We’ve all seen it. The review that overcooks itself and praises a story for feeling or being ‘true’. I don’t like it when they do that, and here’s why:
– Surely it only really applies to a very familiar, i.e. naturalistic situation, in order for the judgement to be valid. That being the case, logically, anything abstract, speculative or fantastical is excluded forever. A play revolving around an intergalactic war (we’ve all written one of those, right?) couldn’t be described as ‘true’ because it’s based on events that *specifically* haven’t happened.
– Even if it’s naturalism, the concept of ‘truth’ is actually a bit dumb. ‘Carthage’ (the current, and apparently very good, Finborough show about social work) is written by former social worker Chris Thompson. I’m sure that with ten years experience of social work, he can write very truthfully about it – but then, he would, right? It’d be downright weird if he somehow engineered to write untruthfully about it. But every writer, sooner or later, has to examine subjects they don’t necessarily have first-hand experience of. It’s why research exists and continues to be
unpopular. Is it still ‘truthful’ when they do? If I wrote a play about social work then I’d want it to appear truthful – except it wouldn’t be, because I’m not one. Believing the ‘truth’ of a story in that context proves nothing more than that it’s been convincingly told – and liars are also adept at telling stories very well.
– ‘But actually Duncan’, you might say, ‘we’re talking about truth of emotion, rather than truth of circumstances’. I’d argue that that’s just a sentimental way of talking about how thoroughly and consistently the characters are constructed. That’s only ‘truth’ inasmuch as the characters always act in line with how the playwright’s created them to act. If the writer’s done a good job, the characters only ever do things that make sense in their emotional world (which is why ‘Breaking Bad’ is so terrific). If they haven’t, the characters are doing any old thing for any old f*cking reason and congratulations, you have unlocked the achievement ‘writing crap drama’.
– If you’re still feeling argumentative, you might wheel out verbatim at this stage and present it as theatre being ‘the literal truth’. Which is FINE, as long as it’s delivered in a COMPLETELY balanced fashion and isn’t edited or truncated in any way. At all. It probably wouldn’t hurt to accept also that the reasons for creating and putting on a theatre production are inherently partial and therefore representative of one side of an issue/situation or another. If there is one side, there must therefore be another, which means the whole exercise is subjective and ultimately a test of the ‘truth’ of your particular argument. I think one of the most interesting things about humans is that they can make an argument for absolutely everything.
Basically, next time you enthuse about how ‘true’ a piece of art is, remember that what you’re really saying is ‘I BELIEVED THIS’.