Wicked Empathy

Empathy – noun. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

I’ve been trying to empathise more. 

I want my writing to be empathetic. 

Some may consider creative writing to be an opportunity to convey their world-view to a wider audience, to instruct or enlighten people in certain ideas. When working creatively with history, I think that this creative view can often take precedence – to ‘teach’ the audience something about the past, or to warn against ‘history repeating itself’. These creative ambitions have their place, but above all, I want to use my writing as a way to empathise with a range of views and ideas, through my characters. 

Yes – it can be incredibly moving, and rewarding to see figures on stage whose worldview is similar to ours, or who may be in a similar situation to our own. I recently attended Primavera Sound music festival and found myself crying at some of the headline acts. Why? Because for the first time the festival committed to a 50/50 gender split, and I saw women on stage being powerful and singing about things that matter to me, such as body positivity, vaginas, and sushi. (Shout out to the queens Lizzo, Shonen Knife, Miley Cyrus, and Janelle Monae.)[1]

Lizzo at Primavera Sound 2019 (Photo – Poppy Corbett)

Representation matters, there’s no question of that. And representation is lacking in many areas of theatre, there’s no question of that either. However, I also believe that we need more than just constantly only seeing ourselves and our opinions on stage, otherwise the opportunity to expand and challenge our worldview will be limited.

In his creative writing textbook ‘Story’, Robert McKee writes about the importance of empathy to the creative process: “Empathetic means ‘like me.’ Deep within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared humanity. Character and audience are not alike in every fashion, of course; they may share only a single quality. But there’s something about the character that strikes a chord. In that moment of recognition, the audience suddenly and instinctively wants the protagonist to achieve whatever it is he desires […] Hollywood has many synonymic expressions for this connection: ‘somebody to get behind,’ ‘someone to root for.’”[2]

The creative challenge I am edging towards is to push myself to engage with the unpalatable. To consider that perhaps the unpalatable can become palatable when translated through art. To empathise with the wicked. After all, isn’t one of the points of theatre to sit in the dark and process uncomfortable feelings and recognise secretly held opinions you have acted out on stage? Perhaps this view is contentious – I think sometimes that empathy with the unpalatable is seen somehow as a weakness, or a betrayal. How is it possible to empathise with, say, Donald Trump? He’s just… horrible? 

Well, a great majority of the people in our research have done horrible things to other people. 

Some examples of unfathomable horrific acts from our research include: 

  • 1807 – a woman and her children killed Pelet, a poor man who had the reputation of a witch 
  • 1821 – a man is murdered by his own brothers during an unwitching ceremony 
  • 1907 – a murdered baby is found in a well, his share-croppers had killed it, under instruction from a local witch.[3]

And I need to ask why. And I need to understand these people who murder other people. And I think in order to do this I need to empathise with them. 

I remember when I started to go to the theatre with my partner, I was amazed at which characters he seemed to empathise with. Take the story / musical Matilda. It’s obviously Matilda we should empathise with – the small, abused girl who the story is focalised through? Or if not Matilda, the cowed and kind Miss Honey? But my partner had another view – Mr and Mrs Wormwood should be empathised with – they are members of the aspirational working class. (Mrs Wormwood is a finalist in a dance competition – and after all, don’t we all love dance competitions?) Yet the audience are invited to mock the Wormwoods, and something felt uncomfortable about that. And indeed, Miss Trunchbull might be a figure to be empathised with too – although my partner disagreed ‘with her approach to pedagogy’, she had won medals in the Olympics, and that hard work was to be respected. She may be a bully to the children, but in turn they bully her back – and perhaps the deeper story of Matilda is how abusive behaviours are dangerously inherited, and copied. 

(Poppy attempting to empathise with Matilda – photo, author’s own)

I can see the importance and appeal in shifting the focus of empathy like this, and I try and play the ‘empathy game’ at the theatre now – who are we encouraged to empathise with, and is there something problematic about that position? Who is the ‘villain’ of the story, and can we empathise with them at all? Perhaps it’s one of the reasons I enjoy the musical Wicked so much – it is a story focalised through the ‘villain’ of another piece of art, Elphaba – the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. We empathise with Elphaba, and the musical offers her complexity, as well as problematising Galinda the ‘good’ witch too. 

Production photo: Joan Marcus, 2017. 

I look to other playwrights to teach me how to empathise. James Graham is a playwright who I think is a master of pushing his audiences to empathise with characters who they may not outside of the theatre. I found myself horrified watching his historical play Ink to find that I was empathising with and ‘getting behind’ the main character – Rupert Murdoch. Even with my contemporary knowledge, I really wanted Murdoch to succeed, and was inspired by him as a character. In an interview with the Guardian, Graham explained some of the reasons for his focus on Murdoch, and attempt to understand him: 

“I can see why he connects with Donald Trump because I think there’s a weird kind of loneliness to both men. They struggle to get really close to people […] I know political writers out there will think my plays are toothless, that what we need desperately is to be loud and aggressive and hold people to account. And people should write those plays, they are just never going to be my plays. I’m more interested in trying to understand people I don’t necessarily agree with, try to understand their motivations and why they feel what they do.”[4]

The approach to empathise with ‘bad’ people, particularly real life people is certainly risky.[5]There’s a brilliant Guardian dialogue between James Graham and Carole Cadwalladr about Graham’s TV drama Brexit: An Uncivil War, which focused on Dominic Cummings. Cadwalladr accuses Graham of “laundering Cummings’ reputation” through messing with the historical record, whilst Graham speaks about the creative team’s challenge of “how to invite different audience members, who voted differently, into a space that doesn’t immediately yell at them: ‘You’re wrong and we’re right. And you’re not welcome here.’”[6]

I truly believe that one of the aims of artists working in theatre should be to invite new audiences into the space, and to increase access to the arts, which is what I think Graham’s work achieved. However, I’m equally sympathetic to Cadwalladr’s viewpoint –  one of the things that I am acutely aware of in art is that often when I go to the theatre I see work that actually performs what it intends to critique. (So a supposedly ‘feminist’ play, actually turns out to be incredibly misogynistic…) When you write about people whose views you disagree with, how is it possible to empathise and understand, but not perpetuate or encourage those views? Is this balance possible? How far does empathy go, until it become just perpetuating a worldview through a piece of art that actually you are opposed to. 

I think playwrights should challenge themselves to empathise with people whose views they find perplexing or abhorrent. The playwright Sarah Kosar, whose play Armadillo is currently at The Yard Theatre, is another writer who inspires me through the way she seeks to understand such complexity in people, rather than resorting to binaries. Armadillo is a play about gun ownership, and rather than writing about the horrors of owning a gun, Kosar wanted to challenge herself to write perhaps what might be labelled a ‘pro-gun’ play, in order “to understand why somebody would want a gun”. In an interview with the Evening Standard, Kosar explains “I want to have a moral grappling and things to not be so clear cut. I want us to understand why somebody wants a gun. We might not agree with that but we’re kind of rooting for her if that’s what she needs […] I think right now we’re too binary: this is good, this is bad, this is right, this is wrong.”[7]

Armadillo at The Yard Theatre. Photo – Maurizio Martorana

I agree with Kosar’s stance. I want to empathise with ideas and views I don’t understand. I want to use theatre to do this. So the next question is… how? My next blog will cover this and detail the creative writing approaches I am trying to use to empathise with the wicked… 


[1]https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-48484558

[2]Story, Robert McKee, p.141. 

[3]Taken from Will Pooley’s research – ‘known cases’

[4]https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jul/03/james-graham-rupert-murdoch-the-sun-play-ink-almeida

[5]I should probably just make completely clear that I don’t believe in the binaries of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ people, but you understand what I mean, I hope…

[6]https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/jan/07/you-whitewashed-the-corruption-james-graham-and-carole-cadwalladr-on-brexit-the-uncivil-war

[7]https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/theatre/sarah-kosar-interview-armadillo-yard-theatre-a4159731.html

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3 thoughts on “Wicked Empathy

    1. Yes, I completely agree and I’m glad you also think that theatre teaches empathy! And that’s a great point about how the focus of an audience member’s empathy can change if they see the same performance more than once – that’s a good sign that all the characters are really complex and engaging.

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      1. Some people have asked me how do I know so much about musicals if I have never been in them myself. It does come from actually going to them- and analyzing them. It is easier to do that as you get older- analyze a musical at a much deeper level.

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