When the play was over, there was a brief moment of applause, and then everyone pretty much filed out of the theater. There was no chatter, laughter, or excited conversation, no waiting around to meet the actors. Like most, I just wanted out. In the end, Pornography, British playwright Simon Stephen's fractured series of vignettes on London life in the wake of the 2007 London Underground bombings, was simply depressing.
In seven unconnected vignettes, Stephen's explores the lives of several individuals in the run up to and aftermath of the bombings. All smack of the profane, of things repulsive, though not always in a sexual sense. There's the bomber himself, driven by hate. There's a lonely old woman, laughed at by a group of kids. We see an alienated teenager, estranged from parents who hate each other, himself spurned by the girl he idolizes. There's a teacher who makes sexual advances toward a former student. There's an incestuous relationship between brother and sister. Few are the moments of laughter. Little if anything endears the characters to us, all of whom seem self-absorbed, narcissistic, and eaten up by their own passions. The point? Apparently, that life is obscene, pornographic if you will, that there is no hope and no meaning.
As if to drive home the point, two phrases recur throughout the play. The first is "images of hell, they are silent," which seems to suggest the meaninglessness of the personal hells we all experience. The second is one uttered by many of the actors, that is, "are you crying, or are you laughing?," as if to say it really doesn't matter whether you laugh or cry. At the end, the number of the dead drones on, each character summarizing who they are, what they do, and yet, they are just a number, lost among the masses, again as if to say that it really doesn't matter who they were or what they did, that all is meaningless. The few props are several black boxes that the characters move about in inexplicable ways, a testimony to meaninglessness, as if all we can do is move the pieces of life around and yet in the end it doesn't matter.
Pornography is, ultimately, a visible embodiment of nihilism, the philosophy that says life is meaningless. What does it mean? It means nothing. We are nothing. Life is nothing, death is nothing, our wants and desires are nothing.
And yet there is hope conveyed, though I suspect Stephens did not have it in mind. If he believes life is meaningless, why did he feel compelled to communicate something that no doubt he saw as having meaning? Would it not have been more honest to have simply said nothing? That he attempts to say something meaningful, that he hopes to have an impact on the viewer, tells me that he longs for meaning. And that is hopeful, because it reminds me that the longing for meaning did not just spring into existence ex nihilio but is part of the way we are fashioned: we long for meaning because there is meaning to be found.
I don't need to see another play, hear more music, or view more art that expresses nihilism. There's enough of that in the world. There's enough entertainment to distract us momentarily, to take our mind off the fact that we don't know what matters. And yet perhaps a play like Pornography will lead someone to ask why, to wonder where that need for meaning came from, and lead some to embrace the One who makes everything matter. That gives me hope for playwright and audience, for all who filed out of the theater into the darkness of night.