In June 2020 a newspaper survey – conducted by the Singapore Sunday Times – asked respondents to rank the importance of various jobs during a pandemic. Medical practitioners came out on top, which was to be expected. But right at the bottom came the job of “artist”, a word which covered the whole gamut of creative industries.
This caused a stir. After all, Neilson Books research quoted in the Guardian suggests that people doubled their time spent reading during lockdown. Spotify saw a 31% rise in paid subscribers in the first three months of 2020. Netflix increased its subscribers by over 15 million during the same period. Given these figures it might seem that artists played an important role in getting people through the lockdowns of 2020.
Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, published in 2014, is a book describing the time before during and after a devastating fictional flu pandemic, which wipes out 99% of the world’s population. The battle for survival portrayed in the book is far more stark than the one we face in the real world of 2020. But if there’s a source of hope amidst this trauma, it comes from art, specifically a peripatetic band of musicians and Shakespearean actors called The Travelling Symphony. Their motto is: “survival is insufficient”.
While the members of The Travelling Symphony are portrayed as humble heroes, the book is not a simple-minded presentation of art as a panacea for life’s problems. Such an easy answer does not exist, just as a cure for the book’s devastating Georgia Flu does not exist. In scenes depicting the Hollywood smart set of pre-pandemic Los Angeles, there’s not exactly a feeling of people living deep and meaningful lives. And yet, in the post-pandemic world, with all celebrity froth stripped away, the Travelling Symphony really is a beacon of hope. This troupe brings music and Shakespeare to people who have nothing except a grinding fight for survival. There are parallels with the life of Shakespeare himself, who had to take his company on a tour of the provinces in 1603, when plague closed all of London’s theatres for a year.
So finally, we have to ask: what exactly does a troupe of travelling players bring to people struggling to survive? It’s with this question that Station Eleven gets really interesting. You could say The Travelling Symphony brings meaning to people. But meaning is a tricky thing. After all, there are deeply unpleasant cult leaders in Station Eleven who find clear meaning in the pandemic, seeing it as divine judgement on sinners, no less. All those who died in the pandemic apparently did so for a reason. By contrast, The Travelling Symphony is staffed by sensible souls who realise that sometimes bad things just happen. They do not try to explain what happened in terms of supernatural purpose. They perform the plays of an artist who is known for presenting conundrums rather than giving easy answers. This is the humane approach of art, the sharing of experience and questions; and if people share their experience, and ask questions together, they are more likely to find answers and meaning as they continue into an uncertain future.
Station Eleven is a gripping, traumatic, ultimately reassuring read. And I’m sure if you gave a copy of the book to the respondents of that 2020 newspaper survey, their answers would have been rather different.