Graphic by Klaire Brezinski
By Trisha Mahoney, Editor-in-Chief
“Do you believe in God”
“Does it matter?”
These words in Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus’s adaptation of Crime and Punishment puzzled me. What was the message that the adapters were trying to share with the audience?
I was thrilled to be assigned as one of the three dramaturgs to MFA director, Michael Burke’s production of Crime and Punishment halfway through winter quarter of this year. I found the play compelling, if at times confounding.
Crime and Punishment, the play, is an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel of the same name. It is the story of Raskolnikov, a very poor, ex-college student who spends his time on his “Extraordinary Person Theory”. This theory states that there are two classifications of people: extraordinary and ordinary. Raskolnikov, who has uncertainty about his belief in religion, believes that these extraordinary people are allowed to commit a crime because they are the people furthering the human race with their revolutionary concepts. This goes head-to-head with the strict Catholic society which was deeply ingrained in the governing of Russia at the time where it was unbelievable that a non-religious individual could be a moral person.
During my first reading of the play, I could not decide whether this play was advocating for Christianity or not. Through my research, I knew that Dostoevsky’s original intent was to convince the sinful youth in Russia during the 1860s that they needed to return to the proper path of Christianity, which the society seemed to be straying away from. But the play made no such certain claims as the novel had. This caused me endless frustration as I wanted to know what the play was advocating for in its entirety.The ambiguous ending prevented me from distinguishing the adaptors’ intents.
Crime and Punishment is an exploration of ethics on the stage. The entire play is a battle between the personal, selfish code of ethics that Raskolnikov has established for himself and the established, selfless code of ethics that comes from Christianity as an organized religion.
The question that kept coming up to me was: What were people going to walk away from this play with? Were we spreading the message that Christianity is the only acceptable route to be a moral person? Or were we spreading the idea that religion was outdated and the only belief systems we should adhere to are the ones we create for ourselves? These seemed like two drastic points of view, neither of which I particularly agreed with.
As the weeks went on, I began to realize that there might not be an answer to this question that the play is willing to provide. This realization, at first, made me uncomfortable. I had always experienced plays that neatly packaged the moral of their stories with the completely finished plotline. It was pretty and neat and very Aesopian.
In this battle of ethical codes, shouldn’t we provide an answer for the audience? My concern was that our audience would walk away with the wrong answer. The wrong answer being something that doesn’t pertain to our modern society. In the case of Crime and Punishment, I was afraid that strongly advocating for everyone to return to traditional Russian Catholic Orthodoxy as the only way to not become a murderer might not really relate to our audience of university students majoring in theatre.
But this wasn’t a story solely about Catholicism. At its heart, it is truly about how people decide what is morally right or not. And in ethics, as in many things in life, there is often no wrong answer. Different people are going to have different answers to the same question. We all have different experiences and perspectives that will change how we think about our situations. What makes our world so fascinating is that we have the ability to share and explore these different perspectives.
That is what theatre should be. It should be an avenue where people can explore their beliefs. Plays should question people’s firmly held beliefs, not in the hopes to destroy them, but rather to open up new conversations.
Howard Barker, British playwright and theatre practitioner, writes in his “forty-nine asides for a tragic theatre” that “After the tragedy, you are not certain who you are.” Successful theatre should leave the audience with questions about themselves and the world that they live in.
If the theatre, as a reflection of society, is not the place to question our most firmly held beliefs, then where else will we do it?
It does not mean that we need to change our minds, but it gives us an avenue to explore other points of view. At the end of the performance and after some reflection, we are left with a stronger sense of our own ideals then what we started with.
Furthermore, Barker states, “It is not to insult an audience to offer it ambiguity.” I am advocating for a theatre that realizes the intelligence of its audience. There was a time when theatre could be used as a mindless escape from our day to day lives. But that is no longer the case. In an age where screens dominate and mindless clicking becomes our daily monotony, we have lost some of our ability to make personal connections to the people around us. Theatre can reinforce that connection, can get us to look up from our screens and experience a world other than the one we regularly live in.
The plays that have the power to wake us up are the shows that shake our core beliefs and make us think about the world around us. People today need a break from the mindless clickbait of the internet. Theatre should provide this through making the audience think, analyze, and question.
Crime and Punishment seemed to pose many problems for me at the beginning of the process. Now, I realize that this ambiguity wasn’t my issue. My issue was how uncomfortable I was with a theatre that did not tell me what to think. Theatre that I am most used to experiencing tells me exactly how to feel and what to think about a certain topic.
But isn’t it infinitely more interesting when we open our theatre to more possibilities? When we decide to confront questions that we might not have the answers to? I know that I, as a college sophomore, certainly do not have all of the answers. Why would I suppose that my theatre does? Instead, I am interested in the theatre because it allows me to think of possibilities and experiences that I would have never recognized otherwise. Why would I not allow my audience to experience that?