On International Women’s Day, one father’s take on ‘The Son’

Watching a play about a son’s impending mental breakdown and his parents’ powerlessness to help him probably wasn’t the most ideal way to celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD). Plus my wife and I watched the afternoon matinee version on the 7th, and not today, the 8th of March. So the connection to IWD was even more remote.

Still, the play got me thinking more about men and how our roles as fathers and husbands in today’s world are still being perceived, viz-a-viz that of mothers and wives. As we all know, women continue to hold sway when it comes to matters in the home, where men are often deem clueless as to what’s really going on.

Which is something this play reinforced.

A local theatre company here (Pangdemonium Theatre) had put up a play originally created by an acclaimed French playwright Florian Zeller. The Times even called Zeller the most “exciting playwright of our time”. The play was called The Son, and this final instalment in a three-story trilogy took the bull by the horns, the bull in this case being mental illness. It’s not a pretty story and to some extent, the ending was more or less expected.

[Okay okay hold your horses; that last bit could hardly be considered a spoiler right? So please, don’t wag your finger at me!]

While I had no major quibbles about how the play ended, I did take exception to the plot. You see, within the first five to ten minutes of the play, we the audience learnt that the protagonist Pierre had left his first wife Anne and their son Nicholas (now 16 years old) some years ago, remarried a younger woman Sophia, and they recently gave birth to a son Sasha. We also figured out that Anne was having issues with Nicholas skipping school for months and being essentially ‘non-communicado’. The play opened with her coming over to Pierre and Sophia’s home to seek help to try and reach Nicholas, who refused to open up to her.

Pierre was pretty cavalier for most of the conversation and it soon became clear that he was basically clueless as to why his son was being so despondent, so non-communicative and withdrawn. And that’s where the plot fell apart for me.

I couldn’t help thinking how convenient. A story about mental illness befalling a teenager and the playwright decided to use what to me must surely be the easiest trick in the book! I mean c’mon, really? Man leaves wife and son. Man remarries. Son goes into depression and no one knows why, especially the man? For me, that just seems way too simple a plot line: making the man the simpleton. The stereotypical alpha male who’s too busy with his work (of course Pierre just HAD to be a typical successful corporate lawyer) to know what’s been going on in the lives of his family members.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, and rightfully recognise once again the critical role of women in society, no one in their right mind could ever create a plot like this that shows up a mother or a wife as being as clueless as Pierre. I mean, for a woman to not know the destructive consequences experienced by children caught up in the middle of the maelstrom that is divorce? Impossible!

But us men? Sure of course. We men are traditionally the dim-witted ones. We are typically deemed to be too preoccupied with our male egos and careers to pay heed to the possible devastations our decisions can wreak on our families and loved ones. And because of this flaw in us men, it’s always the women who must then end up tidying the mess we leave behind.

In some sense, I can understand that. History, news and literature are replete with examples. And in some sense, I know that this is still all too common today, and women must continue to wrestle with the many idiotic men around them (hey thanks a lot bros!).

But as I watched this play, I just couldn’t help thinking that this plot choice was way too easy. And it detracted from how far more convoluted and complex this whole issue of mental illness in young people is or can actually be. I firmly believe that there are far more elusive, far more complicated reasons and causes for youngsters today falling into depression and helplessness than this play made it out to be. “The Son”s premise was far too easy, almost dismissive in its treatment of the subject at hand. It cheapened what’s really going on out here in the real world.

And that I object. This social issue deserved a better representation than what The Son gave us.

I’m just grateful that the seasoned thespians on stage yesterday (Pierre and Nicholas were a pair of real-life father and son!), held up well despite this blip. Otherwise I would have really rued spending 3 hours of my weekend on a day out with the wife – and without the kids!

One can only hope that people don’t walk out of that performance assuming that the causes for mental illness today in youngsters can be so easily traced to a single source – the ignorant father. If they do, I suggest they go read Linda Collin’s book “Loss Adjustment“. Now that memoir really made me sit up and take notice of this serious social ailment that’s invisible yet all around us, if only we would pay closer attention.

[Hmmm…maybe I’ll do a review of that book in a future post.]

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