“Into The Woods” Causality

“You’re responsible!
You’re the one to blame!
It’s your fault!”

— “Your Fault” Into The Woods by Stephen Sondheim

When the principal Woods characters come together to face a shared moral dilemma involving whether to deliver Jack (of “And The Beanstalk” fame) into the clutches of a rampaging giant, they review the main narrative thread of the play as a chain of causes, at every step seeking to cast blame for the current predicament on someone other than themselves. The finger-pointing ends when the witch claims responsibility for everything and then tries to destroy herself and all of them.

Even the witch isn’t truly the beginning of the causal chain, since she’s living out the legacy of a curse placed by her mother….who doesn’t show up on stage for the blame-fest or show much interest in general.

Once the characters stop trying to place blame, however, they each see their own role in the predicament. They regret their mistakes and see where their choices constrained others. The main character confronts his fears and trauma. And it’s only then that they can all come together as a group to devise a cunning/Rube-Goldbergian plan to defeat the giant in a proper fairytale ending.

Here’s what spoke to me:

The breakthrough came not from blame but from collectively seeing in clear detail the system in which they were enmeshed, including their own role in it.

In the phenomena we study in the social sciences, causality may be elusive and not very useful. Correlation can reveal the proximate edges of the system, and the roles played by variables. A hunt for causality can descend into noise and inaccessible abstractions. What matters is whether our work answers important questions and whether we gain insight into the problems we’re trying to solve.

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