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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Chapter 4 Belief, Bias and Common Humanity - Meditations on playwriting

I know it's all bollocks but... Suspension of Disbelief

"Perhaps the conspiracy world is an updated version of ancient myths, where monsters and the gods of Olympus and Valhalla have been replaced by aliens and the Illuminati of Washington and Buckingham Palace."  Thom Burnett in the Conspiracy Encyclopaedia using the German term Verschwörungsmythos meaning "Conspiracy Myth"

But all this about conspiracy theories, hoaxes, scams, year zero and kittens is still not the weirdest thing.  Or even the most frightening.  It is, rather, the casual, deliberate way we all as writers originate and promulgate these untruths.  We deliberately set out to mislead the peoples of the world with lies and deceptions. We create myths and untruths and spew them out willy nilly with no thought to the consequences of our irresponsible and reckless behaviour.  We collude with the hoaxers with lies and deliberate sleight of the pen.  We set out to create worlds that do not exist and the more we can deceive our audiences, the closer we can approach verisimilitude, the more gleeful we are.

I love Science Fiction and I love the way it can consider the what-ifs of the world in a controlled and entertaining way.  But somehow you get the impression that there are people out there who believe, not only that this could be the future but that it actually is the present.  So you get Star Trek fans learning Klingon and, wait for it, people registering their religious beliefs as Jedi or, maddest of all, Scientologist.  OK, if you're doing it in a Santa Claus sort of tongue in cheek way, but, no, these folk are serious.  I mean Scientology is a pyramid selling scheme.  How can you worship a pyramid selling scheme?

I have first-hand knowledge of Scientology so I can explain my reaction.  I was travelling by train down Italy and happened to share a compartment with a young Swedish guy.  He was affable and easy going but for some reason he felt compelled to show me the contents of his suitcase.  It was literally stuffed full of bank notes.  He happily explained how he had sold everything he owned and was taking the cash to join a group in Corfu, the then headquarters of the Scientology movement.  I knew nothing about Scientology and he persuaded me to meet up with him on the island and he would show me round.  As it turned out the headquarters was a large rusting hulk moored in the harbour.  The acolytes, having handed over all their worldly possessions were living and eating in communal dormitories in fairly Spartan conditions.  Nothing strange there.  There was any number of weird cults living communal lives at that time.  Except that the “Clears” the officers or priests or whatever they were, seemed to have a high old time frequenting the bars and taverns of the town and the founder of the cult, the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard was living further down the quayside in a large white motor yacht draped with bikini-clad lovelies. Cognitive dissonance on the grandest of grandiose scales. I declined the opportunity to throw in my lot with them.

And the same applies to the Nigerian Princess scam and other hoaxes.  Apparently the far-fetched nature of the narrative is designed to eliminate all but the most gullible.  The scammers want to weed out anyone who might cause trouble but for the poor unfortunate who falls for the scheme they will be drawn gradually into a web of intrigue.  Once you have parted with your details or even the thousand dollars the Princess needs to pay bribes you are hooked and you will put aside your doubts because you are now afraid of losing your first investment or even from fear that you will be made to look stupid by not following up on the deal. The deeper in we get, the more we earnestly believe and the harder it is for rational thinking to apply.

But let’s not judge these people too harshly; after all cognitive dissonance, the ability to hold two or more entirely contradictory beliefs at once, is the basis of all art.  And theatre could not function without it.  Here we call it Suspension of Disbelief.


I was enjoying a programme called Mystery Maps on television some time ago (I do occasionally get to watch TV) in which the presenter Ben Shephard mentioned the role of "Suspension of disbelief" in people who see ghosts or witness UFOs and suppose them to be aliens. Their readiness to believe is heightened by being in a suitably spooky environment such as a dark wood and, having recently seen a film about aliens, even the most innocent of sightings of a light will be interpreted as something other worldly. In other words, they have been primed to believe what they are about to experience and so they do. The term "Suspension of disbelief" was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 as a necessary condition for any narrative be it film, novel, play or even just a nursery tale. When we engage with a narrative we have to disregard the fact that we are actually only seeing flickering images on a screen or reading some very abridged description of the world, or even that we are hearing something utterly preposterous.  In the theatre world suspension of disbelief is our stock in trade; audience members are required to believe that this is not a stage but the battlements of a Danish castle, that this person is not an actor but is Hamlet Prince of Denmark, that he is experiencing genuine emotions not that he is just reciting lines of text.  Some people find suspension of disbelief a tricky idea and for them the whole narrative structure becomes a puzzle, but for the vast majority of people it is a perfectly natural process.  From my experience, I would go as far as to say it is an inherent capacity in the human make up.

 For some reason most of us have been gifted with this strange ability to believe two quite contradictory things at once.  The truth of what we see does not obliterate our deep held interior belief.  In the same way we can be deceived by our eyes when we know perfectly well that what we are seeing is an illusion.

I was directing a quite serious version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It was written by a very clever playwright, Jem Barnes and the recollection of what happened during one particular scene still astonishes me to this day.  In the particular scene I am thinking of, Doctor Frankenstein is in his laboratory.  He has just animated the creature which is still lying on the experiment table.  Suddenly, there is a knock at the door.  Not wanting anyone to see this abomination, the Doctor covers the creature with a sheet before going to open the door. It is his old friend Henry Clerval who wants to know what Frankenstein is up to.  Frankenstein is loath to tell him.  Eventually, in frustration, Clerval goes to the table and snatches up the sheet but the creature has now vanished. At this point there was always a gasp from the audience and after the show people would ask how the disappearance was engineered.

Here's how it worked.  We were a small company of four actors and so everyone had to play several parts. In order that these changes of character didn't appear comical, they were done in full view of the audience. No clever lighting effects, just actors changing roles.  In this scene the same actor was playing the creature and Clerval.  He was lying on the table when Frankenstein covered him with a sheet. There is a knock at the door. The actor then stands up 
in full view of the audience, replaces the sheet and walks round the set to enter from the other side as Clerval.  It is then he who crosses to the table and shows astonishment when there is nothing there.  The point is that the audience became so used to the convention of role swapping that somehow they edited it out of their consciousness.  They genuinely had not seen what happened in front of their eyes. They had immersed themselves in the story and their suspension of disbelief was total.

In other words the audience had chosen to follow the artificial narrative and disregard the patent, obvious truth that the actor had just walked from one place to another.  It seems that there is a parallel effect at work with sightings of UFOs and ghosts.  We see what we choose to see or what our brain tells us to see at that time in that place. It is still a genuine experience; we really have seen a ghost but the reality is that of a narrative not of the measurable everyday world.  And that’s enough of a reasonable explanation as far as I'm concerned. And that's from someone who has seen a ghost in a theatre.  But that's another story altogether.

Have you seen video of the way a hunter hunts on the savannahs of Africa?  How he stops, sniffs the air, touches the ground where his prey has passed.  Using his hands in delicate movements to trace the tracks. Making the shape of the animal with his arms, thinking himself into the animal itself.  Connecting with it so that even as the creature gains ground and surges ahead, our hunter knows where it will have gone, which way it will have turned in the scrub. He breathes as the animal breathes. He attunes himself to the animal so that even out of sight, he knows when the creature is flagging and wishes for the end. For the duration of the hunt he enters an ecstatic state in which he becomes the quarry so much so that, when, at last, the creature falls, the hunter mourns him as a brother, strokes him, and thanks him for giving up his breath to him.  The theatre of the hunt is no sciolous posturing but a genuine transformation of the self into a second reality where the outcome is that of winning food and providing life for the tribe for another few days.

There is no leap of imagination required to see how this hunting theatre transfers to a re-enactment of the hunt to those at home, and to an abstracted performance ritual that demonstrates the technique to young hunters and welds the spirits of the hunters and prey into one to guarantee future success.  The theatre of the hunt shows us how our theatre can be as central to the understanding of our lives how the adoption of character needs to be as total and believed as that of the hunter and his prey.

Somehow suspension of disbelief is a social act that enables us to share experiences and even to have views in common.  It’s a sort of mechanism that enables us to pass information to each other in a short hand way, automatically editing out the elements that are not germane to the exposition. To leap from this place to that without having to explain the long and tedious journey in between.  At the same time, we have an instinct to believe what we are told.  Somebody arriving in our village in obvious terror saying he is being chased by a pack of wolves is liable to be given the benefit of the doubt unless we have time to check out his story.  In this case we don’t.  His terror communicates itself into the rest of us and we all take appropriate action.

Where this becomes interesting is when there is no pack of wolves and our man is lying to us.  If we know he is lying, we can ignore him.  But sometimes we can go on acting as if there are wolves even when we know full well there are not.  We may do this because we want to rehearse what we would do when the wolves come.  We may enjoy the sensation of fear and want to repeat it.  We may be remembering a past event.  It may have become a ritual we carry out on a Sunday morning for fun.  Whatever the case we enjoy the game of “let’s pretend” so much so that it is built into our makeup.

Later on, I’ll talk about how this even affects the way we talk to each other and actually find ourselves saying things we don’t in any way believe.

We conspire with each other in following a narrative, setting aside our differences and perceptions of the world around.  We agree to follow the lead of the narrator or story-teller.  The narrator becomes a shamen with magic powers. We put our trust in her and allow ourselves to follow her footsteps.

So the two conditions for suspension of disbelief are firstly a carefully crafted lie, a wholly believable narrative perpetrated by the story-teller and secondly a willingness of the watchers to participate.  They must see the need for this hoax and to dive into it wholeheartedly.  As a great writer once said: “we should strive for authenticity in emotion and credibility in performance.”  And if they didn’t, they should have done.

All children play “Let’s pretend” and it’s quite clearly a way of learning about the world and coming to terms with it through experiment and rehearsal.  In children it’s called “play”.  It can also be called “lying”. Apparently we lose the ability to play as we get older but for most of us it’s still buried there waiting for some excuse for expression.  Hence the rise of computer games, virtual reality creations and tipsy dressing up nights.  It’s not that we actually lose the ability to pretend, rather that we acquire more and more ways of blocking it out. It gets overtaken by the reality of day to day existence and lost to the necessity of engaging with the world at work and only occasionally creeping out when we spend precious minutes at our desk daydreaming.  For some people the urge to play and pretend remains so strong that it becomes subverted into actual conflict with the real world hence the conspiracy theories and so on. The children’s play-lying can become pathological in adults. The necessity of floating off to a less engaged level can fuel drink and drug escapes. Theatre is the natural place to express this necessary desire for play to stop it becoming pathological.

If reality is constructed in our brains from the electro-chemical messages delivered from the senses, then belief in that constructed world grows as our knowledge of it grows and reinforces what we perceive already.  Thus as we get older it is more difficult to dislodge belief.  But what if something occurs to challenge this world view?  Science is doing this all the time and bit by bit our reality shifts to accommodate the new information.  But sometimes that new reality is too swift, too dramatic.  We cannot handle that but perhaps we want still to explore that new idea.  So suspension of disbelief comes into play.  We know and believe this world but we put it on hold temporarily whilst we come to terms with the other.  And for many people that results in the situation exactly analogous to that of The White Queen.

Theatre is the ultimate virtual reality simulation.  For this version of let’s pretend we have living and breathing actors only a few feet away from us performing a fantasy version of the real world.  It’s up to us as playwrights to give that fantasy experience depth and consistency.  To lure the audience in to our vision of the world so completely that they will willingly but thoughtfully journey with us to the end.

The pre-condition for this suspension of disbelief is that we trust the narrator.  We trust that they have made the journey before and that they know the twists and turns in the path that would otherwise baulk us.

So do we have any responsibility for the tricks we play on our unsuspecting audiences?  Does Ayn Rand have any responsibility for the practical demise of Western democracy or L. Ron Hubbard for the vast sums of money extracted from his unwitting followers?  What responsibility do I have for the nonsense I write?  I suppose I could say that I am unlikely ever to have the sort of mass world-wide following of these two.  My words are generally heard by folks who have some idea of me and what I’m getting at.  In other words, I could say that I have no intention to defraud or misrepresent.  I want to generate discussion and debate with my world of what-ifs and perhapses but not to send people out to form a new religion.  But that’s a rather mealy mouthed way of saying that I have no responsibility for my words once they have left my computer screen.  And after all I want a complete immersion from my audiences.  I want them to come as close to inhabiting my world as their disbelief will allow because that is how they will understand my ideas fully.  I want them to go away with this possible reality running through them as though they had actually experienced it.  But I am also wanting them to wake from it as though from a lucid dream and to be able to question it.  One of the other differences is that both Rand and Hubbard set out to extend their ideas beyond their fiction into the real world.  Hubbard was instrumental in actually setting up his religion (whether he believed it himself is another matter).  Rand did believe in what she wrote and actually promoted it as a real world philosophy.  But then she was a very troubled person and the confusion between reality and fiction became blurred in her own mind.

Writers have a responsibility to embrace audiences and to challenge them at the same time.  And we should remember that the power of theatre lies in its bringing people together rather than creating divisions because the essence of theatre is in collaboration and negotiation.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Chapter 3 Belief, Bias and Common Humanity

Fairy stories, Conspiracies and Cognitive Bias.  The art of Engagement

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
'He was a man who used to notice such things'?

Thomas Hardy – Afterwards

What I noticed today was the sudden waft of resin as I walked under the pines. This isn't the gluey chemical smell you might associate with washing up liquid or bathroom cleaner. This was bigger, more complex, resonant with meaning. It conjured up two quite different memories. The first was sitting at a small table in the almost pitch black night of Corfu drinking a flask of piney retsina, "The beaded bubbles winking at the brim." At the same time, I recall trudging through silent northern pine forests quite alone and with a heavy yellow sky overhead pregnant with snow. I hope you find something to notice today.

I like to notice things.  I like to pick up bits and bobs I notice in the world around and squirrel them away until I can make something of them. I walk slow and try to listen and look but I don’t think I’m quite so good at noticing things about myself. In the last chapter I suggested that, in order for the playwright to be able to create an authentic, visceral narrative, he or she needs to discover and adopt an authentic voice and stance.  In that case it’s important for me to understand what it is I am and what drives me. I need to know who I am, where I’ve come from and, most of all, exactly what does all that museum of rubbish rattling about in my skull amount to.  What are the beliefs and irrational parts of my character? How do I twist things out of shape to represent them back to the world?  If I had any time for therapy I guess I would be finding out about my cognitive biases. This is the idea that I am right because... well, I believe I'm right.  What I believe is right and what you believe to the contrary is wrong. 

Art, history, politics, psychology, pine trees, the sea, my relationships and family they're all one thing. They make up my personality and whatever I write, comedy, drama, pantomime, murder mystery, they all reveal who I am in some small way.

It's impossible to be divorced from your work and, however you try to hide yourself, your work is a transparent window into your inner self. So be prepared to be open about what goes on inside and how it drives you. And the wilder your imaginative leaps and far flung projections, the closer they will become to you. You may want to hide behind your words but by the very act of writing, there you are, like it or not, exposed for all the world to see, trousers round your metaphorical ankles.

So why is so much of my time spent on making up lies and trying to pass them off as the truth?  And how on earth can I keep passing them off despite my pleas for authenticity and realism?  Why do I choose one narrative over another in my record of my noticings?  What narratives do other people employ and are mine any more right than theirs?

Ok, let’s talk about the bogus stuff that’s out there. Let me think about some of the narratives that others have created and which, I think need challenging.  Let me map out some of the ways I think we are being diverted from the authentic, the plausible and the genuine and led into a sham world where issues are beyond our grasp. Let me, for an example, consider the plethora of conspiracy theories and hoaxes I see promoted on the Internet.  Why do we get so worked up about them?  These are flung about and consumed with the same zeal as Coca Cola and Macdonalds or Dom Perignon and Heston Blumental’s snail porage and with the same disregard to nutrition.  And despite any evidence to the contrary, conspiracy theorists will cling on to these ideas like drowning sailors to a piece of driftwood or politicians to their scrap of power so that no-one can prise their fingers therefrom.

I ask myself: Why did NASA spend so much time and effort faking the moon landings when it would have been twenty times simpler to have gone to the moon in the first place?  All these planes leaving trails of poison across the sky, how do they fit in the passengers and luggage among all the tanks of chemicals?  Why haven’t the all-powerful Illuminati fixed the pot-holes in my street?

In a complicated world of cock up and chaos, most conspiracy theories require far too much in the way of organisational skill, money, resources and the bending of the laws of physics to make any sense at all.  They are simply too complicated to work without someone somewhere spilling the beans or inadvertently revealing the hidden truth.  Similarly, with the hoaxes and scams we’ve all been subject to.  We all know about a Nigerian Princess who would gladly give us all her treasure if only we would send our bank details.  Interestingly, that particular hoax began long before email and the internet was invented and first surfaced in the eighteenth century when the poor soul so imprisoned in her country was Spanish and delivered her impassioned plea by letter.  But it has continued to flourish and nets the perpetrators millions of pounds a year. We all know that if something seems too good to be true then it generally is but we fall headlong for these hoaxes and scams again and again.  What is it that makes us so vulnerable to them?

Conspiracists can always point to the Black Knight as proof of their theories.  In 1954, some years before anyone had the capacity to send objects into orbit, newspapers reported that there were one or two artificial satellites orbiting the earth.  These stories continued until 1960 when irrefutable proof in the shape of a strange object was photographed.  At last, they thought, our beliefs are proved to be true.

I think it’s something to do with my strong belief in a rational and trustable world.  Even if that rationale is sometimes well hidden.  You could probably say that I am a sceptic of the first water. OK, a cynic, then. The law that the simplest answer is usually the right one was dreamt up 700 years ago by a monk called William from Occam or Ockham near Guildford.    Most conspiracies and hoaxes have to be built on a teetering foundation of supposition, rumour and fear.  We suppose what we don’t know.  We believe there must be something more than just chance guiding the world otherwise why are we so poor while others have so much wealth? In the world of ignorance rumours abound and are fuelled by the ease of dissemination by social media.  If we never speak and debate face to face, we believe.  Most of all we live in fear that whatever malevolent force is out there, be it the Devil or the Government or the Illuminati and that they must necessarily mean us harm. In the end, everything we are: that is, all our possessions and accumulated junk will somehow be denied us and we will be left alone and exposed.  Times journalist David Aaronovitch says “We like the idea that there is an explanation for everything but we also like the idea that there is a hidden explanation as well.”

We sup with the Devil with the shortest spoon possible so that we can believe him to be our friend and that he will pour his random acid of evil on someone else.

Cut this all away as if with a razor and you will get something closer to the truth.  But still the conspiracy theorists and the White Queens ("Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.") will go on believing in a way the big books call cognitive bias and suffering the consequent discomfort they refer to as cognitive dissonance. And weirder still, the more the evidence is stacked against the conspiracy the more the belief is reinforced and the blunter Occam’s Razor becomes.

Let me tell you a fairy story.  There was once a wicked witch in the West. Originally she was from the East where she had been taught that everything that mattered could be weighed and measured and there was no need for any of the airy fairy flim flam that so many mortals worried about. But she had a rather beastly time in the East so she transported herself to the West where she developed a grudge against the gooey, sticky parts of mortal life that made her feel unhappy and she came to want to destroy everything that could not be weighed and measured.  She thought that everybody else should shut themselves in a cupboard and just go away. But nobody would listen to her silly ideas so she wrote all her grievances in a little book.   And then she died and with her last breath she cursed the world and wished that all mortals be turned to stone because in that way they could be weighed and measured. At first, anybody who read her book laughed at it because it was very silly and childish.  (And very badly written.) But one day some greedy and selfish crooks thought that they would do better out of the world if greed and selfishness were the made the things to be, so they took the wicked witch’s silly book and said to all their friends that this book had magic powers and would change the world as they wanted.  And gradually the book was passed around and, because these men said that the book was true, it was believed and slowly, slowly, the magic spell began to work and a dark shadow was unleashed upon the whole world because everybody believed that this was true and, what’s more, how things had to be.  And faster and faster, all the good things that were in people’s hearts like love and friendship (because the wicked witch had said such things were unfeasibly gooey and sticky) were replaced by selfishness and greed and hate and fear and everybody felt unhappy but they didn’t know why.  And they began to blame everything that was good and speak out for the evil things that were now rampaging through the world even though they were making themselves more and more unhappy.  And one of these crooks whispered in the ear of another powerful witch from another country and she said that everything that had gone before was now to be forgotten and laughed at.  And so it was.  The darkness descended on the world like a thick choking fog.  And people had no way of defending themselves against it and they began to turn to stone because a stone is easily weighed and measured.

OK not a very good fairy story but the best I can do.  It’s here to illustrate the idea that ideas can be passed around and believed despite any evidence to the contrary.  This is called cognitive bias.  We are all cognitively biased one way or another.  There are many things we believe because… well, because we believe them.  And the unhappiness it causes when it clashes with the reality of what we see with our eyes is called cognitive dissonance.

If you haven’t guessed already, the originator of all this nonsense is Russian born pulp fiction writer, Ayn Rand.  In Ayn Rand’s grindingly awful world stability would be achieved by having no government and with all individuals concerned only with their own ends. Altruism would be discounted and only self-interest allowed. What is frightening is that her bonkers belief became widespread among people who became big players in Silicon Valley and, eventually, though Alan Greenspan right into the heart of US government where the ideas brought about the collapse of two world economies; that of South east Asia in the nineteen nineties and the whole western economy in 2008. We shudder at this nonsense, these bizarre ideas of individual isolation one from another which have so thoroughly soaked into contemporary society through the vectors of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher the latter who famously said “There is no such thing as society”. Yes, it’s true, she did actually say that in an interview with Women’s Own Magazine on 31st October 1987 and it was an idea directly channelled from Rand.

While these policies derived some intellectual underpinning from economists such as Friedman and Hayek, it was essentially Rand’s philosophy that was at the stony heart of the whole enterprise.

And when this philosophy was put into action it devolved power from governments to the banks.  And the banks had only one end in view – accumulating money. It was an extraordinary display of open and naked greed, a great slobbering banquet that continued for years until nearly every cupboard and fridge was empty whilst the rest of us looked on in horror.   This was Ayn Rand’s philosophy of self-interest written on a world scale.   And in the end it was the small person who was left with a monstrous bill for the beanfeast which he or she was absolutely and utterly unable to dispute. What’s more we are made to feel the guilty parties in this farrago.  We feel powerless before this swelling tide. We cannot cope so we turn our faces to the wall, reach for the remote control or pound, pound, pound mindlessly along the clifftop and in the end we do nothing at all about it.

But, hey!  Hang about!  You say.  Here you are banging on about not believing in conspiracy theories  of the world and you’ve just propounded one of the biggest.  The virtual collapse of Western Civilization brought about by a pulp fiction writer.  Well, OK.  You, of course, have me banged to rights.  How come I can believe in this and not the one about faked moonlandings or whatever? I would defend myself by saying that actually all of this is well known and documented.  The people involved are open and have discussed it.  What they did with the banks has been admitted to and the perpetrators speak freely about it with little remorse.  So this is a conspiracy that is actually happening now and is a proud part of modern economics.

The corollary of this is The idea of Year Zero. The clock of history is reset to begin anew and usually at a year and day impossibly long ago when the world was apparently a simpler and better place. A time in which we conveniently overlook the lack of medicine and hygiene and personal freedoms we take for granted now.  Year Zero  is a reaction to the extreme Randists.  It is a reaction of people who see no way to influence the downward slide of the world into chaos.  I see the concept of Year Zero in the Christian Fundamentalists deep in the backwoods of the USA.  I see it in the hardline Putin backwoodsmen in Russia.  But most of all I see it in the Taliban in Northern Pakistan, the ISIS movement in the Middle East and in Boko Haram in Nigeria and the surrounding states.

This is nothing new.  We have seen it in the past in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, we saw it in the Jones Sect in North and Central America, we saw it in the French Revolution and onwards and backwards throughout history.  Maybe there was more than a little taste of it in the hippy communes and back to Mother Earth movements I was part of in the sixties. The whole edifice of the Christian church itself is predicated on the fact that the world will end with a Second Coming.

And we can see why the idea of year Zero is so attractive.  If you are poor and dispossessed such that you have nothing left then a return to the woods and fields seems not only attractive but inevitable.

But there is an additional feature of the idea of Year Zero that makes it more than an amusing historical trope and that is the complete and utter disregard for the sanctity of human life it produces.  I am not a sociologist or anthropologist but I perceive in these millenarian tendencies something that seems to align the end of the present world with the utter necessity of killing and killing again on a vast scale. Why?  Why should the end of one era and the beginning of a new one require so much bloodletting?  The folk who have inhabited the planet up to now and their funny ways and habits and customs and ideas such as love and sociability must be eliminated so the world can be cleansed and can begin afresh somewhere in the thirteenth century. But if we Join all these movements together, the millenarians and the privileged wealth grabbers somehow they all blend one into another. We see an almost ritual requirement for ordinary people to be crushed. Common humanity recoils from this blood lust but we cannot let the common herd stand in the way of our truth, they say.  This herd, merely cattle to be sacrificed to the blood God.

Both the Year Zero mob and the No Society isolationists have a common cause in the suffocation of common human warmth, compassion and, dare I say it, love. I see their common interest described in virtual reality games peddled to us by the same forces that propagandise the poor, sick and generally Other. These dystopian images of a future where the human race is strangled by hate and fear and the only rule is that of the gun and the laser disintegrator.

And as I dig deeper into this morass I seem to see that what ties this all together and fuels its onward rampage is this disengagement I was talking about earlier.  Not only a disengagement from politics but from humanity itself.  All of these phenomena that I've touched on have their roots in a distancing from, not only the levers of power, but the actual machinery of common human existence.   The Conspiracy theorists, The Randists, the Scientologists, the Bankers, the Rhapsodists, the Capitalists and other hoaxers and scammers. Who can tell them apart?  They see a world so maddened that it can be driven for their own ends. And so they can disseminate their own stories, the conspiracies, the year zero, the religions, the accumulation of money - anything to give them some justification for their existence.  Their stories spread.  We desire an explanation for the entirely unearned misfortunes that befall us. It seems somehow easier to believe a complex lie than the simple truth. As Joseph Goebbels is often misquoted as saying “in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily”. In other words “The bigger the lie, the easier it is to believe.”  Thus the welter of propaganda of the press and the internet is lapped up by people who feel they simply do not have the time or the resources to cut through to the truth. The stories become the narrative of a whole people and, as such, they become the truth of the politicians, the spiritual leaders, the wealthy that they can manipulate to maintain their status.  They have bamboozled us with their nonsense for too long. Let us all remember this playwrights and poets alike, at least once a year on April 10th William of Ockham’s official commemoration day. 

And just to set the record straight about Black Knight : According to Martina Redpath of Armagh Planetarium and James Oberg, it is more probable that the photographs are of a thermal blanket that was confirmed as lost during an EVA. (a space walk) Redpath wrote:

"Black Knight is a jumble of completely unrelated stories; reports of unusual science observations, authors promoting fringe ideas, classified spy satellites and people over-interpreting photos. These ingredients have chopped up, stirred together and stewed on the internet to one rambling and inconsistent dollop of myth."

Disengagement is, of course, a defence mechanism.  We all know that if we hide under the bedclothes with our head under a pillow it will go away.  Whatever it is.  And sometimes it does.  More often than not, like a bill or a bank statement or a bad smell it won’t. I guess I should acknowledge my own weakness here. I’m of the school that says “If you can do something about it, then do it.  Otherwise there’s no point in worrying about it.”  Which isn’t a problem solver but it is a strategy for dealing with the ensuing panic.  And if the thing is too big for any sort of personal action, say it’s a terrorist attack or a long illness, then I join the majority of you in laughing at it. Laughter undermines the pomposity of those who have all the hare-brained answers. Hmm.  Laugh at the troublemakers but engage with them at the same time.  A good trick if you can pull it off. But the questions still remains, how do we get stuck into the world, how do we plug ourselves back into a living breathing culture that needs us as much as we need it?  We have so little time, so few resources.

I tell myself I need to understand myself and what motivates me before I can begin to understand anyone else and write about them with any sense of honesty.  As playwrights it is important for us all to be honest with ourselves and to know about ourselves.  As a very clever man once said “Be your own lamp.  Seek no other refuge.”  That doesn’t mean that we have to be in any way even handed dealing with our characters.  That is for journalists. (Mind you whoever heard of an unbiased journalist these days?) It is not for us to pontificate, proselytise or propogandise but Playwrights are not journalists.  We are not required to be balanced.  In fact the more unbalanced we are, the more impact we have. We need to challenge our audiences to watch and listen to our characters and let them judge their actions.  As in cricket and football, the best part of the game is the arguments in the bar at the end of the match.

 The thing is that we need to be engaged, passionate about our subject.  Whether we admire our characters or despise them is irrelevant, we need to be engaged with them as they take this journey through our imaginations while being detached enough to follow their doings without hindrance.  We must love our creations and listen to what they are saying.  We must find out every single thing that it is possible to know. Fact or fiction, however much we despise our characters we must believe their every word and report it faithfully.

When I was commissioned to write about Thomas Hardy’s first wife, Emma I thought that I would be dealing with someone silly and vapid and very neurotic.  That’s what the biographies led me to believe, anyway.  But by the end I had completely switched my opinion.  She was no longer a figure of fun rolling down the High Street in Dorchester on her bicycle, her bloomers flapping in the wind like a barrage balloon.  I came to admire and respect her and by following her character through my play I came to see a reality that was far more than the historical biographers allowed. I hope I was able to give Emma some sort of redemption through my words.  But her redemption was of her own doing, demonstrated through the character that grew as the play grew. All I had to do was to observe and transcribe her progress.

The most boring sort of theatre for an audience is one where I bombard you with my propaganda about the state of the world as I see it.  I have learnt how quickly an audience will switch off from that so while I am driven by my cognitive bias I must keep an awareness of it and try to recognise when it is me speaking and not my characters. If it’s my voice, speaking my thoughts then I shall scrub that thoroughly. Plays occur through the speech and actions of characters.  Those characters must be given the right to roam freely.  Some of them will utter words completely at variance with my thoughts and beliefs.  The point is not to tell you the audience what to think but to offer a window on a situation where an audience can ponder and debate.  I acknowledge that you may not think the same way that I do, you may well disagree with my views.  That’s fine.  In fact that is a brilliant thing.  As an artist I will select a situation and characters whom will interact within that.  My selections will enable you to see something of that situation as I see it but it is ultimately up to you whether you agree with me or not. To be engaged doesn’t mean the playwright has to be Serious with a capital S.  I have written comedies, pantomimes, murder mysteries and biographical pieces.  I hope they are all entertaining in their own way but I also hope that each one contains a few nuggets of truth about being human mined from observation of the way the world works and how people work within it. Writing plays, creating characters and situations is one of the best ways I know for understanding people, their inner lives and the world as it is. And whether you create serious dramas or pantomimes every word you write is a mirror held up for you to peer into.  I hope I am engaged enough with my subject matter for characters and situations to leap out at audiences and remain with them and bother them until they are in the bar after the show at least.

So does this all add up to an explanation of my own cognitive bias?  When confronted by all this I am indeed, definitely and wholeheartedly cognitively biased.  What I believe so fervently is in the inherent goodness and worthwhileness of every single human being on the planet.  I must be prepared to change and adapt to new circumstances, new ideas.  I do not believe in the reality or even the concept of evil.  The world is what it is and people in it are what they are.  Things go wrong when people stop behaving in a caring, socially aware sort of way.  The opposite of good is not evil, it is apathy. The opposite of doing good is doing nothing. I have not spoken to everybody on earth so I cannot possibly demonstrate this idea.  It is merely a belief and I realise that it conflicts with the beliefs of others and as such must be a pretty weird thought in itself.  And how can I defend my cognitive bias when I can lay into that of the conspiracy theorists?  Well, the test is simplicity, adherence to factual evidence as far as I can observe and gather it and that fact that... well, I am right.

And what I believe is that we could construct a world in which it’s possible for the majority of people to become engaged with humanity again.  To take notice of what’s going on and react to it.  Not hide away and wait for someone else to do the worrying for them.  I feel I ought to use my skills as a writer to help find simple channels to engage however and wherever people can, through science, through the arts, through politics.  The theatre is the greatest tool for this process.  It alive, it is immediate.  We see emotions and thoughts played out within touching distance.  We can see the sweat on the actor’s brow.  We can smell the sweat. And we playwrights have this great sword in our hands and we should be prepared to wield for the benefit of all.  I believe that as playwrights, we need to grasp our cognitive bias firmly and hug it ourselves until we are proved to be utterly wrong.  And even then we can mark its existence and still play it like a trout on a line.

To write a play or compose a piece of music is to appear naked on the stage.  However distant the style and subject might appear to be, in the end it is you up there and if any part of the experience needs to be authentic than that part needs to be you.

We need to convince directors, actors and producers to be bold and to give writers the resources to be as brave as they can be.  If a writer is prepared to engage with their characters on stage in a bizarre ritual of cruel truth-telling and thereby show up their own foibles and weaknesses then they need to be supported by the arts establishment and given the means to attract a whole new engaged audience.

So I’m going to cling to my bit of galloping cognitive bias for the time being and, agree with me or not, I hope you will trust me enough to stay with me for the ride because the next chapter develops the real reason why I’m banging on about cognitive bias and conspiracy so much.