Monday, January 10, 2011
Catharsis in Walford
What nonsense all this is. The most unexpected people suddenly stop watching the programme, or write letters or post their ire on websites. People are upset to find this sort of thing in their living-rooms, and Mumsnet is raging. What's going on?
Classically, the purpose of drama - and particularly of tragedy - is catharsis: the purging of pity and terror. You watch the drama unfold, you become involved, you suspend disbelief, you weep, rage, gasp, feel fear and relief - and by the end, if it's been well done, you feel wrung out, devoid of all emotion. Judged by this set of criteria, EastEnders has got it about right, I'd say - except that people have forgotten the rules.
A few weeks ago I watched Patrick Stewart as Macbeth, in a strangely bleak production of Shakespeare's tragedy. For anyone who has forgotten the plot, Macbeth, a soldier, acts on the urgings of some strange women and murders his king. He then becomes king, but fears his best pal Banquo may suspect, so has him bumped off. He is more than somewhat annoyed that the inept thugs who do this for him fail to murder Banquo's wee boy. Later he has the wife and children of one of his former friends horribly murdered in their house as the children are getting ready for bed. That last bit is particularly horrid. I wasn't aware of cries of horror and demands that the play should never be put on again.
Or what about Hamlet, whom Shakespeare has plotting to murder his uncle for the whole length of a long play? In the course of trying to find the perfect moment, Hamlet bumps off the father of his girlfriend without knowing or caring who he is, sends his two best chums from school to certain death in a foreign country and acts in a totally unsuitable way towards his silly mother. Do people write angry letters about the portrayal of life with a step-father?
Course they don't. It's only a play, silly. So why do they think EastEnders is any different? Ronnie has been an unstable character for years - of course she's not going to get to be happy and fulfilled. Nor is she going to accept her lot if there's a chance of doing the dirty on someone else - we know this; we've been prepared for it. No-one would leave an hours-old baby in its cot in the care of its grandpa? Well yes, they would. People are wary of passing around a newborn - there's a sort of mystique, a fragility that binds a new baby to its mother, and if the mother is suddenly taken ill it's an alarming prospect for even the most gung-ho stranger to look after this tiny infant. And it was Hogmanay, and they were all drinking and Alfie is good-hearted but inept and Charlie has never been the most savvy of men.
If I were an EastEnders producer, I'd be thinking I'd succeeded here. Everyone's talking about it, it's on the news programmes and radio chat shows and in the serious Sundays as well as the red-tops. What more could they ask? So people seem to think it has to fulfil a public service role and show bereaved Ronnie behaving well and bravely - where's the mileage in that? This way, the story has legs. Jessie Wallace gets to act her socks off. It's not real life, whatever people have come to assume. It's a play. Fiction. Drama. Either watch it, or hit the remote.