The Power of Relatability

In the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead blasts the idea that audiences should crave familiar art. In fact, relatability is practically the God particle of theater, and it has been for a long time.

When Ira Glass stepped out of a performance of King Lear this week and declared, "No stakes, not relatable ... Shakespeare sucks," I don't know what he was thinking. I mean this both figuratively, since I love Shakespeare, and literally, because I don't know what his thoughts were. But he couldn't have possibly foreseen the raging, blowing, cheek-cracking winds of indignation that his comment would set off.

In the New Yorker, the brilliant writer Rebecca Mead used Glass's tweet as a news hook to tear down the whole business of "relatability," which she considers a bastardization of what art should be. In her words:

Relatability—a logism so neo that it’s not even recognized by the 2008 iteration of Microsoft Word with which these words are being written—has become widely and unthinkingly accepted as a criterion of value, even by people who might be expected to have more sophisticated critical tools at their disposal ....

The contemporary meaning of “relatable”—to describe a character or a situation in which an ordinary person might see himself reflected—first was popularized by the television industry. 

This comment stung me, sharper than a serpent's tooth, not because it was, itself, so relatable, but rather because its argument—relatability is new, relatability is base—is so totally crazy, that if Shakespeare were alive today, I shudder to think what crude things he might tweet in response.

Relatability might be a neologism, but like a King Lear play set in 21st century Washington, D.C., it merely puts a modern dress on an old idea. Many of the best plays have—and still do—relate explicitly and purposefully to their contemporary audiences. It wasn't by accident that Oscar Wilde repeatedly skewered the upper-crust of Victorian society and became beloved for it. After all, his audience was upper-crust Victorian. It wasn't coincidence that Shakespeare, writing for an audience that often featured sitting English monarchs, wrote 10 plays about former English monarchs.

If you don't like relatability, you're going to hate the history of American theater, which has been steadfastly devoted to writing plays about typical Americans, living in typical America. Long Day's Journey Into Night is nearly autobiographical and, famously, scarringly relatable to any family that has suffered from a form of addiction; Angels in America and The Normal Heart took on the AIDS crisis at the height of the AIDS crisis. A Raisin in the Sun? Death of a Salesmen? These aren't exactly Mesozoic dramas. The Crucible might be the most famous American play that isn't about contemporary American life, but as a metaphor for America in the Cold War, its politics couldn't be any more current for its contemporary audience.

The point isn't that great art has to be about contemporary life. I'm not sure great art has to be anything. But so much wonderful theater has served, historically, as an exaggerated mirror held up to a country at a specific moment in history that it's shocking to see a writer blast the idea that "[a play] be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer." Ira Glass did not invent the idea that great plays ought to reflect their times.

If there is something unique about Shakespeare—for me, at least—it is that he managed to hold a mirror to his contemporaries whose reflection still captures audiences all around the world, hundreds of years later. As Harold Bloom wrote in the preface to The Invention of the Human, what makes Shakespeare great is precisely that his plays relate to their audiences timelessly—"the plays read me better than I read them."

The idea that somebody might not like a play, even a famous one like Lear, is understandable. But the idea that relatability is a modern invention of bad television and casual tweeting? That is a bit of theater that is truly hard to relate to.