Dolan Cummings: Therapy culture is turning us into passive victims

From a talk by the editorial director of the Institute of Ideas, given at the Edinburgh Festival
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The Independent Online

This year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe revealed how deeply ideas associated with a "therapy culture" are embedded in contemporary society. The commercial hit of the Fringe, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, highlighted the popular fascination with madness, but newer work reflected the increasingly common idea that we are all in need of help.

Jonathan Lichtenstein's Fringe First-winning play The Pull of Negative Gravity is about a soldier returning wounded from Iraq to a financially ruined and emotionally strained family. But this is no feel-good tale of triumph over adversity. Lichtenstein was interested in exploring what happens when people are unable to overcome trauma, but find themselves simply carried along by events.

Whereas modern theatre since Shakespeare at least has tended to hinge on decisions made by the characters, there is little if any agency in Lichtenstein's play; it is closer to ancient tragedy in which all human action is futile. This disavowal of agency captures a shift in the way we think about what it means to be human. The notion of the hero overcoming obstacles and shaping the world seems increasingly old-fashioned and unbelievable. Instead, the prevailing model of the authentic human being is a vulnerable and often damaged one.

This is the more sinister aspect of therapy culture. While it has made for some fine theatre, it is surely an unduly bleak view of humanity in the real world. Without agency, we would all be mere characters in a latter-day ancient tragedy. It's a good thing we can change the script.