'Why?' is life's most important question

In a recent community theater production, I portrayed a woman who has an affair. “Becky” loved her husband and son, endured a boring job with good humor and did not suffer in any way. Her husband, Joe, was kind, supportive and handsome.

And yet Becky still strayed.

This plot device became an issue for some people in the audience when the theater group conducted a post-performance Q and A.

“It didn’t work for me,” one man said, “because Becky wasn’t miserable. Why would she go to another man?”

Why, indeed. If Becky’s husband had been abusive, would her infidelity have been easier to understand or easier to condone? Probably. To me, the crux of the entire production was the tacit understanding that happy people can still transgress, that a woman could both love her husband and want something else. Becky could laugh and be happy and not be wholly fulfilled. Her affair did not require some negative catalyst to spark it into existence.

This exchange about reasons and motivation started me thinking. We are drawn to finding causation in our world. When you find the “reason” for something, you impose an order on seeming chaos.

When bad things happen, for example, we want them to happen for a reason. We don’t want a strict liability world; we want to know the motive. We need to know why.

Most great inventions and discoveries were the result of someone asking why. Come to think of it, most literature and philosophy probably started that way as well. We are a people who thrive on asking why. It is how we function. That’s how medical breakthroughs occur, I suspect. We will always distrust that which appears without an apparent cause.

On the other hand, every parent who has ever tried to put a toddler to bed knows the tyranny of “Why?” and the accompanying compulsion to scream, “Because I said so!” Asking why makes us human; knowing why makes life more bearable.

Iago, the infamous Shakespearean villain, gives several, almost silly, reasons for his deception of Othello. Critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge rejected these motives, arguing that Iago is noteworthy precisely because his actions have no cause; his acts rather spring from “motiveless malignity.” Explicable evil is terrible enough, but inexplicable evil is irrational and terrifying.

Similarly, King Lear, stripped of his crown, his power and his sanity at the hands of his daughters asks an unforgiving storm, “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” And when his only answer is more wind and rain, King Lear moves irrevocably into tragedy and nihilism.

Which brings us back to Becky, living out her happy marriage and yet still having an affair. That’s what stops us and makes us think about her. She made the audience ask why. And isn’t that really what theater is all about?

— Susan O’Byrne of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email her at [email protected].