In a pandemic, we need art more than ever

Storytelling and performance are not 'add-ons' - they are vital to how societies withstand the trauma of these trying times

Last month, I was supposed to be in Antwerp for the opening of my adaptation of Moby-Dick at the deSingel arts centre. It was to be an experimental reworking of the great American classic. We were to have Queequeg played by a black South African soprano. It was to be an opera. I heard, on the day before the premiere, that the theatres in Belgium had closed. The contagion of cultural closures began to sweep across the world.

Broadway closed; opera houses shut. In London, they sought to brave it out. I went to the opening of Brian Friel's Afterplay at the Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill. I held out hope that the piece I was co-staging there, called Our Lives, an infinite improvisation, which was to feature the dancing and choreography of Charlotte Jarvis along with my poetry, would still be performed. But I soon learnt that the show was to be postponed.

I spoke to many friends who had suffered the cancellations of their films, plays, operas and dances, all across the world. And this prompted the questions in me of the ultimate value of culture at a time when humanity is under great stress. While we must take great care in protecting ourselves and others from the contagion, it is worth asking what the role of art is in these trying times.


It struck me that this is a time when we need art more than ever. We need art to remind us why life is worth living. We need art to reawaken our sense of the wonder of being, to remind us of our freedom, and to highlight the things in our cultures that enable us to withstand the dreaded visage of death.

For too long art has been seen as an extra, an add-on, something dispensable unless it can prove its worth by numbers and quotas. It may be that we lost sight of art's special value because prosperity obscured its meaning, its profound questions, and its uncanny capacity for transcendence.

It is in the face of death that art becomes most powerful. It was said that during the time of the Black Death in Italy, people carried paintings through the streets to confront the plague. Some might say that it was not the paintings themselves that were seen as death-fighting images, but the subjects of the paintings, the Madonnas and the images of Christ, that were being used to confront a scale of death the people could not understand. It hardly matters which it was: art became a weapon against the plague.

How does a culture withstand the onslaught of a pandemic? We survive first of all with the presence of culture within us. It is to our inner culture that we turn, the culture we carry in us through years of unconscious osmosis and conscious acquisition.

Art and literature bring this spiritual reserve to the fore, make it visible, give it form and character. That is why, in reading literature, we deepen our perception of life, we live other lives.

It is a particular loss that we are deprived of this nourishment when we need it most. Books can always be read at home and perhaps we will never read more attentively and be more profoundly attuned to the deeper layers of literature than when we read with the sense of death all around us. But theatre is poignantly needed now too. More so because of the way that theatre restores a sense of community and dialogue, ritualises eternal concerns, and gives form to the demons haunting our culture and the redeeming angels at its core.

In the tragicomedy that is Uncle Vanya - which was playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until it and London's other theatres had no choice but to close abruptly - a soaring note of optimism for the future emerges from the bleakness. In King Lear, a man who was a king is turned inside out as he realises on the brink of death how pride had blinded him to what matters. In Ibsen, the mechanism of our self-destruction is always exposed to reveal possibilities of redemption. In Greek tragedy, even when the heroes perish, we sense something in them greater than their death.

In my adaptation of Moby-Dick, I wanted to show what happens when we do not question our leaders who, through their own private flaws, can take the ship of state to hell itself. The play helped me see that the destiny of nations resides in the vigilance of citizens. And in the poetic dance ritual, we wanted to explore the relationship between improvisation and living.

When the plotted script of society is suddenly lost, we are left with improvisation. And the quality of it depends on the strength of the culture we have internalised and the vitality of our freedom. These are both engendered by storytelling.


I remember during the Nigerian civil war, which I witnessed as a child, that when the bombs began to fall, and when the family was cooped up in a tiny space, with little food, was when I learnt the most about my cultural heritage, and the lives of my father and mother. They told stories to distract themselves, to amuse us, but mainly to ward off fear.

It seems that the more society advances, the more we need this primeval power of storytelling to keep us going. When Boccaccio wanted to tell us what qualities helped people survive during the Black Death, he showed us a group of people travelling through a plague-stricken landscape. Their chief resource was telling one another stories to fortify, delight and strengthen them.

We often misunderstand the role of the imagination at the heart of our cultural life. One power of the imagination is to enable us to see an alternative future where reason sees none. The triumph of humanity is always its survival against the odds. We always come through when the cold statistics are against us. And this is because of something in us greater than our resilience. Our will alone cannot do this. What does it is something in us that transcends reason, our psychic elasticity. When we least expect it, we manage to be more than ourselves. And the heart of this is imagination. What we can imagine, the will can achieve.

We need to keep art and storytelling alive. It is important that we remember the Italians in their quarantine, singing arias from their balconies in the face of the pandemic. We are more than panic buyers. We are also people who can pool our resources and our humour. We are more than the modern Ahabs who want to acquire the antiviral serum only for their own nations. We are also people who realise that this is a profoundly human tragedy. If the pandemic reminds us of anything, it is that we either survive as a species or we perish together.

It is a particular piece of cosmic humour that after the divisiveness of Brexit, whose central dispute was over being an island or being together, that we have a pandemic that forces each of us to be an island in order to realise what it means to be human together. We are being forced to close our borders and live behind walls. It has locked us in and we don't like it. We sense now, perhaps, the unnaturalness of it. But if we had listened to the stories our cultures tell, we would know this more intimately all along.


We have entered a fictional world. The normal laws of reality are suspended. Perhaps for the first time in anyone's memory, life has taken on a surreal dimension on a mass scale. Families who normally don't spend time together now find themselves with one another in an intense way. A normally outgoing society is having to turn inwards. For fear of the contagion, people are thrown back on one another. Now, with nowhere to go, faced with one another, might we run out of games and conversation? Might a culture suddenly find itself challenged less by the pandemic and more by the weight of solitude? When a culture finds that its dreaded and most-avoided subject is at the centre of the stage of our lives, what happens to us?

For the first time since World War II, death has become a tangible presence. Not an abstract death, not the death of people far away, but our own death. The crucial question is how does a culture survive this onslaught? What does it fall back on? I see the wisdom of a lockdown in order to contain the spread of the virus. But we have to find a way to keep culture alive. It is not only through viruses that a people die. A people also perish when they fail to keep alive the values that make them human, the wellsprings of their sanity.

It may well be that it is not only self-isolation and science that will save us. We may also be saved by laughter, by catharsis, by the optimism of being able to see beyond these times, with stories, with community, with songs.


• Ben Okri is a Nigerian poet and novelist whose latest works are The Freedom Artist and Prayer For The Living.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2020, with the headline In a pandemic, we need art more than ever. Subscribe