Escape or Escapism?
“Art is not amnesia, and the popular idea of books as escapism, or diversion, misses altogether what art is,” states British essayist Jeanette Winterson in her essay The Semiotics of Sex. In this statement, Winterson presents the idea that art should act as a window into the viewer’s internal conundrum of emotion, instead of as a vehicle to transport an individual’s attention outside himself or herself. Winterson believes art to be “the realisation of complex emotion,” allowing the viewer to come in confrontation with “desires encased in dark walls of what one ought to desire;” these wishes are constituted by any yearning that has been oppressed so an individual could conform to societal niceties. These desires are left unclear in the essay, permitting the reader to fill in the ambiguity with the recognition of their own longings. Winterson believes that art should not act as an escapist vehicle for the viewer and their hidden desires. Plato’s vision of art differs greatly from Winterson’s. As he stated in The Republic: Book X, “imitators [artists] copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach.” This presents Plato’s theory that artist’s only create fiction; producing imitations of real life and thus suggesting that the audience’s experience will be escapist as they are indulging in a pretence. Plato’s idea that all art is a form of escapism greatly clashes with Winterson’s belief that art is not aimed to be a diversion. This conflict between principles presents the question of what exactly is escapist art and what is its purpose in society? To answer this question one must first understand the definition of escapism. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines escapism as a “habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine.” When applied to art, this encompasses everything from music, movies and theatre. When focusing on theatre, Dr. John Dolman, a professor of University of Pennsylvania brings valid insight on the role and effects of escapist theatre during World War II. Dolman declares “Escapism in art is not, in itself, necessarily bad,” He believes that all minds, regardless of their intellect, require some sort of ‘vacation’. Dolman explores the effects of comedic theatre during World War II as liberation from the hardships of daily life. However, he states that during wartime one “carries escapism to the point of cheapness—even of cowardice.” This introduces a new piece to the puzzle; Dolman describes the theatre in this era in a negative light, instigating the idea that within escapism there are positive and negative forms of entertainment. The comedic theatre during wartime suggests a complete abandonment to the positive types of escapism, which relieve the mind of stress, and thus result in investing in the creation of a ‘false reality’. The difference between escapism and false reality is that the former is a technique that helps an individual to refocus their attention on enjoyable matters, whereas the latter instills a false sense of hope and worthiness through a parallel reality, which is ultimately shattered once that individual re-enters reality. When this concept is applied to wartime theatre, Dolman depicted how audiences left the comedies with a daunting realisation of the massacre waiting outside the theatre’s doors: a great shock after having indulged in a peaceful storyline. However, Dolman believes that positive escapism exists, and portrays it to be “a play so true, so moving, soâ€¨witty, so universal that it seems to transcend the temporary worries of war, or that faces the steeps of life with someâ€¨comforting philosophy which I can takeâ€¨ home with me after the curtain is down.” This statement links in to Jeanette Winterson’s belief that art must possess “the kind of energy and emotion we can draw on indefinitely;” I believe both Dolman and Winterson talk about a piece of artwork’s ability to transcend all barriers and provide a life-lesson through an “imitation of the truth” as Plato describes in The Republic: Book X. Perhaps Winterson was referring to false reality rather than escapism, when mentioning that art “as escapism, or diversion, misses altogether what art is” in The Semiotics of Sex. One can find the ideals of positive escapism previously described by Winterson and Dolman in Shakespearean performances during the Elizabethan era. Taking Much Ado About Nothing as an example, albeit the comedy’s title, there are many underlying themes within the text. Theatregoers during the 16th Century were very much an aural audience, revelling in Shakespeare’s wordsmithery. Watching plays was an opportunity to detach from the routine through a story, especially for the groundlings (lower classes), as the playhouse was the only space where they would come in contact with higher classes (a somewhat surreal experience). The playhouse was a habitat that nurtured escapism. Under the layers of comedy, Much Ado About Nothing presents themes such as the importance of social grace, honour and the effects of public shaming. These themes served as societal guidelines for the Elizabethan audiences. Shakespeare created the ultimate positive escapist entertainment through a comedy grounded on the ideals to educate an audience. Perhaps it is the wit and genius in the language or the play’s principles that have allowed the play to become a popular masterpiece that is still very present in contemporary theatre. Much Ado About Nothing serves as the perfect illustration of a piece of escapism that encompasses Winterson and Dolman’s morals. This play also demonstrates how escapist theatre influenced Elizabethan society, serving as a playground for all classes to overlook misery and 16th Century problems and rejoice in a performance with implicit moral values. Not only did escapist theatre serve as a societal educational tool during the Elizabethan era in England, it has also been recently proved that escapism has always been psychologically beneficial. A study by the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at East Carolina University has demonstrated that casual escapist techniques, such as videogames, can have significant stress relieving and other “mood-lifting” effects. For a period of six months, doctors monitored 134 adults and children’s heart-rate variability (HRV), electroencephalography (EEG) and pre- and post-activity mood states (POMS) whilst being subjected to diversion techniques. Several significant findings were made in relation to the therapeutic use of casual games in the treatment of serious mental and physical disorders. Dr. Carmen Russoniello, director of the Psychophysiology Lab and Biofeedback Clinic stated that “games were found to have significant impacts across a number of tested factors, including a reduction in psychological tension, anger and mental fatigue, as well as depression and confusion, two areas that were of particular interest in the test.” Escapism has proven to be beneficial, providing a relief in a person’s mental state. The correct definition of Escapism, according to CMM (leading supplier of drug and alcohol testing products), is a coping mechanism where an individual utilises a distraction from everyday stresses. This company states that different degrees of diversion require different methods, the most common approach being through theatre, movies and music and the most extreme being drugs. These findings by the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at ECU are applicable to both escapist and false reality theatre. A contemporary example of false reality theatre is the Broadway musical First Date. This romantic comedy- style with a ridiculous ‘happy ending’, encompasses the potential problematic consequences when false reality and escapism’s psychological relief come together. First Date is an example of theatre “void of the kind of energy and emotion we can draw on indefinitely;” as Winterson so perfectly maintains in The Semiotics of Sex; suggesting the musical’s superficial nature, forbidding the viewers to utilise the material for self-discovery or draw any moral conclusions. I sat within the rows of a full house in a beautiful Broadway theatre, greatly contemplating the appeal to such a commercialised storyline. The audience rejoiced in an undeserved standing ovation with ecstatic expressions. It was not until I pieced together all the information previously mentioned that I understood the appeal to false reality theatre like First Date. This musical is the story about a woman and a man who meet up for a blind date, and after multiple clashes with their completely opposing personalities end up together. This musical presents no implicit moral values, no room for self-exploration; it encompasses the false notions of love and relationships found in common rom-coms. The effect of First Date on audience members is the following (mostly true for majority of individuals): 1091 people walk in; sit down and turn off their self-phones, shutting off the outside world; they experience a show filled with laughter that instills temporary relief from stress and incites the audience to be filled with the hope that anyone in the room could have a similar experience as the musical’s romantic storyline. Once the audience leaves the 90-minute long excitement, they are left with a sense of longing and realisation that the odds of such an event as meeting ‘the one’ casually are close to non-existent. This is the same effect described in Dr. John Dolman report on the consequences of escapist wartime theatre. False reality theatre such as First Date, with visible psychological effects described by the ECU study on escapist techniques, can become problematic for the individual but can also hinder the business of sublime positive escapist plays due to the momentary happiness false reality exerts. I now understand that the standing ovation at the Longacre Theatre for First Date was not an a
pplause for the performance, but a thank you to the performers for the false sense of hope they felt. The audience’s experience during a false reality show such as First Date can be labeled as addictive, creating a “Cycle of Escapism,” as mentioned in the article Overcoming Addiction and Escapism written by Erin Falconer. In this article, Falconer mentions that the relief from coddling in false reality is “only temporary. The feeling wears off and the problems remain, often made worse by our indulgence. Once again faced with our problems, the natural reaction is to escape again.” This is the cycle of false reality; its subjects feel discomfort when facing reality, thus using the same bad habit to escape, which only increases the distress, fuelling the desire to escape. Indulging in false reality and its effects can become an addiction, and just as any dependence, it can affect the consumer’s daily life. Taking First Date as an example and its romantic comedy genre, one can see its consequences upon reading an article on Time magazine by Eben Harrell. This article describes that researchers at Heriot Watt University’s Family and Personal Relationships Laboratory in Edinburgh after completing a study of 40 Hollywood romantic comedies released between 1995-2005 found that problems typically reported by couples in relationship counseling reflect misconceptions about love and romance depicted in Hollywood films. The university’s professor Dr. Bjarne Holmes says, “Relationship counselors often face common misconceptions in their clients — that if your partner truly loves you they’d know what you need without you communicating it, that your soul mate is predestined. We did a rigorous content analysis of romantic comedies and found that the same issues were being portrayed in these films.” If such effects occur after experiencing false reality, I find it hard to think of it a form of art. If art is an “imitation of truth,” as Plato observed; then First Date and any other false reality that does not happen to imitate realism is therefore not art. Such theatre, which momentarily relieves its audience only to let them plummet back into reality is a twisted “therapy, is release, is not art” as Winterson states in The Semiotics of Sex. All art is escapist in essence, it portrays an imitation of reality and thus the audience is slightly taken away from their routines. As seen with Much Ado About Nothing, escapist theatre must use the suspend in disbelief and reality to allow the audience to look at society at a distance: objectively. Escapist theatre serves a purpose; it provides the chance to draw life-lessons and realisations that can be life changing, as Dolman and Winterson both agree in their respective works. False reality falls into a different category entirely, with its previously mentioned effects, one could argue if it can be called an addiction. It is manipulative and its purpose and effect does not differ greatly from the usage of soft drugs such as marijuana. I went to see First Date, and although it conveyed no societal or moral values such as Much Ado About Nothing, the over-commercialised musical still achieved to take my mind off the daunting pile of work waiting back in my room. Even as I sat, judgingly and silently commenting on the music throughout the production, I was unable to withhold my laughter. So albeit its ridiculousness and the frustration I felt afterwards when confronted with my work, I believe that First Date still managed to fulfill its purpose: to relieve my mind from stress.