A Guide to Writing Plays
that Transform Human Consciousness
More primordial; than any idea, beauty will be manifested as the herald and generator of ideas.
Teilhard de Chardin
The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate how playwrights and often their critics consciously or unconsciously give answers to the Three Great Questions. It supports our contention that truth reveals itself in artistic expression intuitively. Truth and beauty must be experienced, they cannot be understood intellectually. Both must be “lived,” they must be heartfelt. The art of the theatre is at its best an adventure of the heart that occurs in the present moment.
A quick review of human consciousness will also reveal the ideal structure of a play. All individuals and collectives have a worldview (beliefs, attitudes and values) which determines their identity which in turn drives their behavior. Our worldview is our answer to the First Great Question (Where am I?) just as our identity derived from our worldview is the answer to the second Great Question (Who am I?). Our behavior or answer to the Third Great Question (Why am I here?) is made up of our responses or a healthy acceptance of my life’s circumstances or reactions which are self-destructive acts of resistance and rejection of what appears to be the reality of life.
A play, like life itself, is composed of characters expressing their True self identity acting with compassion in the present moment or more likely, expressing their unconscious false-selves behaving badly in pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power. There has yet to be a playwright who has consciously written a play aware of the three key distinctions. If so, we would see the characters on stage clearly struggling with the choice between creating a healthy narrative (Paradigm A) or an unhealthy, illusory context (Paradigm B). On-stage characters would also portray some awareness that they have a choice between a delusional identity (a suffering false self) and a reality-based identity (True self). We would also see some awareness among the characters regarding the distinction between reactions (self-destructive behaviors) and responses (life-enhancing behaviors). Imagine the excited discussion that would occur following such a revelatory theatre experience.
The First Great Question: Where am I?
A playwright who feels the need to address the First Great Question will have to confront the distinction between her intellect and her intuition. Nothing profound will happen on stage without a conscious or more likely unconscious surrender to her deeper sensibilities. She must find the courage to challenge the ages old faith in “the creature that reasons.”
Arthur Miller sensed this dilemma and portrayed it as a conflict in his play The Creation of the World and Other Business (1972). Adam and Eve are tempted by Lucifer (symbolizing their respective intellects and their false-self temptations), to follow him rather than their own intuition (their natural compassion or True self); to “Fall” into unconsciousness rather than to remain awake and “present” in Paradise.
“Would not the experience of being the first man and woman constitute the first comedy as well as the first tragedy? This is the question Miller appears to have posed for himself in this play, for Adam and Eve do not know what to do. Not having a history of feelings about God, about humanity, and about their sexuality, they must discover their sentiments about all of these things, and Lucifer would like to show them the shortcuts, to rationalize life, to avoid conflict [and suffering] before it begins. In order to follow him, however, Adam and Eve must accept the primacy of intellect over love [compassion].” This archetypal choice faces everyone in the global village every moment of every day.
Arthur Miller thus revealed the universal and timeless choice faced by humankind in his play/parable. We all begin our journey through life by choosing a worldview, a narrative that will be the context and provide the motivation for all our subsequent choices because it will determine our identity. Like Adam and Eve in Miller’s play most of us choose to follow Lucifer’s suggestions.
Shakespeare’s audience watching Othello on the Elizabethan stage saw Iago facing the same temptation that Adam and Eve experienced in Miller’s play. “Like Shakespeare’s other great villains, Iago is a supreme individualist, acknowledging no authority or power beyond himself. That this attitude was a copy of Satan’s would not have escaped the attention of Shakespeare’s audience, which no doubt interpreted the plot as a replay of the Fall of Man.”
The “Fall of Man” in the Genesis myth correctly understood has nothing to do with sin, the serpent or temptation but rather humankind making a catastrophically poor choice. Choosing Paradigm B over Paradigm A was in fact choosing an illusion over reality, choosing unconsciousness over awareness. The “Fall” was humankind choosing to sleep through life rather than live with full awareness in the NOW.
Choosing the healthier paradigm (P-A) does not involve doing battle with Lucifer so much as accepting or responding to life on its own terms. T. S. Eliot might have sensed this as he put Archbishop Thomas Becket on stage. “Becket’s understanding in Murder in the Cathedral, that salvation is a willing submission to a larger pattern [P-A] is developed and tempered in the latter social comedies.” Even in the most challenging of life’s tragedies we would all do well to retain our sense of humor.
In addition to a sense of humor, we are more likely to experience the insight of Oneness as our answer to the First Great Question if we maintain our heartfelt sense of wonder. Christopher Fry seems to affirm the perfection of Creation in The Lady’s Not for Burning (1948). “In Fry’s view, mankind has domesticated the enormous miracle of life and become deadened to the wonder which is everywhere available. Fry attempts to give voice to his sense of the miracle of life with the language of poetry; he derisively identifies prose on the stage with the tinkle of breakfast cups. Fry makes it clear that ‘poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement.’”
Oneness is the worldview that recognizes that all of Creation is interconnected, interrelated and interdependent. As Fry understood, Creation when experienced by a conscious person is indeed miraculous and described more aptly in the heartfelt language of poetry rather than intellect-driven prose.
Within P-B there is rarely any profound understanding of reality but that doesn’t stop the intellect from offering explanations. In the play J.B. (1958) by Archibald MacLeish, Job’s friends offer their explanations for his suffering. “Bildad offers a Marxist explanation, Eliphaz, a Freudian one, and Zophar puts forth theological arguments. For example, Bildad ‘praises collectivism as the ultimate solution to man’s pain,’ and that ‘guilt is a sociological accident.’ Eliphaz, the Freudian, explains the suffering associated with guilt as ‘a psychophenomenal situation.’ The religious explanation is represented by Zophar who remarks that ‘All mankind are guilty always.’”
Guilt, shame and regret only make sense in the mind of a person living in the past beyond the awareness of the True self found in the present moment. “Your social structure, from the largest metropolis to the smallest farm, from the wealthiest areas to the poorest ghettos, from the monasteries to the prisons, reflects the inner situation of the individual self and the personal beliefs that each of you hold.” Seth holds that we each create our own reality and that our beliefs are the genesis of that story.
The Second Great Question: Who am I?
Identity is the experience of oneself in relation to the world. Our identity is our destiny because it determines our behavior. The process of building a false-self survival strategy, the fruitless pursuit of plenty, pleasure, and power, results from “who” we “think” we are, not the result of who we really are. As Sakyong Rinpoche states so clearly: “Running around trying to alleviate our suffering obscures our true nature—basic goodness—which is clear and unchanging. The wisdom and love beneath the clutter of negativity are natural and permanent.”
Playwrights who profoundly understand what is happening on stage will realize that their characters are struggling, for the most part unconsciously, with the choice between expressing their True self or their dysfunctional false self. Hence, the audience will be similarly confronted with the distinction between the two fundamental identities as the drama on stage unfolds. Because of the compelling reality taking place before them, each audience member cannot help but be riveted by a struggle that they have long felt is a personal but little understood dilemma.
Shakespeare showed he was not unaware of the choice between a True self and a false-self identity in The Tempest. “When he [Prospero] acknowledges Caliban, ‘this thing of darkness,’ as his own, one realizes that this gesture betokens an internal acceptance of the passions as a legitimate part of his nature.”
Similarly, in Hamlet, the self-destructive nature of the false self attempting to gain power backfires revealing the perfect justice of the law of cause and effect. “The trap motif can be seen to represent effectively the doomed, claustrophobic atmosphere of the play. Indeed, those who deliberatively [deliberately] set traps in the play—Polonius [hiding behind the curtain and accidentally slain by Hamlet], Claudius [slain by Hamlet after accidentally poisoning his wife], Laertes [slain by Hamlet with the poison sword meant for Hamlet]—find that those traps snap back to catch the ‘inventor.’ Throughout the action as well, one becomes aware that Shakespeare is using the theatrical metaphor ‘All the world’s a stage’ to illustrate the way in which deceit and corruption can be masked.”
Shakespeare’s characters like their author started life choosing their own narrative and thus their own tortured identities. It is in the first choice that the stage was set for a tragedy. In King Lear the tortured monarch realizes too late that the story he believed to be true all his life was an illusion and that the identities of virtually all around him were hidden by the “masks” of their false selves. Only one, his daughter Cordelia, was able to express the authentic compassion of her True self and Lear realized this too late to save himself or her.
“Lear must strip away the coverings of civilization to discover ‘unaccommodated man,’ a discovery he begins to make too late; just as he realizes that Cordelia represents those qualities of truth and compassion that he has been lacking, she is suddenly and violently taken from him.” Can today’s playwrights find the courage to stage plays that confront the audience in such a way that they come to realize that King Lear is not only a tragic figure but that they are Lear.
The Third Great Question: Why am I here?
But words are words; I never yet did hear,
That the bruis’d heart was pierced through the ear.
Brabantio in Shakespeare’s Othello
This last “act” of our guide is about the explicit warning as to what any profound theatre piece must have. Shakespeare knew this when he warned about uncontrolled self-destructive reactions. In other words, why must we respond rather than react to the gift of life we have been given? We should defend ourselves against sticks and stones to be sure but reacting to taunts is beneath our dignity. As Michelle Obama so astutely observed when she recommended choosing response over reaction: “When they go low, we go high.”
What is the distinction between response and reaction? Ken Wilber quotes Heinz Hartmann, who seems to understand reaction and response, and can take us deeper into the psychology of reaction. “Evolution to Heinz Hartmann [the founder of psychoanalytic developmental psychology] is a process of progressive ‘internalization,’ for, in the development of the species, the organism achieves increased independence from its environment, the result of which is that reactions [italics ours] which originally occurred in relation to the external world are increasingly displaced into the interior of the organism. The more independent the organism becomes, the greater its independence from the stimulation of the immediate environment.” In other words, we can learn to transcend the triggers of our former conditioning.
It is not that I am incapable of anger, for instance, but I succeed on almost all occasions to keep my feelings under control.
Understanding that we have control over our behavior is critical to whether we can ever change our life’s narrative and Deepak Chopra understood this. “In other words, most of us—even though we are infinite choice-makers—have become bundles of conditioned reflexes that are constantly being triggered by people and circumstances into predictable outcomes of behavior. Our reactions seem to be automatically triggered by people and circumstances, and we forget that these are still choices that we are making in every moment of our existence. We are simply making these choices unconsciously.” We have to stop doing that!
We (individuality and collectively) create our own reality. Therefore, to create our reality and then go into afflictive reaction to that reality is an exercise in absurdity. Or as Chopra puts it: “Today I will accept people, situations, circumstances, and events as they occur. This means I will know that this moment is as it should be, because the whole universe is as it should be.” We live within a perfect Creation but our intellect, upon which we have become overly dependent, is incapable of comprehending that perfection.
Our intuition, however, is capable of experiencing creation’s perfection in the present moment and that is the answer to what we are here for. Again, Shakespeare intuited that humankind could wake up, Adam and Eve could arise from their slumber and realize that they were still in the Garden of Eden. “The general outlook of the romances is optimistic, suggesting that man is indeed capable of recovering from the Fall and of creating a new Paradise.” Critic Frank Magill is referring to Shakespeare’s romantic plays Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.
If Shakespeare had profound insights into the nature of reality, how are our modern playwrights doing? First would have to come the recognition of the tragedy of humanity’s worldview. Paradigm B is creating a global village of unconscious people who are expressing self-destructive reactions. We can use Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee to represent the current state of awareness showing up on the American stage.
“As is true of the characters at the end of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Tobias’ tragedy is that he has come to self-knowledge too late to act upon the new recognition. This is perhaps Albee’s central perception in A Delicate Balance: that time diminishes the possibilities for human choice and change. Try as he might, it is now too late for Tobias to break out of the pattern, and so he is condemned to living out his days with an awareness of how little he has become, since he lacks the comforting illusions of propriety and magnanimity that Agnes [his wife] can call upon for solace. He has seen his soul, and he has found it wanting, and things can never be the same again. For Tobias, in what is Albee’s most beautiful play, the ‘delicate balance’ that everyone erects as a shelter has tipped, but not in his favor. As Agnes muses, ‘Time happens,’ and all that remains is rust, bones, and wind. These are Albee’s hollow people for whom the dark never ends.” For Tobias, the illusion of his false-self survival strategy has collapsed.
The plays of both O’Neill and Albee are indeed “dark” and express their respective worldviews and at the same time reveal their insights that something is indeed woefully wrong with the American worldview. Their audiences have been challenged over the years with the unavoidable question: Is it just these two morose men or is it all of us?
The audience must never be let off the hook for their own sake no matter how uncomfortable it is to look at America’s beliefs, attitudes and values. Both O’Neill’s and Albee’s characters are imprisoned in the illusion of man-made “time.” Transcending the human construct we call time and coming into the present moment, the possibility of change and freedom never ends giving humanity the choice of freedom at any time during their lifetime. The door to the prison of Paradigm B is never locked and the prison itself is an illusion. Albee expresses this insight in his play Seascape (1974).
“No sooner has Nancy finished her admonition to Charlie [her husband] that they ‘try something new’ than the opportunity presents itself in the appearance of Leslie and Sarah, two great green talking lizards come up from the sea. Their arrival, a startling yet delightful coup de theatre, raises the work to the level of parable and allegory: Leslie and Sarah, existing at some pre-human stage on the evolutionary scale, serve as recollections of what the older couple’s heritage was eons ago—as well as of what Charlie desires to become once again. Leslie and Sarah, like Harry and Edna in A Delicate Balance, are afraid not of the prospect of dying and finding nothingness or the void but of the challenge of becoming more highly developed, which is to say more human and morally responsible creatures. Life in the sea [P-B], un-terrifying because a known quantity, was also more restricted and limiting. What inspires them to seek something more are the inklings of a sense of wonder [intuition], of awe, and of a childlike enthusiasm—qualities Nancy possesses in abundance. Their choice, then, exactly parallels Charlie’s: They can make do by settling for less than a full life, or they can expand their lives qualitatively by becoming conscious of themselves as thinking and feeling beings, though that requires a willingness to experience consciously suffering and joy [P-A].”
T.S. Eliot’s work evolved from his play Murder in the Cathedral (1935) to The Cocktail Party (1949). He seemed, in his later work at least, to emphasize the importance of a human awakening which we believe he labeled “reconciliation” in the following sentence. “Eliot’s ideal vision of verse drama is one in which ‘a design of human action and of words’ is perpetuated in such a way that the connection between the everyday world and the universal design is illustrated; such a drama, Eliot believed, would provide the proper feeling of ‘reconciliation’ to lead the audience to a spiritual awakening.” The universal design Eliot speaks of is the context of P-A and the “proper feeling” would be the ability to respond, a human expression that occurs only in the present moment.
So, there we have it, fellow playwrights. If we are to fulfill our Divine commission as co-creators of consciousness itself, we dare not let the audience escape the full implications of Simple Reality. We are all face-to-face with the serpent offering the poison apple chock-full of sleep-inducing anesthetics. Most of us have chosen to avoid our true identity and thus the responsibility of choosing a life-enhancing response to a narrative in which paradise embraces us with its bounty. Of course, our art must shock the audience out of its cowardly lethargy or else we miss the opportunity to express our compassion which is at the center of a life lived in an awakened state.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.