Why do we still laugh or cry when we know the ending?

It may be that one of the hallmarks of a great work of art (or at least literature/theatre/music) is its ability to constantly move, surprise and entertain us even when, after our first experience, we know exactly what will happen and how it will end?

I thought of this today after having seen a tremendous performance of La Traviata at Covent Garden this weekend.As ever, grown men – including this one –  cried! Yet having either read the programme and/or seen it before, we all knew Violetta would die and that on the way to her death she (or rather Verdi) would move us, tug every one of our heartstrings and make us want to believe that her final reconciliation with Alfredo would give her the strength to carry on.

So it is with Woodward and Bernstein in All the Presidents Men- a film that most of us will watch armed the ‘facts’ of the history and know that Tricky Dickie gets his just deserts.And we all know by now that Cary Grant  will see off Martin Landau on the face of Mount Rushmore   and get to travel in the sleeping car with Eva Marie Saint in North by North West, but still we experience the tension of that moment.

And as tis the season of goodwill, what of Scrooge? Only a very young child can possibly be ignorant of the fact of his repentance and the redemption that Dickens grants him.Yet with what is essentially the major truth of the story known to all, the drama retains its ability to grip us and somehow make us believe the outcome is in doubt.Similarly with Pip and the true identity of Magwitch in Great Expectations.

And of course Shakespeare loses little of his power through the universal use of  ‘spoilers’ in any review of a new production of one of his plays!

What is it that the artists is able to do and what is it that we collude in that allows us this ‘groundhog day’ like approach to the emotions that lie at the heart of our major works of art?

It has to be said that we know it to be a skill since there are notable instances of this effect not being made to work.  Returning to opera, I am less moved say by La Boheme because the plight of Mimi looks to be too predictable  and never in sufficient doubt   to move the listener after the first performance.In films, the otherwise enjoyable Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid of Redford and Newman never has the impact of its first viewing because the shock of the ending can never be forgotten or replayed. By way of contrast, many of us watch The Great Escape again and again when we know there there will be no ‘great’ escape! In literature,I personally have found it hard to read the works of Hardy more than once because the fate of the central character is usually sealed with such finality after having been foretold with such dramatic power.Yet books I have read often – the Great Gatsby, the key works of Greene for example – are no less final in their judgement.

The quality of the performance, the music or the writing clearly makes a difference, but are there any essential ground rules?

In the end, it may come down to our own relationship to the theme, our experience of the music or writing, yet I tend to think that there is more involved.

I’ll give it some thought as I watch Singing in the Rain for the umpteenth time , listen as I do every year to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, play Born to Run and Hejira once again and pick up a well thumbed and much loved novel to read!


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