- Performance and the Pace of Empathy
Discussions of empathy by psychologists, philosophers, and performance theorists largely ignore the issue of time. Just how quickly can a performance get under the skin? Imagine an audience watching Suzan-Lori Parks’s play, Paper Tomatoes, which stages a brief attack on a carnival strongman. This is the script in its entirety:
A Strongman strides in. Sits on a crate. Immediately People come in and throw wads of paper at him. This goes on for quite some time. Then they leave. He sits there.
He uses all his strength to hold back his tears.1
Paper Tomatoes revisits one of Parks’s cardinal themes, the cruelty of spectatorship, through a theatrical lens at its most microscopic. Many traditional dramatic elements are here in miniature: inciting incident, rising action, conflict, and a final reversal. But how likely is catharsis? Is the mere sight of a public symbol of strength revealing weakness enough to move an audience in anything like the way the Strongman is moved? Placing a mute, nonviolent victim center stage and dramatizing his breakdown, the play asks an audience to feel for the Strongman, but in the absence of context it struggles to elicit empathy for him, despite going on for “quite some time.” Does he deserve this punishment? What provoked it? Paper Tomatoes works best on paper or if the narration is read aloud. Without the stage direction, “He uses all his strength to hold back his tears,” spectators likely miss the play’s central turn, its play on “strength” that revises our understanding [End Page 173] of the label, “Strongman.” Resisting tears, in this case, is the true feat of strength. Paper Tomatoes reminds us that the strong can also be vulnerable, but it does so whether we empathize with the Strongman or not.
Horace famously advised performers in The Art of Poetry, “Smiles are contagious; so are tears; to see / Another sobbing, brings a sob from me.”2 The Strongman teeters on the verge of tears; what about the viewer? Could a spectator develop intensities of feeling for the Strongman that approach what one might feel several hours into a tragedy watching Lear cradle the corpse of the daughter he helped undo? While shock or recognition or fear might occur in no time at all, does brevity militate against a familiar set of feelings characterized by deep absorption and shared understanding?
Focusing on a selection of microdramas from Suzan-Lori Parks’s marathon of the miniature, 365 Days/365 Plays, this essay suggests that genuine empathy— as opposed to automatic or sympathetic reactions—requires time to develop in audiences, and that the temporal demands of empathy pose a particular challenge for short performances that appeal to the emotions. The experience that interests me involves not only cursory identification or fellow feeling but a substantial understanding of another’s position, story, or experience. I use the term empathy to refer to experiences of this sort, while acknowledging the conflicting semantic baggage the term has accumulated. I focus here on the reception of a performance by an audience as opposed to the development of feeling among performers, a performer’s empathy for his or her character, or the accretion of feeling in staff or crew during rehearsal. The recurring rhythm of rehearsal often encourages deep and abiding emotional engagement with the material and with one’s collaborators, regardless of the length of the piece. But this essay explores situations that represent more challenging tests of the emotional machinery of the theater: cases in which spectators observe a performance for the first time about characters or situations with which they are at least partially unfamiliar.
Suzan-Lori Parks’s 365 Days/365 Plays provides a compelling, if idiosyncratic, contemporary case study. The result of a year-long compositional odyssey, 365 challenges audiences to invest in a varied series of mostly unrelated plays ranging in length from a few sentences to a few pages. Starting in November 2002, just after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog, Parks decided to compose a play a day for a year. She originally undertook the project as a private playwriting...