The concept of verisimilitude haunts theatre and film. Sometimes clanking chains and moaning and groaning, verisimilitude (as a concept) can also slip away as easily as a wisp on the breeze. In dealing with 'the appearance of that which is true or real,' we get to the dark place between the tangible and intangible.
Our culture bizarrely twists between the tangible and the intangible. On one side, our culture adores technology and all of the comforts afforded us through the many applications of modern science. The computer on which you read these words and the fat-free snack you might relish as you read—both result from careful study of the tangible realm in which we live.
On the other hand our culture more and more embraces the intangible—probably as much so as our ancestors in the Middle Ages. It seems more and more people concern themselves with angels and spirits—realms of that we cannot immediately apprehend by our physical senses.
What is real?
Recently a film opened in the U.S.A. that centered on one of the tragic crashes of the attacks of 9/11/2001. Some said it was "too soon" for such a film. The film was "too real" and might waken the spirit of loss still felt by many. Others felt the "reality" of the film might help people to work through those feelings of loss. Approving or unapproving, reports indicate the movie provides copiously in the area of verisimilitude. And, according to the film's director and others connected to the film, verisimilitude was a palpable object for the film-makers. For example, no stars appeared in the film—with the assumption that seeing an actor like Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise in the plane would draw undue attention to the fact that neither was on the doomed flight. Likewise publicists pointed out that some of the Air Traffic Controllers were the actual folks who worked that day. Somehow their presence—as opposed to their representation by unknown actors—made the film more 'real.'
Likewise, I'm struck more and more by how many publicists work to let people know that a given story is "based on a true story" or "based on actual events." What difference does it make? Will a film based on actual events be more interesting, moving, stimulating or entertaining than one not based on actual events?
As the ability to show the patently unreal continues to grow, I seem to care less about the reality of what I see. For example, I doubt a giant simian climbed the EmpireStateBuilding during the 1930s, but the film technique used by Peter Jackson in the recent King Kong made me feel vertigo as I sat in my comfy stadium-style rocking chair.
Verisimilitude in the theatre even gets crazier than film. A crazy inverse relationship happens with the more "reality" one puts on the stage. Machinery exists to probably put actual growing trees on stage for a production of The Cherry Orchard. But such a thing would be out of place in the context in which it sits. For example, several years ago this writer worked on a production of Caryl Churchill's play, Fen. The set designer and crew brought tons of earth into the theatre. Each night the prop crew deposited several potatoes for the cast to pluck from the actual earth in which they trudged. It was real earth and real potatoes. But it seemed all the more fantastic because instead of being outdoors under the sky, it was in a building under a roof with people watching.
Likewise, I'm certain that many of the readers have shared the experience of sitting in a fairly non-descript space and being moved and inspired and entertained by actors without the least sense of anything seemingly physically real at all.
Of course, the careful reader will be quick to point out what Pushkin pointed out all those years ago—all the verisimilitude we need to enjoy the drama is the verisimilitude of emotions, given the circumstances of the situation of the characters. The reality is in the emotional life of the characters.
But here again we find a wisp that refuses to remain solidly in our grasp. What emotions are 'real?' In a tangible sense, are our emotions nothing more than a combination of chemical and electrical charges whirling through our nervous systems? Can emotions—so easily simulated in the laboratory by the correct application of manufactured stimuli—be something more substantial than a word?
I'm uncertain that I can fully answer such questions. But I think such questions point us in the wrong direction in thinking about what is 'real.' Verisimilitude relies neither on "real" settings nor "real" emotions (whatever we might describe reality to be). Rather, verisimilitude rests on the foundation of recognition—the recognition of the human.
Regardless of form—and, I think, also regardless of content—as an audience we want to recognize that we are not alone. There are other humans in whom we can recognize a spark of that which we know as human and nothing else. We might label that spark as many things, but in the end its main life springs from being the human animal.
We're sitting in a dark place, and in the light we see a story. We might be around an ancient fire or in the cineplex, in ancient Athens or at the Olivier. Either way, we're doing something very basic and very human. And that is real.