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Should Art Make Us Cry?

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Some of you may be wondering where the next Political History of the Future entry is. The answer is that there’s going to be a delay this month, first because a few prospects I was considering didn’t pan out, and second because I am currently on vacation and will be for another week and change. I’ve spent the last few days in London, and I am writing this post on a train headed west, on my way to spend a week at a vacation house with a large groups of friends. London tourism consisted of some museums, a substantial amount of shopping, and a lot of theater. In particular, I was very pleased to see that my trip would coincide with the Young Vic theater’s production of Fun Home, a Tony-winning musical that I managed to just miss on several occasions during its New York run.

Fun Home is based on the 2006 graphic memoir of the same name by Alison Bechdel. Many of you probably know Bechdel from the test that bears her name, but her main claim to fame is the indie comic strip Dykes to Watch Our For, one of the first pop culture works to take a continuous, non-sensational look at the lives of lesbian characters. In Fun Home, Bechdel looks back to her childhood and early adulthood to discuss her relationship with her father, Bruce, a polymath and perfectionist who died when she was in her late teens. The play maintains the book’s non-linear structure, with an adult Alison (played by Kaisa Hammarlund in the production I saw) looking back on the relationship with her father (Zubin Varla) had with “Small Alison” (Harriet Turnbull), a young child, and “Medium Alison” (Eleanor Kane), a teen who has left home for college and is just starting to acknowledge her sexuality. The crux of the play is spelled out by Alison a short way into it: “my father and I grew up in the same town; and I was gay, and he was gay. And he killed himself”.

It should go without saying given how much praise has been showered on Fun Home, but it is a genuinely excellent play. (It’s also a slightly cruel thing so say, since as far as I know, the Young Vic production is the last one of the play, and there are no new ones planned after it closes in early September.) The adaptation, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, does a really great job of capturing the emotional weight of the book while transposing it to a very different medium. The central figure of the story is Bruce, and Alison’s attempts to figure him out in the wake of her odd childhood, her discovery, shortly before his death, of his gayness, and of course his suicide. But the play also leaves room for other subplots, such as Medium Alison’s coming out (there’s a charming scene in which she embraces the moniker “dyke”, presaging her most influential work), or a heartbreaking scene in which Alison’s mother gives voice to decades of frustration over being married to a mercurial, domineering man who lied to her about some of the fundamental facts of his life, and expected her to put up with his infidelity.

Most importantly, the play keeps faith with the book in refusing to come to a conclusion about Bruce. We see him, alternately, as a damaged man desperate for connection, and a selfish bully who takes what he wants without thought for the hurt he causes others. For Alison, in addition, there is the tension between the father who shaped her opinions and taught her to strive for excellence, and the liar who condescendingly expects their relationship to remain unchanged even after she discovers his hypocrisy. What Fun Home ultimately concludes is that there is no way to resolve any of these contradictions. With Bruce gone, all Alison can do is try to remember him, but his death prevents any possibility of a real understanding between them.

None of this, however, is the reason I wanted to write about my experience watching Fun Home. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this on this blog, but my father died when I was young. Beyond that one point of similarity, there’s nothing about Bechdel’s story that relates to my life–I am not a lesbian; my father died of natural causes; and although he suffered from personal and professional stress near the end of his life (which my mother believes contributed to his death) he wasn’t as complicated or as hurtful as Bruce. And nevertheless, very shortly into the play, I felt a moment of profound recognition, when I realized that the Alisons, as I have done for much of my life, were looking for their father. Trying to understand a man that they had never really gotten to know, and now never could.

At which point I started to cry, and didn’t really stop until the lights came back on. I don’t think I was audibly sobbing, but it was enough that the woman sitting next to me stopped to ask if I was OK before leaving the theater (whoever you are, thank you). This is not a thing that tends to happen to me. Sure, I’ll tear up at the appropriate moment in a Pixar movie, but something like this–genuine, uncontrollable sorrow at a ¬†work of fiction–isn’t in my vocabulary. I know that there are people who wear their emotional reactions to culture more prominently on their sleeves, but that’s never been my approach. Fun Home seemed to cut through that with remarkable ease.

And the thing is, I’m not sure I like it. This is not a criticism of the play, which, once again, is excellent. But I’m not sure I appreciate being made to feel so much at what is, after all, an entertainment. I want the culture I consume to move and affect me, but not necessarily to overwhelm me. I’m not even sure that it’s a point in the play’s favor that I had the reaction I did, since as much as I was moved by the fine writing, acting, and music, the reaction I had probably had as much to do with where I am in my life, the fact that I saw the play just a few weeks after my father’s yahrtzeit, or simply the fact that I wasn’t familiar with the music before seeing it (in comparison, the other musical I saw this week, Hamilton, is one whose soundtrack I’ve known virtually by heart for nearly three years, and as much as I enjoyed getting to see the show it inevitably lacked the immediacy of my first listen). I don’t think how we react to art should rely on whether it manages to press on a particular wound, and whether that wound is particular tender at that moment–I can’t help but feel, in fact, that in reacting the way I did I was almost doing Tesori and Kron a disservice, overlaying my feelings on the story they wanted to tell and the reactions they wanted to elicit.

So I’d like to open this topic to the floor: how do you feel about this? Does art make you cry, and is that something you look for? Do you think that’s something artists should strive for, and if so, does it mean they’ve failed if they haven’t managed to evoke such a personal reaction from each audience member? Have you ever had an experience like mine, and did you appreciate it? Over to you.

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