Is it possible, even beneficial, to believe in despair? At the end of Martin Crimp’s version of The Misanthrope, currently running at the Comedy Theatre, the title’s namesake triumphantly declares to his shallow coterie: “I believe in despair”. His bitter valediction to the vapid and duplicitous celebrity “court”, which he is finally able to turn his back on, still remains the most powerful and fascinating sentiment of the play.
Aptly perhaps the most discussed element of this production has been Keira Knightley’s debut West End performance. Enough, if not too much, has already been said on that matter. She does a grand job; assured, and sufficiently mischievous as the young Hollywood star. She sparkles, but doesn’t quite dazzle. Say no more.
Much more interesting, however, is quite how pertinent Crimp’s adaptation of The Misanthrope is, and the questions it asks, of our present times. Transposed from the court of Louis XIV to the malicious world of actors and journalists today, the play’s preoccupation with endemic apathy and the toleration of sycophancy and hypocrisy means it overflows with barbed aphorism on how we might cope with life’s trials with least detriment to ourselves.
To wit: how, without becoming mad, bad and bitter, do you digest the phony fallout which has flowed so readily from parts of the City and No 10 regarding the reasons which led us into Britain’s deepest postwar recession? Or there’s the recent Copenhagen debacle and the transparent gloss and publicity gloop smeared over the conference’s failings by smiling delegates. Should we just smile meekly back? That’s the easy option after all.
The oracle for all such “positive psychology”—as it has been marketed—is Alceste’s sidekick. Very little is often made in review or criticism of the play of Alceste’s friend: Philinte in Moliere’s original, but in Crimp’s version known simply as John. Often the sole recipient of Alceste’s bitter rants on the failings of humanity, John’s response is continually one of serene apathy. The world is imperfect and meaningless to him, so one can and must only remain calm—he often sounds like a young Michael Winner—and indifferent to its provocations and imperfections. One must smile in the face of adversity if you are to survive.
Philinte is often seen as the dull, but measured and benign figure of the piece, but there is something about Crimp’s captivating production, and Dominic Rowan’s performance, which made manifest just how sinister his disposition is: the equivalent of a philosophical and cultural Prozac, telling Alceste continually to “calm down,” and “cheer up.” Alceste rightly or wrongly turns on John: you make life meaningless by accepting all, and distract yourself in the pursuit of “fun.”
But I wonder if the time has come for the Alcestes of this world to be given more of a voice? As rising unemployment force more and more of us to submerge ourselves in similar philosophical balm—I’ve lost count of the number of spam emails I’ve received titled “How to stay positive in a recession”— I wonder, and the play certainly suggests this, if there isn’t some value in despair, or at least entertaining the possible value of despair.
For all its agonies, dejection can inject a level of deeper awareness into a situation that can lead to the right action: to acknowledge that something is a genuine injustice is harder and more painful, but arguably more effective than optimistically smiling in the face of a tragedy (read: lost potential, for that is what my generation is currently facing in the job market stakes).
I predict 2010 will be a year that embraces despair as a comfort and potential for remuneration . And a book to be published next month by Barbara Ehrenreich, vividly titled Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & the World, sets out to offer a counter argument to the Philinte/John approach. Ehrenreich’s contention is that we are addicted to positive thinking in the west; infantilised by an addiction which has allowed us to brush off a multitude of social ills, from poverty, to disease, to unemployment. I can’t recommend this devastating critique of bland positivity enough. I shall not, however, be impelling you to “enjoy!”