Performing Empathy: Lessons from the Stage for Policymakers

Cynthia P. Schneider


Cynthia P. Schneider, Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, teaches, publishes, and organizes initiatives in the field of cultural diplomacy. Ambassador Schneider co-directs the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown; the Los Angeles-based MOST Resource (Muslims on Screen and Television); and the Timbuktu Renaissance, an innovative strategy and platform for countering extremism and promoting peace and development in Mali. Dr. Schneider, who served as US Ambassador to the Netherlands (1998–2001), speaks and publishes frequently on topics related to arts, culture, and media, and international affairs (Huffington Post, CNN.com, Foreign Policy, Brookings).


doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.10


Imagine if governments and peoples around the world had made empathy a critical component of policymaking. What would the world look like today? It is hard to think that the Syrian war would have gone on unabated, or that the Saudis would have killed over 10,000 civilians in Yemen, or, for that matter, that the United States would have elected Donald Trump.

Countering the prevailing realpolitik that has allowed these horrors requires going back to the source: ancient Greece. The theaters of Athens hold the secret to integrating empathy into global affairs. Let me explain.

The doctrine of realism that dominates policymaking in international affairs and provides the rationale for turning a blind eye to human suffering and ignoring basic rights in favor of strategic, or, perceived-to-be strategic, alliances can be traced back to Thuycidides. Specifically, his account in The Melian Dialogue of one episode of the Peloponnesian War may have the dubious honor of being the inspiration behind realpolitik (Mendelsohn 2004).

Most foreign policy students are introduced to the discipline through this story of the conflict between the Athenians, rulers of a vast empire, and the underdog Melians, the inhabitants of the island of Melos. Before laying them to waste, the Athenians attempted to reason with the Melians and urged them to capitulate. Subjugation beats utter destruction, argued the Athenians. But the Melians rejected the offer, resigning themselves to a desperate, and ultimately futile, last stand. As overwhelming victors, the Athenians massacred all the Melian men and took the women and children as slaves.

For the eager undergraduates, the dominant interpretation of this saga from the Peloponnesian War is “might equals right.”1 Cultivated though they might have been, the Athenians lived in a hard power world.

But does this lesson provide an appropriate foundation for twenty-first century students and practitioners of foreign affairs? Does it translate well in today’s globally connected world? (Arguably, it didn’t even work out so well for the Athenians, who soon faced brutality not unlike their own toward the Melians, and defeat, at the hands of the Siracusans.) Is Thucydides’s conclusion, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” an appropriate mantra for the twenty-first century? With the proliferation of nonstate actors, citizen journalism, social media, and 24/7 communications, committing an atrocity to maintain dominance might not be a winning strategy for a leading global power. There has not been a traditionally waged war with a clear winner and loser since 1945. The United States and their allies in Europe, Japan, and Australia project their power through their values, ideals, laws, discoveries, and other identity-building narratives. Soft power the power of influence and persuasion, which was vital to defeating Soviet authoritarianism, has arguably made the “might equals right” interpretation of The Melian Dialogue an anachronistic false path.

Ancient Greece, the source of realpolitik, also offers an antidote: theatre; more specifically, the empathy that theatre engenders through compelling narratives experienced in a live communal setting. Reacting to the brutality of his fellow Athenians’ massacre of the Melians, Thucydides’s contemporary, Euripides wrote what is often considered the first antiwar play, The Trojan Women. Focused on the plight of the victims of the Trojan war, the women and children of Troy, Euripides puts empathy front and center in The Trojan Women, a theatrical reaction to the brutality of the Melian massacre. Just months after the Athenians imposed andropodismos (destruction and civilian enslavement), on Melos, Euripides staged before Athens’s elite—the perpetrators of the Melian massacre—a drama that mirrored their own barbarity. In the play the women of Troy, once proud but now enslaved to the Greek victors, come to grips with the deaths of their husbands, brothers, and sons, and confront their fate as slaves. Euripides offers no lesson for the soldier or statesman, but rather focuses on the suffering caused by man’s futile pursuit of military dominance. Through the tragic plight of Troy’s women, Euripides tugs at the heartstrings of his audience, reaching them emotionally so that they empathize with the victims of Athens’ aggression.

But how do we know that theater in the ancient world had any significant impact on its audience? Chroniclers of ancient Greece provide eyewitness accounts. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all describe drama as having the power to “move the soul” (psychagogia) (Meineck 2018). Sophocles portrays the process of empathetic transformation in his play, Ajax, when Odysseus, turned by Athena into an invisible spectator, witnesses Ajax’s delusional ranting and feels sympathy for his enemy. After Ajax’s death, he pleads with Agamemnon to persuade the king to allow the vanquished Ajax the honor of a burial, reasoning that one day Agamemnon will want someone to bury him (Meineck 2018).

Empathy-producing theater was epidemic in fifth-century Greece, so much so that Plato, writing 100 years later in The Republic (3, 700–701) complains that Athens was a theatocracy, a polity in which the emotional impact of theater shaped the crowd’s political reactions and views (Meineck 2018). Plato disparaged theater because it elevated emotion over reason; he believed that the judicious, well-run republic, required just the opposite.

This essay argues that what is needed in global affairs today is a little less Plato and Thucydides—i.e. “might over right” and reason over emotion—and a little more Euripides (or Aristophanes, as in Lysistrata), i.e. empathy for the victims of the actions taken in the name of realism. These actions do not exclusively mean war; they can also include so-called strategic alliances made in the interest of the balance of power, such as, for example, the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, a country that violates the human rights that the U.S. allegedly supports.

In the aptly-titled Theatocracy, Peter Meineck, a classicist and theatrical producer and director, argues that live theater’s empathic experience was essential to Athenian democracy (Meineck 2018). Drawing on cognitive theory and neuroscience, as well as his own experience in theater and deep knowledge of the ancient world, Meineck positions theater in fifth-century Athens as the place where voting citizens were exposed to differing perspectives that equipped them to make mature and weighted political decisions. Meineck argues that it was precisely this experience through theater of multiple viewpoints, often divergent from their own, that equipped Athenians to deal with the challenges of choosing the best path for their fledgling democracy (Meineck 2018).

Today, theater still resonates just as powerfully across the world. For Syrian refugee women stranded in Amman, Euripides’s The Trojan Women became a lifeline that spoke deeply and directly to them and inspired them to share their own stories of trauma and tragedy with each other and with the world. None of the Syrian refugee women who answered the call in 2013 from British NGO Refuge Productions to participate in production of  The Trojan Women, adapted to incorporate stories from the Syrian war, had any experience in the theater, or knew anything about the play. Living isolated lives scattered throughout Amman, the women took a chance on theatre, and found their own voices, as well as a community. They spent weeks together, writing and sharing their own stories, and gradually shaping the production Syria: the Trojan Women that oscillated between the Syrian and Trojan wars.

The role of Queen Hecuba resonated strongly with many of the women. “We were all Queens in our own houses,” said one, lamenting not only material losses, but also the loss of self-determination. As refugees, Syrian families are forced to rely on charitable donations as they are not legally permitted to work. For another cast member, Hecuba’s sad departure from Troy, as she reluctantly bids it farewell, strongly evoked her feelings when fleeing Syria:

“When Hecuba turns to have a last look at Troy she makes a speech about never seeing her country ever again, and I cry when I read it, because when we were at the border about to cross into Jordan my husband told me to look back at Syria for one last time, because we might never see it again.” (Schneider 2014).

Indeed, Hecuba’s words about Troy could apply to Syria today: “The name of my country will pass into obscurity; all is scattered far and wide, and hapless Troy has ceased to be.”

Syria Trojan women on stage Water Futures_Cynthia
Still from Syria: The Trojan Women

The first performances of Syria: The Trojan Women, in Amman, not only provided a much-needed sense of pride and of community amongst Syrian refugees, but also profoundly impacted the Jordanians in the audiences. Not surprisingly, the tremendous burden of hosting more than one million Syrians had made Jordanians resentful toward the refugees. But the personal stories recounted in the play transformed the audience’s view of the Syrian refugees from statistics to fellow human beings for whom they felt empathy. So, not only did the experience of writing and acting in the play have a transformative effect on the refugee cast, but it also had a positive impact on how the Jordanians in the audience viewed the Syrians in their country.

The refugee cast had hoped to appear on stage in Washington DC, where they had been invited to perform by the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, but their visas for the US were denied. It turns out that empathy for any and all refugees is in short supply in the US; they simply are not granted visitors’ visas. Unable to perform at Georgetown, the cast of Syria: The Trojan Women nonetheless spoke directly to the Washington audience—via skype at the Unheard Voices: Syria Trojan Women Summit.

The members of the cast behind this carefully crafted play have evolved significantly over the past 3 years; both their confidence as theater makers and their desperation for peace have increased as the war drags on. When Syria: The Trojan Women was invited to tour England in the summer of 2016, the cast and their Refuge Production producers all felt that the original version needed updating. The cast went to work with director Zoe Lafferty and created a new production entitled Queens of Syria. The process is captured in the documentary film of the same name.

In the first iteration performed in 2014 in Jordan, the women spoke vividly and longingly of their homes in Syria; they still believed that it was just a matter of time before they returned to Syria. Three years later, with no end to the war in sight, and their country in ruins, few of the women still held out any hope of returning home. Instead, they were focused on seeking asylum in Europe. All wished to escape the dead end of the refugee life in Amman.

Five years of war also have eroded the women’s faith in the international community. Now, they express outrage at the world’s complicity as bystanders to Assad’s brutal destruction of his own country. Reem al Sayyah, one of the actors, passionately expresses anger in the play that “everyone wants to bomb our home, but no one wants to accept us in his home, even temporarily.”

Al Sayyah’s speech represents a shift from the victimhood of Syria: The Trojan Women to righteous indignation, and even recrimination in Queens of Syria:

“We are not here to entertain you,

or sing a song,

I have an anger

And a message to pass to you

we came from the troy of this age or even worse,

our home is destroyed,

millions of refugees,

hundreds of thousands of innocent victims ……

everyone wants to bomb our home, but no one wants to accept us in his home even temporarily, only the sea opened his arms for us, without any preconditions.

We lost our home, we’ve been killed now and in every moment, but the most miserable point is that it’s become normal, how did killing people became normal!!

Shame on you.

I’m so tired of asking why, who even cares?”

Syria TRojan Women on Stage in London Water Futures_Cynthia
The cast from Queens of Syria

The Sunday Times (2016) review of the performance at the Young Vic in London puts it best:

“Theatre itself is their Trojan horse for making us appreciate them as people, not statistics.” The presence of these courageous, compelling women on stage, telling their stories about death and domesticity, jolted audiences out of the complacency that made “killing people … normal.” (Maxwell)

As the actors in the original The Trojan Women reminded the Athenian elite of their own brutal behavior on Melos, so the Queens of Syria evoked for their audiences the human cost of inaction. In both cases, empathy does not mean simply feeling the feelings of someone else, but rather absorbing and translating those feelings into one’s own psyche and context. Herodotus recognized the power of this process of personalizing empathy. He writes that the play The Sack of Miletus, by Phyrnichus, was banned and the playwright fined because the work so upset the audience with reminders of the real and then-recent sack of Miletus by the Persians (6.21) (Meineck 2018).

Playwrights and theater makers in the modern era also have been punished for upsetting audiences by reminding them of painful truth. Athol Fugard was persecuted by South Africa’s government for portraying the human cost of apartheid on the stage. While Fugard, a white South African, was fined and his passport confiscated, his black actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, were frequently jailed. But this persecution only increased the empathy for South Africa’s majority black population the actors generated wherever they toured. The emotional connections they sparked performing in Fugard’s plays around the world played no small role in galvanizing the global antiapartheid movement. The apartheid government profoundly miscalculated the impact of Fugard’s heart-wrenching plays when they granted visas for travel to Fugard and his actors. Perhaps, they thought, how much harm can a play do? They should have consulted Herodotus.

More recently, the current political climate in the US of division and intolerance has resonated in response to theater. Oskar Eustis’s production of Julius Caesar at New York’s Public Theater, in which the protagonist resembled Donald Trump, has provoked an outcry from the right. Ironically, the critics, including the President’s own son, ignored Shakespeare’s main point: violence is never a solution to political discord. Instead, reflecting a political environment in the US in which neither side listens to the other, the defenders of Donald Trump were quick to accuse the “left”—in this case the Public Theater—of appearing “to depict President Trump being brutally stabbed to death by women and minorities”. On opening night, artistic director Oskar Eustis took the stage to explain how the focus on violence missed the central message of the play.

“This play, on the contrary, warns what happens when you try to preserve democracy through non-democratic means. But at the same time, one of the dangers unleashed is a large crowd of people manipulated by their emotions, taken over by leaders that urge them to do things not only against their interests, but that destroy the very institutions there to serve and protect them.”

Despite the controversy, there was nothing unusual in the Public Theater production. Portraying Julius Caesar in the guise of a contemporary political leader is the norm. In a production 5 years ago at the Guthrie theater in Minneapolis, a black Julius Caesar, referencing Barack Obama, was assassinated. While two corporate sponsors of the Public Theater—Delta airlines and the Bank of America—withdrew their support in reaction to the criticism of “Trump as Caesar,” the Minneapolis production drew no such response, even though, ironically, Delta was among its sponsors (Pallotta 2017). It is tempting to credit the empathic power of theater with the uproar over Eustis’s Julius Caesar, but that does not appear to be the case since the critics do not understand the basic premise of the play. What is clear is that the potential of theater to move people remains strong. Would that that potential could be used toward positive ends, as the cast of Hamilton suggested to Vice President Pence, rather to inflame divisions, as has happened with Julius Caesar.

From ancient Greece to today, theater has spoken truth to power and confronted society and its leaders with the consequences of their actions. Oskar Eustis, Reem Al Sayyeh, Athol Fugard, Euripides, and Phyrnichus all sought a kind of “radical empathy.” They did not want what happened on the stage to stay on the stage. They wanted it to resonate with the audience, haunt the audience, and become indelibly part of each audience member’s political consciousness.

Conclusion

Theater’s empathetic power was recognized and even feared in ancient Athens, where it played a critical role in the fledgling democracy. Meineck (2018) advocates the importance of the live communal experience of theatre for the health of American democracy today for precisely the same reasons it mattered in Athens: theater presents multiple different perspectives; it engenders empathy, a key component of responsible decision-making; and it provides a live, shared experience that reinforces the sense of community. Theater provided the Athenians exactly what is missing today in political and social life in the US: exposure to different perspectives, and not just policy positions, but also the emotional, human impact of policy decisions. Theater brought the decisions taken by the Athenian voting elite—and their consequences—to life before the eyes of the decision-makers. What better way to govern than with a clear sense of the human consequences of political decisions?

In today’s divided world, politics desperately need more humanization. A first step might be to supplement the “might makes right” Melian Dialogue with Euripides’s The Trojan Women in the introductory international relations curriculum. Instead of encouraging future foreign policy leaders to dominate at all costs, why not urge them to consider the human consequences of their actions, and to empathize with the victims of previous “victories.” In the US, theater specifically and the arts generally tend to inhabit a different sphere from politics and foreign policy. The Athenians understood that the empathic experience of having diverse perspectives, including those of the victims of their actions, played out before them was essential to a healthy democracy. We could learn a lesson from them, and integrate empathy, as experienced through theater and the arts into policymaking. To get started, we might put down our phones, get off social media, and go to the theater.

References

Bosworth, A. B. (1993) The Humanitarian Aspect of the Melian Dialogue. The Journal of Hellenic Studies 113: 30–44.

Fox News. (2017) Protestors storm ‘Julius Caesar’ performance again. Fox News. <http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2017/06/19/protesters-storm-julius-caesar-performance-again.html&gt; (Accessed 8 July 2017)

Marks, Peter. (2014) Denied visas, Syrian refugees still get a platform. The Washington Post, September 21.

Maxwell, Dominic. (2016) Theatre: Queens of Syria, Young Vic, SE1. The Times, July 8.

Meineck, Peter. (2018) Theotocracy. New York, NY: Routledge.

Mendelsohn, Daniel. (2014) Theatres of War: Why battles over ancient Athens still rage. The New Yorker. January 12.

Offenhartz, Jake. (2017) Public Theater Addresses ‘Julius Caesar’ Controversy On Opening Night. Gothamist, June 13.

Pallotta, Frank. (2017) Trump-like ‘Julius Caesar’ isn’t the first time the play has killed a contemporary politician. CNN, June 12.

Schneider, Cynthia. (2014) What Woman was Ever Born to Such Misfortune? Foreign Policy, September 24.

Stack, Liam. (2017). Et Tu, Delta? Shakespeare in the Park Sponsors Withdraw From Trump-Like ‘Julius Caesar’. New York Times, June 11.

Tani, Maxwell. Shakespeare scholar: Critics of Trump assassination in NYC production of Julius Caesar are missing a crucial point. Business Insider, June 12.


Notes:

  1. Bosworth (1993) argues in favor of a humanitarian interpretation of the Athenians’ offer to the Melians.

 

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