For the last few days, I have been struggling to remember a quotation. It comes from a play I read for English A-level, and so perhaps that passage of time explains my struggle!
The play was called Comedians by Trevor Griffiths. It tells the story of a group of aspiring comics as they try-out for a talent scout, and as it runs its course it explores theories of comedy in quite a philosophical way. The quote in question, from one of the leading characters, runs something like: “Do we fear others so much that we mark their pain with laughter, our own with tears”.
What prompted my struggle to recall the quote was the fact that I have just finished reading The Hunger Games. I’ve not seen the recent film, but I found the book by Suzanne Collins both gripping and disturbing.
Without spoiling the plot for those who have yet to read it, the novel is set in a dystopian society, presumably at some point in the future, where the populace is kept thoroughly repressed by central government in retaliation for a failed rebellion. As part of the punishment for that rebellion, and to remind people who is in charge, a group of young people is selected each year to fight to the death until only a single survivor remains, in an extended orgy of violence known as the Hunger Games. The entire spectacle of the games, stretching over a period of weeks, is televised as an extended reality TV show.
That’s as far as I can go without spoiling the plot, but you get the picture. What on earth is the link between that and a play about budding comedians? I’ll try to explain.
I should state right away that I’m no fan of reality TV shows, so I guess the book played out well for me in that respect. I do realise, all the same, that our reality TV shows stop a long way short of mutual slaughter. And despite my dislike, I certainly don’t want to see them banned. Nor do I believe that all television should be educational, edifying, and focussed on staid moral principles. Life’s too short for all that.
But I have always had a nagging feeling that a part of the appeal of reality TV – only a part, but a significant part – is based on providing entertainment at the pain of others. Exposing people’s inescurities, making fools of people, exploiting people’s lack of self-insight – these all seem to me staples of reality TV shows. And whilst they may be a long way short of the murderous intent of the Hunger Games, I imagine it can be acutely painful for those involved.
As I said, I’m not after a ban, or even tighter regulation. The people who participate in reality shows usually have a choice. But as viewers we have a choice too – and for my part, it’s a choice I am trying exercise a little more consciously from now on.
How do we all choose to mark the pain of others – with tears of laughter, or with tears of empathy? It’s not a trivial question. In fact, I believe that how we choose to answer questions like these shapes the world we live in.
And if anyone knows the correct wording for that quote from Comedians, please tell me and put me out of my misery!