Last Thursday, I drove from rural Virginia, where all day every day I've been caring for my 98-year-old mother Joyce, to spend a couple of days in Philadelphia. I do such things every so often, with a lot of help. I need an occasional break, to get some culture and come back to a sense of the person I traditionally am; I need some art and some people to converse with who don't have dementia. What I got this time, rather than a nice little vacation, was one of the more intense and problematic and, perhaps, useful experiences I've had with a work of art.
"Want to go see Ladysitting at the Arden?" my wife Jane asked, as we trawled cultural options for a late-January Thursday. "It's about a family taking care of their old grandma." We'd both admired the playwright Lorene Cary's other work over the years (in particular her memoir Black Ice), and once I got the concept it was hard to resist. “Ladysitting”? That's great, I thought, and if Carey and the Arden Theatre Co have renamed my life in this amusing fashion, and if there are still tix, we ought to go. Plus the Arden in Old City is walkable from our place in Northern Liberties.
What I should’ve thought about more carefully was what it would be like see something very close to my own exact life right now depicted on the stage. Not some event that happened in my past, not some metaphor or allegory that hits kind of close to home, but just pretty much exactly my life right now, reproduced.
I already have a claustrophobic, "there is no escape" feeling about where I'm at. The play (based on Cary's memoir Ladysitting: My Year with Nana at the End of Her Century), redoubled the entrapment and somehow also released me from it in a way that was "surreal," or which seemed to combine the fictional and actual so chaotically that it got me wavering between them, almost confused.
There are some important differences between my reality and Cary's play. Cary's main character (based on herself) is a black woman caring for her grandmother. I'm a white guy caring for my mother. But race, gender and generation turn out not to be the most relevant things about the experience we’re sharing. The personalities of my mother Joyce and the play's Nana are strikingly similar: large and definite, with elaborate beliefs about the way things ought to be, cultivated over a century of conspicuous survival. I wish I’d taken notes so I could quote with assurance; phrases popped right out of Nana's mouth that come out of Joyce's too.
Cary's character suspects that people are stealing things from her, and so tries to hide them. She fiercely maintains bits of her old beauty and grooming routines as essential to dignity. She wavers between being glad and grateful that she's still alive and able to access small moments of joy with her people and world, and her awareness that she has lost her whole generation and that her own time is at hand. One of the most devastating features of Cary's portrayal is that Nana is portrayed as continuing to live primarily because she doesn’t know how to die. I don't think humans can die by a sheer act of will while they're laying in bed. Sometimes I get that sense from my mother too, that she knows it's time but doesn't know how. That's a despairing place for us all even if there are ways out or through.
During the play, the young women ladysitting my mother were texting me; Joyce was terrified that we were out of cat food and had ripped open a bag of the stuff and spread it round the house. I didn't want to be texting during the play, but felt I had to. But the texts and the script started to merge.
In the play, as the burdens of care increase, engulfing the main character's spouse and daughter as well (this has happened to us too), so does the feeling of being trapped, and the difficulty and expense of finding help. Cary's character explicitly broaches that darkest of thoughts and darkest of moments: I love you. Isn't it time for you to die? Dark, but maybe unavoidable. Wanting someone you love to die is hard to face in yourself. Cary's teaches self-acceptance, but she doesn't pretend that this shit is easy. Facing your own thoughts can be harder than getting grandma through her day.
I started really sobbing, trying not to let people around me see. I didn't really think the representation/reality distinction could break down for me that way. It's as though I was an ultra-naive first-time playgoer wanting to intervene in the events onstage, confused about whether they were real. That's not an experience I'd had before, or maybe not since I was a child experiencing the play Camelot as though there were real knights, queens and wizards right there in the room with me.
I came out of the theater pretending to laugh ruefully at the resemblances, asserting facetiously that Cary must have my Mom's place mic'd up to get her dialogue. But I came out shaky, really. I came out sorry I’d gone. When I woke up the next morning, I was sure for a moment it had been a dream: like, my life exactly but slightly transposed, as may happen in a dream. In my dream I was a black woman caring for my 99-year-old grandmother instead of a white guy caring for my 99-in-May mother, but everything else was just the same. I was still shaky; my sense of reality wavered there a bit until I got my coffee. I had trouble thinking about anything else all day.
There’s a great aesthetic mystery about why we like to see things depicted on stage or screen that we’d hate to see in reality. For example, you go see Oedipus Rex; the main character kills his father, marries his mother, and plucks out his eyes. Is that amusing? Is it fun? Did you pay to get in? Why? Because you like seeing people doing stuff like that? What sort of monster are you, anyway? Aristotle tackles this matter in the Poetics, where he introduces the concept of catharsis. Oedipus depicts terrible events occasioning pity and fear. But the theater is a safe place to express these emotions, and the events aren’t really happening. The audience gets to harmlessly explore and “discharge” their negative emotions.
But what would it be like for Oedipus to see Oedipus? Maybe the experience would be well beyond catharsis into a redoubling of his personal and psychological crisis. Seeing Oedipus might be enough to give Oedipus an Oedipus complex, ending him up heavily medicated on a ward somewhere.
I felt that all day Friday. Then we went to an art opening, had a nice meal and my confusion between art and reality started to lift. I've been thinking about Ladysitting ever since (admittedly, only a matter of 48 hours). It's still too close to my experience to tell whether it's a good play or not. I don't know how someone who's not in this situation might experience it; I really can't tell at all.
But the catharsis has kicked in; having seen Ladysitting ended up being a relief, or seems like a relief right now. The cathartic release, if that's what it is, wasn't an instantaneous unreflective response, as Aristotle seems to portray it, but a process: a process of processing, we might say, just running through it again and again and feeling it thoroughly. When I got back to Virginia Saturday, I wouldn't say I had a new sense of my situation or had released negative emotions, just that I had more equipment for feeling it, more acquaintance with what I was already thinking and feeling. As the surreal merging reality and representation dissipated, I had the sense of having been emotionally educated, of understanding myself a little better and being able to forgive my mother and myself a little more.
This morning I was preparing to write an essay about how Aristotle was wrong and catharsis sucks and art just intensifies rather than relieves negative emotions. It really did have that effect on me for a day. But here on Sunday morning, gearing up to make my mother some tea and then try to revise this essay and send it in, I feel clearer, and a little better, about our situation than I did before.
That's only one of the possible effects of art, and the intensity of my Thursday experience might be characteristic of situations in which art and life merge in a peculiarly disconcerting, yet moving, way. Hamlet, gearing up to try to make his uncle confess to the murder of his father by reproducing the event on stage, said that the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to nature. I stared into that mirror intensely over the weekend, and finally did manage to catch a glimpse of myself.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell