In Praise of Self Pity

The tears shed by the audience at a Victorian melodrama come under the heading of a good cry. They might be called the poor man’s catharsis, and as such have a better claim to be the main objective of popular melodrama than its notorious moral pretensions. Besides referring to superficial emotion, the phrase “having a good cry” implies feeling sorry for oneself. The pity is self-pity. But, for all its notorious demerits, self-pity has its uses. E. M. Forster even says it is the only thing that makes bearable the feeling of growing old—in other words, that it is a weapon in the struggle for existence. Self-pity is a very present help in time of trouble, and all times are times of trouble.

Once we have seen that our modern antagonism to self-pity and sentiment goes far beyond the rational objections that may be found to them, we realize that even the natural objections are in some measure mere rationalization. Attacks on false emotion often mask a fear of emotion as such. Ours is, after all, a thin-lipped, thin-blooded culture. Consider how, in the past half-century, the prestige of dry irony has risen, while that of surging emotion has fallen. This is a cultural climate in which a minor writer like Jules Laforgue can rate higher than a major one like Victor Hugo. Or think of our changed attitude to death. Would any age but this receive the death of admired persons “with quiet understatement”? We may think that Mr. Auden pours his heart out in his good poem on the death of Yeats, but just compare Mr. Auden’s poem with the product of more old-fashioned culture, say, with Garcia Lorca’s “Lament for the Death of Ignacio Mejias”! Would even Lorca’s title be possible in English? Is lamenting something we can imagine ourselves doing? On the contrary we modernize the Greek tragedies by deleting all variants of “woe is me.” If Christ and Alexander the Great came back to life, we would teach them to restrain their tears.

Once I did see death done justice to. An Italian actor came on stage to announce the death of a colleague. He did indeed lament. He shook, he wept, he produced streams of passionate rhetoric, until the audience shook, and wept, and lamented with him. Now that is self-pity, certainly. One is not sorry for a corpse; one is sorry for oneself, deprived; and in the background is the fear of one’s own death. But so much the better for self-pity. The experience was had, not refused.

The Life of the Drama, Eric Bentley
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What is the point of drama?

The point of writing about the extremes of human behaviour is not to discourage wickedness by pointing out the inevitability of it’s comeuppance: “Don’t do this at home'” is as misleading a description of what writing counsels “Go thou and do likewise.” The awful truth is that the response most great writing about wickedness provokes in us is neither “Yes please” nor “No thanks”, but “You too?” Richard III celebrates, nay, glorifies activities – brother-drowning, nephew-smothering, tyranny imposing – that have no redeeming social value at all. True, he gets his just deserts. But what the first half of the play does is to confront us with the fact that this appalling man is the most vivid, thrilling and inspiring person onstage. Eric Bentley points out that while tragedy does not reflect the audience’s actions (they have not committed murder),  it “reflects their souls, and in their souls they have committed murder.” By enabling us to imagine what it is like to see the world through other eyes (including through the eyes of the violent and the murderous), drama develops capacities without which we cannot live together in societies at all.

How Plays Work, David Edgar