Notes towards a political theater

10 Mar

In “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction” poet Wallace Stevens lists such a fiction’s essential qualities. His list:
1. It must be abstract
2. It must change
3. It must give pleasure.
Late in life, he remarked elsewhere that he would add a fourth quality: “It must be human”.
I think these qualities give some useful clues in the struggle to create theater against political atrocity. I’ll just focus on the first two here, since they’re less self-evident in their applicability.

To take the first: “It must be abstract.” One of the recurring features of the path towards genocide is its crushing literality. The gap between word and deed, word and person (which abstract thought and imagination enable) is systematically narrowed, and then closed. For instance: in my country Australia, the act of entering a country to claim asylum (which is not illegal) and the person of the refugee become conflated into one chilling noun, itself an excision from the body politic: “illegal”. The violence of language smoothes the way to actual violence: these “illegals” were incarcerated until recently in hell-holes in the desert, without recourse to legal representation. As Giorgio Agamben has shown, the excision in language precedes the literal excision from society into indefinite detention, outside of legal process.

Refugee detention is not genocide, but its enabling logic follows the same path. In the Rwandan genocide, the same compression: everywhere on the radio, cheerful songs about exterminating cockroaches. The Tutsis become cockroaches; the gap between word, body and deed closes. It’s easy to exterminate cockroaches—far harder to kill neighbors, lovers, bosses, shop-owners.

It must be abstract”. Abstraction forces a gap between word and thing. It requires us to step back and imagine things otherwise, completing a picture whose meaning is not pre-packaged into “message.” It creates plural configurations of possibility.
For instance, in Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End, three very different figures involved in the Iraq war(s) perform consecutive monologues—each remaining on stage after speaking, isolated from the other two in space, time and circumstance. Yet, near the end of Epic Theatre’s beautiful production, there is a moment of silence after all three have spoken. The light brightens, unifying their disparate time-spaces. The three figures (a torturer, a dead Iraqi woman, and a British scientist) for the first time sense one another, and the invisible web of pain, hope and damage that connects them. They breathe in—they almost turn to one another—and then the lights go out, leaving that gesture and the need it summons, for us to complete. I remember this moment viscerally; it spoke to me in a way that earnest testimony would not have.

The temptation, created by the powerful need to bear witness, is to make drama that “reports”, that draws on the immediacy of testimony to make its truth claims. But genocide cannot be beaten at its own game (conflating a thing and its representation); and theatre’s ontology is defined by artifice. It is a space of imagination, defined by the tension between its fictions and the undeniable materiality of the bodies that enact them. Abstraction foregrounds the process of construction, of artifice; genocide elides these processes, urging inevitability.

Which leads me to Wallace Steven’s second requirement for the fiction he dreamed of: “It must change.” The possibility of change defies inevitability’s coercive narrative, demanding choice at whatever level is still possible. Documents are stuffed into coat linings, children passed through windows into strangers’ hands—an arrow is shot into the future, to the no-when of choice’s return. The tension in story-telling or performance lies in the possibility of derailment—the trapeze artist might fall. The lovers might not reconcile. The end game is not pre-ordained. It’s a time-based art-form and so holds our mortality in its hand like an egg.

Perhaps theatre can intervene in genocidal politics only at certain times—before the carefully manufactured politics of inevitability becomes unstoppable; before there’s nothing I could have done anyway becomes the law. These times are most logically before (or after) the vortex of the event, but there is another kind of time—the impossible time of the imagination—the time that cracks seconds open into other worlds. This time is flung into the future like a bottled message into a tsunami. Eventually the wave recedes, and among the wreckage—a note. We hope that someone will still be able to read.

keeping words alive, and with them stories and histories, their plural possibilities and quixotic lessons, their intimate strangeness, is work against destruction too.

In his novel Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a passage that restored the dead from the killing fields of war by a simple reversal of time. Bloodied corpses became whole as bullets sucked backwards from their flesh into guns that were lowered. It must change. Instead of looking only at death (a hard call) we look at the living instead—and see no need for their slaughter.

Kurt Vonnegut also thought that artists were canaries in the coal mine of social toxicity, and that when artists start to choke, it’s time to pay attention. This is such a time.

I don’t know if art can change things, but I do know that art can change their seeming. And how things seem is no small thing, or genocidal politics would not pay such attention to it. Art can frame things otherwise. And what’s in the picture is made visible–or invisible–by the way it’s framed.


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