FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from freestats.com
(DV) Davis: The Prospects of Progressive Theater Under Capitalism







Mendacity: The Prospects of Progressive Theater Under Capitalism
by Walter A. Davis
March 24, 2006

Send this page to a friend! (click here)


“Mendacity is the system we live in. Liquor is one way out and death’s the other.”


-- Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof


I. You Don’t Need a Weatherman Because There’s No Wind


Claudius: Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence in it?

Hamlet: No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest.


 -- William Shakespeare, Hamlet

I recently offered a critique of the decision by the New York Theatre Workshop to cancel a planned production of the play My Name is Rachel Corrie. My effort in that essay was to contextualize this controversy so that we won’t fail to comprehend the large issues it raises. The present essay supplements that one with an argument that will surprise many readers of the earlier piece. The Corrie controversy continues but it has now largely become an example of how easily we get trapped by ideology in simple alternatives, false dichotomies and fatal assumptions. Many of them are illustrated by the current rallying around this play and the lionizing of it as a model of progressive theatre; and exemplar, to the shame of the NYTW of the “exploration of political and historical events and institutions that shape contemporary life.” [1] Extravagant claims on behalf of this play are now a matter of course, though few New Yorkers have seen or read it. [2] The fact of its cancellation offers all the assurance many people need that this play must be something truly daring and remarkable, the cause celebre for those of us who want to stand up in support of serious theatre. This has become an axiom of PC thought on this controversy. As a result when the play opens in New York (soon no doubt) it will be hard for anyone to attend without feeling that one has indeed experienced precisely the kind of thing that “progressive theatre” is all about. But as the song goes, it ain’t necessarily so. Ideology sets its traps for those on the left as well as on the right. Those who have condemned the play sight unseen for its incendiary content are mirrored by those who will laud its theatrical brilliance and daring. The desultory result, as I’ll show, is the “censoring” of genuinely serious, progressive theatre. I.e., the kind of theatre we need if we are to break the hold that plays such as My Name Is Rachel Corrie have not only over our political thought but over our very ability to think and feel in the more complex ways required for experiencing anything theatrically radical. Here too we are so often lemmings salivating on cue when told that the kind of daring theatrical experience we crave is available to us under the bright lights right here in The Big Apple.

II. Where Have You Gone Marat/Sade?

            “Audiences know what to expect, and that is all they can believe.”

                  -- The Player-King in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Art begins when a traumatic experience seeks a form adequate to it. Average writers find a form already extant in some set of generic conventions. They pour their material into it. Significant writers realize that writing is sui generis.  For them the search for and creation of new forms is the essential act. Thereby an experience that would otherwise be subsumed under the operations of ideology breaks free of it. A new way of thinking and feeling is born. Art has become part of political struggle in the richest sense of that term. Old forms, conventions, and genres offer, in contrast, yet another recycling of the same. New subjects may be treated in them but the same old structures of feeling remain in control with the same predictable reiteration of the same old humanistic platitudes. “Audiences know what to expect and that is all they can believe,” as Stoppard’s Player-King contends, because the plays we are offered by our theatres create in us the emotional and ideological needs that determine what we are able to experience. Finding a principled way to challenge this situation formulates in a nutshell the task of any theatre that would earn the labels progressive, radical, controversial, bold, cutting edge, daringly experimental. 

On those rare occasions when a play succeeds in preserving the conditions of genuine art, it offers its community a challenge that goes far deeper than controversial comments on a given political topic. For such works cleanse the doors of perception, thereby transforming our relationship to ourselves and the world. We feel and experience everything in new ways, ways fraught with anxiety but also with the pulse of transgressive discovery. Ideology no longer retains its habitual and automatic control over our minds. It is in this sense that Hamlet and Marat/Sade and Three Sisters are political in a way far more radical than The Permanent Way to Victoria Britain or Guantanamo or to strike closer to home, the confused Messianic (and non-Benjaminian) aesthetic of Angels in America or the self-congratulatory sexual posturing of The Vagina Monologues.

In transforming the very terms of our experience radical works of art exposes their audience to the pervasive ways in which we are prisoners of ideologies that severely limit our possibilities of thinking and feeling. Plays that perform such a function need never directly address a political topic in order to be political in the deepest sense by making it impossible for us to experience the world the way we previously did. The popular concept and practice of political theatre, in contrast, severely truncates this possibility. It offers us no more than a quick ideological fix on some current issue. As a result we are more the slave of ideology -- be it liberal or conservative, religious or secular, or whatever -- than we were before. All such dramas do is incite the faithful so that we’ll fall into line the next time we’re polled on some issue or asked to contribute cash to some politician campaign. [3] 

Such are the general criteria that could be used to judge the merits of any play or Theatre declaring itself “progressive.” As we’ll see, by such criteria My Name is Rachel Corrie does not fare very well. It has already, however, become the rallying cry and the model of what supposedly constitutes “progressive” theatre. Such is the power of ideology to dictate what we think and predetermine what we will eventual experience when we see this show. (Those readers interested only in the Rachel Corrie controversy as a public debate can skip to section V.)

III. Author, Author!

A plague on both your houses.” 

   -- Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet 

Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner do not claim authorship for the play My Name is Rachel Corrie. [4] They list themselves as the editors of the writings of Rachel Corrie. There is something misplaced and finally disingenuous about this modesty. Selections from the 184 pages of journals, writings, and emails that Rachel’s parents made available have been arranged by them to form the dramatic structure of a play. That form (and its relative merits or defects) is not Rachel’s doing. There is no way to know what she would have done with these materials nor what she would think of the play that Rickman and Viner have fashioned from them. Alan Rickman claims that Rachel’s writings are evidence that had she lived “there would have been novels and plays pouring out of her.” [5] We can’t know what those works would be, though, as I’ll show, there are signs that they would have been far different aesthetically and politically from the work that Rickman and Viner have fashioned, determining the artistic integrity for which they bear the primary responsibility.

For example, the play concludes with a video of Rachel, aged 10, speaking at her school’s “Fifth Grade Press Conference on World Hunger.” In context this speech increases the pathos of Rachel’s death which was reported in the immediately prior scene via the transcript of an eyewitness account played over a TV set. (This speech is one of the few passages in the play not written by Rachel and the only one not spoken by her. It is a gruesome, horrifying account that moved this reader to tears. I too was thus perfectly positioned for the young Rachel’s final words to work their magic.

Drama is structure. Feeling is a function of that process. The audience is positioned for the effect these two speeches are intended to have by the long scene that precedes them. It is based on an email that Rachel sent to her mother shortly before her death. Dramatic placement thus identify these words as a final summing up by Rachel of what she’s learned from her experience. This “message” finds its culmination in two paragraphs where Rachel both reaffirms and questions “the core assumption” from which she’s been operating “for a long time;” namely, that “we are all essentially the same inside” and can thus (no matter how bad things get) sustain our “fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature.” Rachel’s words here recall Anne Frank’s from the end of her journal as read by her father at the end of the play that bears her name: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” [6] Placed at this point in the drama Rachel’s words perform the same function Anne’s did. The audience is bathed in the waters of an essentialistic, ahistorical humanism, which once again provides the reassurance and the guarantees that cleanse us of politics and history. Never is the need for this ideology more acute than at the end of the play. Whatever a drama may put us through it better end with a nice “catharsis” that reaffirms trans-historical values so that the audience members can feel a collective embrace that blossoms in the applause that drenches the stage with the warm fellow feeling that ripples through the theater. Such is what we’ve been trained to expect and demand from even the most “serious” plays -- bathos, pathos, sentimentality and nostalgia and nobody does it better than those who know how to end their plays -- as Arthur Miller for example always does -- by reminding us that we all participate in a humanity that transcends our historical conflicts. We’re then free to regress to childhood, as Rachel herself is forced to do as the 10-year-old Rachel proclaims her belief in “the light that shines” from the future. A play purporting to be about a political-historical trauma thus ends by cleansing us of history.

What kind of play then have Rickman and Viner written? At first glance a hodgepodge composed of virtually anything Rachel wrote that they choose to include under the dispensation that they are offering a “portrait” that will “uncover the young woman behind the political symbol.” [7] Anything Rachel says from age 10 to age 23 is welcomed into such a play which will be as formless as its subject. The title in fact is a misnomer since there is no identity here nor should we expect one from the writings of a young person between ages 10 and 23. (This holds whether we’re Ericksonians or Derrideans.) Youth: a subject in formation continually changing and deconstructing itself. Or is this the portrait of the artist as a young woman? Recall here Rickman’s claims regarding Rachel’s future authorship. Or a portrait of the gestation of a political activist? Or all this and more: all the rich and wonderful and silly and naïve and moving and stupid and brilliant things Rachel Corrie was in her brief life. A drama derived from such materials, in keeping with the assumption that controls most of performance art today, need have no concern with form or dramatic structure because the “portrait” so conceived (and as such the antithesis of what Joyce did) can have none. The trouble with such a play, however, is that it quickly becomes boring, as does reading the diaries of adolescents and young adults. Unless, that is, we constantly remember that the end crowns all, Rachel’s death casting a reflected light of sorrow and loss that sanctifies even the most trivial utterances.

It is here, however, that the fundamental problem of this work emerges. For in trying to confer an underlying structure on their materials Rickman and Viner offer us not one play but three. Each involves a distinct dramatic form with a distinct end or purpose. Moreover, the three forms are incompatible and contradict one another. This contradiction is what makes this play so interesting and revelatory -- as a representation of the contradiction that defines the problem of serious theatre today. My Name Is Rachel Corrie stages the three distinct options open to us when we try to write serious drama or as audiences seek out theatres that will give us such fare. It thus presents us with a unique opportunity to confront the hard choices we face both as playwrights and as theatre-goers. I know that as good “pluralistic” Americans we think we can have it all. But as I’ll show we can’t precisely because each of these plays (i.e., dramatic structures organized to realize an informing purpose) rests on a fundamental choice that excludes the other two. Making a choice is here not something we can or should avoid because it constitutes more than the problem of theatre in our time. It constitutes, as we’ll see, the possibility of our own freedom.

One play is about Rachel’s political awakening from naïve idealist to one who sees the truth about Israel’s actions against the Palestinian (and their connection to the larger geopolitical designs of the U.S.). Her experience has made her a true radical who speaks her message in clear and unflinching terms. All theatrical conventions and expectations that would soften the blow must be eradicated from such a theatre. Following Brecht’s example, the emotional appeals and manipulations that Rickman and Viner fall back on is the primary thing that such a theatre must eliminate if the audience is to respond the way they must -- by thinking clearly and free of emotional needs. The purpose of political drama is to move us from emotional indulgence to historical thought. A play must confront us with hard and inescapable historical choices. The purpose of theatre is to engage us politically by refusing the appeal of every theatrical convention that would release us from that engagement. 

There is, however, another play here. It is about an idealistic woman who tempers her political awareness with the larger claims of a humanistic vision of human goodness that has the power to lift us above sectarian conflicts. The form of such a play follows the path blazed by Arthur Miller. Any historical conflict we care to dramatize must be subsumed under the universal humanistic truths we impose on it so that audiences can through drama have their faith in unchanging truths restored. The duty of theatre is to reaffirm our assurance (and pleasure) in a quasi-Platonic process that always triumphs over time and contingency. Isn’t it pretty to be reminded, especially in dark times, that human nature is good, unchanging, something we all have that cannot be lost. As indicated above, this is the dramatic form and ideology that wins out in this play.

But there is also a third play here. It is far more interesting than the other two and points toward the kind of truly radical and experimental drama that they cannot contain. This play is about a consciousness awakening to a radical existential contingency that destroys all guarantees, both political and humanistic. This Rachel sees through what the other two believe. The form of a play dedicated to preserving this possibility would center itself in deepening the break with all guarantees that defines such a consciousness, cutting out of the monologue everything else. This Rachel would move in the directions of Beckett’s Not I or Sartre’s Roquentin; or to think of another young protagonist, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Monologue would become a voice that probes the depths of its own existential contingency. Several such moments come like a thunderbolt in My Name Is Rachel Corrie to disrupt the tedium of the commonplace. They are not, however, sustained or developed and so the play described here dies aborning. Let the following quotation suffice for now to illustrate the incompatibility of this voice with the guarantees on which the dramatic structures and purposes described previously depend. Written by Rachel on Feb. 6 after two of the six weeks (Jan. 25-March 16) she would spend in Palestine: “It’s just a shrug -- the difference between Hitler and my mother, the difference between Whitney Houston and a Russian mother watching her son fall through the sidewalk and boil to death. There are no rules. There is no fairness. There are no guarantees. No warranties on anything. It’s all just a shrug, the difference between ecstasy and misery is just a shrug.” Admittedly this remains rough but it is also promising. Center a play in the development of such a consciousness. Give it six weeks to let the trauma of that shrug drown the stage and theatre will begin to recapture the promise of Artaud.

But such a possibility is antithetical to the dramatic and editorial methods of Rickman and Viner. And the fundamental confusion that defines their effort is evident at the very start of the play. It opens with Rachel lying in bed one morning in Olympia, Washington. Age unspecified but prior to her trip to Rafah, perhaps even prior to her political “radicalization.” Lying there Rachel is apparently seized by a panic as she imagines the ceiling trying to devour her. This experience is developed for four paragraphs.

What is this? The knockout image sure to grab the audience and identify what will be the through-line of the work. The perfect image to jumpstart the dreary work of characterization by giving us an immediate entry into the depth of Rachel’s consciousness? What better way to establish the importance of a play that will be one long monologue.

One suspects that Rachel knew better, knew why she wrote these paragraphs and what they signify. Rachel, you see, wants to become a writer. She has recently read, one gathers, Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and some Sylvia Plath and is eager to try her hand at imitating their example. That’s why this image finds no sequel in the play. It has none because none could be found in Rachel’s writings. (Had they found one Rickman and Viner would have used it.) Rachel knows what Rickman and Viner don’t; that this is apprentice work, essentially about learning how to write and not indicative of any deep experience pivotal in the development of her consciousness.

Rickman and Viner, in short, cannot create anything complex or coherent out of their materials because they are unable to comprehend those materials except in the most superficial ways. As a result we get the three plays I mentioned before with all sorts of irrelevant asides thrown in to fill out the necessary time. I want to develop this point further now in order to bring out what it teaches us about monologue as an art form and both the possibilities and the pitfalls of plays based, as so many are today, on an extended use of that form.

The Humanistic Rachel

Despite many banal passages, Rachel Corrie emerges in the course of the play as an intelligent, sensitive, well-meaning person who sees the world and her place in it in ethical terms. She is in the process of developing precisely the kind of political conscience that is needed in Bush’s Amerika. Hers, however, is a conscience and consciousness in statu nascendi that was interrupted by death long before it could develop into anything original, provocative or even politically informed and sophisticated. (The signs here of the beginnings of a global Marxist understanding are only that -- signs.) Rachel is no prophet possessed of some deep or original vision. Nor is she a deeply conflicted or complex figure. I suppose the very ordinariness of much that she says can be seen as a virtue. Here’s a child of privileged parents who is normal in so many ways and who yet makes the very privilege of her position the source of a conscience that is troubled by the massive injustices of the world and then acts on that perception. Is this not something we all want to believe slumbers in the bosom of Amerika? Our young people are not mindless narcissists or fanatical Jesus freaks. As Bush the elder proclaimed, there are a thousand points of light. Young people like Rachel Corrie are still possible. What an uplifting drama to warm our hearts deep in the winter of our Bushian discontents. But to claim more for Rachel is to burden her with a weight or significance she cannot bear. Contra Mr. Rickman there is no assurance here of a future great writer or thinker. To know that all one need do is consult what Kafka was writing in his diary at age 23. Rachel has her moments, but they are not part of a sustained awareness nor precursors of that uniquely original experience of the world that leads to great writing. Saying this does not dishonor Rachel Corrie memory. We fail to honor it when we make claims for her words that they cannot bear. Or when we fail to admit that because Rachel is all potential a drama based on quoting her words is essentially about loss and the one thing such loss can produce -- a sentimental nostalgia that trumps everything else.

The Political Rachel

Rachel Corrie is not a political prophet nor was meant to be. In the course of the play she articulates several important, though by no means original, political ideas, foremost among them perhaps that the term “terrorism” is now the primary label ideology deploys to prohibit examination of historical situations such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (The word “progressive” serves as a similar Shibboleth in the current rallying of the “serious” New York theatre community around itself. See below, section V.) But those who think My Name Is Rachel Corrie will offer a unique or compelling analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict don’t need to go to the theatre, they need to go to the Library. Or what amounts to the same thing, to realize that their conception of serious theatre is nothing more than propaganda. Even if its polemics speak the truth, such a theatre is unable to rise about the condition of agit-prop. I.e., a preaching to the choir a message in which the complexities of historical awareness collapse under the pressure of ideological certitudes.

Those who want to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict and why it has attained the rebarbative condition that now defines it should read Avi Shlaim’s The Iron Wall. It’ll take you from 1907 to 2000. One can then update things by reading Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilization, which offers an overview of the geo-political conditions that define the Middle East. When an issue is historical there’s no substitute for hard, long and dreary work. To seek a quick fix by going to a play is to behave like those benighted souls who bow down every Sunday before what some moron or charlatan tells them the Bible demands of them. One sign of the situation we’re now in, however, is that the conception of political theatre described here has achieved hegemony in the age of PC identity politics. Each group or cause -- each subject position and multicultural identity formation -- gets to strut and fret its two hours message on the stage. Exploration into the deep and dark places of the human soul is proscribed. It can only lead to confusion -- or worse.

The Existential Rachel

And then almost out of nowhere Rachel discovers her voice and becomes a genuine writer for the first time. Please read again the “shrug” passage quoted earlier. Here is an experience that neither the humanist nor the political activist can contain. Experience often erupts in an existential contingency that eradicates all guarantees. Authentic subjectivity is defined accordingly by anxiety and dread and through a deepening of the knowledge of the world that flows from those moods. [8] Their development thus issues in a Voice that shatters all extant dramatic forms by exposing the ontological fallacies on which they depend. But for this to happen anguish must be sustained. The beauty of the political choice is that it delivers us from that task. The world seen in the indifference of the “shrug” is sacrificed to the calcifying clarity of political commitment. The beauty of humanism is that it offers an even more thorough deliverance from experience. Contingency and existence are mere moments, mere illusions and no more than the vaguest of memories dissolving into insignificance once we remind ourselves of “the goodness of human nature.” That, after all, is what made the play about Anne Frank such a success. The audience got to be horrified by the Holocaust and then comforted by a transcendent essentialistic humanism. Because Rickman and Viner are playing the same game there is no way for the Voice that erupts from time to time in their play to sustain or realize itself. That Rachel is consigned to the ashes. And with it the possibility that defines and haunts the method that Rickman and Viner employ.

IV. The Art of Monologue

“The purpose of acting is to drip acid on the nerves.”

-- Jack Nicholson

For here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

-- Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”

Monologue is employed in My Name Is Rachel Corrie to warrant a chatty, diffuse procedure wedded to digression and condemned to frequent bathos. Anything Rachel ever wrote is grist for Rickman and Viner’s mill. This is not the inevitable way of things with monologue and all we need do to realize that is to recall what Shakespeare did in Hamlet when he saw that exploring the inner conflicts of a psyche at war with itself provided a way to renew and redefine the very nature of drama. One achievement of that masterwork was the discovery of how to dramatize the depth of human inwardness. Hamlet’s soliloquies open up places within our own subjectivity that transform our understanding of what it means to be human. Monologue or soliloquy in Hamlet transforms the stage into a place of breathless discovery, the kind of discovery that is only possible when anxiety and dread become the driving forces of an attempt by a psyche to probe the darkest registers of its experience. (It would not be going too far to say that it is Shakespeare not Descartes who first discovered and explored the interiority of the cogito.) Unfortunately today monologue in theatre has become for the most part a travesty rather than a recovery of Shakespeare’s example. The bearers of different ideologically fixed “subject positions” assure themselves of a phantom identity as “selves” by rehearsing a bundle of PC platitudes. The complex and conflicted inwardness that defines the psyche is shunned in favor of the kind of cutsey assurances one finds exemplified in Eve Ensler. Monologue isn’t a way of exploring oneself but of declaring oneself and thereby putting an end to all doubts and fears. Think how different everything would be if a monologue situated itself within a subjectivity traumatized by the “shrug” Rachel briefly discerns or, say, by the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. Such a monologue would permit entry only to passages derived from the depths of suffering. The traumatic development of that order of human character would be the through-line of the action. Such a voice would terrify and amaze us because it would constantly take us deeper into the heart of everything we refuse and fear to know about ourselves. The theatre would become a traumatic space because Augustine’s founding insight would now be the medium in which it lives and moves and has its being. “I am become a problem to myself.” (The Confessions) Once that happens none of the forms of traditional theatre any longer avail. Monologue has become instead exploration, possibility, discovery -- the deepening of depth eradicating all the assurances of the surface.

Such a possibility is, of course, a far cry from what happens in My Name is Rachel Corrie.  The beginnings of such a consciousness only occur in isolated moments that are not sustained. Rickman and Viner would of course reply that their commitment to the quasi-naturalistic qualities of docu-drama precluded such a possibility as did the reluctance of Rachel Corrie to pursue what was probably only a passing moment of her awareness. She is primarily a speaker not a traumatized existential subject and with Rickman and Viner remains true to her rhetorical task. To preach messages. How different a play we’d have had Rickman and Viner taken Rachel Corrie’s writing as but overture to the truly imaginative act: the creation of a consciousness that would speak from the depth of a struggle to probe and endure its own inwardness through a play that would take us far beyond the bare beginnings found in Rachel writings. (What, for example, if she became a nihilating voice interrogating her experience from beyond the grave.) But Rickman and Viner are not up to such an effort. They don’t know how to interrogate either their materials or the dramatic forms they employ. 

The result is what may in the present climate remain the unspoken truth about this play. It is a slight piece, worthy enough for a minor night of theatre if seen in terms of its considerable limitations but profoundly unsatisfying, even retrograde, if regarded as a complex realization of either the art of monologue or the mission of “progressive” etc. theatre.

V. Follow the Money [9]

“Sometimes the bullshit comes down so hard you need an umbrella.”

-- Ned Racine in Body Heat

But of course this conclusion is no longer warranted. And the foregoing analysis is supremely irrelevant. My Name Is Rachel Corrie is no longer the play it was. It is now the cultural event it has become. It is what it will “signify” for the Theatre that produces it and the audiences who attend it prepared by the current controversy to experience My Name Is Rachel Corrie as the epitome of progressive, challenging, politically relevant, and experimental theatre. Such is the power of ideology as that great a priori mediator that establishes the beliefs and expectations that lead us to regard as our own the experiences it programs us to have. My Name Is Rachel Corrie is now the Pavlovian stimulus before which vast audiences will salivate on cue so that they can leave the theatre congratulating themselves on how liberal, progressive and daring they are. A minor play will thereby further a process of commodification that makes it exceeding different for actually bold plays to gain a hearing. What caused Mr. Nicola to back off from this play has now become the very thing that will lead others to produce, imitate, and applaud it. For the contradictions of My Name Is Rachel Corrie as a play mirror the contradictions of the progressive left liberal theatre community. Neither has a true vision of what serious theatre should be. As a result all we get is a further reification of our collective blinding by ideological assumptions that go undetected and therefore unopposed. But there is a deeper reason why this is so. It is time it came forward and took a bow.

On January 11th of this year Mayor Bloomberg presented the keys to six building formerly owned by the City to 10 cultural organizations that comprise part of the Fourth Arts Block. (NYTW was among the beneficiaries as their website proudly notes.) The Mayor’s Office, the City Council and the Manhattan Borough President’s Office also invested over $3 million to assist in the renovation of the building and an additional $1 million has been pledged by the City. [10] Let’s imagine a fresh production of King Lear starring the Mayor in the title role and with the parts of the three daughters to be determined later based on auditions by the Artistic Directors of our progressive theatres.

It now turns out the “cancellation” began when two members of the Board of Directors at NYTW relayed to Mr. Nicola concerns about the wisdom of producing My Name is Rachel Corrie. The infamous polling of select members of the (local) non-theatre community followed. Theatres that want to succeed while carrying out the mission of exploring the “political and historical events and institutions that shape contemporary life” depend, as we all know, on the “advice” and support of Boards that are largely composed of financially prodigious figures. [11] When all goes well the moneyed class lets the “artists” think they’re running things. After all, it’s useful to have places where the theatre-goers of the Big Apple can go to assure themselves how liberal, progressive, even radical they are and how the most richly endowed theatres in town attest to that fact. With commodification in charge everything becomes a matter of sign-exchange value. But once in a while the truth makes a brief appearance and we see that Theatre is yet another one of the things that the capitalists own and control.

A curious circumstance has emerged in the current controversy that reveals the extent and nature of this control. The other leading representatives of “progressive” theatre have been quick to condemn or express regret over Nicola’s decision (thus reasserting their “leftist” bona fides) but just as quick to remind us how “progressive” and daring the NYTW has been under Nicola’s long leadership. There is apparently one thing above all that we must all believe. That a theatre such as the NYTW (and other similarly self-described theatres in Manhattan) are, in fact, progressive, liberal, cutting-edge, daring, experimental etc. Such was the assurance offered by Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of The Public Theatre and others at the end of a recent forum on theatre that The Public held at the New School. [12] Talk went on for the better part of two hours before a member of the audience had the temerity to refer to the Corrie controversy as the white elephant in the room. The panelists then tripped over one another with the excuse that they couldn’t comment on the matter not yet having had time to read the play. Mr. Eustis then brought things into the necessary perspective with his encomium of the progressive credentials of Mr. Nicola and the NYTW.

A similar reassurance followed when Tony Kushner finally broke his silence with the statement long awaited by those who were certain that what he said would prove definitive -- at least in helping them know what they thought. Following party line Kushner bewailed Nicola’s decision while reminding all of us (lest we doubt it) that “his [Nicola’s] is one of the two most important theatres in this area -- politically engaged, unapologetic, unafraid and formally experimental.” [13] (Want to guess what the other one is? Or is Tony letting us all play mirror mirror on the wall? ) And so it goes. The theatrical powers that be must rally around one another and lest we take seriously the question raised recently by a Dr. Cashmere on Garrett Eisler’s playgoer blog: “Are there worthy plays out there that can’t get a production because theatres are afraid they’ll catch hell for staging them?” [14] One hopes this was a rhetorical question. As such it points to the most distressing and important lesson we can gain from this controversy.

My Name is Rachel Corrie will soon gain production in New York. (At The Public?) It will then come to us trailing clouds of progressive glory, serving as a model of what daring, controversial theatre is. The model that led to the original selection of this play under that banner will thus extend its hegemony. The run of the play will serve something far more important than sparking talk about the actions of Israel in bulldozing Palestinian homes and callously justifying the killing of a young woman. The run will serve as training in teaching audiences what progressive theatre is. Bad money will continue to drive out good. My Name is Rachel Corrie was cobbled together following a set of aesthetic and political assumptions that severely compromise the possibilities of radical, progressive, experimental theatre. It was selected for production because the same set of assumptions inform the judgment of theatres such as NYTW. Now as a cultural event it will reify those assumptions by creating audiences habituated to this sort of play and therefore unable to respond to anything that challenges the artistic and political assumptions on which such stuff is written. The whole event will thus serve to solidify the closed circle in which we are moving. The hegemony of plays like this necessarily results in the rejection of plays that are truly progressive and formally experimental. You see, Dr. Cashmere, that’s the beauty of ideology. It is a self-contained system that excludes anything that challenges it. And the beauty of it is that none of this requires conscious intentionality. When Nicola and others who share the dominant theatrical ideology “read” plays sent to them they are already screening out works that don’t conform to the model without knowing they are doing so. That’s the beauty of ideology. It doesn’t ever have to pass before your conscious mind in order to determine what to experience, think and do.

And that’s the pity of it. Our so-called progressive theatres are run by those whose artistic sensibilities (and judgment) have already been so colonized by capitalist imperatives that they can only approve of Art that furthers the System. After all, a show has to make bucks, position our theatre for a big slice of Bloomberg’s pie, please our corporate sponsorship and increase season ticket sales. There is only one way to do so: to take care never to produce anything that will really ruffle the feathers of those who exert a silent, paternalistic yet pervasive control over the whole enterprise. Follow the money.

But that’s also the beauty of the present controversy. It has the power to expose the entire institution. And that, after all, is what theatre is -- an institution serving the needs and desires of its community. Those of us who think it should be the conscience disrupting the community by standing as that one public institution dedicated to the public airing of all secrets and lies the community doesn’t want to confront are asking for a poor theatre indeed. And yet perhaps the most important implication of the current controversy is that we will only get such a theatre when we reject the model followed by those theatres that so loudly proclaim their progressive character. And not just in New York. The situation described here persists throughout America. At the Humana Festival in Louisville next week? At Steppenwolf? At the Mark Taper? Etc.

But of course the beat goes on. Whether things can be patched up so that the NYTW produces the play -- unlikely according to those in London; deeply desired apparently by most of the theatre community in New York despite the hypocrisy of this solution -- or someone else here gets it one thing is sure. And you can take it to the bank. My Name is Rachel Corrie will be a mega-hit. Everyone has to see it now as transgressive ritual if nothing else. Ten days ago the only way I could get a copy of the play was through U.K. Amazon. [15] Now the play is widely available in the U.S. and its sales a mere precursor to what advance ticket sales for the New York production will be. Moreover, the cancellation here has already led to a new run of the play on the West End in London, an unexpected boon on the heels of the end of its two earlier runs at The Royal Court Theatre.

A Pynchonian fantasy is here irresistible. Note: I’m not claiming that the following scenario was consciously planned -- especially not by the people at The Royal Court Theatre. It is, rather, the foregone result of theatre as an institution that is shaped by considerations inimical to serious art. So, consider this: what if the whole controversy was cooked up precisely to assure the mega-success of a very minor play? The Producers for highbrows! Let’s create a media event. There’s no better publicity. Everybody wins -- even NYTW. Jim Nicola’s temporary embarrassment is already being softened by daily testimonials from the other luminaries of progressive theatre and no doubt this vote of sympathy will pay dividends in the chorus of praise that will be lavished on his next production. In the meantime another New York theater will be given an opportunity to proclaim its progressive credentials all the way to the Bank. Vast audiences will gain in turn the assurance that they support serious, daring progressive theatre and know what it is when they see it!

 Ideology does not work primarily as overt censorship, as in Nicola’s blunder that put us in a position to see the state of the King’s clothes. Ideology works as that prior self-censorship that controls the sensibilities of those who run our progressive Theatres and those who write the kind of plays they are certain to produce. Liberating oneself from ideology is an enormous task. Art only begins, however, when that liberation is the effort one refuses to compromise. Perhaps today there is only one way we can honor that principle. By refusing to any longer support or fall into the ideological traps that the Corrie controversy can enable us to see.

VI. Toward a Really Poor Theatre

 “He is condemned to go on forever, knowing the truth and powerless to change  anything. No longer will he seek to get off the wheel. His anger and frustration  will grow without limit, and he will find himself, poor perverse bulb, enjoying it.”       

-- Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow [16]

The most destructive censorship is the one that exists as the set of assumptions about theatre under which Mr. Nicola, Mr. Eustis, Mr. Kushner and so many others operate. For those assumptions are what determines what plays have a chance of being produced. The key point once again is that this is so because these assumptions remain hidden and for the most part unconscious in those who have all their judgments determined by them. That’s the tawdry effect of ideology on artistic possibility. Mr. Nicola picks up a play and sees only what the prevailing ideology permits him to see. Anything that threatens or violates that implicit framework must be discarded. That is why a Theatre that would be truly serious and progressive would be made up of plays that our mainstream progressive theatres can’t produce. (Thus the considerable ironies of Mr. Cote’s recent suggestion that we need to start a new progressive theatre in New York, house it if possible at the “Arthur Miller,” and make My Name Is Rachel Corrie its first offering. [17])

Do new plays that are radical, progressive, truly experimental exist? I can think of several but feel it is best not to mention them here so that each reader can examine their own theatrical experience. It would be counterproductive to provide titles when what is offered each of us is the chance to perform acts of reflection and imagination. What kind of play would one have to write in order to make and sustain a break with the assumptions that rule in so-called serious, progressive theatre? If nothing else this question has the power to sharpen and quicken our perceptions the next time we attend a play. The need for theatre is profound. And it can only grow through disciplined experiences of how rarely we get the real thing.

Walter A. Davis is an actor, playwright, and cultural critic. His primary theoretical book on theatre is Get the Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama and the Audience (U of Wisconsin P, 1994). His plays include An Evening With JonBenet Ramsey (Authors Choice P, 2004). His most recent work of cultural criticism Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche since 9-11 has just appeared and can be ordered in the U.S. at The U of Michigan Press and in the U.K. at Pluto Press (London). For further description of his work see www.walteradavis.com. He may be reached at: davis.65@osu.edu.

Other Articles by Walter A. Davis

* The Play's the Thing: Censorship, Theatre and Ideology
* Life on Death Row


(1) From statement of purpose by NYTW in Dramatists Sourcebook. 23rd edition. (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2004), p.71

(2) On this see the fine article by Philip Weiss in the forthcoming April 3 issue of The Nation.

(3) For a detailed development of the theory that underlies these paragraphs see my Get the Guests and Herbert Blau’s The Audience.

(4) My Name is Rachel Corrie. The writings of Rachel Corrie. Edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner. (London: Nick Hern Books Limited, 2005). I should also point out here that the situations described in this article are not confined to the New York theatre scene. For the uniformly positive review of the London production of the play see: www.royalcourttheatre.com/archive_reviews.asp?play=401. Even as difficult a critic as Michael Billington viewed the play in highly positive terms. 

(5) See the article on the play in the Guardian Arts section, April 8, 2005.

(6) Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett, The Diary of Anne Frank (New York: Random House, 1954).

(7) In the aforementioned article from the Guardian.

(8) An important caveat. As an actor and a playwright who has written monologue plays my criticisms of this work must be qualified by a regard for what a good actress (and by all accounts Megan Dodd is very good) might be able to do to give rich tonal coloring to even the flattest prose, making it all come alive in varied, subtle, and ironic ways.

(9) On how such moods or ways of being-in-the-world reveal the fundamental ontological conditions of existence, see Heidegger’s Being and Time and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

(10) Jerry Rubin, the '60s radical later turned successful Wall Street stockbroker and not Deep Throat deserves the credit for first having formulated this principle. It remains sage advice.

(11) See: www.nyc.gov/portal/index.jsp?epi_menuItemID=c0935b9a57. See also the NYTW website: www.nytw.org.

(12) For a listing of the Members of the Board of the NYTW and major contributors, click here.

(13) For a full report of the meeting of The Public Theater at the New School see the entire section titled Last Night’s (non-)Panel on Garrett Eisler’s Playgoer.blogspot.com.  We are all indebted to Mr. Eisler and to George Hunka and Jason Grote for providing the forums that have kept the discussion of this controversy alive and free of official rationales. See also George Hunka: www.ghunka.com and Jason Grote: www.jasongrote.blogspot.

(14) This statement by Tony Kushner is in the forthcoming article in The Nation by Philip Weiss. The article is also already available online.

(15) A confession is in order here. I am the unnamed Michigan author who sent his copy of the play to Philip Weiss last week when he found it virtually impossible to find a copy of it in New York. But then most everybody was too busy then either avoiding the controversy or knowing the artistic and political quality of My Name Is Rachel Corrie without having to read it.

(16) This quotation comes from the section of the novel titled “The Story of Byron the Bulb.” Pp. 647-655. Gravity’s Rainbow is hard going (like most good things) but this section can be read independently as a clear and concise parable of the fate of The Enlightenment and those who try today to sustain its effort.

(17) David Cote makes this suggestion in “Staging Coups” in Time Out New York. Issue 546. March 16-22, 2006. Coincidentally those dates coincide with the commemorations of Rachel words held in New York and in many other cities throughout the world on March 16, the third anniversary of her death and the meeting hosted by Amy Goodman held the evening of March 22 at the Riverside Church.