Catharsis is a Greek word meaning ‘cleansing’ or ‘purification’. Aristotle explains catharsis as the “purging of the spirit of morbid and base ideas or emotions by witnessing the playing out of such emotions or ideas on stage”. Many of us have cried our hearts out over the love story in The Notebook and felt better for the release of emotion. Often we seek that release – when I feel sad I will purposefully watch that film to re-set myself. So how does catharsis work in theatre – and specifically musical theatre?

Another choice quote from Aristotle about the power of music on an audience is: “All experience a certain purge [catharsis] and pleasant relief…cathartic melodies give innocent joy to men”. This is a beautiful way of understanding how music affects us as humans; I see this everyday with my disabled sister and how certain songs will send her into a trance (notably ‘What If’ by Kate Winslet). The most obvious example of catharsis within musicals are the more tragic ones – I had a university friend who loudly sobbed during a performance of Les Miserables much to the chagrin of her fellow theatregoers. I usually get a little bit teary over Judi Dench singing ‘Send in the Clowns’ from A Little Night Music, proving a strong voice isn’t always needed to pull at an audience’s emotions.

But the emotional release doesn’t just come from watching people from 19th century France die – it can also occur more profoundly when set in ‘real life’. 1950’s New York would have had a very strong reaction to West Side Story when it was originally presented, as that tension between Americans and Puerto Ricans was really taking place at the time. Stephen Sondheim’s non-linear show Company also presents a real life take on relationships, and for all its witty lyrics, you can’t help but be a bit emotional when Robert sings ‘Being Alive’, where he muses that life really is better lived when sharing it with another. You also don’t need a three hour show to reach that point emotionally; it can be achieved in a single song, as songwriter Scott Alan proves – this song gave me chills the first time I heard it and Hadley Fraser acts it so well.

So can catharsis only be achieved through tragedy and sadness? For me the answer is no – laughter and amazement also cause an emotional release. People still walk out of shows such as The Lion King in a daze from the spectacle they saw on stage. Also the power of comedy shouldn’t be forgotten; crying from laughter also provides an emotional relief, which is what shows such as Book of Mormon and Avenue Q achieve – they give you an adrenalin rush.

Catharsis is a fabulous word in itself, but it is a necessary tool in the entertainment genre and is often the main want of an audience: to be moved in whatever way that piece offers. Even king of alienation Bertolt Brecht saw its importance, noting how it could be used as a social tool to change the world we live in. So, what shows get you there emotionally? Mine are probably Oklahoma! for the feel good adrenalin high and Les Miserables for a complete sob fest.

Image by Phil Shirley.