AgEing, Death and Transformation
by Lewis Church
Age pulls us further apart than it once did. It’s one of the many fragmentations we’re living through right now. Like race, gender and the place where you live age has become another wedge to divide us, and it takes effort to subvert it. Although that doesn’t mean there aren’t important acknowledgments to make about the gaps that do exist between generations. A life still to be lived certainly looks different from what might have gone before, as the goalposts have shifted for the young. Houses are too few and too expensive, at the same moment old models of permanent employment crumble. Whilst every group of young adults lives through their own struggles, it wasn’t ‘harder’ for previous generations. And as many shows diagnosed by Sick of the Fringe writers at Edinburgh in 2016 confronted, from Cuncrete to Heads Up, the old narratives of an ever-increasing quality of life are less secure than they were before.
But that can’t be used to justify the split in politics, in outlook, in optimism and cultural priorities between people in opposite halves of their life. Comparing hardships is ultimately pointless. Those arguments are familiar and well-rehearsed; younger and older are entrenched in a media-framed dismissal of each other’s problems. The young are lazy, the young are precious, the young are coddled. The old are rigid, or patronizing and selfish. Neither of these trite illustrations help explain how this happened, or what might be done to bridge this new gulf. We will all age and so will our opinions, our language and our life goals. Eventually the same jokes about not understanding, cultural dislocation, better days and nostalgia will be made of you. It’s as important for the young to recognise this inevitability as it is for the eldest to recognise that longevity itself is no justification for disengagement. Communication is needed to oppose the increasingly dysfunctional isolation of generations from each other.
Both older and younger people benefit from intergenerational relationships, allowing them to live lives supported by both experience and innovation. New spaces and models of interaction are vital to developing greater empathy, and at The Sick of the Fringe intergenerational art and activity is essential to the program. Lyn Ruth Miller, the ‘oldest performing female stand-up in the UK’, bridges generations at the London festival through her multi-age showcase, The Fringe is Turning 70. It’s an event which reinforces the promise contained in the title of Miller’s Edinburgh performance This Is Your Future for a group of comedians aged 14 to 80. Seven comedians spanning seven decades (one for each of the Edinburgh Fringe) will perform side by side, in reference to the both the Fringe as a platform for new voices and to show the importance of different generational perspectives. An affirmative declaration that to age is to develop, a maturation that can have a positive impact on the world, whilst to be young is to have a unique perspective and fresh potential.
There is evidence to suggest that anxiety around ageing is related inextricably to an anxiety about death. Like the division between age groups, where the problems of others seem remote, the problem of death might not seem relevant until the experience arrives. But to think about ageing is to think about death, although it is probably rare to put it so bluntly. Ageing is important because it is a finite process. We’re All going to Die! as Kathryn Mannix and Claire Nolan’s London Sick of the Fringe commission declares. In this reflection on death, Dr Mannix asks how culture has prepared us for our end, and how that expectation might relate to the reality. In Edinburgh too several artists asked this same question, of what death is like as an experience, whether first-hand or at a far remove. These conversations about death are essential for negotiating the complicated social interactions and emotions that go along with it, as Kat Arney noted in her diagnosis of Liz Rothschild’s Outside the Box. Like spaces for intergenerational discussion, spaces for these conversations are rarer than they might appear. The Sick of the Fringe hosts a Death Café during the London festival, a place for exactly those discussions about this last taboo.
Many artists at Edinburgh were concerned with these experiences of grieving and the transforming qualities of loss.When someone dies, it enforces the reality of your own finitude, and the transformations that occur when confronted with it. In a strange way, familiarity with death is a hallmark of ageing, a marker of how long you have lived. Natural Shock’s My World Has Exploded a Little Bit explored the deaths of parents through autobiography and song, beginning with a group affirmation of the audience’s universal end. Tim Rowling’s Team Viking documented the endurance of friendship beyond early and unexpected death, and the fulfilment of childhood promises into adulthood. Rowling staged an internal generational gap: the one between who he was and promises he made then and who he is now, and how he confronts the difference. To experience this disconnect is to change, and to find a new equilibrium after being knocked off course. The grieving shown through these shows is dealing with someone lost, but also the loss of the person who existed before that loss. When grieving, you look longingly forward to the time when you will return to normal, only to recognise later that you will never be what you once were again. Such moments change you for ever. The knockabout title of How We Lost It in Edinburgh referred to virginity, but could easily have referred to any life change. Sex, death, triumph and effort are ageing at its most transformative.
Art has an important empathetic value when thinking about both aging and death. Life is fragile, and so are our communities. Understanding our relationship to ageing, and the points where generations can unite to address the problems of those at different stages of their lives is a crucial requisite for us to come together in the face of a changing world. It may prove essential. In Third Angel’s 600 People we learned that humanity was once reduced to just 600 individuals, on the brink of extinction. The end of not just the individual but the species was at hand. In light of the politics we are living through, that possibility might seem closer again right now. Intergenerational solidarity is as essential as it has ever been.