Annie Baker's John and the Uncanny

By Elspeth Sweatman

In Annie Baker’s John, running through April 23 at The Strand Theater, the word “watch”—in all its derivations—is used 37 times: 22 in the dialogue, and 15 in the stage directions. But what does it mean to watch and be watched? What does it feel like?

A doll. Photo by Em Cecile, 2011. Courtesy of Flickr.
You walk into an art gallery. As you move from painting to painting, you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You become hyperaware of those around you. You react to every movement, every sound. Your brain is sensing a threat, but from where? Then, you realize: the eyes in the paintings are following you. You are being watched.

The reason some people feel this way in an art gallery is because the human brain is “designed to read faces for important information about intentions, emotions, and potential threats,” says journalist Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. As human beings, we look to the eyes for important social cues and information about our environment. By looking at someone’s eyes and following his gaze, say social psychologist Ilan Shrira and professor Joshua D. Foster, we can tell how he is feeling, what he likes or doesn’t like, and what might be a potential danger in our surroundings. So watching and being watched helps us to communicate and keeps us safe.

But why does our brain react to inanimate objects, like paintings or dolls? They don’t have preferences or emotions. The human brain responds like this because it cannot fully distinguish between a living person standing in front of us and the image of a person—whether it’s a doll, a painting, or a photograph. The brain continues to read faces for information and guidance as to how we should behave.

Because our brains take time to distinguish between the face of a human being and the face of an inanimate object, we view them in the same way: as a source of information and a potential threat. We attribute to objects human characteristics—like an inner life—and expect them to operate by human social codes. When they don’t, we become wary. We become caught between something that is familiar (it has a human-like face) and yet unfamiliar (it doesn’t speak or express emotion). “However much we know that a doll is (likely) not a threat,” says McRobbie, “seeing a face that looks human but isn’t unsettles our most basic instincts.”

John runs through April 23 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to know more about Annie Baker, the uncanny, and being watched? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 

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