I’ve never spent a lot of time asking myself about “my purpose in life.” One does, of course, in writing your college admissions essay, but after that it’s catch as catch can. There’s your mission statement for your theatre company, dozens of grant applications in which you’re required to tell how your staging of KING LEAR will save the world, and you get to the point where you can bang that off pretty glibly. You can even convince yourself you believe it.
Still, it’s been a long road since I first became immersed in high school theatre as a way to meet girls. I don’t think my work will remotely impact the state of the world, any more than giving a buck to a beggar will solve poverty or even turn his life around. But why then do I put it out there?
First off, I guess, because I believe that one gift in one moment, tiny though it is, is a worthy act. Our lives are made up of tiny moments and tiny gifts. I don’t know, can’t know, if our show on Sunday for eleven people added richness, fullness, renewal to anyone’s life—or would have if it’d been eleven thousand—but we do what we can, whatever the sum of the pocket change. Your mileage may vary.
For me, the great crying thirst of the world is for empathy. Politicians preach empathy for those who will vote for them, but the greatest need is for a feeling with the other. We accuse our opponents of being “soft on communism,” “soft on crime,” all that: we want leaders whose hardness is credible, implacable. We want to be led by rhinos.
One of Shakespeare’s achievements is his empathy with villains. Not that we want Edmund or Iago or Macbeth to win, but we’re induced to see the world—and themselves—from their perspective. I’m a great fan of political satire, be it in cartoons or out of the mouths of comics, but these shorthand modes of making a point leapfrog over the harder job of a clear perception of what drives Putin or Trump or Kim Jong Un or the mugger, the bond trader, the ideologue or the knacker. Empathy is a luxury item, only to be worn on Easter Sunday.
Performing or writing, for me, is a drop in the vast bucket of human experience. It may, rarely, mark its tattoo on another’s life. It may— Well, I know a couple who met by argument in the lobby of one of our shows. It may be a passing moment: “That was pretty funny . . .” But if, in that fifty minutes or two hours that you have their focus, or the time it takes them to plow through your novel, you can induce them to feel what each of your characters feels, you’ve offered them the greatest gift. You’ve offered them humanity.