make you feel like an idiot for buying into the Hallmark moment. Until the bitter end, she’ll embody the first part of that definition, alternating between unfriendliness, hostility, and indifference.
As for the second part, we didn’t have any attachment to Dr. Vivian Bearing before walking into the theatre. So is the alienation incomplete? I don’t think so. In fact, we all walked in attached to our various ideas of what a cancer patient is like, what they should be like. We’ve watched our loved ones battle this insidious disease, and we’ve come up with an encyclopedia of the cancer experience in our heads. I feel like one thing that our society does at this point is to disassociate the person experiencing the cancer with their “former self”. They become not Debbie, not a scuba-diving instructor, but a cancer patient. As they loose their hair, the punctuation marks on their face, as they grow fatter from the steroids or thinner from the chemo, their individuality blurs into a _________.
Dr. Vivien Bearing will not fade away. She will not let us think that she is just another cancer patient. She will laughingly depict the farcical quality of the dreary life in the cancer ward so we get the full picture. She will ply us with her knowledge of 17th century poetry and make sure we understand her unique perspective on everything so we see the stark contrast of who she is to what she is experiencing. And most of all she will NOT let us feel bad for her. Because if we feel bad for her, we’ve categorized her. We’ve simplified her.
I never understood the theatre construct of alienation until I arrived in the final moments of Wit. For two hours I had been interested in the action playing out before me, but I had been profoundly uncomfortable. I think most of the time, my face must have looked like I had bitten into a lemon. Then those last moments came, when the whole puzzle of a play had been unraveled and it’s meaning was striking and so simple.