Art is the mirror we all need right now
So I’m a few weeks late to the Netflix phenomenon “Hannah Gadsby: Nanette.” I’ve seen various social media posts about it, most written to present a kind of awestruck reaction: “Hannah Gadsby. Wow.” or “Please find an hour to watch this show.”
So today I did. And today I am awestruck, and today I implore you to watch this special. I beg you to watch it with your mother (if she’s like mine, she’ll struggle with the language), and watch it with your father (he might feel affronted). Watch it with your children (not the very little ones — the language is occasionally rough) and spouse and friends and encourage your colleagues to watch it so you can talk about it at work the next day.
Gadsby has, as expected of the art form, sprinkled her personal stories with little comedic nuggets to leave the audience laughing at the perfect cliff-hanging moments. She even talks about the importance of comedy depending on only being two parts of the story — the introduction and the middle, which is where the tension lies and the humor resides.
But then she takes us, her witless audience, who has laughed with and at her for about 40 minutes, to the oft-overlooked third part, the actual endings of her personal stories.
Denouement is a theatrical and literary term whose purpose is to “tie up” the story, so to speak. When everything seems like it can’t possibly end happily ever after, the denouement is the construct that we use in Western storytelling to help the lovers find each other, the hero find her/his way home or the moral to be revealed to the characters.
Gadsby’s denouement is where the real art and the absolute “real” arrives. In the last third of this special, Gadsby fiercely tackles homophobia, our current political climate, gender and sexual imbalance, misogyny, the terrible errors in art history, self loathing and so much more. The conclusions to her stories, often charming and sometimes awkward to this point, are heartbreaking and reveal an undercurrent of such universal and personal darkness as to render her live audience absolutely silent.
I often post social media videos highlighting how the arts, through history, have shined a light on and reflected darkness so that we might never again experience it. But Gadsby has done this in our era, in real time, with today’s issues and through her own personal journey. This special is a 68-minute piece of art so honest, brilliant and timely that I was left truly reeling and awake to the power of the arts in a way I have never before experienced them.
Comics are often people working through various personal demons, and comedy almost always comes from a place of dark truth. For me, Gadsby’s dark artistic commentary is exactly what we need right now. And I hope you’ll find an hour to watch it, too.
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and originally appeared in print on Monday, July 30, 2018.