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If You’re So Sympathetic: Vanderbilt University Theatre’s Gnit and Empathy

Posted by on Monday, March 27, 2017 in Analysis Essay.

The lights go up on a Norwegian forest; near-comical cutouts of trees and a mountain range decorate the stage. A wooden turntable rests at a slight tilt; a stage for voluminous numbers of strangers, friends, and neighbors in colorful sweaters and floral corduroy overalls. Above the set dangles dozens of bare lightbulbs, twinkling a warm glow. In the distance, birds begin to chirp. I felt a warm sensation in my chest, mind flooded with images of childhood picture books and the beauty of the Ozark Mountains near my hometown. But what I would soon experience would not give me the lighthearted “happily ever after” feeling of familiar fairy tales. Instead, Gnit— a contemporary retelling of the Norwegian folk tale Peer Gynt— would ask me to sympathize with an infuriating asshole. It would force me to wrestle with my own response. It would pit sympathy— pitying the sorrows of another—against empathy, which is actually putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

As I sat in the second row of Vanderbilt’s Neely Auditorium, the show began with a close look at its main character when he returns from gallivanting in the woods to his neglected and dying mother. Will Eno’s Gnit follows Peter Gnit, a truly awful-hearted man, from young adulthood into old age, on a journey to find the authentic self. The story twists and turns around those characters whom our protagonist meets, with each anecdotal interaction providing a new angle from which to glare at the despicable Peter. From the very beginning of the show, Peter (played by Scottie Szewczyk) is simply an unlikeable character. After learning of his repeated broken promises to his poor, post-surgical recovering (and later dying) mother, his words sound like lies even when they aren’t meant to be. His actions exploit others in the simplest way possible; like capturing an ex-lover on her wedding day, promptly rejecting her, and then impregnating a mysterious Green woman. And as the interactions progressed, I started to think that the play had abandoned useful plot development. But throughout the absurdities, I was grounded by the production’s efforts to present Peter’s caricature in a sympathetic light, and my own subsequent questions about the way I react to others’ sorrows.

When the show provokes sympathy for Peter, it is so we will feel pity for his failure to find the authentic self, and the most apparent strategy that the show uses is humor—it is a comedic play. On the one hand, many of the odd situations, crazy costumes, and unexpected acting choices are quite funny. But given the horrible way Peter has treated everyone he’s met; myself and the other audience members were uncertain if we should laugh- particularly because we can see more of ourselves in Peter’s character than in the others.’ With this move, the show begins to approach empathy, actually putting us in his shoes. Gnit loves the discomfort so many people feel when faced with this “should I laugh?” question, so Eno writes it in at every turn, capitalizing on that awkward feeling as a space to start exploring beyond sympathy to empathy.

Through the costumes, the production continues to try putting the audience in Peter’s shoes (literally). Earthy flannel-clad Peter interacts with mostly paisley, plaid, or poncho-ed individuals. There’s even a multi-personality character called the Town who wears four jackets at once. Save Peter’s, these costumes are unusual garments even for a theatrical production, creating a strong contrast when we look at Peter’s “normal” garb. His clothes reinforce his status as a sympathetic character, due to the audience’s closer alignment with flannels than obnoxiously colorful plaid, sweaters, and yarn.

Peter’s very status as protagonist also forces the audience to put themselves in his shoes. After all, they are constantly watching him, just as we are constantly with and watching ourselves throughout the day. Peter also speaks far more than any other character, and a few of his lines and actions even make him seem like he has a genuine heart (like when he tells his mom “The boy loved his mother” or when he builds a house for his girl Solvay). These moments draw us more into empathy, to mollify us after watching a self-serving guy who’s “like us” in some ways hurt everyone who loves him on purpose. Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to put ourselves in his shoes.

But Eno must not have felt like that was enough. For me, the most uncomfortable moment the audience had to endure is Peter’s last few monologues, which are each very short and very direct in address to the spectators. Szewczyk performs the final address in the most ragged, thoroughly true to character way, with spittle flying, and a strange, mangled fury rumbling beneath his words. Director Jessika Malone excels in blocking the moment, what the text calls “the first true direct address of the play,” encouraging a frighteningly close almost attack with eye contact from the edge of the stage. Peter says, “You. Sympathize with me, if you’re so sympathetic. Love a cruel old man who hates you, if you’re so loving. I hate you. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” These lines seemed to call me out, to point out my hypocrisy for failing to accept Peter only halfway, or to be so apprehensive about empathy from the start.

So if something is holding us back from totally empathizing with Peter, what is it? I would argue that it’s a sense of justice or judgment. Similarly, this sense of justice can hold Vanderbilt students back from accepting one another, despite our campus values. Because we value diversity and inclusion, we generally see empathy for those we may not personally agree with as a really positive thing. That kind of empathy can be anything from giving a chance to elected political figures we did not vote for, to refraining from insulting HOD majors for having “blow-off” classes. However, on the other hand, there is a sense of justice which becomes necessary to address certain offenses. Perhaps we can’t find it in ourselves to forgive a politician’s actions, or to reconcile differences with others on campus (even professors we disagree with, like Carol Swain) because their choices have hurt us or those we love. With Peter, these two culturally valued things of empathy and justice come into serious conflict, and each audience member will respond differently to his final address, based on which they value more.

The questions that this theme prompt are important because they force us to consider which of the two values we place higher. Are we more empathetic than just, or more just than empathetic? Where do we personally draw the line between sympathizing with someone despite their actions, or refusing to sympathize because of their despicable choices? Can we see the humanity in Peter Gnit, or do we write him off? This last question is vital, for if we can write off a character in a play who made horrible choices and hurt people he loved, we could certainly write off others we meet on campus, and naturally, the latter has serious repercussions for our community.

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