Dreading the boards

From New York: experimental theatre that isn’t, and whatever happened to Chomsky?

Alan Miller

Topics Politics

I have always been in favour of ‘experimentation’ – but words today can be misleading. As Orwell wrote in ‘Politics and the English Language’, language can say one thing but mean something else entirely. And so it seems to be with words like ‘experimentation’.

New York’s experimental theatre ensemble The Wooster Group has been around since 1975, and includes such notable actors as Willem Dafoe. But their new play Brace Up is a Let Down.

It is showing at St Ann’s Theatre in DUMBO – which stands for ‘Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass’, an oh-so-trendy part of Brooklyn. Unlike the typically dreadful attempts at ‘radical theatre’ (cheap sets, cheap sentiments), Brace Up is a well-funded production, an experimental and ‘inventive recast’ of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

But it is petulant, philistine and banal in the extreme. I was tempted to launch an impromptu stage invasion, to see how experimental the show really was. With lines such as ‘Act Four would normally involve this, but we are skipping it…’, I was momentarily bemused, and then furious. With silly dances and impromptu moans and groans, Chekhov, one of the greatest playwrights, was being deconstructed to death.

Where Artaud was insightful and Brecht pushed the boundaries of contemporary theatre, ‘inventive recast’ now seems to be an excuse for rubbishing all of the old certainties. We are told that life is mad, bad and painful, everything is confusing, that we operate in a void of not-knowingness, and that juvenile dementia is the only escape.

When the Theatre of The Absurd was in its early incarnation in the 1950s, it represented a downgraded vision of humanity. During the inter-war period, the ideas of the intelligentsia had become disaffected with grand visions for the world. This continued into the postwar era, when so-called ‘radical’ theatre groups who had given up on the idea of changing the world sought to affect us all in the ‘long march through the institutions’. Yet even in the Sixties, Peter Hall’s book The Empty Space put forward a positive vision for modern theatre. Not so with The Wooster Group.

Watching Brace Up, I was struck by how much Western governments have appropriated the dark and sinister ideas of the counterculturalists. The chaos, the lack of direction, the existential angst…what could be more appropriate as a metaphor for the messy war in Iraq? With their lack of clarity and objectives, and their desire to fight a war that didn’t really resemble a war, maybe America and Britain are the most vociferous ‘inventive recasters’ of all.

On being recasted… There was a time when Noam Chomsky was one of the more interesting thinkers on the American left. There were limitations to his insights, but his criticisms of US intervention around the world were worth reading.

Today, at precisely a time when Chomsky has become something of a celebrity, his analysis has lost any edge. In the Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I attended a showing of Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky In Our Times, a documentary about the events of 11 September and their aftermath, made to coincide with the publication of Chomsky’s book 9/11.

The film tells of the contradictions between America’s domestic political rhetoric and the violent reality of its policies on the world stage – with examples from Panama to Turkey. Chomsky argues that the key perpetrator of terrorism is the USA (supported by Britain et al). There is high irony in the current ‘war on terror’, Chomsky says, because the USA is the real terrorist state.

Chomsky doesn’t seem to have been paying attention to recent events. He claims that today’s media are more willing to express contentious viewpoints, which apparently explains why he now gets invited on to national TV shows. I think his newfound ‘success’ reveals more about the media’s, and society’s, uncertainty about traditional values and politics.

Chomsky fails to appreciate the consequences of the Culture Wars, especially in the USA. So when he talks about Western domination and acts of barbarism going back ‘hundreds of years’, he endorses, whether wittingly or unwittingly, the prevailing notion of history’s ‘Dead White Males’ who flagrantly raped and pillaged their way around the world. To paraphrase from an interview with Chomsky, he thinks that the big bad powers, like bad weather, will always be with us (1).

It would appear that Chomsky has misunderstood the double impact of the end of the Cold War and the loss of the Culture Wars. In the wake of the Cold War’s demise, a cynical rejection of big political visions and ideas became entrenched. In the Culture Wars, the very ideas of authority, rationality and reason have been deconstructed. And how can we ever make things better if we subscribe to such pessimistic views?

Like some in the anti-globalisation movement, Chomsky has become a spokesperson for a degenerate view of society, opposed to anything big or bold, grand in vision and scale, or ‘arrogant’ enough to believe it could make a better world.

Much has been said about 9/11 – and much of it shares the assumptions that Chomsky himself propounds. Like many in the post-9/11 world, Chomsky tries to answer the question: ‘Why do they hate us?’ But here is not really a ‘they’ over there, outside of the Western intellectual imagination, who really hate ‘us’. Rather, it often seems that the ‘they’ who hate us is actually…us. That is the upshot of the Culture Wars, and our faltering faith in humanity.

What a shame, I thought as I left the film screening, that someone as erudite as Chomsky has failed to comprehend some of the most detrimental trends of recent times – and that, now, he may actually be contributing to them.

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Topics Politics


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