On Friday I had two encounters with extreme anger within the space of an hour. In the first one, I saw a man and a dog walk out into the road in front of a car. The driver (a woman) stopped in time, but the man walked aggressively round to her side of the car and began shouting that she had almost killed him and his dog. The woman said that he had stepped out in front of her and he became even angrier, and out his hands onto her half-wound down window. as I was crossing the road quite close to the scene, I asked the driver if everything was OK. She said "Yes, it's fine" and the man turned to me and starting shouting that I was a racist and walked off down the road shouting loudly.
About a quarter of an hour later I was at a counter in the bank and a man at the next window became incensed when the cashier asked him for identification. He spoke angrily and said that it was his own business that he was cashing the cheque for, why did he need ID? The cashier remained calm and said she had asked because sometimes businesses sent other people to cash cheques and she just wanted to check who she was dealing with. The man angrily demanded his cheque back and said that he didn't like the woman's attitude - he stormed off in high dudgeon attempting to maintain dignity as everyone in the bank stared at him.
What intrigued me about both these events was the inability of either man to accept that they might be in the wrong, or that the other person might have a point. The man at the bank had of course stitched himself up completely: he had come to cash a cheque - a relatively straightforward transaction - but had failed because of a sense of injured pride. The woman behind the counter might have been briefly upset at being shouted at, but he had not only made himself appear foolish in front of several people, he had failed to achieve the main purpose of his visit and he would not be able to achieve it without further loss of face (this being the only branch of this particular bank in Edinburgh, and there only being two cashier's windows - side by side of course - in this branch). As I left the bank a few minutes later, the man was sitting at a table by the window staring out, possibly trying to work out which was worse - not getting his money or going back sheepishly to the cashier.
This is the stuff of drama - people behaving foolishly on the spur of the moment and then living with the consequences - but there is something tricky about the sudden burst of anger over trivial matters on stage or screen. How can it be made to seem believable? Mike Leigh has made these moments an essential element of his work - all of his plays and films contain a moment of embarrassing, irrational, angry loss of control - but, in less skilled hands, I sometimes find myself thinking "oh, I don't really believe anyone would do that." The problem for dramatists is that, in real life, these eruptions often seem irrational to the outside eye, though they are obviously rooted in something much deeper for the person concerned - the fear of humiliation, the memory of an earlier embarrassment etc. The skill of a dramatist in these moments is telling us enough about the character before the eruption so that we accept it when it happens - when Basil Fawlty beats his car with a branch because it has broken down, we accept it because the barely repressed frustration that defines his character has been carefully plotted to lead us to this point. Likewise Mike Leigh's characters - Keith's demolition of the campsite in Nuts in May, for example. The other essential is the ability of the actor to show us the complexity of a character's make-up as simply as possible and this is where these moments often stand or fall.
Both events left me wondering why we do it - why do we have these sudden rushes of blood to the head? I'm sure everyone has experienced this at one time or another. There is no doubt an evolutionary reason why we have this capacity, but most of the time we keep it suppressed I suppose.