Sympathy for the Devil

That's what you have to be able to evoke in your audience if your drama is to have any power. So says Terry Teachout in this article about drama and political propaganda in Opinion Journal today. (Curtsy to Powerline.)

Citing a passage of C.S. Lewis on art, Teachout writes:

"This is the meaning of the cliché that great art "takes you out of yourself." By definition, it then puts you into somebody else, and in so doing enriches your understanding of reality. To do this successfully, it must be in the deepest sense sympathetic. The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines sympathy as "the fact or capacity of sharing or being responsive to the feelings or condition of another or others." Such a capacity is a sine qua non of all serious art. It is what makes Shakespeare's villains believable: We feel we can understand their motives, even if we don't share them. It is also central to the persuasive power of great art. Without sympathy there can be no persuasion. Even a caricature, however cruel, must acknowledge the humanity of its subject in order to be funny. The artist must create a whole character and not simply show the side of him that will most convince us of his villainy."

You'd like a concrete example, you say? Why, RC2 just happens to have one! Great plays have key moments in which directors and actors can judge how effectively their performance is going over. In Twelfth Night, the "villain" is the pedantic, prissy and pompous servant, Malvolio. To humiliate him, various characters conspire to make him think his mistress is in love with him, goading him to dress and behave ridiculously in her sight. Malvolio is one of the great comedic parts of Shakespeare, and being cast to play him represents a certain height of achievement in character actors of a certain age. The part is great fun and must be played big; however, it can be overdone. The great test of whether the actor-director team has managed to strike the appropriate balance between humor and humanity comes when Malvolio discovers the (fake) secret love-letter from his mistress and announces, "My lady loves me!" If the audience laughs, the actor has overdone it. If they titter but also exclaim, Aww!" because they feel sorry for him, then he is still a human being and the play is working.
Straw men villains are not only cheap, they're ultimately boring. This is why Doonesbury is only funny when it mocks the Left (which Trudeau can do with affection) and why dramas villainizing fundamentalists, priests, politicians, etc. generally don't work these days. You have to know something about them to write about them --even to mock. (Christian writers, you take note too!)
It's worth reading the whole thing just to hit this line: "self-satisfaction is the death of serious art and creativity more generally." Yessss!
Two additional comments which won't seem relevant until you read Teachout's whole article. 1) Sam Shepard is a more wholesome author than he himself knows (RC2's senior thesis for her drama degree was on Sam Shepard and others in his school). RC2 loves --in spite of trashy language-- True West, The Holy Ghostly and Cowboy Mouth. They say things he doesn't mean to say!
2) RC2 heard Tim Robbins talking about neocons and Leo Strauss on NPR when his play opened on Broadway. It was hilarious, because it could not have been more obvious that Robbins has never read a line of Strauss in his life. "Write what you know." It's another cliché of writing that ought to be observed.