The failed ambitions of a generation

Professor Carolyn Mair, a psychologist working as a consultant in the fashion industry and Fellow of the British Psychological Society, in conversation with Paul Anthony Morris, Artistic Director of Crying in the Wilderness Productions.

23 March 2021

As a psychologist working in the context of fashion, I work towards creating a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry. Education is an important part of this. Whilst I have discussed this topic on many occasions, the problems persist. Although an increasing number of people are speaking out about the state of their mental health, and wellbeing seems to be on everyone’s agenda, the fashion industry is slow to change.

In February 2020, I attended a conference which focused on the continuing problem of the psychological pressures on models. Despite acknowledging these issues, the speakers stopped short of suggesting how they could be better protected and managed. During the break I chatted with delegates, including Paul Anthony Morris, who I found out is a playwright and theatre producer. I was struck by his wit and authenticity. As we discussed the mental health and resilience of models and the additional problems that exist in the fashion industry, such as poor conditions and the lack of representation, I was intrigued to learn about Paul’s work as Artistic Director of Crying in the Wilderness Productions, which is an associate company of the Young Vic Theatre in London. Paul told me about his most recent play, Conundrum, which addresses the psychological question ‘Who am I?’ Unfortunately, Conundrum was due to be shown in May 2020, but was postponed due to the pandemic.

I wanted to write about this play as it is highly relevant to current debates within and beyond psychology. What follows is a transcript of a recent conversation I had with Paul for The Psychologist.

Carolyn: Paul, please tell me a little about your work as Artistic Director?

Paul: I work with my colleague, actor and director Anthony Ofoegbu, and we have created eleven productions and numerous creative learning programmes in various parts of the world. Our unique brand of theatre, Theatre of the Soul, has been hailed by critics as stunning, compelling, filmic, visceral and comprehensively original’.  We have a lot of information about these initiatives on the Crying in the Wilderness Productions website.

Carolyn: Those words describe my feelings exactly when I watched the abridged version of your play, Conundrum, online, as part of the European Capital of Culture programme. Please could you describe the essence of this play in a few words?

Paul: Conundrum is a psychological drama which depicts our protagonist, Fidel, wrestling over his self-worth. Alarmed that he may also be responsible for undermining his own wellbeing, Fidel takes us on an epic journey to find the answers to life’s most urgent questions, ‘who am I?’ and ‘why am I here?’ Conundrum depicts the failed ambitions of a generation.

Carolyn: This is so interesting, tackling many incredibly hard subjects including existentialism and the concepts of self and identity which are all fundamental to being human. Our self-esteem and self-worth reflect our perception of how others judge us, and how we see ourselves within our social groups defines our social identity. When we reflect on our identity in trying to answer the question, ‘who am I?’ we see we are a product of many complex factors including our genetics, socialisation and experiences. Who or what inspired you to write the play?  

Paul: It was inspired by my Creative Consultant, Trevor K. Blackwood. Conversations with Trevor led me to develop the narrative which links systemic inequality with the anxieties of an entire generation. What we proffer as artists can be far more impactful psychologically than what we read. We can no longer afford to be naïve.

Our protagonist, Fidel, is a highly gifted and talented teenager. However, similar to the experiences of the Windrush generation of the 1960s, Fidel’s progress is obstructed by the inequality of his time. In the play, Fidel proclaims ‘I was born into a society not yet evolved’. This is an important statement. Fidel refuses to internalise this injustice, yet the cultural normalisation of inequality soon convinces him that he is ‘not good enough’, that no amount of talent and effort is going to create a level playing field for him and his generation. These sentiments resonate strongly with the now-retired Windrush generation, who like Fidel, were reduced to accepting, for the remainder of their working lives, menial jobs in the UK despite their talent and professional status in their countries of origin.

For me, the most valuable message from Conundrum is the powerful link it makes between systemic inequality and mental health.  

Carolyn: What can we learn from your message?

Paul: High rates of poor mental health and even suicide are rooted in trying to deal with existential questions such as ‘who am I?’ and ‘why am I here?’ If we want to protect the younger generations from the scourge of abject misery, then our value systems must change. Education can play a decisive role only if it normalises the right values. In Conundrum, it is at school that our protagonist’s existential crisis begins and is perpetuated. Some of my own traumatic experiences took place in school and in other so-called ‘safe’ places of learning.

Conundrum also highlights that wellbeing is not something that one picks up casually or haphazardly. The play demonstrates that wellbeing is the result of a sustainable lifestyle in which one contributes to the greater good. In my opinion, how to live a meaningful life should be a fundamental part of the school curriculum.

Carolyn: That’s so true and it echoes much that’s written in the positive psychology literature. What, if anything, has the pandemic taught us about inequality and mental health?

Paul: That life is transitory. If we can really embrace this fact, which isn’t easy, then I think we can be inspired to live a simpler and more meaningful life. I’m reminded of a recent film, Adu (Netflix), which contrasts the life of a young Cameroonian boy, wrestling with poverty, violence and death, with the privileged lifestyle of a young Spanish woman who numbs her sense of futility with alcohol, resentment and drugs. I have found that expecting people to change completely is unrealistic but encouraging friends and loved ones to start making small adjustments can lead to more ambitious goals. This may sound pessimistic, but a colleague once told me of his experiences during the war in Croatia, where there was a huge drive towards personal accountability and change by ordinary people. However, as soon as the war was over, many people went straight back to upholding the values that were responsible for the war in the first place. The link between systemic inequality, existentialism and mental health is undeniable; the sheer futility of the lives of millions of people on this planet. Only when individuals make a serious commitment to be the change that they want to see, will our society begin to evolve.

Carolyn: What are you working on now?

Paul: I have just finished rewriting Sarai, a play about a woman with ambitions to be the founder of a new nation.

Carolyn: How we can find out more about Conundrum and when can we see it?

Paul: It has been rescheduled for a three-week live production, in January 2022, at the Young Vic Theatre.

Our website has more information now and the Young Vic’s website will have additional information by the summer.

- Professor Carolyn Mair PhD is a Behavioural Psychologist working as a consultant in the fashion industry. She is a Chartered Fellow of the British Psychological Society and recipient of their 2017 Distinguished Contributions to Psychology Education Award. Carolyn has published broadly in academic journals and is frequently featured in popular press and media. Her book, The Psychology of Fashion, was published in 2018. As full Professor of Psychology for Fashion at the University of the Arts London she created the world’s first Masters degrees to apply Psychology in the context of Fashion. Carolyn has a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, MSc Research Methods and BSc Applied Psychology and Computing. Among her earlier careers, she worked as a window dresser and graphic designer. More information here. Twitter: @Carolyn_UK
E-mail: [email protected]

- Paul Anthony Morris is the founder and Artistic Director of Crying in the Wilderness Productions. His awards include the Adopt A Playwright Award, the Peggy Ramsay Award and an Edinburgh Fringe First. His plays 35 Cents and Identity have been published by Oberon. Paul is also the creator of a new theatrical style called Theatre of the Soul. Twitter - @cryingwildernes; Email – [email protected].

Additional sources 

Cassidy, A (October 9, 2019). Under pressure: how fashion is harming mental health.

Schneider, K. J., Pierson, J. F., & Bugental, J. F. (Eds.). (2014). The handbook of humanistic psychology: Theory, research, and practice. Sage Publications.

Sirgy, M.J. & Wu, J. (September 25, 2007). The Pleasant Life, the Engaged Life, and the Meaningful Life: What about the Balanced Life?

Stets, J. E., & Burke, P. J. (2000). Identity theory and social identity theory. Social psychology quarterly, 224-237.