The Unvarnished Truth about Obama, Harris and Diversity without Accountability [The Markaz Review, Nov 27, 2020]
Obama’s new book, A Promised Land, has been making the rounds. It’s everywhere on social media, much like Michelle Obama’s Becoming was a couple of years ago. Both dust jackets glow with the same Photoshop finish, two attractive people a bit shy about the strength of their own magnetism. Smart, effortlessly debonair, moneyed. Diametrically opposed to Trump’s vulgarity, civilized in their discourse (“I felt quietly angry on his behalf. To protest a man in the final hour of his presidency seemed graceless and unnecessary,” he writes about Bush), and confident in the gushing response from their stans.
Obama, the drone president. The man who dropped 26,171 bombs his last year in the White House. Literary rock stars like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith fangirl over his remarkable writing and unimaginably difficult presidential decisions. The decency of his character is assured, in spite of his war crimes. He’s got a multimillion-dollar Netflix deal after all, and the power to gift us Joe Biden.
He makes us feel nostalgic for the good old days, when America was truly great. Everyone knows he killed almost 4,000 people in 542 drone strikes, deported more than 2.5 million others, and force-fed Muslim men categorized as non-human in Guantanamo. He expanded mass surveillance, sabotaged universal healthcare, built migrant cages at the border, and pretended to drink Flint water in order to lie about its safety.
He didn’t just do the broadly brutal, presidential butchery we expect from American presidents, he made it personal. He handled kill lists, droned a 16-year-old American kid in Yemen along with his 17-year-old cousin, started spanking new wars, and called the president of Yemen to halt the release of a journalist reporting on drone casualties in that country.
Yet here we are.
The boring repetition of these atrocities can be set aside easily. Pictures of dead children or their wailing mothers don’t really register if they’re not wearing the right clothes or speaking the right languages. We can say sensibly that collateral damage is a price we are willing to pay, as long as someone else is actually paying that price. Would we be equally understanding about the droning of our own children for the greater good of the world? Why is that a crazy question?
Seems graceless to bring all of this up, right after the launch of Obama’s elegant oeuvre. Accusations of crudeness remind one of Houria Boutelja’s book Whites, Jews, and Us which so offended white sensibilities. Anthropologist Nazia Kazi explicates how Boutelja “claims this crudeness as a very marker of her social position: ‘The dispossessed indigenous person is vulgar. The white dispossessor is refined.’ What are civility, vulgarity, and manners in a world shaped enduringly by the brutality of empire?” she asks.
Maybe that’s just how it is these days: everything whitewashed, packaged like an Apple product, branded like a captivatingly effete IG influencer, and placed adroitly like sponcon. It’s hard to tell the news from the ads, Hollywood films from military propaganda, or Nobel Peace Prize winners from assassination masterminds. Everything’s pulverized together into a bland paste of vacuity. Makes one hungry for guerrilla filmmaking and some raw, unvarnished truth.
• • •
As we look forward to a Kamala Harris vice presidency, pictures of her channeling Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks have gained popular currency online. Representation continues to be a means of achieving multiculturalism, without challenging the structures it dresses up.
What about Harris’s actions? Out of the millions of undertakings she could have prioritized, as San Francisco D.A., she decided to crack down on school truancy. One of her regular shticks at speaking events was to tell the story of how she brought charges against a single mother of three, who was homeless and working two jobs. It demonstrated the tough love of her anti-truancy initiative, the fear she could instill by an artistic rendering of her badge on her letterhead. In another talk, she made fun of criminal justice reformers, mimicking their protests on stage. It’s painful to watch — her flippancy, arrogance and cluelessness.
Harris is younger than many of the men in leadership positions around her. Perhaps she will begin to align more with what’s happening in the country. But it bears repeating that representation doesn’t go very far when it’s only a symbol of individual success. Unless people of color in positions of power, challenge existing systems and try to improve the lives of the most marginalized, their “diversity” is just about optics.
In the words of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor:
“Symbolic firsts are no substitute for substantive gains. We have been celebrating firsts for fifty years but the gains for the few almost never translate into a better life for the many… These celebrations are old and our people are dying. Enough.”
‘Sultana’s Dream’ Project and the Disappearance of Muslim Feminisms [Countercurrents, Apr 17, 2020]
I was fascinated to learn that a new exhibit at the Memorial Art Gallery (MAG), in Rochester, New York, celebrates Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream. For those who have not heard of this groundbreaking work, a quick Google search yields this synopsis on Wikipedia:
Sultana’s Dream is a 1905 feminist utopian story written by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, a Muslim feminist, writer and social reformer from Bengal. It was published the same year in the Madras-based English periodical The Indian Ladies Magazine. It depicts a feminist utopia (called Ladyland) in which women run everything and men are secluded, in a mirror-image of the traditional practice of purdah. The women are aided by science fiction-esque “electrical” technology which enables laborless farming and flying cars; the women scientists have discovered how to tap solar power and control the weather.
In her 2009 article in the Guardian, ‘What happened to Arab science fiction?’ Nesrine Malik cites Sultana’s Dream as an illustration of science fiction’s subversive potential:
…if there is a sense of despair and censorship, what better way to counter the former and circumvent the latter than engage in flights of fancy and imagination? To vicariously revolutionise and hope via a medium of fantasy? With Arab literature so focused on classical themes, an Orwellian allegory, for instance, would tackle the present and envision a future in a more clandestine fashion than a straightforward political attack.
Sultana’s Dream is an example of such critique. Written in 1905 by a Muslim feminist writer and social reformer who lived in British India, it is one of the earliest examples of feminist science fiction, and is a sort of gender-based Planet of the Apes where the roles are reversed and the men are locked away in a technologically advanced future.
An indictment of the purdah system, it was much more than simplistic utopian thinking but a philosophically mature vision of a world where, following defeat in a crushing war, men succumbed to isolation in exhaustion and disillusionment with a world dominated by brute male force. It was also an extension of the author’s frustration with the limitations imposed upon her by her own society.
For me personally, as a South Asian, Muslim, woman activist, Sultana’s Dream has always been a source of great pride and inspiration. Last year, I wrote about non-European, nonwhite, decolonial feminisms and the importance of reckoning with that history:
I remember when Laila Lalami came to Rochester many years ago to read from her 2005 book, ‘Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits’. I’d been a fan of her writing since her moorishgirl.com days and so I went. During the Q&A someone asked her a question about how feminism evolved in North Africa by trying to understand its ties to western feminism, because how else would Moroccan women know about their rights? Laila was visibly annoyed and had to take a sip of water before she responded. I never forgot that question – this ridiculous notion that feminism is a western idea.
I’m reading Urdu poet and writer Fahmida Riaz’s book, ‘Four Walls and a Black Veil,’ and in the foreword Aamir Hussein talks about how “poems such as ‘The Laughter of a Woman’ and ‘She is a Woman Impure’ celebrate femininity in ways that French feminist theorists such as Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray were to do. Just as Ismat Chughtai prefigured by several years Simone de Beauvoir’s theoretical configurations in ‘The Second Sex,’ so too Fahmida wrote fearlessly about blood, milk and the waters of birth before her western contemporaries began to formulate their theories of women’s writing as grounded in bodily experience, and most certainly before she could have been exposed to their writings.”
I read Chughtai’s seminal, semi-autobiographical Terhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line) in English, a translation by Tahira Naqvi, some years ago and was blown away by its power. In her foreword to the English translation, Naqvi writes, “it was Ismat Chughtai who, fearlessly and without reserve, initiated the practice of looking at women’s lives from a psychological standpoint. This brings me to the interesting parallels that one can see between ‘The First Phase’ in The Crooked Line and the section titled ‘The Formative Years: Childhood’ in The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir’s pioneering work on female sexuality which appeared in 1949, four years after Chughtai’s novel. As a matter of fact, there are certain portions in Chughtai’s novel that seem to be fictionalised prefigurations of Beauvoir’s description and analysis of childhood playacting and fantasy; it seems as if Chughtai and Beauvoir were drawing on a common source. In both works, feminine experience is explored from childhood through puberty and adolescence to womanhood, these being the stages in the development of a sense of self that finally results in an acceptance of sexual impulses and subsequently leads to the awareness of a sexual identity.”
And of course, we can go back to ‘Sultana’s Dream’ a feminist utopia imagined and articulated by Rokeya Hossain, a writer and social reformer from Bengal.
Rokeya Hossain was born in 1880, Ismat Chughtai in 1915, and Fahmida Riaz in 1946. All three women were Muslim and Brown (South Asian). This is just a small bit of history (literature), so much more can be found in the nonwhite, non-western world. And confining ourselves to what’s written only, is egregiously short-sighted, considering the significance of what is passed down through stories and diverse oral traditions.
Given this context, I was eager to read the description of Chitra Ganesh’s art exhibit ‘Sultana’s Dream’ at MAG. It is a collection of prints, black linocuts on tan paper, which utilize Rokeya Hossain’s text and imagery in order to engage contemporary politics.
What stunned me in the discourse I encountered online was the complete erasure of Rokeya Hossain’s identity as a Muslim woman. There is no mention of her religion, whereas the artist, Chitra Ganesh, is explicitly described as being ‘born and raised in a Hindu Indian immigrant family in Brooklyn and Queens.’
This erasure is particularly painful and symbolic at a time when Islam is strategically advertised as misogynistic and Muslim women stereotyped as submissive and in need of ‘saving.’ Invisibilizing Muslim women, especially feminist trailblazers such as Hossain, by jettisoning parts of their identities and political provenance, is not just negligent, it’s damaging.
It reminds me of how Islam is excised from Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi’s poetry. Rumi, as he is mostly known to his American fans, is often described as the best-selling poet in the United States. His most widely read translations are produced by Coleman Barks, a Ph.D. in English literature from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Barks does not read or speak Farsi, is not familiar with Islamic literature, and owns his decision to minimize references to Islam. In her New Yorker article, ‘The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi,’ Rozina Ali quotes Omid Safi, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Duke University:
Discussing these New Age “translations,” Safi said, “I see a type of ‘spiritual colonialism’ at work here: bypassing, erasing, and occupying a spiritual landscape that has been lived and breathed and internalized by Muslims from Bosnia and Istanbul to Konya and Iran to Central and South Asia.” Extracting the spiritual from the religious context has deep reverberations. Islam is regularly diagnosed as a “cancer,” including by General Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for national-security adviser, and, even today, policymakers suggest that non-Western and nonwhite groups have not contributed to civilization.
The debate about who has contributed to civilization (and therefore whose life is valuable or expendable) is equally crucial in today’s India. With mechanisms set up to strip Muslims of their Indian citizenship, the continued occupation of Kashmir, the recent anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi instigated by Hindu nationalists, and now talk of a ‘corona jihad’ whereby the pandemic is being weaponized to stoke violence against Muslims, it is more imperative than ever to articulate and recognize the identity of Indian Muslim reformers and icons, especially fearless, radical women such as Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain.
I can only hope that MAG will heed this call for due diligence and, in fact, use this exhibit to start a conversation about Muslim feminisms. It is an area of study and activism packed with historically rich, complex, and compelling materials waiting to be explored and critically engaged with. More here.
An Open Letter of Solidarity [Rochester Beacon, Jan 13, 2020]
The Hanukkah stabbings in December 2019 prompted us—a group of Rochester-based Muslim and Jewish activists—to unpack the attack and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s response, by parsing the political context in which such hate crimes become possible and voicing the need for targeted communities to pull together. The beginning of the new year 2020 saw another act of violence, with President Donald Trump provoking a war with Iran and unleashing heightened Islamophobia and xenophobia in the country. An open letter of solidarity became even more important to us, especially one grounded in political analysis and a strong desire for justice and intersectional allyship. Here it is:
More than 70 years after the end of World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany, we are seeing a resurgence in ethno-nationalism and an emboldening of white supremacy. In the past year, bigotry-fueled violence has targeted synagogues, mosques, Black churches, and other centers of religious and cultural life for frontline communities.
As the world becomes more inequitable and precarious, with climate change threatening our very survival, high-profile figures in positions of political and economic power (within the U.S. and around the world) continue to use hateful rhetoric and the scapegoating of marginalized groups and minorities to distract from the failures of capitalism.
At this time of fear-based politics and endless wars, when the far right is preparing to defend itself against “white genocide,” it is critical that we remain steadfast in our solidarity with all communities under threat and not fall prey to tactics that aim to divide and conquer. It is the only way to challenge the divisions rooted in racial capitalism, which are deployed both locally and globally.
One of the pernicious characteristics of white supremacy is that it can readjust racial hierarchies to fit the prevailing interests of the ruling class. For example, the last century has witnessed a number of European ethnic minorities gain access to American whiteness. Although discrimination against Jewish people is nowhere near the levels it was in the 1940s, when ships of European Jews fleeing Nazi execution were turned back by the U.S. government, or in the 1960s when Jews were barred from certain jobs and neighborhoods here in Rochester, the acceptance of white Jews into white America continues to be challenged by recent events. Needless to say, in a country defined by racism, anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity, Jews of color were never given such access in the first place. With the election of Donald Trump and the increased usage of scapegoating and pitting of oppressed communities against one another, anti-Semitism is once again on the rise and the definitions of whiteness and citizenship are shifting.
The othering of Muslims has always been closely tied to their racialization. Although the demarcation between East and West is arbitrary, Islam is consistently portrayed as exotic and unchanging by European Orientalists. Muslims are constructed as a race diametrically opposed to the West and its genius for progress. This is why, in spite of the fact that Islam’s roots in this country go back to colonial and antebellum America, it is still considered foreign and incompatible with U.S. values.
U.S. foreign policy and decades-long wars on Muslim-majority countries have further devalued Muslim lives. The recent escalation of violence between the U.S. and Iran is a good example of how calls to war are invariably followed by a spike in xenophobia and Islamophobia.
In his work, Santiago Slabodsky, the Florence and Robert Kaufman Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies at Hofstra University, often talks about the historical co-Orientalization of Jews and Muslims.
Yet imperial and capitalist interests continue to position our communities as if locked in an eternal zero-sum game. We see this with heads of state Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu conflating Judaism with Israeli state policies of aggression and expansion in Palestine, and using Islamophobic tropes depicting Muslims as violent and inherently opposed to Western civilization in order to justify a war with Iran.
Trump has made numerous anti-Semitic statements that play into anti-Semitic tropes of dual loyalty, including referring to Netanyahu as “your prime minister” when speaking to U.S. Jewish audiences and accusing U.S. Jewish Democrats of being disloyal to the state of Israel. The president’s deliberate conflation of domestic and Middle East politics and the ongoing bipartisan support for the War on Terror have made U.S. Jews and Muslims embodied sites of political contestation: hate crimes, travel bans, and discrimination continue to draw their bodies into the political battlefield.
In the wake of the December 2019 Hanukkah attack in New York City, Gov. Cuomo announced an increase in security including a $45 million grant administered by the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services for communications equipment upgrades. This is meant to assuage Jewish communities and make them feel safer.
But actual safety comes from solidarity, not greater state scrutiny and criminalization, which disproportionately impact people of color and vulnerable communities. Employing state forces as barriers between our fractured communities only furthers our fragmentation and contributes to future distrust and misunderstandings.
We, Muslim and Jewish activists based in Rochester, understand this and are committed to a decolonial understanding of our histories and struggles. We aim to stay invested in and show up for one another, and we urge all our diverse communities to do the same. Let’s band together against the rising tides of violence, in our country and across the globe. Solidarity is safety.
Durdane Hatun Guler
Lessons of the Hour: A Review [Rochester Beacon, Apr 23, 2019]
Two years ago, Amanda Chestnut, Rachel DeGuzman and I organized a celebration of Frederick Douglass’ 199thbirthday at his gravesite in Mount Hope Cemetery.
The following year, in 2018, the city of Rochester was energized to mark Douglass’s 200thbirthday with multiple community events. Part of this process of excavation included a work of art by Isaac Julien, commissioned by the Memorial Art Gallery.
Recently I went to see Lessons of the Hour—on view at the gallery through May 12—with two activist friends. According to Julien’s own website: “Lessons of the Hour is a poetic meditation on the life and times of Frederick Douglass, the ten-screen film installation proposes a contemplative journey into Douglass’ zeitgeist and its relationship to contemporaneity. The film includes excerpts of Douglass’ most arresting speeches and allusions to his private and public milieus.”
Isaac Julien’s tableaux vivants are gorgeous—that much is unequivocal. Together the 10 screens form a lengthened semicircle. Sitting on a comfortable bench against the back wall, one feels completely surrounded by and submerged in the piece.
As a filmmaker, I was immediately drawn to the polished cinematography. Fall leaves, multicolored and delicate as gauze, flutter as Douglass (played by actor Ray Fearon) saunters through the woods. Beach grass on the coast of Scotland, tall and finely combed, grounds Douglass and his beautiful steed in their bracing promenade. The camera takes us on a tour of Douglass’ home and meets him on a train, probably during one of his hectic speaking tours. We see the steam and crankshaft, we feel the pistons hard at work, pumping energy into the engine of the Industrial Revolution.
Douglass is always dressed to the nines, seen in vibrant crimson and royal blue overcoats that leap off the screen and endow him with aristocratic elegance. Image, and therefore photography, were important to Douglass. This is why, in addition to excerpts from his famous Fourth of July and lessons of the hour speeches, some of his thoughts from “Lecture on Pictures” are also included in the piece, and so are elaborate scenes in J. P. Ball’s photography studio.
Some of the most revealing words in the installation are taken from his 1845 memoir, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” which begins with the heartbreaking description of how his mother, Harriet Bailey, was separated from him soon after birth and his care entrusted to an older woman. This cruel practice was meant to extract as much labor as possible from young mothers, who went straight back to the plantation, but most importantly it disrupted the maternal bonding and emotional engagement so necessary for a child’s early development.
The artwork includes Douglass’ words: “I received the tidings of (my mother’s) death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.”
I wish it explained further how, on a few occasions, his mother walked 12 miles at night, after a hard day’s work, to be with him for a few hours. She had to get up and leave in the middle of the night to make it back the next day at sunrise. It’s an indelible image that encapsulates the stunning inhumanity of slavery and lends weight and context to Douglass’ words about his mother’s death.
There is much more in the book that could have been implied in the installation—the regular whippings and their disturbing intimacy that typified slave life, Douglass’ perseverance and ingenuity in learning to read and write, and his two-hour-long, hand-to-hand fight with the slave-breaker Covey, from which Douglass emerged victorious and emboldened to dream of freedom.
We hear the sound of the lash. It’s brusque and unnerving. We are given fragmentary glimpses of Douglass’ past—his scarred back, the crack of the whip, and perhaps most brutally truthful of all, black-and-white footage of feet dangling from a lynched body. This image, projected for a short time on a single screen, is made even more compelling by coupling it with Douglass’ words from his 1855 book, “My Bondage and My Freedom,” in which he talks about his childhood journey from Tuckahoe to the Wye plantation where he was to start work as a slave, his fear of the woods, the comfort of being accompanied by his grandmother (his caregiver), and his comprehension of relative perspective:
“She often found me increasing the energy of my grip, and holding her clothing, lest something should come out of the woods and eat me up. Several old logs and stumps imposed upon me, and got themselves taken for wild beasts. I could see their legs, eyes, and ears, or I could see something like eyes, legs, and ears, till I got close enough to them to see that the eyes were knots, washed white with rain, and the legs were broken limbs, and the ears, only ears owing to the point from which they were seen. Thus early I learned that the point from which a thing is viewed is of some importance.”
The use of these words to reactivate the horror of lynching is powerful. But the story of slavery could have been more present. For example, although cotton fields are shown in the video, they appear as closeups of creamy cotton plants bouncing daintily in the breeze. An old black-and-white photograph of slaves in cotton fields flashes on a screen, but it’s not enough to give us a sense of what that labor looked like or felt like—backbreaking work and bleeding fingers, interminable hours in the baking sun, constant sweat, dirt, and the torture of the whip. We get no sense of this ugly oppression; rather, the fields are lyricized into an ode to nature and high-definition cinematography. Even when we are shown footage of hands picking cotton, the sleeves are gracefully folded back, white as snow and immaculately clean.
Later in the installation, the injection of short interludes of reality continues with black-and-white drone footage of the Baltimore riots, shot at night, in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s killing. In an interview with the Guardian, Julien said: “The FBI footage we use in the piece is looking at the way in which crowds congregate in situations of unrest. From the late 19th century to the 21st century, I’m looking at civil unrest in a situation where an African American man was killed.” Yet the aerial shots and their radiographic quality create distance between reality’s flesh and blood and the artist’s exquisitely controlled simulation.
In the same Guardian article, Julien explains how Douglass was “interested in photography because of the role of autonomy it gave him over his own self-representation, as opposed to the ones that were being captured and stereotyped; black men and women were being presented in derogatory imagery. He saw photography as a savior of representing a regime of truth or person.”
Perhaps Julien is looking to continue this process of empowerment through image-making, but the risk is to produce a rootless depiction of Douglass by unmooring him from the gritty Black history that made him in the first place.
This metaphorical detachment is noticeable in both the private and public spheres.
Although the installation can be lauded for the inclusion of key women, it doesn’t highlight Anna Murray Douglass’ sway over her husband’s life and work. He lived 44 years with Murray (played by Sharlene Whyte) and another 11 after her death, yet she is all but disappeared from the tableaux vivants after her initial share of screen time, to make room for other, mostly white, women. There is no mention of the five children Douglass had with her: Lewis, Frederick Jr., Charles, Rosetta, and Annie.
When Annie died in 1860, before she turned 11, Douglass was in Scotland. He had fled the country after being implicated in John Brown’s failed raid of the Federal Arsenal, at Harpers Ferry, and risked arrest to return to his wife and mourn the loss of their child—an incredibly moving and important juncture in their lives.
Murray held the fort in his absence, supporting the family by mending shoes. This fierce independence and ability to survive are not apparent in the installation’s repeated scenes of demure seclusion, focusing on Murray and her sewing machine. With her five children and busy household, I wonder if such retiring moments were even possible in her youth or middle years.
Instead of plush overcoats, I longed to see her stitching a sailor uniform, the disguise Douglass used to escape to freedom on a train. Murray had sold a bed in order to cobble together the money for his ticket.
The personal intersected forcefully with the public when Murray opened up her Rochester home to runaway slaves, turning it into an Underground Railroad stop on the way to Canada. Harriet Tubman brought slaves to the Douglass house and stayed there as a guest, yet she is missing from this artwork.
I understand Rochester’s instinct to mention Susan B. Anthony in the same breath as Frederick Douglass, but if abolition was the thrust of Douglass’ mission in life, perhaps we could center the coming together of two abolitionist leaders, whose lives converged right here in our city.
All in all, Julien’s video installation tells a visually splendid story, punctuated by a few terse, physical representations of slavery. It doesn’t ground Douglass in his marriage, his children, his Blackness. It evades the hideousness and savagery of bondage and forced labor, in order to construct mythic imagery.
Although I agree that photographs of brutalized bodies, especially when they belong to oppressed communities, dehumanize and normalize further violence, prioritizing sanitized visuals over rougher, less agreeable sounds and images can also be tricky. It takes away a lot of the discomfort that real talk might induce in an audience. It makes art easier to digest, but one has to question its message, its gloss, its commercial invincibility.
Difference as Liberatory Politics [Countercurrents, Mar 2, 2019]
It’s ironic that I found out about India’s air strikes across the line of control, inside Pakistani territory, from a friend in New Delhi. Surbhi Dewan and I were texting each other, late at night on Monday, February 25, about the passing of her grandmother, Leela Dewan, one of the beautiful women who shared their testimony about the partition of India in our film ‘A Thin Wall.’ In the middle of the conversation, Surbhi sent me a news link, along with the words, “Just heard. Feeling terrible.”
Since then, Pakistan has claimed to have shot down two Indian jets inside its air space and to have captured at least one Indian pilot. As tensions escalate, Surbhi and I continue to talk about her grandmother, a woman who chose to humanize the other, who had immense affection for her home in Multan (in Pakistan), and who is part of a precious generation we are losing – our last, lived-in link to a common past and culture, a connection that is becoming dangerously removed from reality and is hurtling toward intemperate jingoism and military preening.
It took me seven years to make ‘A Thin Wall’, a documentary about the partition of India. It focuses on displacement, memory, and the possibility of reconciliation, rather than rely on the larger-than-life male politicians who have come to frame this historical event. It’s a personal take, told in two voices: mine, a Pakistani American perspective, and that of my Indian co-producer and friend Surbhi Dewan. Our families were dislocated in 1947, when British India was carved up to create a Muslim-majority Pakistan and a Hindu-majority India. The film is shot on both sides of the border, in Lahore and Delhi. It aims to decolonize our understanding of the partition, by rooting it in 200 years of British colonial rule, and hopes for a regional future that centers the needs and dreams of South Asians.
During those seven years, I thought deeply about nationalism, the colonial divvying up of the world, the drawing up of borders, and the idea of religious, ethnic or racial homogeneity, which is often the justification for the creation of modern nation states.
It became apparent to me that although nationalism can be a used as a rallying cry for freedom and self-rule, especially in a colonial context, it can also reduce complex struggles for justice to the black and white language of national borders, and the separation, forced assimilation or erasure of difference. Here in the U.S., Muslim bans, the militarization of our border with Mexico, and the massive deportations (that had already started under Obama), are all ways of ejecting diversity. Purity struck me as an aberration of nature – only enforceable by violence.
Myths about monolithic national identities are just that, myths. It’s not a coincidence that illusions of homogeneousness work in tandem with the capitalist enterprise. Rabindranath Tagore wrote about the “national machinery of commerce and politics” that “turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron hoops, labelled and separated off with scientific care and precision,” and in the end, hardly human.
At a time when the U.S. is teetering on the verge of white ethno-nationalism, it’s imperative to understand the full dividends and implications of “difference” from every possible angle, and learn lessons from history.
The idea of separating what is different, by erecting electrified fences and borders, is a way of ignoring broader issues of inequity. We see this with the partition of India, which was supposed to solve the minority problem. Yet all it did was re-articulate that question vis-a-vis two nation-states. Both India and Pakistan have a troubling history of violence against minorities. They have fought four wars and are on the verge of another alarming military entanglement. At the core of these conflicts is Kashmir, a Muslim-majority territory that has been disputed since the partition in 1947. With 700,000 Indian soldiers positioned in occupied Kashmir, it has become one of the most brutally militarized places in the world.
Building walls and suppressing protests with pellet guns are cruel, ineffectual strategies that are bound to fail in the long-term. Instead there is a need to confront injustices head-on and engage in the hard work of rethinking diversity, beyond the facile jargon of multiculturalism and (token) inclusion. Diversity must mean full equity and social revitalization through the deconstruction of dominant racial, cultural, and religio-political systems and narratives.
Angela Davis warns us not to accept as standard and normal those who are located at the center of institutions we wish to dismantle. “Why would women want to become equal to men?” she asks. “Why would Black, and Latinos, and Arabs and Muslims want to become equal to white people? Why would the LGBT community want to become equal in the context of heteropatriarchy?” She describes how racism is kept alive, and transformation eschewed, by integrating people of color into a white supremacist society. This is inclusion without equity.
Similarly, in ‘Inclusion in the Atrocious,’ a piece about the trans ban on military service, Eli Massey and Yasmin Nair write: “a diversity agenda is morally meaningless unless we examine the institutions we are diversifying.” Although they agree that any kind of discrimination is unacceptable, they argue that ‘the push for trans inclusion in the military, much like the push to include women and gays and lesbians, can’t simply be framed as a matter of “inclusion” versus “discrimination.” That’s because, given the brutal history of United States military action, we also have to ask important questions about the meaning of participating in unjust institutions. Singling out the issue of inclusion without examining the institution itself produces morally incoherent stances.’
The benefits of diversity are apparent in nature whether in ecology, where the landscape’s structural heterogeneity and biodiversity endow plant and animal systems with resilience, or in the hybrid vigor that strengthens our own genetic make-up. Nature seems to abhor homogeneity and is, in fact, driven to recomplexify when faced with uniformity.
In addition to ethnic, religious and cultural multiplicities, we must also recognize body diversity. In her New York Times article, ‘If you’re in a wheelchair, segregation lives,’ Luticha Doucette describes ableism as a form of segregation and explains how inclusive design can create public spaces that enrich all of our lives. Body diversity should be accepted as the norm rather than the exception, with a keen appreciation for what Sejal Shah calls “invisible disability” or neurodiversity. In her moving essay in the Kenyon Review, she describes the stress and isolation that come with depression, the leading cause of disability worldwide, because of “the pressure to display a wellness [one does] not entirely possess.” It’s the demand to dissolve difference and be absorbed into what is mainstreamed as normalcy.
Similar thoughts are echoed in Judith Butler’s article, ‘The backlash against “gender ideology” must stop’:
‘Ultimately, the struggle for gender equality and sexual freedom seeks to alleviate suffering and to recognise the diverse embodied and cultural lives that we live. Teaching gender is not indoctrination: it does not tell a person how to live; it opens up the possibility for young people to find their own way in a world that often confronts them with narrow and cruel social norms. To affirm gender diversity is therefore not destructive: it affirms human complexity and creates a space for people to find their own way within this complexity. The world of gender diversity and sexual complexity is not going away. It will only demand greater recognition for all those who seek to live out their gender or sexuality without stigma or the threat of violence. Those who fall outside the norm deserve to live in this world without fear, to love and to exist, and to seek to create a world more equitable and free of violence.’
It bears repeating that diversity does not cure racism – multiraciality can exist in parallel with white supremacy (or casteist/ethnocratic ideologies) and racial mixing does not guarantee an end to discriminatory systems. In the U.S. context, a majority-minority shift in demographics or the “browning” of America does not imply full equity. In fact, “inclusion in the atrocious” can lend credence and longevity to racist institutions. This is why diversity should not be limited to the framework of minority rights and should instead be seen as collective liberation.
The Martinique poet and philosopher, Édouard Glissant, offers us the language to articulate such a conception of diversity, such that the most minor human differences are acknowledged all at once, and are in equal relationship with the rest of the world. Such an open totality would lead to constant negotiation, exchange and mixing between a multitude of identities and in doing so, it would produce unknowable outcomes.
Unknowability, as espoused by Glissant, is a repudiation of stability and the model of extreme/100% safety that we are told to desire and strive for. Aren’t all our present wars, including the monstrous War On Terror, preemptive violence branded as righteous security?
In Glissant’s chaos world – his thinking of the manifold – people would learn to cope with incompatibility and unpredictability, and become adept at withstanding tensions.
The idea of the archipelago, with its multiple rich and diverse parts existing in an equal and simultaneous relationship with one another, is the opposite of European Universalism, which offers a kind of unity – a dictate to soak up diverse identities and achieve a one size fits all, Eurocentric ideal – what we call modernity.
Of course, the economic disparities between countries, and between people within countries, are real. These are not the differences Glissant speaks of. They do not represent atavistic identities but rather the theft and exploitation of labor and resources, facilitated by global or domestic power and its capitalist infrastructure, in direct contravention of Glissant’s egalitarian vision.
Another essential component of this non-hierarchical vision is the concept of opacity: the idea that identities and cultures need not be evaluated on a scale of transparency. It challenges rationality and the demand for complete comprehension, on Western terms.
In short, we must accept the world we live in – a chaos world we can never fully grasp, and parts of which will always remain opaque. Rather than try to shape or rationalize it, using hegemonic systems, we must learn to make peace with uncertainty.
We can map this process of exchange by looking at liminal spaces, borders and borderlands, for this is where “relation and difference link entities that need each other’s energy to exist in beauty and freedom,” according to Manthia Diawara in ‘Édouard Glissant’s Worldmentality: An Introduction to One World in Relation’.
It might be a tall order to flip our worldview and reinvent our understanding of difference, but new paradigms and possibilities matter.
My film, A Thin Wall, tries to imagine a decolonial South Asia, in which our common past and pressing present would allow us to jettison the colonial psyche we’ve been stuck in for the last 70 years. If only we could see through the thin wall that separates us, we would recognize some of our sameness. The last words in the film are: “nothing happens, unless we dream it first.”
Dreams matter. They show us a way forward.
Struggling against anti-Semitism is permanently intertwined with the fight against Islamophobia [Mondoweiss, Oct 29, 2018]
I have been thinking about how to articulate what I feel since the murderous attack on the Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh, on October 27. There are the heartbreaking facts of the dead and injured of course, of gun violence and white supremacy, and the particular fascist bent of our current moment. But I’ve been struggling to corral these facts, and more, into a broader, clarifying truth.
I keep coming back to Houria Boutelja’s words that philo-Semitism is the last refuge of white humanism (from her book, “Whites, Jews and Us – Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love”). Jewish assimilation into whiteness has always seemed like a recent, state-sponsored project to me – something politically expedient and therefore precarious.
I re-read a paper entitled “Judaism, Zionism, and the Nazi Genocide – Jewish Identity Formation in the West between Assimilation and Rejection” by Sai Englert, that was strongly recommended to me by a dear rabbi friend.
The article explains how Zionism and the commemoration of the Holocaust became central tenets of contemporary Jewish identity and how the state has helped forge this identity-formation:
Jewish history and the Nazi genocide are brought to the centre of modern constructions of Western identity and the legitimisation of Western states. However, it is a depoliticised, a-historical, and sterilised version of history, which locks Jews into a specific historic role.
There is once again a trade-off: in order to access the recognition of past wrongs, Jewish communities must relinquish demands for structural justice, and accept that the mass murder of their ancestors be removed from historical and political analysis. Instead, commemoration is turned into a tool behind which Western states can acknowledge and condemn racism, violence, and collaboration, while continuing to mete these out against other communities and countries.
[…] The essentialisation of Jews, at home and abroad, by the state creates a new form of antisemitic rejection. No longer the rootless cosmopolitan, the revolutionary, the internationalist, the Jew today is identified, in the first instance, as – at least potentially – a Zionist, a citizen of Israel, and defender of the ‘West’s values’ in the face of barbarism. No longer the potential destroyer of Western society and bourgeois values but its most fierce protector, antisemitic essentialisation paints the Jew in a seemingly positive light. The underlying logic, however, remains one of a top-down structuring of Jewish identification by the Western state.
As a Muslim, the widely accepted pariah of our time, by the Right but also by substantial passels of Liberals, I was interested in this analysis by Alain Badiou and Eric Hazan, from the same paper:
The aim is to convince people that there is an underlying unity between the support given to the struggle of the Israelis against Arab ‘fundamentalist’ barbarism, and the struggle at home against the young barbarians of the banlieues – whose ‘barbarian’ description is well attested to by the double fact that they are not only Arab or Muslim, but also criticise Israeli government policy.
I was even more struck by the commonalities between Islamophobia and this new, state-licensed form of philo-Semitism/anti-Semitism:
– the idea of static, monolithic identities (the unidimensional Zionist Jew and the unchanging Orientalist caricature of the Muslim),
– the depoliticization of the Holocaust (in order to create the mirage of the humanist West, without challenging its underlying racist/capitalist structures, and mask its violence towards Black and Brown people) and the depoliticization of the Muslim response to invasions and occupations such that all acts of resistance or organized crime become jumbled together into a mass of decontextualized, senseless terrorism),
– finally, the essentialized creation of the perpetual Jewish victim and the irrational, compulsively violent Muslim – both pawns of Western foreign policy, locked in a mythic, ahistorical war.
Palestine is obviously at the center of this battle between the good and bad “other,” with the state intervening frequently to demarcate the borders between those two extremes, e.g. the criminalization of political boycotts against Israel is the drawing of such a regulatory line.
The tragic shooting in Pittsburgh, at least partly motivated by the white extremist killer’s hatred of HIAS (a Jewish American nonprofit that assists refugees) for facilitating the breaching of the U.S. border by Muslim hordes, brings all of these contradictions and ironies to the surface. It shows the instantaneous collapse of divisions between politically constructed categories of sundry others, as soon as whiteness is in crisis.
It begs us to look deeper into the dichotomy between a right-aligned, Trump-friendly Israel and how white supremacy will, of necessity, manifest itself in the U.S.
It forces us to locate the creation of refugees in the context of American imperialism and the perpetual, savage wars that continue to incinerate Muslim-majority countries.
It reminds us of another breaching of borders by desperate refugees – the 1.85 million Palestinians imprisoned in a narrow strip of land in Gaza, who have been engaged in the Great March of Return to demand an end to their 11-year long incarceration. Since March 30, 2018, Israeli forces have killed at least 217 Palestinian protesters and wounded more than 22,000 people.
In the end, it shows us conclusively that there is no room for any form of racism in any movement for justice. There can be no hierarchies of rights justified by preemptive assaults, no dehumanization of the other as a cultural or demographic contaminant, no cataloguing of human beings as collectively expendable. This is why Fred Moten talks about the “irreducible entanglement of blackness and indigeneity” and the “mutually resuscitative, (pre)occupied, blackpalestinian breath.”
The struggle against anti-Semitism is permanently intertwined with the fight against Islamophobia, settler colonialism, and imperial violence and encroachment. It’s not possible to pick apart and support one component versus another, and it’s our decision to commit to all, or nothing.
Conflicting dreams and realities: Amos Oz in Rochester [Mondoweiss, Apr 31, 2018]
I read Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness back in 2009. The book was a special gift for me, from a little boy I went to school with in Brussels many years ago. I remember he lent me a copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (a French translation of course) over a lazy summer in third or fourth grade. I never forgot that book and ended up discovering a hefty portion of Twain’s work later, in the original English, after my family moved back to Pakistan. We were both diligent students, we both loved books.
In his thirties my friend moved to Israel as a kind of lifelong commitment to the Zionist dream, something bigger than himself that provided a sense of purpose and clarity. I immigrated to the U.S. in my twenties, after I got married, and put down roots in the country’s Northeast. My friend and I had recently reconnected on social media, after some 20 odd years, and Oz’s book was what he chose to send me. Considered a magnum opus by one of Israel’s most beloved intellectuals, perhaps the book was a way for him to summate his own feelings for Israel.
The Zionist dream was very much on my mind when I went to listen to a lecture by Amos Oz in April, nine years later, in Rochester, New York, where he had been invited as the inaugural Farash Fellow for the Advancement of Jewish Humanities and Culture.
In fact, Oz’s lecture had to do with Zionism’s “conflicting dreams,” and although I had a fairly accurate idea of his politics, I was interested in how he would frame his presentation in the context of the weekly Israeli attacks on defenseless protestors in Gaza — Palestinians demanding to leave a densely populated ghetto of almost two million refugees, half of them children, in order to return home.
Oz started with Israel’s unique genesis, the only country in the world to emerge from a dream. I am skeptical of singular narratives generally, as human endeavor tends to multiply and flourish in infinite permutations, filling out all possible social molds and historical gaps, but this proclamation triggered a specific response in me. I was born in Pakistan, a country created in 1947 (not too long before the division of Palestine) to secure a separate homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. An ambitious dream, if ever there was one.
Oz spoke enthusiastically about the vast spectrum of Zionist dreams that included visions of reviving the good old days by creating an Eastern European shtetl in the Middle East; an Austro-Hungarian haven with red tiled roofs and good manners à la Theodor Herzl; a Marxist paradise where Stalin would be invited for a grand tour of the kibbutzim and die of happiness; a North European democracy modeled after Scandinavian countries; a semi-religious, social anarchist, loose federation of small communities; and finally some form of European colonialism.
Although many of these ideas were incongruous and contradictory, there was a common denominator, that “here in the land of our forefathers, our hopes would be fulfilled.”
I began to think of the dreams for Pakistan. There was, foremost, the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal’s hope for an Islamic reconstructionism that would galvanize Muslim intellectual life; Jinnah’s vision of a modern democracy grounded in Islamic socialism with equal rights for all, Choudhary Rahmat Ali’s creative imagining of South Asian geography as a continent similar to Europe with a multitude of autonomous nations, post-partition labor movements that saw Pakistan’s future in a communist light; literary debates about Urdu which examined Indo-Muslim selfhood and what that meant for the state’s four linguistically disparate provinces; and then there was the reality of how British colonialism birthed two postcolonial states imprinted with their own peculiar nationalist synthesis.
Oz speculated about whether Israel’s founders would be disappointed by its final manifestation, but he attributed such dissonance to the nature of dreams — reality is always flawed. I am a little harder on Pakistan and colonial partitions in general. The surveying and compartmentalization of natives into religio-ethnic silos, the deliberate creation of power imbalances within those administrative categories, and the carving up of nation-states based on colonial rather than indigenous logic, injected ethnonationalism into the DNA of these newly formed postcolonial polities, irrespective of their richly storied dreams.
Oz went on to describe Israel as a typical Mediterranean country, full of argumentative, passionate people who belong in a Fellini movie, rather than a Bergman philosophical drama. Israel is like Greece or Barcelona, perhaps it could be compared to North African countries but, he threw up his arms, “I’ve never been there.” It struck me that he didn’t mention Lebanon, the most vibrant Mediterranean country right next door, with intractable historical ties to Israel. It’s in line with how Israel locates itself in Europe, both intellectually and emotionally, while remaining physically enmeshed in the East.
Returning to dreams and ideological discrepancies, Oz extolled Israel’s lack of civil war. Although it was a divided family, he said, they all had the same last name — Zionism. Could nationalist purity be articulated any better, I thought. He chided other countries for infighting, naming the American civil war as an example of such a catastrophic national failure, and took pride in that no more than 80 Jews had been killed by other Jews (the exact context wasn’t clear to me).
Once again my mind began to race. The American civil war was bloody no doubt but hardly a misguided spat between family members. It ensured the end of slavery, one of the vilest crimes in human history, described by Frederick Douglass in these powerful words:
“I have shown that slavery is wicked—wicked, in that it violates the great law of liberty, written on every human heart—wicked, in that it violates the first command of the decalogue—wicked, in that it fosters the most disgusting licentiousness—wicked, in that it mars and defaces the image of God by cruel and barbarous inflictions—wicked, in that it contravenes the laws of eternal justice, and tramples in the dust all the humane and heavenly precepts of the New Testament.”
I am also wary of ranking human families (or nations) based on the number of persons they kill within their own community (or borders) versus those they murder outside of those racial or civil frontiers. All human life is equally sacrosanct if we are to believe our own religious and/or democratic ideals and, therefore, the true test of our greatness is simply how many we don’t massacre anywhere in the world.
Against Oz’s point that the Israeli civil war continued to be verbal and “civilized,” I wanted to juxtapose the barbaric treatment of indigenous Palestinians whose dehumanization and daily regulation have reached untenable limits. Could an escalation in violence be a fair price to pay in order to end 70 years of usurpation and human rights abuses, for almost half of the people who live between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River? Or should we concern ourselves exclusively with the Jewish population in that area? What would be more civilized?
Although Amos Oz hinted at his liberal politics, he never cared to delve into any details, urging the audience to check his views online. He decided to focus on a non-controversial Israeli dream instead, the revival of the Hebrew language.
After listing the standard tropes related to Israeli ingenuity and chutzpah (high tech nation, impressive military, Nobel prizes, desert in bloom), Oz homed in on Hebrew as Israel’s greatest achievement. He spoke about the long history of Hebrew literature, how it thrived under Islamic rule (those were better times, he emphasized repeatedly), and marveled at the language’s inner flexibility as well as the linguistic twists supplied by Jewish immigrants. Although he saw Palestinians as having some fluency in Hebrew, adding to its worldwide community of speakers, he failed to mention any worthwhile absorption of Arabic words into the language.
Diversity is fertile grounds for creativity, he concluded, but he seemed to drink in Jewish diversity only – all those German, Yiddish, Persian, Arabic, Russian, and Polish-speaking immigrants who used their prayer book to communicate with one another. He failed to draw a picture of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and people of other faiths and bloodlines, mixing together in a land used to multiplicities.
He held up Jews as consummate rebels, whose anarchist gene forces them to doubt, argue, and perpetually reexamine the truth. Yet when I looked around the room, that’s hardly what I saw. Oz’s lecture was a stunning success. The space was packed to the brim. There were fans standing against the back wall, students sitting on the floor, at Oz’s feet. The youth looked up at him with admiration, mesmerized by his warmth and wisdom. Older folks held his gaze with a sort of affection, as if they all knew he was speaking the truth, and were pleased with this intimate knowledge.
There was no Q&A, making it impossible to engage those difficult questions that Amos Oz had gracefully evaded. He ended with how the “clash” between Israelis and Palestinians was not an American Western, with good guys and bad guys. It’s not violence that’s evil per se, he claimed, but rather aggression. I wasn’t sure what that meant. No one challenged or rebelled. He walked out a hero.
I was left to reflect on the bonhomie of the event – a tacit accord between the hundreds who attended and organized that we were going to fete certain unilateral achievements whilst ignoring the foundation on which they were built. Of course, the same could be said of any settler colony, the U.S. being no exception. Whenever we convene to talk about American accomplishments, it would behoove us to preface those discussions with the land theft, genocide, and slavery that underpin the meaning of Americanness. It would shift the tenor of the conversation quite a bit.
The spectacle being enacted in Israel, in real time, can be unbearably grotesque. On May 12, an Israeli wins the Eurovision Song Contest (how does that geography even compute?) and Tel Aviv explodes in riotous public festivities, which are still ongoing on May 14, when at least 60 unarmed Palestinian protestors are killed in Gaza, a narrow strip of land where they’ve been held captive since 2007. The two cities are 50 miles apart. The U.S. Embassy is moved to Jerusalem that same Monday, Israel’s day of independence, which also signifies the beginning of the Palestinian Nakba — what made the Jewish settlement of Palestine possible. Such is the intransigent twinning of opposites that binds Israel to Palestine.
What is convivial and proper, and what is not? Feel-good lectures clearly are (with their comforting cadence, smooth consistency, and easy wash down), while blood and gore are not. It’s not just the dead, it’s also those whose bodies’ sanctity has been breached. How attached we become to our eyes, our arms, our legs. What must it feel like, what adjustments must be made, to have them torn from our bodies? These are not questions for polite company.
In Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film “Kandahar,” there is a haunting scene in which young Afghan men and boys with amputated legs, struggling with their crutches, rush to catch prosthetic limbs dropped by parachute, an ironic gift from the purveyors of war. A sky full of prosthetic limbs, a sky full of leaflets warning imprisoned Gazans to remain within their cage, the width of holes made in children’s bodies by butterfly bullets, what tear gas canisters do when they come into contact with the human face. Is it enough to tell ourselves the lie that “they brought this upon themselves and deserve everything they get”? In the end, how will we extricate ourselves from this surreal world we’ve organized? It might have become impossible already.
Meeting Adversity with Resistance [Socialist Worker, Apr 26, 2018]
ON APRIL 19, I had one of the most powerful and moving experiences. I was invited to be a commissioner at a truth commission organized by the Rochester Poor People’s Campaign, where we were privileged to listen to testimonies detailing stories of adversity and pain, but also of courage and resilience.
Some that hit me the hardest were:
-Courtney’s story of having a bachelor’s degree yet being unable to find work, of moving 17 times in five years in order to find employment, of being crushed by student loans while making $11 an hour and being unable to afford health care.
-Patrick from the Tenants and Homeless Rights Union, who articulated the hurt and shame of being homeless, and the desire to be heard and not only seen as a disembodied stereotype.
-Dorian’s story of having played in a contaminated brownfield as a kid while the city of Rochester kept that information secret, of gentrification taking over neighborhood after neighborhood, but local organizations coming together and pushing back by getting the developer to sign an agreement with the community, a first in Rochester’s history.
-Chris’ summary of the work being done by Enough Is Enough in order to enforce independent civilian review of complaints against Rochester police and disrupt a long history of unchecked, systemic brutality.
-Juan’s story of being thrown out of his home by his mother at the age of 15, of living in trains, parks and makeshift cardboard box shelters, until years later, he found his way to the House of Mercy, here in Rochester, New York.
-Ismael from Alianza Agricola who talked about working in freezing cold weather on a dairy farm for 78 hours a week and getting only one day off every two weeks. He gets no overtime. He pays into Social Security but will never be able to access any benefits. He does this arduous, underpaid work in order to support his mother and four siblings in Mexico.
-Ricardo who spoke about being incarcerated and the lifelong damage caused by the school to prison pipeline, a somewhat empty phrase that masks the violence it’s built on.
THE POOR People’s Campaign is a continuation of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Campaign of 1967-68 that sought economic justice for the poor and highlighted the need for solidarity.
The Campaign has now been revived in 41 states. It focuses on racism, poverty, militarism and environmental degradation, with the understanding that these systems are inextricably intertwined.
For me, the theme that ran through all the stories we heard that night is the dehumanization of people, the stripping away of their dignity. It reminded me of Edward Said’s work on Orientalism and how exploitative, colonial structures necessitate a hegemonic narrative about the other.
American imperialism continues to destroy humans and the environment in far-away countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, but the same kind of toxic colonialism can also be found here at home, where the lives of the poor and people of color are methodically othered and minimized.
As a Muslim from the Global South, I often feel invisibilized when America’s imperial war machine and its devastating impact on people of color outside the U.S., are separated from local issues of racial and economic marginalization.
It’s clear as a bell that as long as Black and Brown bodies in the world’s hinterlands are freely tortured, famished and incinerated, there is no chance of uprooting racism or poverty inside the American empire.
Once dehumanization is activated and a war declared on the racially and economically colonized, it’s bound to cross borders and impact all of us.
This process of othering is closely tied to capitalism–its ruthlessly extractive nature and its need for a serf class.
IN HIS article “Are We Entering an Era of Postmodern Serfdom?” David Rosen describes the idea of the “postmodern serf, an ever-growing number of citizens (and non-citizens) doomed to perpetual economic and social poverty–people stuck in a life of misery.”
He ascribes the creation of this class to America’s fraying global hegemony, the slipping away of the American Dream, the erosion of democracy on account of big money and voter suppression and the increasing militarization of law enforcement.
In fact, the connection between capitalism and poverty goes deeper. In his article, “Poverty is not a failure of capitalism, but its backbone,” John Bird explains how
poverty has often been seen, or put, or understood, as an aberrant piece of collateral damage wrought by an otherwise buoyant marketplace that all of us feed off and work in. Therefore it is seen as a bit of wobble in the system, and if we can only get Labour or Tory, Republican or Democrat, governments to look at it closely they will come up with policies that will ameliorate, or even eradicate much of its downside…The nasty reality is that we all need poverty to keep our costs down. Poverty is the backbone of contemporary capitalism, as it was in earlier versions of its form.”
Thankfully, as always, there’s hope and this is what the Poor People’s Campaign aims to galvanize.
Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, author of What If Latin America Ruled the World? points out how poverty “starts with plunder; it is man-made; it is a political issue. Poverty is not a complex economic issue best left to so-called experts with alleged bullet-proof policy solutions. History in fact shows time and again that poverty begins to end the moment poor people organize themselves and act politically to better their situation.”
In short, we can take down oppressive systems if we understand their common genesis and resist them together. Learn more and become a part of the Poor People’s Campaign. More here.
Their Silence about Ahed [Socialist Worker, Jan 10, 2018]
IN AN excellent article, published by Al Jazeera, Shenila Khoja-Moolji wonders why the West (including its stalwart feminists) have not been galvanized to protest and demand the release of a 16-year old Palestinian girl, Ahed Tamimi, detained by Israeli authorities for defending her home and family from Israeli soldiers, soon after they had shot her 15-year old cousin in the face with a rubber bullet.
Khoja-Moolji contrasts this egregious silence over the imprisonment of a clearly empowered girl, fighting for her rights under a brutal military occupation, with the massive global outcry that followed the Taliban’s attack on 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, back in 2012. Malala too was resisting the patriarchy by fighting for her right to education. Why this disparity in how these two acts of courage and feminist resistance were received and parsed by the West?
Khoja-Moolji explains the difference between normalized state-conducted violence (including American drones, Israeli rubber bullets or bombs, and police killings in the U.S.) and the uniformly denounced violence committed by non-state actors, such as the Taliban or Boko Haram. (In 2014, then-First Lady Michelle Obama took to Twitter to protest the abduction of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram).
Khoja-Moolji also talks about “bodies that matter” or have value versus those that don’t, creating a hierarchy of humanitarianism.
Finally, Ahed’s feminism is political (a direct challenge to settler colonialism), rather than based on sex and consumerism, a kind of liberation that does not seek to overturn or seriously damage the system.
ANOTHER ANALYTIC lens is particularly instructive here. It is provided by Sherene Razack’s astute unpacking of the torture and decade-long imprisonment at Guantanamo of 16-year old Omar Khadr, in her case study, “The Manufacture of Torture as Public Truth: The Case of Omar Khadr.”
Razack asks how in a democratic society where even spanking is seen as unacceptable violence, the prolonged torture of a Muslim child can become not only normalized, but part of a unifying moment for the West to rally against the East and turn the world into a battlefield.
She explains how “we reconcile ourselves to the cries of a boy locked up in Guantanamo” through two “blood narratives.”
The first depends on the stereotype of the Muslim as quintessentially anti-modern. It is based on the old colonial adage that natives can only understand force. They carry the “seeds of violence in their blood” and therefore nothing is more dangerous than the body of a child, with its budding potential for barbarity.
This line of thinking is particularly apparent in the Israeli state’s treatment of Palestinian children. It makes it possible for Israel to prosecute 500-700 children (some as young as 12) in military courts each year, imprison hundreds of Palestinian children in the Israeli prison system, and kill 1,800 children across the occupied Palestinian territories since the year 2000. This is also why the Israeli police demanded an extension of Ahed’s detention on the grounds that she “poses a danger.”
The second blood narrative is rooted in the same premise of inherent native violence but it appeals to the West’s nobler instincts, their civilizing mission, or “civilisatrice,” whereby interventions are launched in order to save Muslim children, particularly Muslim girls, from their own brutish cultures. Malala’s enthusiastic rescue and subsequent championing by Western leaders reinforce the West’s own self-image as benevolent intercessor.
Since Ahed and Malala exist within two separate, yet interdependent, constructs of reality, the Western elite’s doublethink is not surprising. Sherene Razack explicates how “each narrative enables white citizens to feel that they are the normative citizens who must defend themselves against racialized groups or who must engage in saving children of color who are salvageable.”
It might be an uphill battle to shame the Western elite into sabotaging their own narratives of superiority, but it is essential for those of us whose bodies “don’t matter” (because they are raced, gendered, disabled, classed, aged, exploited and oppressed) to look beyond dominant fictions and deploy our solidarity in uncompromising, meaningful ways. It is particularly urgent to unmask and stop the obscenity of state violence committed on the minds and bodies of our children. It’s nothing less than a matter of survival. More here.
Standing Rock is What Democracy Looks Like [Socialist Worker, Jan 3, 2017]
Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement permit needed by Energy Transfer Partners to drill underneath the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to complete a critical phase of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
While the Army Corps’ decision isn’t a final victory that guarantees the end of the pipeline, it is a major step forward that came as a result of determined resistance by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and thousands of their supporters who traveled to North Dakota to join the protest encampments. MaraAhmed.com, describes her delegation’s trip from Rochester, New York, to Standing Rock–and what she learned along the way., an artist and filmmaker who blogs at
A LITTLE after Thanksgiving break, I got a message from my friend Deborah Duguid-May, a priest at Trinity Episcopal Church here in Rochester, New York. She wanted to know if I’d join her and eight other Episcopalians (a group including three priests and two teenagers) on a trip to Standing Rock, North Dakota, to visit the protest camps set up to stop the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
DAPL is a $3.8 billion project expected to carry 470,000 barrels of crude oil, every day, from the Bakken fields in North Dakota and Montana all the way down to Illinois. Originally, the pipeline was slated to be laid north of Bismarck, but it was redirected towards Sioux tribal nations in order to protect Bismarck’s water supply wells.
Sioux water protectors had been camping at the Standing Rock Reservation since April 2016, asking for a rerouting of the pipeline away from their water and sacred sites. They had been joined by protesters and tribal nations from around the world, who saw the pipeline as a violation of Indigenous rights.
We were to leave Rochester on Sunday, December 4, drive through the night and arrive at Standing Rock on Monday, stay for two days, and then start the journey back home on Wednesday.
The day of our arrival, December 5, was significant. It was the day North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple had ordered a mandatory evacuation of Oceti Sakowin, the largest encampment north of the Cannonball River.
A showdown was expected that day between law enforcement and the 4,000 people living in teepees and yurts at Oceti Sakowin. They had managed to share a sacred fire under Arctic conditions and create a strong and well-organized community, but continued to be under threat.
Hundreds of protesters had been arrested since the summer, many under brutal circumstances due to the disproportionate and largely militarized response by local police and sheriff’s deputies.
In view of this violence, thousands of U.S. military veterans were planning to gather at the camp on December 4, in order to form a human shield around Indigenous water protectors and their allies. We wanted to be a part of that collective resistance.
THE TRIP seemed daunting to say the least, but we all saw this moment of solidarity with Native peoples as transformative and historic, and so we embarked on our journey–seven women in a van and three men in a car–with a generous collection of supplies for the camp and backpacks and food for the road.
Being the only Muslim on the trip and knowing that the Standing Rock protest was completely nonviolent and deeply prayerful, I took verses from the Holy Quran with me. Verses from Surah Fussilat describe the power of good deeds to forge friendships where none existed before, and those from Surah Al-Hujurat talk about the diversity of nations and tribes, so that they may accept and recognize one another, and about how the most righteous amongst us is most honorable in the eyes of God.
We drove nonstop for more than 24 hours, through Pennsylvania and Ohio, across Indiana to Chicago, followed by Wisconsin, and then through Minnesota, to North Dakota and beautiful-sounding names like Absaraka and Spiritwood.
We hadn’t gone far when we started getting texts from friends telling us about how after six months of resistance at Standing Rock, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had finally denied an easement for DAPL.
We were delighted but decided to continue. After hundreds of years of broken promises, constant infringements on Indigenous sovereignty, land and resources and the violation of some 500 treaties, it made sense to take government concessions with a healthy dose of skepticism.
I recalled an article by Jack Healy in the New York Times which starts with 76-year-old Verna Bailey reminiscing about how her home and community were lost when their land was inundated by the Army Corps’ Oahe Dam project on the Missouri River, “part of a huge mid-century public-works project approved by Congress to provide electricity and tame the river’s floods.”
The project, Healy writes, was “a cultural catastrophe, residents and historians say. It displaced families, uprooted cemeteries and swamped lands where tribes grazed cattle, drove wagons and gathered wild grapes and medicinal tea.”
DAPL is to be dug underneath a dammed section of the same Missouri River. This is why David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, explains to Healy that the pipeline is causing his people to experience a trauma that is “a residual effect of 1958, when the floods came.”
WE HIT a snowstorm as soon as we reached North Dakota. The snow was heavy, the roads barely plowed. We continued to drive, straining to see where we were going. Someone mentioned Harry Potter, and how the scene reminded them of King’s Cross Station and its symbolism in the book, a crossroad between what is real and otherworldly, between life and death.
Utility poles were somewhat visible and lent some interest to an otherwise blank canvas. The dried-up grass along the sides of the road took advantage of this empty space, poking its head through layers of snow and creating line after line of mysterious calligraphy. A brand new script just for us.
Unfortunately, the blizzard didn’t yield, and we were forced to get off the highway and check into a hotel near Bismarck. Strong winds, freezing temperatures, poor visibility, and horizontal blowing and drifting snow continued the next day.
Portions of major highways were closed, and there were reports of numerous accidents, but we were able to drive to Rev. John Floberg’s house in Bismarck, for some coffee and pie, Italian food for dinner and enlightening discussions about the situation at Standing Rock.
Floberg is council member and supervising priest of the Episcopal churches on the North Dakota side of Standing Rock. Originally from Norway, with Indigenous Sami ancestry, his house is filled with paintings and mementos alluding to his roots.
My first thought was about the conflict and difficult history between Christianity and Native American cultures. In the astonishing documentary We Still Live Here, Jessie Little Doe Baird dreams of her Wampanoag ancestors (a tribe that hails from what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island) speaking to her in their native tongue, a language lost to her people for more than 100 years.
The film is about Baird’s incredible quest to revive her ancestral language. It is an irony that translations of the Bible into Wampanoag, an important part of the destructive process of supplanting Native cultures and belief systems with Christianity, become a crucial resource for Baird’s work.
But Father John seemed to be well entrenched in the local Indigenous community. He lived on the reservation for many years and raised his children there. He was well aware of Native American history and became emotional when sharing the words of Standing Rock elder Phyllis Young, who had declared peace with the U.S. military and forgiven the American government for the assassinations of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
This was the second time we witnessed a rugged, older man tear up when recounting their experiences at Standing Rock. While in Bismarck, and later at Oceti Sakowin, we witnessed a constant stream of army veterans filing into North Dakota and maintaining a presence at the camp. We had the opportunity to talk to one of them at length, at our hotel.
His voice broke when he tried to explain the spirituality he had felt at the camp. It was clear that Sioux beliefs had sparked and shaped the No DAPL movement–traditions, beliefs and ritual practices that had been banned for more than 50 years, until the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
JOHN FLOBERG promised to drive us to Oceti Sakowin the following day, before we set out for Rochester. He was insistent that it be in four-wheel drive trucks.
The next morning, we started on our much-anticipated pilgrimage from Bismarck to Standing Rock. The reservation, swathed in snow and ice, was stark and beautiful, and the road to the camps narrow. There were countless cars stuck in ditches and summarily abandoned along the way. Towing companies seemed to be doing brisk business there.
In our conversations with Father John, we tried to learn as much as we could about life on the Standing Rock Reservation. The picture that emerged was disturbing.
Unemployment is as high as 79 percent, with an attendant poverty rate of 43.2 percent, and there are severe social problems, including gender-based violence, elevated suicide and high school dropout rates, food insecurity, low access to education and health care, and inconsistent access to electricity and running water.
Alcoholism has had a 100 percent impact on the Indigenous community, in that everyone is affected by it either directly or indirectly. The connection between alcoholism and settler colonialism is particularly striking for Native populations based in the Plains, as they had no knowledge of alcohol prior to the arrival of the Europeans, when it became an essential part of trade with fur trappers, merchants, miners and the military.
Floberg mentioned how George Custer’s death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 was still vivid in the minds of many white North Dakotans, and this explained some of the racism and hate directed at Native Americans. On the other hand, the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 continued to bear down on the Lakota community. He called it multigenerational trauma.
As we drove across the reservation to the camps, I was constantly mesmerized by the beauty of the land, its allure and intensity. I returned to Jessie Little Doe Baird’s mission to honor her ancestors in We Still Live Here.
In order to reconstruct the Wampanoag language, she consulted a large number of legal documents, submitted meticulously by her people, in their own language, to Boston courts, asking the government to honor its treaties and stop the theft of their land.
The Wampanoag did not have horses or carriages, and therefore, their feet were in sustained contact with the earth. In the Wampanoag language, the expression for losing one’s land can only be translated in English as “falling away,” for when the earth is taken from under one’s feet, one can no longer be grounded in or anchored to the world. It’s a descent into nothingness.
AS WE reached the entrance to the Oceti Sakowin Camp, I felt overwhelming emotion. This place had galvanized aboriginal peoples from across the planet to come together and make connections between the environment, Indigenous rights, settler colonialism, the theft of land and water, capitalism, its suicidal excesses, and the power of prayerful and principled resistance.
Standing Rock is not only a template for solidarity, intersectionality and grassroots organizing and action, but it also offers us hope. It articulates an alternative way of being, one that is non-violent, deeply connected to the Earth as well as other living things and creatures.
On a trip to the Grand Canyon, I had bought a book by Stephen Hirst entitled “I Am the Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People.” In the introduction, Hirst explains succinctly how European culture collided with that of the Americas.
Peoples of the “New World” saw themselves as being integrated into nature and belonging to it. In contrast, the Europeans saw themselves as free agents. They came armed with the Book of Genesis and the understanding that nature belonged to them. Perhaps that’s why evolution continues to be a contentious subject–because it, too, asserts human subordination to nature, to the animal kingdom.
As we were to leave for Rochester that day, we stayed very briefly at the camp. We helped move some firewood for the medics and later sat by the sacred fire in order to be still and meditate.
On the way back, we talked about our reflections. My friend Melanie Duguid-May, who had taken copious notes throughout our interactions with Father John, reminded us that he had urged us to find out whose land we were living on and then forge relationships with those tribes.
As an immigrant, I have always felt like a settler on Native American land. I have longed for the permission of Indigenous communities to be on their territory. For me, this trip was a lot about seeking that acceptance, and so our work would continue once we got home.
Father John reminded us that democracy is not about elections but about people. On our way to Standing Rock, he stopped his truck, without a second thought, in order to tow a car out of a ditch. We got out to help push it together and once the car was back on the road, we felt a strong sense of exhilaration. Everywhere we went, we saw people volunteering to help and feeling responsible for one another.
After 38 hours of being on the move, driving straight from Bismarck to Rochester, contending with three different snowstorms, and maneuvering scantily plowed roads and closed highways, we got back home to New York.
The trip itself became an important lesson for us. It taught us that sharing everything and living by consensus decision-making can be hard. It requires patience and frequent negotiation, but it can be done. Maybe it’s a model that’s less clean-cut, more time consuming, and seemingly less efficient, in corporate parlance, but in the end we were richer for it and more equally served by it. Isn’t that what democracy should be all about?
Time to Boycott the Democrats [Socialist Worker, Oct, 24, 2016]
IT’S LIKE clockwork–every four years, the U.S. presidential elections kick in and unleash a spate of summary unfriendings on social media. This year in particular, the country is seized with a paroxysm of fear, and any sign that a so-called leftist is implicitly supporting Donald Trump by not voting for Hillary Clinton leads to colorful displays of righteousness by keyboard warriors.
The scourge of “lesser evilism” has resurfaced, without the necessary contextualization that voting for subpar politicians consistently is exactly what has brought us to this juncture in history and made Trump’s political genesis possible.
Police brutality, mass incarceration, the breakup of families via record deportations, pre-emptive wars, remote-control wars, dirty wars, the deepening of the surveillance state and the widening of economic disparity, the continuing corporatization of the government and the poisoning and pillaging of the planet–these didn’t just start with Bush or slow down during Obama’s presidency. If anything, these policies were turned up a notch over the last eight years.
In his discerning article “Neoliberalism–the ideology at the root of all our problems,” George Monbiot describes how the idea of competition forms the core of neoliberal ideology:
It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
Regulation of competition, expansion of government services taxes, or even the existence of trade unions are seen as impediments to efficiency and freedom. Inequality becomes a virtue, as it reflects the indisputable justice of the free market, with dire economic, social and political consequences:
As the domain of the state is reduced, our ability to change the course of our lives through voting also contracts. Instead, neoliberal theory asserts, people can exercise choice through spending. But some have more to spend than others: In the great consumer or shareholder democracy, votes are not equally distributed. The result is a disempowerment of the poor and middle. As parties of the right and former left adopt similar neoliberal policies, disempowerment turns to disenfranchisement. Large numbers of people have been shed from politics.
THIS HAS been going on since the 1980s, and we are seeing some of the most clear-cut cumulative consequences of this rightward movement in the present elections.
It’s important to remember that Bill Clinton’s eight years in power did nothing to reverse, or indeed stall, this neoliberal shift. His strategy was to appeal to middle-class Republicans, not embrace liberal principles of social justice and egalitarianism–hence the drive to dismantle welfare, produce a crime bill that would assuage the white middle class while wreaking havoc on Black families, cheerlead free trade, push through NAFTA and deregulate Wall Street.
Although Hillary Clinton cannot be fully implicated in these disastrous policies, it is good to remember Hillarycare and Travelgate, and acknowledge that her role as First Lady went far beyond White House niceties.
As senator, Clinton famously voted for the Iraq War, one of the most shameful crimes against humanity in modern history. Then, as secretary of state, she led the military campaign in Libya with high-spirited abandon, supported the coup in Honduras and continued to spew retrograde rhetoric about Iran. In terms of domestic policy, too, Clinton is the out-of-touch, corporate-sponsored establishment to Bernie Sanders’ grassroots revolution.
Our choice is clear. It’s true that the Electoral College distorts democracy, but what’s the point of voting at all if one cannot support the policies one wants? What if those policies cannot be found in the highly circumscribed two-party system? Was this what the Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to achieve? Was this what the fight for women’s suffrage was all about? Lesser evilism and the compromised calculus of who can win?
But more than that, it’s time to boycott the Democratic Party and its apparatchiks. Clinton’s blatant condescension, her description of Sanders supporters as “baristas” and disillusioned nobodies “living in their parents’ basement” who need a political revolution to reboot their self-worth, and finally her own estimation of “occupying the center-left to the center-right,” should be enough grounds for a final divorce.
The Democratic Party doesn’t care about liberal concerns. They sabotaged Sanders, their own candidate, because he was not properly aligned with neoliberal values. This is why rather than rally disaffected liberals, they choose to focus on Trump’s following. They should not be able to count on our votes, come what may, every four years.
On a more personal note, I have to confess that what scares me as much as Trump’s racism and misogyny (I know something about that, I am a woman of color, an immigrant to this country with a Muslim last name) is Clinton’s impermeable cult following.
Lesser evilism is one thing but hardcore Clintonism is another. The complete break from reality (couched in inclusive, feminist language), the privileged belief that as long as we recycle our trash and drive fuel-efficient cars, we are going to be okay, and the lack of empathy with the pain we create in the world and at home, astonishes me.
This criminal indifference is embodied by the “Pantsuit Power” flash-mob video for Hillary Clinton. It’s a particularly troubling skill to cover up real-life stink with well-choreographed dance and peppy music, and make oneself believe that everything’s hunky-dory.
Let’s not forget that however reprehensible Trump’s words (or life) might be, Hillary Clinton has been responsible for the destruction of entire societies. That’s a far more vile obscenity.
Trump hates Black and Brown people, Clinton incinerates them. Trump is a sexual predator, Clinton is an imperialist one, who gets women like Honduran indigenous and environmental rights activist Berta Cáceres exposed to murder. Trump is a scam artist, Clinton is a fraud who profited off of the most vulnerable people in Haiti in the aftermath of a gruesome disaster. Is this the kind of experience third party candidates are supposed to lack?
The thing is, it’s not morally viable to prop up the status quo anymore. As to the rest, que sera sera.
White Feminists/Black Blobs [Countercurrents, Mar 21, 2016]
My friend expressed her strong visceral reaction to the five anonymous blobs. She was referring to a photograph I had posted on social media, in which I stood with five women wearing the niqab, at a conference in Upstate New York. My white feminist friend was convinced we were witnessing oppression. She was particularly galled by the fact that these women were academics. She mentioned how Camille Paglia, Betty Friedan and Hillary Clinton have interesting interactions with strangers because we all know what they look like. How are we supposed to communicate with blobs?
One of the formative words of my childhood is the Urdu word meyana ravi which means the middle path or the way of moderation. My mother invoked it frequently by reminding us that it was a concept loved deeply by the Prophet Muhammad. He lived by it in both small and monumental ways. For example, his advice to eat with temperance, just short of satiating one’s hunger, always struck me as universally profound. Islam’s take on wealth is equally sensible. Although charity is a religious obligation and humility is part of Islam’s DNA, one is urged to live well, meaning no ascetic renunciation of worldly pleasures, no monastic reclusion, no self-imposed austerity. Every society exists along a normative socio-political spectrum, but within the prevalent moral and legal code, we are free to exercise our judgment and express ourselves fully. The golden rule in the midst of such freedom is moderation.
When I walked into a symposium about cultural identity and religious beliefs, organized under the aegis of interfaith dialogue, my thoughts returned to meyana ravi and its centrality in Islam. University professors and educators from Muslim countries had been invited to present their papers. Most of them were from Saudi Arabia and the majority women. I am familiar with the Saudi abaya, a black overcoat worn on top of clothing, not unlike a Moroccan djellaba or a long kaftan, but I was taken aback by the full facial veiling. I couldn’t help but think what a severe take that was on modesty. I felt for the women as the room was uncomfortably warm. One of them looked at me and laughed as she tried to fan herself with the lower section of her veil, a moving part that fell over her nose and mouth. As we went around the room and introduced ourselves, it became clear that many of the men at the symposium were not educators. They were either the husbands or sons of the female professors. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to travel alone. At lunchtime, the women didn’t join the rest of the group. They found a private room where they could take off their veils and eat comfortably.
The papers that were read at the conference were structured around a utopian Islamic paradigm which had very little to do with reality. For this reason, they were almost entirely indistinguishable. They quoted freely from the Quran, stressed the necessity to respect other religions (there is no compulsion in religion), and advocated compassion and tolerance towards religious minorities according to Islamic protocol. The discussions sparked by these papers were more informative. They used culture and religion interchangeably, thus anchoring “Muslim culture” to one specific way of being, which because Islamic, was clearly the best.
An Indonesian professor intervened with a thought-provoking presentation, in which he stressed the idea that culture was human-made and therefore not monolithic. Religion outlines certain basic values which culture subsumes. As an example, he offered the basic tenet of modesty in women’s clothing, which meant that women shouldn’t go around wearing bikinis but, within reasonable parameters, they could decide what modesty meant to them. This argument was followed by a short deliberation on how women should dress and what the Quran and Sunnah reveal on the matter, but some of the women brought the debate to a felicitous close.
As I got to know the women more, the stark visuality of the veil began to wear off. They greeted me with kisses on the cheek, very similar to how the French se font la bise. They took selfies with my Bosnian American friend and I, and were keen to post everything online. I don’t cover my hair and my friend wears a hijab but does not veil fully. They didn’t seem to have a problem with either one of us. I noticed the close relationship between one of the women and her teenage son, who had taken time off from college to accompany her on this trip. They were academics, mothers, opinionated Muslims, women of color, finicky dressers, social media aficionados, and our sisters in the struggle against patriarchy.
The struggle against patriarchy, that’s what I kept coming back to – how it is twofold for women who belong to disenfranchised communities. On the one hand we must contend with white men in suits, with long histories of imperial profiteering, sitting calmly in boardrooms, instituting laws that control the Maghrebian woman’s body. We have white women who in their haste to diagnose oppression, marginalize further by dehumanizing and isolating what is not in line with their ideas of female emancipation. Then we have the struggle within our own communities, where patriarchy, conservative tradition, and autocratic political structures have brewed a lethal mix. These factors are not disconnected from history and global politics of course. Saudi Arabia is a particularly good example of how the West remains complicit in the repression of Arab self-expression. Close military ties between the United States and the Saudi regime ensure just that.
The obvious links between staggering Western wealth and centuries of imperial conquest and plunder are not mentioned in polite society. Yet there they are. Colonialism reinforced and intensified patriarchal structures in colonized lands and present day imperial wars continue to perpetuate that status quo. White feminists tend to overlook these interdependencies, i.e. some of the economic, legal and sexual freedoms enjoyed by Western women are an indirect result of imperial expansion and profit. These disparities are not natural, they have to be maintained by military force and tyrannical financial structures.
How we dress is an important signifier of identity. In her email, my friend kept referring to the veiled women’s fashion choice and how she had more sympathy for the hijab versus the niqab. But attire goes beyond fashion. It is intimately linked to how we want to project ourselves in the world, it can embody religious or cultural affiliations, it can speak of race, gender and economic class, it provides functionality and protection. The depersonalization of the niqab or burka is often pointed out, but perhaps it is no more homogenizing than the cheap, ready-to-wear clothing manufactured in Bangladesh and Vietnam, under precarious conditions, and thrust upon us by fashion retail every single season.
In order to delve more into covering up and how it interacts with identity, I interviewed another white friend of mine, an activist whose politics aim to be trans-inclusive and whiteness-decentralizing. She started wearing the hijab six months ago. She talked about unquestioned whiteness (accompanied by unquestioned privilege) versus contentious whiteness (which includes people of diverse racial backgrounds passing as white). As a trans woman and a white hijabi, she finds herself mostly on the side of contentiousness – whether it be whiteness, Muslimness or femininity. On top of practical benefits such as not having to worry about one’s hair, she feels that the hijab provides her a sense of security. She embraces the scarf as a symbol of femininity, as well as the modesty and humility she has learned to associate with Islam, but she doesn’t have much use for its oppressive connotations. How do strangers react to her? TSA agents are obviously interested in inspecting her headgear but generally speaking, reactions to her scarf have been neutral – some antagonism but also incidents of heightened chivalry from men. In any case, she told me she was so over the “mystical powers” of the hijab, she wears it as a matter of routine, a habit, an extension of who she is.
To assume that a piece of cloth wrapped around one’s head can spell the complexities of subjugation (or liberation) is astonishingly reductive.
In the early 1990s, the New York based Pakistani artist, Shahzia Sikander, donned an elaborate lace veil for a few weeks in order to record people’s reactions. What fascinated her was her own relationship to the veil – the sense of security and control she experienced by being able to test society’s behavior, whilst being protected from its gaze.
The principle of the male gaze is a cornerstone of feminist theory. Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir and Hélène Cixous have written extensively about the duality patriarchy creates whereby woman is positioned as the opposite of man, as his inferior or the other. Woman becomes the object of the male gaze and therefore begins to exist only as a body, not an autonomous being possessing both mind and soul as well as physicality. This objectification places oppressive limits on a woman’s agency and dictates a divide between the private and public spheres. Women need to be contained in private spaces and are banished from or invisibilized in public arenas.
How ironic then that although Eurocentric feminists understand the meaning of the male gaze, they are much less sensitive to the power of their own gaze and the objectification of women they see primarily as bodies, as the physical representation of the backward exotic.
The split between the private and public is meaningful here. As in France, most Western feminists are keen on ejecting the visually non-Western other (women in burqas or headscarves being its most obvious manifestation) from public spaces. It’s as if the liberal feminist imaginary cannot exist in conjunction with an Oriental manifestation of what it might mean to be a woman, unless it is in opposition to it – it must strive to dominate and efface in order to define itself.
It’s important to remember, however, that it is precisely in shared public locations that diverse cultural encounters happen, where we learn to dialogue and function as a vibrant society of equally empowered citizens. My feminist friend thought the women’s niqabs were inhibiting their ability to communicate, but state policing of communal spaces can isolate and exclude in a way that clothing most certainly cannot.
Excluding and alienating for purposes of integration is a pretty obvious oxymoron, yet this type of faulty logic is embraced happily as a manifestation of solidarity. There is a difference between paternalism and solidarity. In the words of Australian Aboriginal artist and activist Lilla Watson:
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
Let us strive to learn one another’s histories, cultures, political realities and forms of struggle. Let us have the courage to recognize the racist infrastructure undergirding global power imbalances and our complicity in systems of dominance. Let us forge alliances that are respectful of difference and politically evolved. Gender justice is only one component of the broader struggle for racial and economic justice as well as queer and transgender rights. Let us confront these inequities simultaneously, exhaustively, mindfully. Exclusion is not an option.
Terror Hub or Empire Of Fear [Countercurrents, Jan 7, 2016]
A wonderful housewarming party the day after New Year’s, in a Rochester suburb covered with bright, powdery snow. A diverse group of guests – musicians, poets and academics, but also physicians and lawyers, neighbors, grandmothers, Indian, Iranian, Russian, Belgian, and of course, everyone soundly American. The hors d’oeuvres are splendid, I assume that the wine is good, the conversation flows.
In the midst of preliminary introductions and stories about work, the subject of terrorism comes up. It’s to be expected. Rochester has just experienced the latest terror plot in which a socially marginalized Muslim man with a history of mental illness was bulldozed by the FBI into planning an attack, and then quickly arrested. New Year’s fireworks were cancelled and Rochester joined the ranks of global metropolises like Paris and New York City. The excitement didn’t last long though, as the sad details of a local panhandler’s entrapment became known.
“Why has Belgium become a terror hub?” someone asks. There is some discomfort, some evasion, but the question is repeated several times. The Belgian guest explains how things have changed over time. We talk about Molenbeek, a municipality of some 95,000 people in the Belgian capital, an area inhabited by Muslims and North Africans, the alleged suburb “at the heart” of the Paris attacks. I express my displeasure at stereotyping entire neighborhoods for the actions of a few. I remember some of my Moroccan and Algerian friends at the Lycée Emile Jacqmain in Brussels. They might have been from Molenbeek. It wasn’t on the radar in those days, not newsworthy enough.
We discuss the social inequities that exist in many European cities, the impossibility for second and third generation, non-white immigrants to be absorbed by the mainstream, the high rates of unemployment and crime, the clustering of poverty, and the geography of racist segregation whereby central Paris becomes a foreign country to those relegated to the banlieues. Disaffection does not need to be imported from abroad, it’s borne of systemic, multigenerational discrimination.
Someone marvels at Europe’s difficulties with immigrants in light of the relative success we’ve had here in the United States. I mention Black Lives Matter and the ongoing war on American black men. But they’re not immigrants, I’m told. Indeed, they’ve been here forever and they’ve built this country, yet the projects look incredibly similar to the banlieues. Could racism be a point of intersection?
In an interview with Bill Moyers, in November 1988, Derek Walcott spoke about the appalling ghettoes of America, about the “colony” which exists within the empire. He said it might have something to do with denying the responsibility of being an empire, not just a global empire but also a domestic one.
This denial of empire creates endless confusion in American political discourse and lends itself to dangerous manipulation. It’s astonishing that the American public, protected by the mightiest military juggernaut in human history, is constantly afraid.
Al Qaeda, and now ISIS, can strike fear into the American heart in a way that is completely out of whack with reality. After all, it’s our military power that continues to flatten countries and kill innumerable people in the Global South, in invisible, largely privatized, open-ended wars, not the other way around.
The discussion at this lively party, organized by a dear friend, leaves me unsettled. I come home to find an article about Molenbeek in the Socialist Worker. It sounds all too familiar. In the piece, dated November 2015, Belgian activist Farida Aarrass describes heavy police presence in the area. There are frequent house raids, blatant profiling and use of racist language. These problematic dynamics with law enforcement remind me of inner city Rochester.
Aarrass explains how every terrorist incident or so-called plot is used to escalate repression. The media join in cheerfully by beating the drum of “jihad” and in the world outside of Molenbeek, there’s steady harassment and Islamophobia. People are frightened. Their fears are legitimate, grounded in a threatening reality, in which their homes and physical sense of security are routinely violated.
Americans, on the other hand, are 353 times more likely to die from a fall, while cleaning their gutters or putting up Christmas lights, than from a terror intrigue. But even those odds are not satisfactory. The policing of thought, preemptive arrests, the profiling of minorities, even the targeting of the mentally ill, are all permissible in the quest for perfect security. The rest of the world knows that such a quest is bound to fail and that fear is a miserable way to live. Let’s hope we catch on soon.
The Paris Attacks: Should France Rain Flowers [Roc City News, Dec 1, 2015]
“Once again we’ve seen an outrageous attempt to terrorize innocent civilians. This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.” -President Obama, November 13.
I love Paris. I was there last Christmas. The weather was mild spring weather for us Rochesterians. The city was all lit up, festive, alive. On our first day in Paris, my husband and I attended Sunday Mass at Notre Dame de Paris, then joined our kids for dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, owned by an Iranian, where we had delicious makanek and manouche.
Every day, the Eiffel Tower would begin to shimmer at dusk, and we’d head to the Christmas market along the Champs-Elysées. There’s nothing like churros and a hot drink on a cold winter night. Children would be ice-skating in a small, makeshift rink with plenty of cheerful music to induce a camel spin or two.
Our kids wanted to take a look at the elusive Mona Lisa, so we did that, as well as partake of the ostentatious gold at the Chateau de Versailles. But my favorite place continues to be Montmartre. The Sacré-Coeur is always magical and the views from the hill stunning. We met some friends at a restaurant and felt perfectly happy and at home.
Yet after the Paris attacks on November 13 and the facile discourse in mainstream media, I have to ask myself: Why is Paris the city of love and lights rather than the capital of the brutal French Empire? Why do Parisians represent humanity more than the Lebanese whose lives were extinguished in suicide attacks the day before?
Why are French values better than Turkish values? An equally horrible bombing in Ankara, just a month earlier, targeted Turkish lives and values, after all.
I am reminded of Rachid Ouaissa’s perspicuous essay “Frantz Fanon: The Empowerment of the Periphery,” in which he talks about how “the so-called globalization, with its new forms of domination and exploitation under the auspices of the IMF and World Bank as well as the speculative economy, drives masses towards a kind of chronic marginality, promoting the emergence of violent peripheries.”
In the same way, and even more dramatically, war transfers chaos and violence from the center, the fortified First World, to Third World hinterlands. It’s nothing new. The Bush doctrine aimed for this kind of transference in clear, concise words: the need to fight them over there, so we don’t have to face them here.
Before adopting the mind-numbing language of “us vs. them,” it’s essential to go back to Fanon and his apt analysis that “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.” Indeed, let’s try and imagine France without Algeria, or the British Empire without India, or Belgium without the Congo, or the United States without genocide and slavery. The Global North exists as it is now because of the Global South and what it is now. Their histories, psychologies, and present-day realities are deeply imbricated and cannot be so easily untangled.
Unfortunately, rather than acknowledge, unknot, and begin to resolve some of the complexities of these centuries-old power hierarchies and the damage they continue to inflict, we prefer to bury our heads deeper in the sand and talk in childish binaries of good and evil or the clash of civilizations.
Whenever systemic violence, which created and sustains the current world order, spills into the First World, it is received with incredible shock and outrage. Why are we not cognizant of similar atrocities happening on a daily basis in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or Somalia – places that we invade, occupy, drone, and decimate without a second thought?
Why is the solution to any act of aggression, the reflexive bombing of civilians on the periphery, usually described in the aggregate as a “war zone” or “ISIS headquarters”? And why is this kind of generic revenge accepted, if not embraced, by all – this mind-blowing logic of bombing Syria as a solution to every problem and then refusing to shelter Syrian refugees fleeing the war?
I am Pakistani-American, and I am unceasingly stunned by the reactions I see on social media, where well-meaning Pakistani citizens ask questions like “What do you expect France to do? Rain flowers?” This detachment of France from its past and present imperial exertions, this divorcement of violence from power and empire, this split between the center and the periphery, is all the more problematic when it’s parroted by the Global South.
Yet in a way it makes perfect sense. The Third World too has its centers and peripheries. When a small group of Taliban forced their way into a school and massacred children in the Pakistani city of Peshawar in 2014, the process of mourning this incomprehensible horror became laced with bloodthirsty vengeance.
My social media newsfeed was flooded with images of lynched men. “Terror suspects must be hanged within 24 hours,” perfectly nice people declared. A Pakistani woman, holding a toddler in her profile picture, urged the Pakistani army to “kill them all, kill their neighbors, kill their friends, kill anyone who gives them bread, kill anyone who offers them shelter….” She went on for an entire paragraph. In Pakistan, too, it is okay to sacrifice the indigent, voiceless, faceless people on the periphery, in North Waziristan, in order to ensure safety for the privileged center.
And so it is with the killing of young black men in America, whom a militarized police force must “contain” to make life safer/whiter on the right side of the tracks.
I recently completed a documentary film about the partition of India in 1947. A few days ago, right after the Paris attacks, I was thinking about the parallels between the partition and what happened in Palestine in 1947-48. One overwhelming similarity was that both events are unquestionably embedded in colonialism.
I was reading about the Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire in 1916, how it was strongly encouraged by the British, but after the war was won, the Arab people were not granted independence. On the contrary, the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed secretly, and the Middle East was divided into British and French spheres of influence. I couldn’t help but think of another, much more recent Arab uprising which was crushed by harsher dictatorships, military interventions, perpetual civil strife, and proxy wars.
As Michel Foucault would say, the past is never dead. It continues to haunt us, control us, define us. We must use it to understand our present but most importantly, most urgently, to come up with a better world.
Love In The Time Of Cholera And Hélène Cixous [Countercurrents, Jun 17, 2014]
As I finished reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” for the second time in my life, I was left with much to think about. It’s a book about a love affair between Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza that spans over half a century. It starts with fervent love letters in their early youth, becomes one-sided when Fermina loses interest and Florentino continues to be single-mindedly devoted to her (whilst engaging in a wildly promiscuous love life), and resumes 53 years later in their old age when Fermina’s husband dies in a freak accident and Florentino reasserts his undying passion for her.
I love Marquez’s captivating storytelling: the shifts in time, the multivarious voices in which the story is told, the evolution of the main characters in all their complexity and quirkiness and humanness, the subplots and supporting characters which create a rich and contrasting tapestry, the undeniable beauty of his language and the fecundity of his imagination. I appreciate the subtle yet indispensable political context which forms the book’s backdrop: colonialism, civil wars, disease, the splitting of society along economic and racial lines which extend to institutional religion, progress and environmental degradation, poverty and other structures of social violence.
Marquez breathes life into the unnamed Caribbean city where the story takes place (ostensibly Cartagena, Colombia) with his masterly depiction of its streets and neighborhoods, it flora and fauna, its smells and superstitions, its riverboats and people. The book is a treatise on love, the oppression of old age and the social stigma attached to aging, and the ridiculous capriciousness of death.
Love is explored in all its convolutions: platonic love and the possibility of friendship between a man and a woman, romantic idealized love, the profundity of conjugal love, physical, transient or depraved love, love as a sickness (with symptoms similar to cholera), love as a violation and obsession, love as a cure, love as the ultimate raison d’être.
I agree completely with the knotty and evasive nature of love, but as a woman, some of the narrative details made me deeply uncomfortable. Florentino Ariza struck me less as a heroic personification of romantic love and more as a creepy, obsessive-compulsive seducer who is able to garner our sympathy for his “cause” while surrendering to all his instincts. It is casually mentioned, in one line, that he, who had assaulted a servant girl and made her pregnant, had sadly lost much of his manly vigor in old age. The whole question of rape is problematic in the book. I understand that Marquez might be trying to invert the idea of rape (Florentino loses his virginity when he is raped by a woman) but one of the strongest female characters in the book, Leona Cassiani, responds to her brutal rape by falling in love with her attacker and that is difficult to digest. Florentino’s description as a “hunter” looking to catch little “birds” and his assertion that “when a woman says no, she is waiting to be urged before making her final decision” fit too snugly into what we can finally articulate as rape culture.
Florentino Ariza’s deliberate seduction of his 14-year old ward, a distant relative who is entrusted to his care by her parents, is difficult to read. Sex scenes are mixed in with walks in the park where they eat ice cream and play ball. Once he reconnects with the love of his life, the recently widowed Fermina Daza, he jilts the child. She begins to do poorly in school and eventually commits suicide. Many of the women who become Florentino’s lovers are shown as being independent, in touch with their sexuality, and fully cognizant of what they’re getting into, yet pain is taken to express clearly that he is the one who always ends the affair, except for one instance, i.e. his women lovers can be sexually free but are not in control.
The descriptions of “black” and “mulatto” women are incredibly offensive. They are painted as uncontainable voluptuous bodies which ooze (and therefore invite) sex. These stereotypes, which hearken back to slavery, are not representations of what the characters think or feel and therefore time-appropriate. These descriptions are provided by the writer. Although the story happens in the late 19th to early 20th century, the book was written in 1985. Yet we don’t see any “modern” sensibility in the endless caricatures of women Marquez draws.
It must be said that the book’s female protagonist, Fermina Daza, is brilliantly and comprehensively sketched. Her haughtiness, self-command and decisiveness make her strong. Her quick temper and ability to break with tradition make her interesting. She can love with a kind of devotion and clear-mindedness that is moving. Leona Cassiani is another powerful female character. She is a naturally gifted businesswoman and rises to the top of the River Company of the Caribbean. She is in charge of her life and work and possesses more foresight and sangfroid than most of the male characters in the book. She is also the one who confuses rape with love.
In short, while I cannot deny the spectacular genius of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I’m left wondering if most great literature is filled with problematic representations of women and how they relate to men. I have to meditate on how quick we (men and women) are to justify female stereotypes: oh, it’s a reflection of the times, it’s symbolic, it’s a metaphor, an abstraction, it’s deconstruction. It seems almost provincial or petty to mention the fact that literary (and artistic) devices and explorations mostly play out on the bodies of women.
We’ve become so reconciled to these images of women, written by men for the most part, that we are inured to how they shape our thinking and society. I long for more writing by women, what Hélène Cixous calls l’écriture feminine, which goes beyond women writing women, for women.
Cixous sees Western culture as rooted in the dichotomy between binary opposites: male/female, good/evil, light/dark, language/silence, speech/writing. In each of these pairs the first term has primacy over the second.
She talks about Freud’s description of women as being the “dark continent.” Women are synonymous with darkness, otherness, Africa. Men are the opposite. They represent lightness, selfhood, Western civilization. Women are the colonized, men the imperialists. This same apartheid is imbedded in language.
Cixous sees anyone subscribing to existing linguistic hierarchies as inadvertently taking up the position of a “man.” However, these restrictions on language are historico-cultural and surmountable. For Cixous writing must take place in the spaces in-between, without any preference for or reference to opposing terms. Women are more than equal to the task on account of their “gift of alterability.” As mothers, women are naturally adept at nourishing, eliminating separation, re-writing codes: “in woman, personal history blends together with the history of all women, as well as national and world history.”
Rather than remain trapped inside men’s language and grammar, Cixous urges women to explode that structure and invent a language they themselves can get inside of. This is why she describes feminine writing in non-representational ways such as song, milk, flight, and rhythm. She calls for a literary revolution, and we are reminded every day, in every part of the world, that we’re in desperate need of it.
An Essay by Artist Mara Ahmed [Post Magazine, Jul/Aug 2015]
“Muslimness” is something I always took for granted. It was never a deliberate or even discernible component of my identity, much less some kind of all-encompassing human condition. I grew up in a progressive Muslim household in the 1970s and 80s. Although my maternal grandmother was deeply religious and immersed herself in the study of the Quran, daily prayers and worship, she was also, in her younger days, a fierce supporter of the movement for India’s independence from British colonial rule. Later that movement split along religious lines, when proposals for more representation of Muslim minorities were rejected out of hand. My grandmother, who was a powerful public speaker, became a campaigner for the All India Muslim League. My aunt, a spirited teenager at the time, climbed the British Deputy Commissioner’s house in Delhi and planted the Pakistani flag on top of it. She was wearing a burka during the performance of this revolutionary act.
My mom and dad taught us to pray and fast and the basics of religion, yet what we did with that knowledge was left open-ended. After a long stint in Belgium, where my father worked as a diplomat for the Pakistani Embassy, we moved back to Pakistan in the 1980s. It was quite an adjustment, mostly because we returned to a country crushed by a repressive military dictatorship. General Zia ul Haq wielded Islam as a political weapon to shut down free speech and consolidate his autocratic rule.
We settled down in Islamabad initially. I remember the constant flow of Afghan refugees into Peshawar as well as the capital, as the war against the Soviets raged on in Afghanistan. I also remember sleek state-owned freight trucks with the words National Logistics Cell painted on them. They were a familiar sight on Pakistani highways. Only after I grew up did I find out that they were being used to funnel arms and ammunition into Afghanistan with the support of the US and Saudi Arabia. Zia was a staunch American ally in this seminal war between “good and evil” which signaled the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. All I knew as a little girl was that Zia wanted us to wear chadors in public schools and cover our heads. It infuriated me. I wanted to be free and play sports. But people were afraid to challenge Zia’s edicts. There were ominous stories about dungeons and torture chambers hidden away under the Lahore Fort. Political dissent had been inexorably neutralized.
Although a narrow and pedagogical brand of Islam was preached relentlessly on the one and only state-owned television channel in Pakistan, most of us tuned it out and read books instead. I remember the Hudood Ordinances, a set of laws enacted by Zia’s regime to further the “Islamization” of the country. Many of these laws were misogynistic in how they were applied. Pakistani human rights lawyers and feminists stood up to the state and showed great courage and forbearance in the face of police brutality. It wasn’t easy to decimate liberal society in Pakistan, whether it was religious or secular. Zia had his work cut out for him. However, American aid helped him remain in power for an entire decade, until he was killed in a plane crash in 1988.
Fast forward to 9/11 and all these puzzle pieces from the 1980s come together with incredible force. Zia’s Islamization gig, the empowerment of the Pakistani military, the religious indoctrination of Afghan refugees with Saudi money, the weaponization of large segments of Afghan and Pakistani society, widespread drug addiction produced by an alternative war-supported economy, militant Islam-infused rhetoric and its complex political strands, the list goes on.
In spite of the imbrication of religion and politics, of capitalism and empire, Islam remains close to my heart. It came into being as a form of social reform, a continuation of the other two Abrahamic religions, with a focus on egalitarianism and justice. When we encounter injustice, we are advised to stop it with our actions or words, and if that’s not possible, then we must condemn it in our hearts. It’s a simple and elegant religion that believes in direct communication with God. There is no concept of clergy. There’s no hierarchy or race or class privilege. The rights of human beings are given clear precedence over the rights of God. Independent thinking is encouraged rather than institutional herd-like behavior. Knowledge is held supreme. Charity and service to one’s community are essential components of Islam. The idea behind fasting during the month of Ramadan, for example, is not only to step away from materialism and delve into the spiritual, but also to develop empathy for those who must go hungry and have less to eat than us. Every fast ends at sundown with the sharing of food and drink, and all are invited to join in, including people of other, diverse faiths.
These humanistic aspects of Islam cannot be erased or minimized, even in the midst of ubiquitous Frankensteinian manifestations of what is being termed “Islam” or “Islamism” or “Islamofascism” – phenomena that seem to occur primarily in places embroiled in proxy wars or destroyed by American invasions and military occupations. Islam remains an important world religion, an inextricable part of human history and civilization. Nothing can change that, not collective memory loss or the willful distortion of history. The fact is, we are not that different from the “other.” Whether we like it or not, we all belong to the human race. We all have the same dreams and aspirations and share the same home, this beautiful, intractable planet we must learn to live in concert with. It’s the only chance we have of making it.
Still in Attica After 40 Years [Socialist Worker, Apr 3, 2014]
Jalil Muntaqim, a former member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, has spent more than 40 years behind bars after receiving a sentence of 25 years to life in 1971. , an activist, artist, documentary filmmaker and blogger based in Rochester, N.Y., recently visited Muntaqim at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York.
ON FEBRUARY 18, I went to Attica, along with other activists, to visit Jalil Muntaqim (prisoner no. 77A4283, whose birth name was Anthony L. Bottom). This was my first time at a maximum-security prison. With its impossibly high walls and multiple turrets, it looked like a castle, albeit an ugly gray one, and I half expected to be intercepted by a moat.
The inside of the prison is coldly institutional, regulated, bland. The visiting room is large, furnished with tables and chairs, and there’s an entire wall of vending machines. The walls are painted with dolphins and miscellaneous underwater scenes. I soon understood why. Many families visit with young children in tow, and soon, their noisy chatter began to reverberate throughout the carefully reinforced and supervised space we were in.
Jalil joined us after 15 or 20 minutes. Tall, affable, with a warm smile on his face and a taqiyah (Muslim skullcap) on his head, it was easy to fall into conversation with him. Jalil is interested in everything. He asked Diane about her work as a Rochester city high school teacher and discussed my films with me, including issues related to Islam and feminism and the Partition of India.
His charm and lively intelligence make it hard to imagine that he’s spent more than 40 years of his life in prison. He was a young Black Panther when he was arrested in 1971. Since COINTELPRO–a secret FBI program aimed at sabotaging dissent and disrupting movements for self-determination within the U.S. from the 1950s to the 1970s–has now been exposed for its illegal activities, it’s incredible that political prisoners like Jalil continue to be locked up.
Here is a summary of the case against Jalil in the words of Danish activist and writer Kit Aastrup:
[Muntaqim] was only 19 years old and a member of the Black Panther Party when he was sent to prison in 1971 on conspiracy charges following the killing of a police officer, allegedly in retaliation for the murder of Black political prisoner George Jackson.
Muntaqim was targeted by COINTELPRO, an unconstitutional and clandestine FBI operation that was set up to destroy political organizations, especially those from the oppressed communities. In 1975, Muntaqim was wrongly convicted of killing two police officers in New York City, although there was no physical evidence against him and two juries failed to convict him before the State found one that did.
Muntaqim, who received a sentence of 25 years to life, has always maintained his innocence…In 2007 Muntaqim was charged in a cold case from 1971 known as the San Francisco 8 (SF8) case, and he was transferred from Auburn Correctional Facility in New York to San Francisco County Jail. This case was originally dropped in 1975 because it was based on confessions extracted by torture. At the end of July, two of the SF8, Herman Bell and Muntaqim, were sentenced to probation and time served, after Bell agreed to plead to voluntary manslaughter and Muntaqim reluctantly pleaded no contest to conspiracy to voluntary manslaughter.
Charges have been dropped against most of the SF8 on the basis of insufficient evidence. However, Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqim remain in prison.
JALIL IS no run-of-the-mill human being. He acquired a college education while incarcerated; in 1976, he initiated the National Prisoners Campaign to Petition the United Nations to recognize the existence of political prisoners in the U.S.; in 1997, he launched the Jericho Movement to demand amnesty for American political prisoners on the basis of international law; he has written books and maintains a blog; and he’s quelled prison riots.
He’s also involved in literacy programs and has wonderful ideas about vocational training in prison running parallel to community programs outside so that released prisoners can transition effortlessly into them and chances of relapse are minimized. For all these efforts at organizing, Jalil is transferred relentlessly from one correctional facility to another.
Jalil understands that we have reached a racial crossroads in America. Black kids are being murdered for the clothes they wear or the music they listen to, stop-and-frisk and racial profiling have become institutionalized, books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow explain how a caste system rooted in mass incarceration has replaced segregation and slavery, anti-Vietnam War protesters and activists have revealed how they stole COINTELPRO files, and books like Betty Medsger’s The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI delineate the disturbing history, machinations and criminality of the FBI.
Jalil’s concern is that this “spark” might ignite people’s anger rather than become the impetus for constructive organizing. He hopes for liberal movements to unite and coalesce as they did during the civil rights era. He wants to hearken back to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and forge links between the struggles against racism and economic inequity, between Trayvon Martin and Occupy Wall Street.
He envisions an alternative, internal judicial system capable of resolving disputes and interdicting where necessary, based on African American needs and realities. It would work in unison with the American judicial system, the way Jewish, Christian or Amish religious laws do right now.
This reminded me of something August Wilson said in an interview with Bill Moyers in 1988. He talked about African Americans being a “visible” minority and the offensive idea that they must integrate into white, European (in other words, mainstream) society and distance themselves from their own values, aesthetics and worldview in order to be successful.
He gave the example of Asian Americans, whose culture is not only accepted but admired. He mentioned Passover and how it reminds Jews of their history of slavery. There is a need for a Black Passover and for a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation. By revisiting and keeping alive their common past, African Americans can build a common future.
JALIL HAS been up for parole countless times. He is always refused. He is no threat to society. On the contrary, he would be a valuable leader and mentor for the community at large. He believes in parole reform and is campaigning to focus on “risk to society” rather than “nature of crime” (which is a static and therefore useless consideration). The composition of the parole board needs to change as well. It should represent a spectrum of communities in which prisoners have their roots, not just law enforcement.
Jalil believes in rehabilitation and redemption, not retribution and punishment. He describes himself as a hopeless optimist, and in the presence of this charismatic man, one of the longest held political prisoners in the world, it’s impossible to be otherwise.
His parole hearing is coming up again in June 2014. It’s time to end this horrendous injustice and free Jalil Muntaqim. It’s heartening that ex-Black Panther Marshall “Eddie” Conway was released from prison this month, after almost 44 years behind bars. He too was accused of killing a police officer under COINTELPRO. It’s imperative to keep the pressure on and free all American political prisoners.
For more information about Jalil, including his blog, got to www.FreeJalil.com.
Pakistan and the Global War on Terror: An interview with Tariq Ali [Counterpunch, Nov 30, 2009]
Mara Ahmed and I were given the opportunity to interview Tariq Ali when he spoke at Hamilton College in Upstate New York on November 11, 2009, during his recent speaking tour of the United States. Tariq, a native of Pakistan who lives in England, is a well known writer, intellectual and activist. He has traveled all over Southwest Asia and the Middle East while researching his books. Mara, who is working on a film highlighting the opinions of the Pakistani people regarding the current situation in Pakistan and the Western initiated ‘Global War on Terror’, had a lot of questions for Tariq about the internal state of Pakistan. I wanted to ask Tariq for his opinion about the effects of American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and what alternatives he thought might be available. –JB
Mara: What is the role of Islamophobia in the Global War on Terror. Many American war veterans have described the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as imperialistic, racist and genocidal. Your comments?
Tariq: Well, I think Islamophobia plays an important part in things, because it creates an atmosphere in which people feel, “Oh, we’re just killing Muslims, so that’s alright.” And this situation is becoming quite serious in the United States and in large parts of Europe, where people feel that the fact that a million Iraqis have died is fine because they’re not like us, they’re Muslims. So, Islamophobia is becoming a very poisonous and dangerous ideological construct which has to be fought against.
It sometimes irritates people but I do compare it to the anti-Semitism that existed in the 20s and 30s and 40s of the last century. And I do wonder whether all the education that people are being given, and rightly so, about the killing of the Jews and the Judeocide of the Second World War is having an impact. What sort of education is it if they can’t relate what happened then to some of the things that are happening now. Education which just centers on one atrocity and that’s all, where people feel very opposed to that [one atrocity], but they can support other atrocities, is in my opinion not a proper education. And some of the level of ignorant comment on Islam and the Islamic world in the United States is deeply shocking. That’s all it is. It’s ignorance.
Mara: Do you think there is a difference between the United States and Europe?
Tariq: I think, on Islamophobia, not. I think there is a great deal of it in Western Europe. In countries like Germany, Italy, France it goes very deep; in Britain it exists strongly. I don’t think there’s any big difference. I think, curiously enough, because the United States, itself, is such a deeply religious country, that many people who are not crazies, but who are religious, accept the need for people to belong to whatever religion they want to as long as they believe in a God. Whereas, in Europe, which is much less religious, the Islamophobia can be much more pronounced.
Mara: What do you think of the Pakistani Army’s offensives in Swat and now in South Waziristan? Many Swat refugees have described heavy, indiscriminate bombing and shelling followed by Army sweeps, and they have talked about the villagers being the hardest hit, really, in these military operations, not the Taliban. Even after the offensives, there have been many gruesome revenge killings. What do you think about all of this, and are there any other non-military options in this situation?
Tariq: Well, it’s an open question as to what the military really wants to do. Is the military really just showing the United States “Look how tough we are. We are going in and doing things which we have to do to destroy the Taliban?” And they’re doing this largely to appease the United States, in which case all this makes sense, because the higher the casualty rates, the better it is, the more money they get. The fact is that most of the Pakistani Taliban groups don’t stay when the military comes. They disappear, because that’s how they function. So the people who get it in the neck are largely innocent. And this has been the report from both Swat and South Waziristan. I think it is a great pity that people in the United States, and certainly within the American establishment, don’t understand that that is what’s going on. They are making new enemies by supporting this.
The camps are full of people who are being treated extremely badly. There was a case I just heard about a few days ago. I’m trying to remember the name of the camp. It’s outside Peshawar. Well, the army went in, behaved badly, ended up firing, and killed 3 children. And the activist who sent me the blog said, “As I’m sending you this blog, I can see the funeral procession of these children taking place.” This is going to create a problem for a long, long time. There may be 2 million refugees right now within Pakistan, and this is not the way to do it, you know. It reminds me of Samuel Huntington’s advice during the Vietnam War, to create strategic hamlets and take people away from those who might recruit them. That’s essentially, I feel, what is going on. And it isn’t going to work. Lots of people in the camps are getting radicalized, and they can leave the camps whenever they want to. They aren’t policed permanently. I mean, just imagine what happened to the Palestinians in the camps from the 50s and 60s. Camps are not the sort of environment where people don’t get radicalized. So the same thing could begin to happen in Pakistan if the military carries on like this.
Mara: Who do you think are the Taliban? And do you see any differences between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban?
Tariq: Well, there’s a very big difference. The Afghan Taliban are fighting the foreign occupation of their country, and the Pakistani Taliban have decided to fight against local people in their own country and occasionally take on the Pakistani military. So, that is a very big difference between the two. The Afghan Taliban are trying more and more to win people to their cause, which means that the way they operate has to be different from what it used to be. In Pakistan the groups calling themselves the Tehriq eTaliban Pakistan are largely trying to teach the military a lesson and carry out revenge for what they’ve seen has been done against them. They have no desire to recruit large numbers of people. And, this is now getting mixed up with local tribal politics.
Mara: Some people maintain that there are certain elements of a class struggle in what’s going on in Pakistan. Do you agree with that?
Tariq: No. I don’t agree with that. I think that the Taliban occasionally kill a landlord because the landlord isn’t supporting them, and then they redistribute the land. But, if you’re a landlord who gives them money, they don’t touch you. So, it’s purely opportunist, and I think it’s very opportunist to see this as a form of class struggle. It isn’t. Essentially, what they attack are women, and they attack schools, not just women’s schools (there aren’t many co-educational schools in Pakistan) but all schools. So they see education as a threat. And that, to my mind, is incredibly backward – to deny your people an education.
Mara: I have written about what I see as a local form of home-grown imperialism, which I feel is at work in Pakistan. The Pakistani government and the elite are just so far removed from the lives of the common man, especially outside of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. They are just as far removed from their reality as the Americans are. I feel that there’s almost no difference. And the same kind of cavalier disregard for the suffering of ordinary Muslims is exhibited by the Pakistani elite as by the Americans. And this is why I feel that the razing of villages, the destruction of crops, and the migration of 2 million refugees is all acceptable in the name of ‘saving Pakistan from the religious extremists’. And then when some of these people migrate to the cities, for example when they tried to get into Karachi, the MQM told them they don’t want any refugees close-by. What do you think about that?
Tariq: Well, I think there’s an element of truth in that, that the Pakistani elite (the military/political elite) have disregarded their own people for so long now, that it would be a surprise if they behaved in a different way. But it’s not just Muslims. It’s the minorities as well. The tiny Christian minority, Hindus and Sikhs, they all suffer from this attitude. And I have written about this at length in my books, that I do regard this as one of the most corrupt and venal elites in the world, where there’s absolutely no regard whatsoever for the sanctity of human life or the sufferings of ordinary people. And, it gets worse. It doesn’t get better. Politics in Pakistan itself now, have become so linked to making money that each gang that comes to power says “Make as much money as you can. Don’t know how long we’ll be in power.” And this is what Zardari is doing now. This is what Nawaz Sharif has done before him. This is what the Chaudhrys of Gujarat who were allied with General Musharraf (and before him with General Zia) have done when they’ve been in power. Politics in Pakistan is both paralyzed and atrophied. It doesn’t move forward at all, and that’s very depressing.
Mara: Now I have some questions about democracy in Pakistan. The argument is often made that democracy is not possible in Pakistan on account of the feudal system, the high illiteracy rate and the lack of institutions that would support a democratic system. What do you think?
Tariq: Well, look. I don’t believe this because I think in the past people in Pakistan have shown that they are perfectly capable of making their voices heard. When there was an alternative, they supported it. I mean when the People’s Party won the elections of 1970, the people in the Punjab and Sind and in parts of the Frontier Province voted against their landlords. This means they can do it, because they were promised what, food, clothing, shelter, land reform, health, education. That’s what Zulfikar Ali Bhutto promised them. They believed him and they voted for his party. The fact that they’re illiterate doesn’t matter. You know lots of illiterate people in our part of the world are actually more intelligent than semi-literate or even sometimes literate people. They have a very strong political instinct. They know who’s on their side and who isn’t. They hoped that Bhutto would bring about these changes, but he didn’t. And that was a massive let down. The same is true of India. When Mrs. Gandhi imposed an emergency in the 70s, people voted her out. So, it’s not that democracy is totally dependent on literacy. That is not the case.
What is true is that the institutions of democracy in Pakistan are extremely weak. And, that is a problem. And, here I have to say that in the first phase of the new media which emerged in Pakistan, the discussions which took place in the media were very positive. Now they’ve been brought under control again. But that opening did help to transmit ideas and diversity into the country. As a whole, the entire movement to put the Chief Justice back into power would not have been possible had it not been for television, where the demonstrations were covered and people were interviewed. People were proud to be associated with that. Many illiterate people turned out to demand that the Chief Justice be put back into power. This was a struggle that had no link to religion or anything like that. It was a straight forward struggle for constitutional rights and the separation of powers. So, I don’t like anybody saying that our people aren’t ready for democracy. I would sort of rather say the opposite, that the elite in Pakistan have no respect for democracy. And it’s disrespect for democracy that makes ordinary people apathetic because they say it doesn’t make any difference now.
Mara: You just talked about the Lawyer’s Movement. Do you think that it still has a future?
Tariq: I don’t think so, because I think that once you have Zardari in power, and the Chief Justice formally reinstated, that movement has now lost its raison d’etre. The big tragedy for Pakistan is that no political party emerged out of that. Had it done so, we might have been better off now.
Mara: And then I have some questions about US foreign policy in the region. Recently a group of Pakistanis and Pakistani Americans, both students and professors, drafted a petition to urge America to end its ‘one leader’ approach to Pakistan, where individual political leaders and dictators have been supported by the United States government at the expense of Pakistani civil society. What are your comments?
Tariq: Well, my first comment is that the United States does what it regards as being best for the United States. So, they pick leaders they feel will do their work for them. They’re not that interested in Pakistan as a state or a country. They’re basically using it, and have done so right from the beginning. So, making these petitions to them indicates that people still have illusions that the United States somehow can do something it doesn’t want to do and has no desire of doing. I mean, I understand why people did that. But I think it’s accepting America’s imperial standing in Pakistan. Saying why don’t you do this? Why should they do it? Why shouldn’t our own people do it? All the United States can be asked to do is to stop supporting the military and corrupt politicians in Pakistan. And the rest, people will have to do for themselves.
Mara: Your comments about the Kerry-Lugar Bill.
Tariq: Well, the Kerry-Lugar Bill is a continuation of what’s been going on in Pakistan from 1951 onwards. Money is given. Money is spent. This time, it’s very open. It’s to bribe the Pakistani military to do the work which the Americans feel is best done by them, kill more people. Or it’s to give money to civil society – carefully chosen and begged to push through various initiatives in civil society. And, what will happen is that the bulk of the money will be confiscated by military and civilian elite groups. That’s what’s happened in the past, and that’s what will happen now. I wouldn’t be surprised if Zardari’s still in power when this money comes through, he’ll get a big cut of it.
Mara: Would you like to comment on Seymour Hersh’s recently published article. He talks about how the Americans have an arrangement to deploy a Special Services Unit to Pakistan should an internal dispute in the country put the nukes at risk. Do you think that is true? And do you think this is a good plan?
Tariq: I don’t think that it’s a good plan. But I think it may well be true because of the obsession with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, largely stoked by Israel which wants to be the only nuclear power in that region and doesn’t want any Muslim state to have them because they fear that they might help others in the Middle East, is crazy. I mean, the only danger in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is if the Pakistani military splits. And the only reason for it to be split is if the Americans put massive pressure on it, which became so unacceptable that the high command split and said we can’t do this. Were that to happen then the situation would be serious, and I’m sure the United States would try and do something to secure the nuclear facilities. But were they to do so, the wave of anger that would sweep the country, rightly or wrongly, would exceed anything we’ve seen so far.
Mara: Is there anything positive the US can do about Afghanistan and Pakistan, except the fact that they need to pull out? Can they do anything else?
Tariq: Well, they need to pull out, and they need to pull out sensibly, not like they did the last time, after defeating the Russians. And, as I’ve argued consistently now, for the last so many years, there needs to be an exit strategy that needs to involve the local regional powers. I think it would be wrong if the United States essentially handed Afghanistan over to the Pakistani military, like they did the last time, when they said “It’s your problem. Deal with it.” I think the Iranians, the Russians and the Chinese have to be involved. And if the Americans don’t involve them, Pakistan should, because it certainly is not capable of handling the situation on its own, economically or politically or militarily. So it needs to do that. And were that to happen, it would be something positive. As to what the United States can do, I mean its record in Pakistan has, so far, been abysmal. So, I think a period of withdrawal from Pakistani politics, once a strategic withdrawal has taken place, if it takes place, would be positive.
Judy: May I follow up on that question? Do you think the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has invited Pakistan and Afghanistan in as Observers, could be engaged to involve local powers in the Afghan recovery? Iran is involved and China and Russia are central players.
Tariq: It is a possibility, because the Chinese involvement is very crucial for economic reasons. We need to construct a social infrastructure in Afghanistan, and only the Chinese could fund it. But in return for that, the Chinese would demand total peace and an end to war. And that you can’t have unless the Pakistani and the Iranians and Russians guarantee it. So I think the Shanghai group could play an important role if the United States lets them.
Mara: What do you think of Turkey as an effective convener of economic cooperation in the region, and is it possible for the US to integrate that into their plans?
Tariq: I don’t think so. I think the Turks have enough problems of their own. And I know that the Turkish Islamists are NATO’s favorite Islamists. At the moment, this is the face of ‘moderate’ Islam as they show it. But these are people who have completely wrecked the Turkish economy by large scale privatizations, which have led to a worsening of conditions. The withdrawal of the state, and local Islamists willing to help with medicines etc. is, I think, dangerous. I think these are things that should be done by the state, and not by any one organization in order to bolster support for itself. So, I don’t think the Turkish model is a particularly good one. And I don’t think that the United States is going to use the Turks in this region. There are some Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan, but Turkey isn’t taken seriously. It is seen globally as an American puppet state, which it has been since the Second World War.
Mara: And then my final question is “What do you think is India’s role in whatever is going on in Pakistan. You know, a lot of people say that they are the ones that are supplying some of the arms and ammunition to the militants. That is the rumor. And, what do you think is their long term strategy? I assume that they wouldn’t want an unstable Pakistan right next door?
Tariq: I don’t think India wants an unstable Pakistan right next door. But, on the other hand, they haven’t made any serious efforts to help stability in Pakistan, given the way they’ve operated in Kashmir. But, you can’t ignore what the Indian military has done in Kashmir. It’s like a colonial occupation, with rapes, brutality and torture, which has created a situation where Jihadis sent in by the Pakistani military have won limited support in some regions because Kashmiris are so fed up with what the Indians are doing. So, unless and until that particular problem is sorted out, I think it’s not going to be easy. I think ultimately, one day, we have to think of South Asia as a region in which the main countries collaborate with each other.
And the exit strategy from Afghanistan could involve some settlements along these lines, a no-war pact between India and Pakistan and an opening of trade. I don’t think this confrontational situation, which both militaries sometimes encourage to help their own vested interest, is good in the long run, for either country. India is a huge country. Militarily, they could crush Pakistan. But they’re not going to do it because that would import instability into the Indian Federation. They don’t want Pakistan. The Pakistani military needs the threat of India, in order to justify the wild military spending that takes place in that country, and so the money spent on social projects is very limited. I think it’s in the interest of the entire region to, if not to denuclearize it, certainly to make it pacific and peaceful, and for the states to work together. I think it has to be done.
Mara: Thank you very much.
Rethink Afghanistan [City News, Oct 17, 2009]
On the 8th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, when a strategy shift is on President Obama’s table, it is essential to increase the pressure for constructive non-military solutions to stabilize Afghanistan and strengthen Pakistan’s fragile democracy.
As a Pakistani American who grew up under General Zia’s dictatorship in the 1980s, I have seen the consequences of a military strategy in the region up-close. I have seen rows of trucks carrying arms and ammunition into Afghanistan. I have seen Afghan refugee camps swell up as 3 million Afghans fled their country and crossed the border into Pakistan. I have seen the rise of Islamic rhetoric to support the “jihad” against the Soviet invasion. I have seen the consequences of a ruthless, American-supported military dictatorship in Pakistan.
The situation is equally dangerous right now and even more certain to devolve into a catastrophe. You have to understand that American presence in the region and American drone attacks are not minimizing terrorism or instability, they are creating it. For example, suicide bombings were unheard of in Afghanistan and Pakistan before the American invasion in 2001. Now they have become part of every day life. What we have conveniently lumped together and branded as the “Taliban” is a mixture of many diverse elements. In Afghanistan, it’s mostly Pushtuns trying to regain control of their territory by ousting American troops. In Pakistan, a country plagued by poverty and injustice for most of its population, there are elements of a class struggle involved – there is a strong desire for democratic governance in Pakistan as evidenced by the Lawyers’ Movement. And then there are those who have lost everything to drone attacks and they are naturally absorbed by the resistance to foreign occupation.
Instead of inciting more resistance and hatred, we need to pull out of Afghanistan and Pakistan NOW. We must stop drone attacks. We need to distinguish between our opponents and not fight a fabricated homogenous enemy. We need to negotiate with Taliban leaders who are interested in collaborating with us rather than detaining them at Bagram. We need to develop a regional solution to the instability and involve Pakistan, India, Iran, China and Russia by dealing with their concerns. And we must act NOW to change this course of action.
THEATRE IN ENGLAND 2012-13
UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER
The Master and Margarita
Based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, this adaptation by Simon McBurney is as inventive and surprising as the book’s storyline. Satan disguised as Professor Woland visits Stalinist Russia in the 1930s. He and his violent retinue use their black magic and death prophesies to dispose of people and take over their apartments; most villainy and betrayal in the play is in fact motivated by the acquisition of apartment space. Bulgakov is satirizing the restriction of private space in Stalin’s Russia but buildings are also a metaphor for the structure of society as a whole. Rooms are demarcated by light beams, in the constantly changing set design, in order to emphasize relative boundaries and limits.
The second part of the play focuses on Margarita and her lover, a writer who has just finished a novel about the complex relationship between Pontius Pilate (the Roman procurator of Judaea) and Yeshua ha-Nostri (Jesus, a wandering philosopher). Margarita calls him the Master on account of his brilliant literary chef d’oeuvre. She is devoted to him. However, the Master’s novel is ridiculed by the Soviet literati and after being denounced by a neighbor, he is taken into custody and ends up at a lunatic asylum. The parallels between his persecution and that of his principal character, Jesus, are brought into relief by constant shifts in time and place, between Moscow and Jerusalem. Margarita makes a bargain with Satan on the night of his Spring Ball, which she agrees to host, and succeeds in saving the Master. Towards the end of the play, cracks appear in a brick wall projected onto the backdrop. The apartment building finally crashes. Perhaps it’s an illustration of Christ’s vision: an egalitarian society without authority or tyrannical control, based on freedom and justice for all.
The Faust theme is unmistakable in Bulgakov’s novel. However, the Master is less modeled on Faust and more on Bulgakov himself. It’s the story of the consummate artist, whose yearning is intensely focused on his masterpiece. Many events in Bulgakov’s own life are echoed in the life of the Master, especially the burning of his manuscripts. The Faust influence is most evident in the characterization of Woland, who is based on Mephistopheles.
Margarita is the embodiment of courage. Unlike Pontius Pilate who is moved by Jesus’s message of goodness yet lacks the backbone to rescue him, Margarita will do anything for love, even ally herself with Satan. Both she and Jesus personify unconditional love and the fortitude to sacrifice everything for it. However, whereas Margarita is capable of heroic devotion as well as vindictive violence, Jesus exemplifies mercy and forgiveness.
The love story between the Master and Margarita parallels the struggle of art to save the artist’s soul. The Master’s manuscripts are burned at the time of his separation from Margarita. Once the book has been resurrected, through Margarita’s bold ingenuousness (and Woland’s considerable help), the lovers reunite. Their destiny is finally secured by Jesus, who asks Woland to grant them eternal peace – perhaps peace for the Master to continue work on his book. This continued alliance between good and evil, seems to point to another kind of villainy (worse than Woland’s depraved shenanigans), the villainy of the bureaucratic social order that destroys the artist’s soul.
In the novel, Bulgakov’s writing style changes with each geographical shift – the Moscow chapters are fast-paced, manic, almost farcical, whereas the Jerusalem chapters, from the Master’s novel, are written in realistic prose. These variations can be felt in McBurney’s staging. There is something terrifyingly lurid about the Moscow scenes, which include a fair share of slapstick and biting political satire. The Jerusalem scenes, which imagine the relatively short span of time between Jesus’ meeting with Pontius Pilate and his crucifixion, are more deliberate and profoundly philosophical.
The play is an exploration of polarities: good/evil, beautiful/grotesque, love/hate, truth/fiction, innocence/guilt, courage/cowardice, forgiveness/revenge, nakedness/concealment, sanity and madness. What genius to highlight these extremes, theatrically, with audio-visual values such as light/dark, silence/noise and magic/reality (this last one with the creative use of videography and special effects).
These binary opposites are brought together literally in the conflation of the Master and Woland (who are both played by the same actor) and even more eloquently in the transformation of Satan into Jesus Christ towards the end of the play when Pontius Pilate is relieved of 2,000 years of insomnia and mental torture. Although these casting decisions seem to have been arbitrary, they embody an important message: everything contains its own antithesis.
The jarring juxtaposition of polar opposites, both in terms of themes and special effects, needed some quiet space to resolve into something cogent. That space came for me at the end of the play when the Master and Margarita are consigned to eternity in limbo. Neither heaven nor hell, this is finally a grey area where disjointed opposites can come together and blend into something less volatile. I wish there had been more such “pauses” throughout the play, where frenetic shifts could have coalesced into meaning and made our experience less exhausting. In other words, less polyphony and more counterpoint could have made this production a bit more balanced, if not melodious.
The idea of the particular being part of the whole is beautifully captured by seamless geographic transitions. At the beginning of the play, the stage is empty except for a row of chairs and a hospital bed. Everything is grey, severe, minimal. As the first scene begins to unfold, Google maps are used to orient us. These are projected behind the stage and all of a sudden we zoom into a park, in Moscow. It’s a bit dizzying. The lack of anything ostensibly Russian or Middle Eastern, as we travel back and forth between different locations, also helps establish this universality. It is interesting that the only two people with accents, in the entire production, are Woland (Satan) and Jesus Christ. Woland has a clipped, over-the-top German accent, while Jesus speaks with the rounded, warm modulation of Romance languages.
The play is full of mirror images – what you see depends entirely on your vantage point. This idea is highlighted by the use of camerawork and film projection. After Margarita makes a pact with the devil, she is asked to undress, rub a magic cream all over her body and jump out of a window. She leaps and lands on her back, on the floor. She begins to flail her arms, as if she’s flying. She is being filmed live from the top of the stage. That film projection is splashed onto the back wall and superimposed on a background of moving buildings. We can see her simultaneously from two different angles. It’s unreal. At one point, a man’s head is removed. Only his head is lit, the rest of his body is in the dark. His head is also being filmed and projected into a glass box, as if it were a museum exhibit. But the wittiest mirror image of all is the digital projection of an audience which we are left to stare at and gauge. Is it us? Is it some other pre-recorded audience? The distinction between subject and object is blurred once again in a most personal and powerful way.
The play’s conclusion is incredibly poetic and breathtaking. The souls of the two lovers rise up to a starry galaxy. The couple is lying on the floor, moving their bodies in unison. The rest of the cast lies sideways on the floor with chairs. They move the chairs around in an orchestrated tableau. Again, this scene is filmed from the top of the stage and projected on the back wall. It looks like the couple is riding a gigantic, celestial horse made of matchsticks. Slowly they disappear into infinity.
The devil himself is a magician, underscoring the subjectivity of reality, its illusory nature. I wrote this in a review of “The Illusion,” a play by Tony Kushner, and it applies equally to McBurney’s theatrical interpretation: “This illusion within an illusion, the artifice of theater mirrored by the deception of magic tricks, and the osmotic interplay between reality and madness, all add an evanescent, contradictory, elusive quality to the plot.” How perfect for a book like The Master and Margarita. It’s similar to what Julie Taymor did with Titus Andronicus: she added a sumptuous layer of audio-visual artistry on top of a literary masterstroke.
David Annen, Thomas Arnold, Josie Daxter, Johannes Flaschberger, Tamzin Griffin, Amanda Hadingue, Richard Katz, Sinéad Matthews, Tim McMullan, Clive Mendus, Yasuyo Mochizuki, Ajay Naidu, Henry Pettigrew, Paul Rhys, Cesar Sarachu and Angus Wright
By Mikhail Bulgakov
Directed by Simon McBurney
Produced by Complicité
Set Es Devlin
Costume Christina Cunningham
Lighting Paul Anderson
Sound Gareth Fry
Video Finn Ross
3D Animation Luke Halls
Puppetry Blind Summit Theatre
Assistant Directors Sasha Milavic Davies, James Yeatman
Text by Simon McBurney, Edward Kemp and the company
This engaging Victorian farce was written by Arthur Wing Pinero in 1885. The magistrate in question is Aeneas Posket, a well-respected, honest man who recently married a widow. What he doesn’t know is that his young wife Agatha, under pressure to be of “proposable” age, has lopped five years from her true age. She has been forced to do the same with her son’s real age, turning a lusty 19 year old who loves to smoke, drink port, gamble and frolic with young women, into a bizarrely precocious child of 14.
Agatha’s white lies are about to be exposed by Colonel Lukyn, an old family friend who knew her when she was married to her first husband. In order to save the day Agatha, along with her sister Charlotte, visits the Colonel at his hotel. That same night Agatha’s restless son convinces his straightlaced stepfather, Mr Posket, to accompany him on a night on the town. Coincidentally, they all end up at the same shady hotel where a police raid creates endless confusion – not only do they have to hide from the police but also from one another. After a series of humiliations, Posket is successful in escaping the police. He appears at his job the next day, battered and bruised, and in the impossible position of having to preside over his wife and her sister’s arraignment. The Colonel, who has also been arrested, tries to dissuade him from prosecuting the ladies but Posket’s principles trump his personal relationships, until he’s saved by a legal loophole.
Posket, played by John Lithgow who endows the role with much warmth and earnestness, represents the best of traditional British society. He’s upright and responsible, proper and diligent in the dispensation of his duties, but also polite and amiable – he’s a true pillar of society. Most of his household staff is composed of petty criminals and social rejects he has saved, by providing them employment and another shot at a decent life. Over the course of the play, Posket’s own fallibility and ensuing guilt transform his understanding of justice and respectability. He struggles with the rigidity of his principles vs his natural kind-heartedness and eventually, compassion wins.
Agatha is played by Nancy Carroll. She is charming and strong-minded at the same time. Her fib is contextualized throughout the play. She understands the social constraints she has to work with as a woman and tries to make the most of it: “Men want us for our biology, not our history.” The end of the 19th century was a time of change in England. Not only had the Industrial Revolution altered the urban landscape and labor markets forever, but democratic ideas were beginning to congeal and science was challenging religious beliefs. The role of women was shifting, under the influence of these modern ideals.
Musical interludes are spread throughout the production. Dandies in full Victorian regalia entertain us with song and dance, adding much subtext to the action in the play. When they sing about “the mystery of the age,” they’re not only referring to Agatha’s age but also the socio-economic and cultural metamorphosis of the Victorian era. It’s a witty and colorful way of providing social commentary.
Joshua McGuire plays Cis as a jaunty, unruly manchild with a cupid-like mop of curly blond hair. The combination of his body language, which is playful, perky and decidedly meant to be adorable, and his hormonal penchant for adult pleasures is hilarious and creepy at the same time. It’s a hard feat to pull off and McGuire is brilliant. His 5 ft frame adds credibility to the amusing arc of his oddly bipolar identity.
Katrina Lindsay’s set design is spectacular. It looks like a pop-up book that folds and unfolds, with actors hiding in its nook and crannies and materializing as if by magic to perform song and dance numbers. Acts are cleverly titled as if they were chapters in a storybook. Set changes reflect the mental and emotional travails of the characters, e.g. when Posket is shaken out of his upright, orderly world, the entire set seems to melt and doors hang askew on crooked frames. Victorian aesthetics demanded that the eye be the most authoritative judge of truth. This important connection between the verbal and visual was apparent in Victorian books which were carefully illustrated to highlight and intensify the meaning of the text. The play’s staging is completely in line with these artistic conventions.
Both The Magistrate and Sauce for the Goose are farces written in late 19th century Europe, the first play being set in Victorian England and the second one in France during the Belle Epoque. It’s interesting to compare the social sensibilities that are apparent in both plays. The British seem to be more class-conscious and more rigid in their ideas of right and wrong, including what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior. They seem to revere power and authority and are loyal to the hierarchies they dictate. The French are less concerned with class and more libertine in their approach to social norms. Authority figures take a backseat to artists and intellectuals. It’s not without reason that the British admired Cecil Rhodes, while the French feted Emile Zola.
Mr. Bullamy: Nicholas Blane
Captain Horace Vale: Nicholas Burns
Agatha: Nancy Carroll
Singing Dandy: Tamsin Carroll
Wyke: Alexander Cobb
Charlotte: Christina Cole
Colonel Lukyn: Jonathan Coy
Singing Dandy: Richard Freeman
Achille Blond: Don Gallagh
Singing Dandy: Amy Griffiths
Constable Harris: Joshua Lacey
Posket: John Lithgow
Isidore: Christopher Logan
Singing Dandy: Nicholas Lumley
Cis Farringdon: Joshua McGuire
Sergeant Lugg: Sean McKenzie
Singing Dandy: Joshua Manning
Beatie Tomlinson: Sarah Ovens
Inspector Messiter: Peter Polycarpou
Popham: Beverly Rudd
Mr. Wormington: Roger Sloman
Singing Dandy: Jez Unwin
Director: Timothy Sheader
Designer: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting Designer: James Farncombe
Lyrics: Richard Stilgoe
Music: Richard Sisson
Movement Director: Liam Steel
Sound Designer: Paul Arditti
Vocal Arranger: David Shrubsole
A Chorus of Disapproval
Harold Pinter Theatre
This Alan Ayckbourn play about an amateur operatic company’s production of The Beggar’s Opera is set in rural England in the 1980s. It’s a play within a play, with a life-imitating-art storyline.
The Beggar’s Opera was written in 1728 by John Gay. It lampooned fancy Italian opera, a symbol of cultural elitism in London society, by combining traditional opera music with popular ballads, folk tunes and church hymns and by focusing on themes of poverty, injustice and corruption. Gay’s proletarian approach was quite radical for that time and opened the door to more political satire. The opera’s main character is Macheath, a highwayman – an unconventional hero motivated by love and passion but who becomes an inadvertent victim of society’s widespread corruption.
Rob Brydon, as the amateur opera society’s director Dafydd, anchors this production of the play, at the Harold Pinter Theatre. He is clearly Welsh, melancholy, pushy, full of himself, funny, perennially cardiganed, and deeply committed to his craft, perhaps as a way to evade the real world. His marriage to Hannah seems passionless but competently functional (he describes her as his Swiss-army wife). Later in the play, he evades her extra-marital affair with his usual, obsessive immersion in theatre work.
Ashley Jensen, who could easily be a glamorous stunner, plays the role of Hannah. It is to her credit then that she manages to bring a homely stillness to this role, a heartbreaking, understated, down to earth vulnerability. In between loads of laundry and taking care of her young twins, she’s also involved with her husband’s amateur opera. Falling in love is a reawakening for her, although she’s ill prepared for the consequences.
Nigel Harman plays Guy, a recent widower who joins the opera society in the inconsequential role of Crook-Fingered Jack. He is timid, unassuming, naive and annoyingly passive. A series of accidents and his growing popularity with the company’s cast, especially the ladies, ensure his upward climb to the ultimate role of Macheath. His increase in social (and thespian) currency is also driven by the rumor that he has insider information about a land deal. Although he never confirms this rumor, he goes with the flow as usual, and gets swept into a narrative, a reality, that he has no hand in writing.
The same indeterminate approach is mirrored in Guy’s personal relationships. While he is still having an affair with Dafydd’s wife, he gets involved with the flirtatious Fay, an unapologetic swinger. He’s slow in catching her meaning though – he thinks she’s discussing food rather than sex.
True to his indolent docility, he is incapable of breaking up with either woman. When Dafydd decides to share his marital woes with him (a backstage confession which is accidently broadcast to the entire company over the theater’s sound system), Guy is finally overcome with guilt and ends his affair with Hannah. They break up during a rehearsal, in 18th century operatic arias. Although Guy shines in his flashy opera role, he ends up disappointing and being ostracized by his fellow thespians in real life.
I found Nigel Harman’s performance uninspiring – so much so that it’s impossible to imagine his social and sexual ascent. His submissive “nice guy” verges on indifference and all-pervading lifelessness. There is no character arc – no evolution, no transformation, no intrigue, no surprise. I find it hard to map this character onto the much more interesting Macheath. Carrying on with two women simultaneously does not seem to be a significant enough parallel. I have the same critique for A Chorus of Disapproval as a whole. It lacks the contradictions and energy of The Beggar’s Opera, it has none of its radical social commentary, inventiveness or spunk.
Rob Brydon as Dafydd
Nigel Harman as Guy
Ashley Jensen as Hannah
Written by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Jack and the Beanstalk
Theatre Royal Stratford East
This was the first pantomime I had ever seen so I decided to familiarize myself with the genre, in order to have a point of reference. Pantomime (or panto) is a form of musical comedy descended from the commedia dell’arte tradition, in 16th century Italy. This family entertainment includes dance, music, slapstick comedy and cross-gender acting. Its storyline is based on a popular fairy tale and there is no fourth wall, which means immense audience participation, including frequent singalongs.
A quick google search revealed that there are, in fact, some well-established panto conventions and I decided to compare them to the Theatre Royal presentation.
In this production, the leading “boy” character is not played by a young woman; instead Jack is played by Jorell “MJ” Coiffic-Kamall, a sprightly young man who gives every sign of being a hip hop dancer.
The hero’s mother, Mrs Trott, is played by a man in drag (Michael Bertenshaw), as tradition dictates. He has the most stage presence by far and some of the funniest lines – a lot of the double entendre and coarse humor typical of pantomime is supplied by this character.
The animal in the play, Marigold the cow, is not played by actors in costume. She ends up being a chunky puppet, with big bovine eyes, that each actor manipulates with ease.
Although there is traditional audience participation and singalongs, some of the music is quite contemporary – it is hip hop influenced and in places downright techno.
There is definite physical comedy, but no messy, circus-style slapstick, where food and water are thrown around.
Instead of usual references to nursery rhymes and other fairy tales, Jack is called Wacko Jacko by his mother – a term used by the media to describe Michael Jackson’s eccentricities.
The ogre is a gargantuan puppet, a bespectacled chewbacca with stringy tattooed arms and forbiddingly long fingernails, while Mrs Ogre is replaced by a Jamaican housekeeper who is part of a lively Motown ensemble (including a tap-dancing hen and a harp diva). Some of these characters constitute the traditional panto Chorus.
Several changes were made to the original Jack and Beanstalk storyline, which is in keeping with panto conventions. There is the addition of Lucy, an amateur detective whose father has been posted to the local police station. Lucy is a normal, likeable girl, someone the kids can relate to easily, and she warms up the audience at the beginning of the play. Lucy’s job is to investigate a series of robberies in Jack’s neighborhood. Jack is turned into a more traditional hero – a victim of thievery rather than a thief himself. Instead Biz and Bos become the villains of the story, although their villainy is anything but clear-cut. They are forced to steal on behalf of the Ogre when they would much rather run a seaside B&B.
We hear a lot about Lucy’s father but we never meet him during the course of the play. Jack’s father figure is also missing. His only goal is to support his mother financially so they don’t lose their home, a common concern during a time of recession, unemployment and home foreclosures, perhaps more so in the working class community where this theatre is located. East London is a gritty neighborhood where waves of immigrants have settled down for generations – Bangladeshis, Afro-Caribbeans, Turks, Kurds and Orthodox Jews. This diversity is reflected in the panto’s cast, its music and some of the lyrics. The Motown ensemble, enslaved by the Ogre, sing about having a dream and wanting to be free. Maybe it’s a reference to British ex-colonies from which East End residents might have migrated.
In short, even though some of the traditional, over-the-top panto elements were softened or modernized in this spin-off, it managed to live up to the genre. The addition of Dizzy, Jack’s imaginary friend in the shape of a giant, psychedelic bunny was extremely inventive (might have been a reference to “Donnie Darko” who was also haunted by visions of a man in a bunny suit). At the conclusion of the play, Dizzie is replaced by Lucy. Jack has finally grown up and substituted his imaginary friend for a real, flesh and blood girlfriend.
Dizzy: Vlach Ashton
Mrs Trott: Michael Bertenshaw
Jack: Jorell ‘MJ’ Coiffic-Kamall
Mrs Porridge: Susan Lawson Reynolds
Mr Fleece: Windson Liong
Harpo: Marcia Vanessa Richards (Allyson Ava-Brown)
Lucy: Gemma Salter
Boz: Jack Shalloo
Biz: Oliver Taheri
Henrietta: Shelley Williams
Additional supporting roles: Gabriel Akuwudike & Suhaiyla Hippolyte
Book and lyrics by Paul Sirett
Music and lyrics by Wayne Nunes & Perry Melius
Director: Dawn Reid
Designers: Jenny Tiramani & Harriet Barsby
Lighting Designer: Declan Randall
Musical Director: Ian MacGregor
Sound Designer: Theo Holloway
Choreographer: Jeanefer Jean-Charles
Fight Director: Bret Yount
Assistant Director: Ben Bennett
Dramaturg: Tanika Gupta
Privates on Parade
Noel Coward Theatre
Privates on Parade is a semi-autobiographical, musical comedy written by British playwright Peter Nichols. It is based on his military experience of serving in the British Army in Singapore in 1948. He was part of the Combined Forces Entertainment. Nichols has often described his time in the army as his university:
It was in Singapore in 1947 that my real education began. For the first time I read Lawrence, Forster, Virginia Woolf, Melville, Graham Greene and Bernard Shaw’s political works, becoming a lifelong Leftie.
The play is based on real people, a coterie of misfits who learn to bond with one another and create an alternate world. The Malaysian Emergency at the end of WWII forms the story’s backdrop. Here is some historical context.
In 1819 the British East India Company signed a treaty with Johor’s ruler Sultan Hussein Shah to develop the southern part of Singapore as a British trading post. By 1824, the entire island was a British colony. The Japanese defeated the British in 1942 and occupied Singapore until their surrender in 1945. The Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army was formed during the Japanese occupation. It was predominantly communist. After 1945, they had about 300 members in Singapore who were committed to ending imperial hegemony. They tried to destabilize British rule by bolstering civil unrest, especially through trade unions. They were supported by the Singaporean poor on account of their promise of labor reforms. They were also supported by the local middle class which felt politically suffocated under British rule. In 1947 the communists were successful in organizing 300 strikes involving more than 70,000 workers. However, by 1948 they had lost faith in legal means of ousting the British and they adopted a strategy of insurrection in Malaya and Singapore. This came to be known as the Malaysian Emergency.
The play is structured like a variety show with song and dance numbers, mixed together with tragicomic elements and good old colonial adventure. In many ways it’s a tribute to 1940s’ cinema.
It’s a coming of age story and follows the induction of the virginal Private Steven Flowers into the gay and colorful world of the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia (SADUSEA) which is in the process of producing a concert party.
It is also a military farce. The flamboyant Acting Captain Terri Dennis who is the star of the show and plays a formidable drag queen (Simon Russell Beale) reminded me of Jack’s mother, in the panto “Jack and the beanstalk.” Like Mrs Trott, Dennis is a larger than life character – an oversized man in drag who delivers the funniest lines, replete with sexual innuendo, and holds the play together by being its emotional and physical axis. Although he does a mean impersonation of Marlene Dietrich, Carmen Miranda and Vera Lynn, he ends up being the real “man” of the play, in the classical sense of providing protection and rising up to the challenge to do his duty. To me it was also a negation of the hyper-masculinist concept of war and empire through the intervention of homosexuality.
However, the play is much more than backstage campness. It’s also about politics, perhaps more so since it’s a revival. It was produced originally by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1970s. The production we saw was revised and rewritten in December 2001, when it was staged at the Donmar, under the direction Michael Grandage.
Racism, homophobia and sexism are on full display. I understand that the idea is to expose prejudice but it’s uncomfortable, in fact impossible for many of us in the 21st century, to laugh at uncivil discourse even if it’s presented as political farce.
The word half-caste was painful to hear with such careless frequency. Caste is a word that comes with a lot of baggage, especially in the Indian Subcontinent. It is associated with untouchability and notions of purity and pollution, with vile dehumanization and continued exploitation. It is inextricably linked to colonialism and ideas of white supremacy. The word “half-caste” was used by British ethnographers for census purposes, to classify people along ethnic and religious lines. Many blame this concretization of Indian identity in new and unnatural ways for laying the groundwork for the Partition of India in 1947. Later, the word half-caste seeped into mainstream culture. It implied a questionable, unclean gene pool and moral degradation, characteristics unfairly associated with Sylvia Morgan in the play.
Local Singaporeans are shown as faceless, voiceless servants. The condescending pidgin lingo used by the British (especially Sergeant-Major Reg Drummond) to communicate with them illustrates Rudyard Kipling characterization of the colonized as “half devil, half child.” It’s interesting to contrast the easy-to-hate, monstrous Drummond with the pietistic Major Flack. Drummond is a cesspool of human vice and gets his comeuppance when he is murdered by the servants he treats with such contempt. Major Flack embodies many of the same reprehensible ideas as Drummond (he is equally racist, sexist and homophobic) but he speaks the language of patriotism and Christian evangelism. He personifies la mission civilisatrice. Although Flack is less obviously repugnant (he seems like a harmless, anachronistic ad for the British empire), he is in fact far more dangerous. He represents the dull machinery that supports racist massacres, the steady bureaucracy behind powerful systems of injustice.
The play questions the usual justifications for empire. Why were the British in Singapore? For some higher calling or to exploit the rubber industry? What about the human cost of war – its effects on young British men being fed to the war machine and on the lives of the colonized? The last scene of the play was most vocal in articulating these contradictions. As the flotsam and jetsam of British occupation finally leave Singapore, their inscrutable servants show up in snazzy business suits and reveal Singapore’s magnificent night skyline. So much for “what will happen when we leave?”
Simon Russell Beale as Captain Denis
Mark Lewis Jones
Director Michael Grandage
Set and Costume Designer Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer Paule Constable
Choreographer Ben Wright
Sound design by Nick Lidster and Terry Jardine
Musical Director, Jae Alexander
One Man, Two Guvnors
One Man, Two Guvnors is an Anglicised adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s classic Italian farce, One Man, Two Masters. Cleverly set in 1960s Brighton, where gang activity and hooliganism are in full force, the play introduces us to a litany of odd characters and sleazy lowlifes, all motivated by money, sex, and food.
After being fired from his skiffle band, Francis Henshall finds employment with Roscoe Crabbe, a small time gangster who’s in Brighton to collect money from his fiancee’s father. We find out later that Roscoe is in fact dead and is being impersonated by his twin sister Rachel.
In his insatiable quest for more food, Francis accepts a second job, this time with Stanley Stubbers, a vain dimwit who’s hiding from the police. He is Rachel’s boyfriend and is hoping to get together with her. He is also the murderer of her brother Roscoe.
Francis’s goal in life is to keep his two bosses apart. However, his desire for food (and later for love) and his tendency to get easily confused make this plan difficult to execute.
One of the most hilarious scenes in the play is when Francis serves two dinners simultaneously, to both his bosses, with the help of the hotel manager and a superannuated waiter with shaking hands and an adjustable-speed pacemaker. The old waiter looks so enfeebled that it’s uncomfortable to laugh at him at first. However, the slapstick gets so intense, as Francis shuttles back and forth between two doors and the waiter goes up and down the stairs spilling soup and ruining a series of fancy entrées (Francis never loses an opportunity to take a bite or two), that it’s hard not to respond to the comedy. When the waiter falls backward down the stairs, it’s a moment of absolute shock and panic. However, he reappears soon enough and that’s when we appreciate the perfect timing of the choreography. He also runs amok and begins to spin out of control when his pacemaker gets too revved up. Who knew that the frail, unsteady waiter would turn out to be the most adept at physical comedy on account of his incredible athletic prowess?
The fourth wall is broken on a regular basis, as in most farces. Francis’s confessional monologues directed at the audience, his demand for a sandwich, theatergoers asked to help with a trunk and finally an actress planted in the audience who becomes the guileless victim of a farcical sketch, all add to a sense of reality meets fantasy. This imbues the play with the energy of improv while containing it within a meticulously choreographed and well-rehearsed structure.
Francis’s love-interest is a curvaceous bookeeper who makes some hilarious digs at Margaret Thatcher and her non-existent feminist credentials. Roscoe’s supposed fiancee (a quintessential dumb blonde) and her eventual suitor (a grandiloquent young actor) are two other characters who stand out.
Set changes are accompanies by musical interludes provided by The Craze, an actual skiffle band.
Skiffle is a type of popular music with jazz, blues, folk, and roots influences, usually using homemade or improvised instruments. Originating as a term in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, it became popular again in the UK in the 1950s, where it was mainly associated with musician Lonnie Donegan and played a major part in beginning the careers of later eminent jazz, pop, blues, folk and rock musicians.1
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Physical Comedy Director: Cal McCrystal
Designer: Mark Thompson
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Music and Songs: Grant Olding
Sound Designer: Paul Arditti
Associate Director / Choreographer: Adam Penford
Fight Director: Kate Waters
Associate Director: Lisa Blair
1. Wikipedia on Skiffle
Hansel and Gretel
Cottesloe (National Theatre)
Katie Mitchell’s Hansel and Gretel is a whimsical interpretation of the fairy tale, a lovely alternative to straightforward panto. The play’s most delightfully poetic scene happens right at the beginning, when we meet the Grimm brothers as a vaudeville double act. They’re in the middle of the Schwarzwald (possibly the same Black Forest where Hansel and Gretel encountered the witch), trying to capture tiny hummingbird-like stories zipping across the sky, with butterfly nets. What a brilliant metaphor for the Grimm brothers’ lifelong work. They began collecting stories in the early 1800s, in Hesse, where they lived. They were fascinated by the oral transmission of stories from one generation to another and found that many times they contained the same bits of ancient myth and religious folklore. After “netting” stories for many years, they published them in two separate volumes in 1812, 1814, and later in 1857.
In the play, the brothers bottle their stories and then release them into a confabulator. To confabulate means to “fill in gaps in one’s memory with fabrications that one believes to be facts.” Again, this is an inventive way to give tangible form to the process of revising and editing that the real-life Grimm brothers must have gone through. In Katie Mitchell’s imagination, the confabulator is a complex contraption that swallows flighty restless stories, processes them with steam-engine fussiness accompanied by gulping and gurgling sounds, and then delivers them in the form of finished books. The brothers know not to sit on the edge of the confabulator, yet they do, and down the rabbit hole they fall, so that they are now inside their own story. Perhaps it’s a sign of things to come – of witches being shoved into their own ovens.
The play relies heavily on personification to give lively form to inanimate objects and animals. The witch’s oven is a Russian count called Rotislav. His head and legs pop out of the oven and he’s happy to do a Cossack dance whenever given an opportunity. The witch’s sidekick is a bat named Stuart. We later find out that he too was put under a spell. In reality, he is an Eastern European ballet dancer.
Paul Clark provides the music to this playful production. Seated at a keyboard, he uses quirky add-ons to produce interesting sound effects. Lucy Kirkwood’s script is sharp. Not only is it hilarious but it also rhymes and enhances the play’s musicality. Vicki Mortimer’s set design is as simple as a storybook, with actors erecting walls and creating forests by moving cutout pine trees around the stage. Three sets of wings enable the cast to charge across the stage, this way and that. It’s reminiscent of silent comedies where actors chase one another, back and forth, across the entire width of the frame. It also reminded me of the chases in “One Man, Two Guvnors.”
Although Hansel and Gretel is a children’s story, like most fairy tales, it deals with many dark themes. Poverty and hunger are central to the storyline. It is the motivation behind the stepmother’s abandonment of her children. Food and feasting also drive the actions of the witch. Many believe that the story of Hansel and Gretel originated during the Great Famine (1315-1321) when crop failures led to massive deprivation, death and disease in Europe. Under these wretched conditions, cannibalism and infanticide were not unknown. The house made of sweets and Hansel’s willful fattening have a different resonance for us, people living in the West in the 21st century. Large-scale production of genetically modified nutrient-free notional food, addiction to highly processed junk food, childhood obesity, tooth decay and heart disease are representative of obscene over-consumption in the West. How appropriate then that the witch’s stolen jewels turn into an organic fruit and vegetable garden. Health is literally better than wealth.
Mitchell and Kirkwood are keen to highlight feminist elements in the story. Gretel’s coming of age is sketched in detail – from terrified little girl to confident young woman who manages to keep her wits about and trick the witch. The stepmother is also redeemed rather than killed, though with the addition of a fox’s tail. I was interested to learn, during the course of some basic research, that the story of Hansel and Gretel as we know it was repeatedly revised by the Grimm brothers. It started with evil natural parents but ended up with a reluctant father figure and a cruel stepmother. It started with a small old woman but ended up with a wicked witch who uses her candy-laden house to tempt and trap children. In short, the gradual witching of female characters, based on their duplicity and cruelty, was, to some extent, a contribution of the brothers.
Memory plays an important part in this fairy tale. It’s not just the use of white pebbles and bread crumbs to refresh one’s memory and find one’s way back home, it’s also about keeping the past alive in order to confront a dismal present and continue to hope for a happy ending.
Gretel: Ruby Bentall
The Witch: Kate Duchêne
Hansel: Dylan Kennedy
Father: Justin Salinger
Mother: Amit Shah
Director: Katie Mitchell
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Designer: Jon Clark
Movement Director: Joseph Alford
Music: Paul Clark
Sound Designer: Gareth Fry
Puppet Designer: Toby Olié
Dance of Death
Trafalgar Studio 2
Ibsen was sane, progressive and formal. Strindberg was neurotic, reactionary and fragmented. […] I see the two men as violent, necessary opposites, who between them laid the foundations of modern drama. From Ibsen we learned about the interaction of private and public, the beauty of structure and the idea of the dramatist as spokesperson: “What he lives through,” Ibsen once said, “all of his countrymen live through together with him.” From Strindberg we learned about sexual madness, fluidity of form and the power of dreams. Far more than Chekhov, whose symphonic realism is impossible not to admire but fatal to emulate, the two playwrights have shaped our drama…1
Ibsen was a realist, while Strindberg was a naturalist. In the preface to “Miss Julie,” Strindberg set forth “the criteria for a naturalist play: the drama should be unvarnished and close to reality; there should be no fabricated plot, no division into acts, no painted scenery; and the characters should be multidimensional.”2
Dance of Death is Strindberg’s darkest depiction of marriage. It’s a prelude to Edward Albee’s “Whose afraid of Virginia Woolf” which explores similar themes of marital toxicity articulated through savage verbal attacks and mind games that draw others into an infernal conjugal dance. In Ian Shuttleworth’s words: “This three-handed 1900 portrait of a rancorous marriage is probably Strindberg’s bitterest play (if it is not, I do not want to see the alternative candidate). Edgar is a bull, bellowing and charging at his targets; Alice is a serpent, insinuating her way around others to create stratagems. As they prepare grimly to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, Alice’s cousin Kurt arrives on the military garrison island to be sucked into their vortex.”
Titas Halder’s production is based on Conor McPherson’s new version of the play, which is lighter and lacks some of the cruelty and terror that permeate the original text. Edgar (a military failure) is less of an evil tormentor and more of a grouch and buffoon, while Alice (a bitter ex-actress) is strengthened for an all-out battle of equals. Kurt seems to be a neutral bystander at first but we gradually discover his history with the couple. His severance of ties with them, for many years, seems to have had a calming effect on his life and temper. He has found some comfort in religion. However, once he’s seduced into Edgar and Alice’s world, all his defenses begin to crumble, his id takes over and he’s consumed by imprudent impulses, including his sexual desire for Alice, which she is more than happy to stoke. To the couple, he is just a plaything – a weakling they can manipulate and forge into a weapon. They have a disturbing conversation, earlier in the play, about whether they want to invite a man or woman guest to dinner. They weigh the consequences of adding a catalyst to their matrimonial experiments. Our initial reaction is pity for these two people, trapped in a poisonous relationship. They know each other’s vulnerabilities – which buttons to press to elicit a certain response and cause maximum harm. However, their conscious participation in this twisted waltz adds more complexity to the standard lore of “bad marriage.” They relish the damaging games they play. Their co-dependence is founded on the excruciating ups and downs they suffer together and on the pain and pleasure they derive from them.
Edgar dies in the original play but in this interpretation, although his health is fading, he survives till the end. The couple rallies once again after their latest exhausting series of hellish confrontations involving Kurt. They know that they must return to the same tiresome pattern of abuse. Yet they are reconciled to that reality. They would be lost without it.
This was an intense play to experience in the confined space of Trafalgar Studio 2. The isolated military garrison island setting, a prison for this trapped couple, was in tune with the cramped space of the theatre. One felt part of the worn-out squalid set, privy to something incredibly ugly and private. Initially, we access this secluded, explosive, domestic bell jar through Kurt. But he soon loses his ability to negotiate that space and so do we.
Kevin R McNally (Edgar)
Daniel Lapaine (Kurt)
Indira Varma (Alice)
August Strindberg (Author)
Donmar Warehouse (Producer)
Titas Halder (Director)
Conor McPherson (Translation)
Conor McPherson (Adaptation)
Richard Kent (Design)
Richard Howell (Lighting)
Alex Baranowski (Sound)
Alex Baranowski (Music)
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Royal Shakespeare Company
Here’s an excellent introduction to “The Merry Wives of Windsor” by Caldwell Titcomb in the Harvard Crimson:
Many critics have been quick to look down their pedantic noses at Shakespeare’s Merry Wives. They decry its lack of psychologic or philosophic depth; they bemoan its coarse language; they complain that almost none of it is in verse. Indeed the play is prose, but not prosaic. And the critics blame Shakespeare for not producing what he never had the slightest intention of producing. There is evidence that Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted with the character of Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV that she commanded the writing of a play about Falstaff in love; and that, in compliance, Shakespeare wrote his Merry Wives in fourteen days, with nothing in mind but providing a joyous entertainment. Merry Wives is not tragedy, nor tragicomedy. It is not even comedy; it is farce pure and simple (also impure and not-so-simple). And it is a most significant item in the canon, through being the only play the Bard ever wrote entirely about the ordinary citizenry of his own day and locale. Actually, it is a transferral to the stage of the comic medieval French verse-tale genre known as the fabliau. The fabliaux and the play depict contemporary society and diction, delight in practical jokes, revel in adultery and cuckoldry, and indulge in frank and often obscene language.
In this RSC production, Shakespeare’s fabliau (in which cuckoldry actually never happens) has been contemporized to what many describe as modern day Windsor-upon-Avon. This is in keeping with the play’s intention of being more current than it pretends to be. Set in the 1400s (the same period as Shakespeare’s history plays), it is in fact very much rooted in Elizabethan England circa 1600.
Desmond Barrit plays a portly John Falstaff in a tweed suit that has seen better days. He personifies gluttony in all its manifestations: food, money, sex. His very fatness is a physical embodiment of excessive passion. Insatiability of desire and unwarranted conceit make him surprisingly naive. In order to solve his money problems he decides to seduce both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford simultaneously, sending them the exact same love letter. It doesn’t take the women long to figure out his motives and they plan a series of humiliations in order to exact revenge. Inadvertently, their scheme lures Frank Ford (Alice’s insanely jealous husband in an ill-fitting wig) into their web of trickery and he becomes an active part of what was supposed to be an entertaining ménage à trois.
I loved the pairing of the much more discreet (perhaps slightly older) Meg Page with the vivaciously sexy Alice Ford. Women are so often pitted against one another in film and literature, that it is truly refreshing to see this beautifully divergent pair stand up to men by tapping into their own intuition and artistry. Their solidarity is stellar and that’s why they get the last laugh.
Two of the most hilarious moments in the play are Falstaff’s “illicit” visits to Alice Ford’s house. She has carefully orchestrated the scene of the seduction – low lights, floor cushions, slinky outfit, flirtatious mien and some obligatory Marvin Gaye. Completely oblivious to the absurdity of the situation, Falstaff is more than happy to get into the groove and boogey wholeheartedly to “Let’s get it on.” When Frank Ford arrives on the scene, seething with suspicion, Falstaff is quickly relegated to the dirty and smelly laundry basket, which is later emptied into the Thames. But does that discourage Falstaff? No, he thinks the ladies are playing hard to get with him. His optimism is touching. He sees himself as the victim of bad timing rather than anything else.
After enacting a series of confused mêlées (which always end badly for Falstaff), the ladies take their husbands and families into their confidence. They plan one last collective deception. Falstaff is asked to dress up as Herne the Hunter and meet them in secret near the old oak tree. In English folklore, Herne is an equestrian ghost, with antlers on his head (wearing horns means to be cuckolded, a subject of immense hilarity for medieval and Elizabethan audiences). Herne is a forest keeper, a maintainer of boundaries. It’s a particularly ironic role to assign Falstaff, whose licentious appetites erase all boundaries and encroach on other people’s minds, bodies and capital.
Once he gets to the rendezvous, Falstaff is attacked by countless fairies and goblins (Ford and Page families and friends in disguise). However, he takes the joke quite well. He has acquired a certain measure of self-knowledge (and hopefully wisdom) through this long series of denigrations. Falstaff’s resilience is so impressive because of his ability to project his own desires onto others and live in a world defined by his imagination rather than reality. Once he’s trapped and confronted with the truth, a kind of intervention on the part of the town, perhaps he is finally able to mesh his truth with that of the world.
There is evidence to suggest that Merry Wives might have been a Halloween play, Halloween being the pagan holiday that preceded All Saints Day and marked the transition from autumn to winter. Meg and Alice decide to purge their families of Falstaff’s corrupt influence at midnight, on October 31st, which is considered to be the “threshold between mischievous license and saintly conduct.”1
There is another story in the play that’s intertwined with that of Falstaff. It’s the story of Anne Page (Meg’s daughter) who is an object of desire for several young men. In spite of the many match-making schemes, all delegated to and executed by the efficient Mistress Quickly (who looks like a corporate personal assistant), in the end Anne is successful in marrying the man she loves and thereby defeating everyone’s marriage ploys. The nocturnal chaos that surrounds Falstaff’s final disgrace is essential to Anne’s success. Something Falstaff can be legitimately proud of.
Desmond Barrit – Sir John Falstaff
David Charles – Sir Hugh Evans
Anita Dobson – Mistress Quickly
Paapa Essiedu – Fenton
Calum Finlay – Abraham Slender
Alexandra Gilbreath – Alice Ford
Stephen Harper – Bardolph
Martin Hyder – George Page
Julia Innocenti – Neighbour
Ansu Kabia – Nim
Sylvestra Le Touzel – Meg Page
Carla Mendonca – Neighbour
Thomas Pickles – Peter Simple
John Ramm – Frank Ford
Naomi Sheldon – Ann Page
Ged Simmons – Pistol
Bart David Soroczynski – Dr Caius
David Sterne – Justice Shallow
Simeon Truby – Host of the Garter
Obioma Ugoala – Jack Rugby
Directed by Phillip Breen
Designed by Max Jones
Lighting by Tina McHugh
Music composed by Paddy Cunneen
Sound by Simon Baker
Movement by Ayse Tashkiran
Fights by Renny Krupinski
Assistant Director Edward Stambollouian
The Orphan of Zhao
Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company
“Records of the Grand Historian” was written by the Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian between 109 and 91 BC. It recounts Chinese history going all the way back to 2600 BC. The story of the Zhao family forms one of the chapters of this book. It was later adapted by dramatist Ji Junxiang in the 13th century, for his play “The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Zhao.” European translations of the play began in the 18th century and included, most notably, one by Voltaire in 1753. Voltaire appreciated the Confucian, moralistic dimension of the play but described it as “nothing but a heap of incredible stories.” He made the play more substantive and appealing to European audiences by weaving a love story through it. The original play was known to be extremely stark.
“The Orphan of Zhao” is often compared to “Hamlet” due to its preoccupation with revenge – a depraved father figure vs a conflicted, emotionally torn heir to a family fortune who must exact vengeance in order to do his duty. In this production Tu’an Gu, the evil father figure, riffs on the Danish Prince when he proclaims solemnly: “To be or not to be…” and then continues with “… powerful, one must be feared”. That’s exactly how far that comparison goes.
I found more meaningful parallels with the story of Moses in the Book of Exodus. Considering the extraordinarily ancient roots of the Zhao family saga, such parallels would make more chronological sense as well.
The Egyptian Pharaoh orders the murder of all male Hebrew newborns. Moses’s mother is successful in having her child spirited away. He ends up in the bosom of the Egyptian royal family and is brought up as one of their own. As a youth he becomes increasingly disillusioned by the injustice meted out to the Hebrew masses. Eventually he revolts against and destroys his surrogate family, the very system of power that nurtured him as a child.
The mythic-size sacrifice demanded of Dr Cheng can be compared to God’s command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac, although such filicide is eventually averted. In the play, Dr Cheng sacrifices his infant son for the sake of justice (and possibly for the preservation of an aristocratic bloodline?) which is seen to be as definitive as a divine decree.
This brings me to Confucius and the necessity for a social hierarchical structure. Confucius was mainly concerned with humanism. He held altruism (ren), moral uprightness (yi) and a system of proper norms (li) to be of utmost importance, so much so that one should be prepared to sacrifice one’s life for these essential moral values. However, Confucian ethics were politicized during the Han Dynasty in order to legitimize the power and privilege of the ruling elite. We see these moral and political forces interacting with one another in the play.
Giving up one’s life for honor and justice is a recurrent theme in the play. The staging of these suicides and killings was problematic for me. Although each honorable death was followed by a symbolic sprinkling of red petals that seemed to fall from the sky, their staging lacked gravitas and meaning. It was evident that these mechanical (almost absurd) sacrifices provoked cultural otherization more than anything else. Rather than an appreciation of what honor, altruism and moral rectitude can mean (at a time when these words are losing their meaning), we are left with subliminal assertions about the West’s life-affirming superiority.
I understand that the original play, with its brilliant ancient history, might have been spare in its structure. Perhaps this adaptation by James Fenton was an homage to the original text. If such were the RSC’s intentions then a predominantly Chinese cast could have brought more authenticity to Fenton’s words. Only 3 actors, out of the 17 member cast, had Asian origins and they were mostly relegated to minor roles. When confronted with their unfair casting, the RSC came up with two arguments: 1) their casting was color-blind – they simply hired the best actors for the job, 2) the same cast would have had to perform in 2 other plays as artistic director Gregory Doran explained to the Guardian:
…The Oprhan of Zhao is part of a three-play season. A single company will also perform Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and a new version of Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo by Mark Ravenhill. “The RSC have led the way in non-culturally specific casting, but there was no way I was going to do this with an exclusively Chinese cast that would then go through to those other plays,” said Doran.
It’s interesting how the RSC’s second statement invalidates the veracity of the first. A Chinese actor commented on how sad it was that Asian actors were not deemed good enough to play themselves, an especially sharp observation since much of the acting in this production was not up to snuff. It was flat for the most part and in the case of the Princess, dramatically overboard. Perhaps it’s the double whammy of actors trying to act like they imagine actors from another culture would have acted in the 13th century. It creates too much emotional (and cultural) distance.
Some of the otherworldly elements in the play were much welcome and added some texture to it, e.g. the ghosts of people who had died trying to do the right thing. The final scene between Dr Cheng and the ghost of his grown-up son, who had been sacrificed as an infant, was touching.
Matthew Aubrey – Ti Miming
Jeremy Avis – Ballad Singer
Adam Burton – The Assassin
Joe Dixon – Tu’an Gu
Jake Fairbrother – Cheng Bo
Lloyd Hutchinson – Han Jue
Youssef Kerkour – Captain of the Guard
Chris Lew Kum Hoi – Ghost of Dr Cheng’s Son/Demon Mastiff
Siu Hun Li – Demon Mastiff/Guard
Patrick Romer – Gongsun
James Tucker – Zhao Dun
Graham Turner – Dr Cheng
Stephen Ventura – Emperor Ling
Philip Whitchurch – Wei Jang
Lucy Briggs-Owen – The Princess
Nia Gwynne – Dr Cheng’s Wife
Susan Momoko Hingley – Princess’ Maid
Joan Iyiola – Demon Mastiff
Director – Gregory Doran
Designer – Niki Turner
Lighting – Tim Mitchell
Music – Paul Englishby
Sound – Martin Slavin
Movement – Will Tuckett
Sauce for the Goose
Orange Tree Theatre
French playwright Georges Feydeau was born in 1862. He came into his own during the Belle Epoque, which was a time of peace and prosperity in Europe before the devastation of WWI. Much of this era’s wealth was the product of aggressive overseas colonialism, including the scramble for Africa. As a result, optimism and political stability were secured inside of western and central Europe. The arts and sciences flourished in Paris and the idea of flânerie (defined as “the gastronomy of the eye” by Balzac) was all the rage. Feydeau’s plays dominated the theatre scene while cabarets such as Le Moulin Rouge and Les Folies Bergère provided entertainment to the less affluent.
This socio-cultural landscape is evident in Feydeau’s storyline, e.g. he contrasts hedonists living in a demi-monde of unfettered drinking, gambling and sexual liaisons with the bourgeoisie and its preoccupation with respectability. Feydeau himself was a known womanizer who separated from his wife after 20 years of marriage. He lived at the Hôtel Terminus until he was committed to a mental asylum where he died of syphilis.
Marriage, adultery and deception form the core of Feydeau’s plays, which are peopled by recognizable, everyday characters caught in an intricate web of lies. Situations collapse onto one another, leading to a domino effect of increasing calamity and despair. Though the structure of the play is mechanistic, the satirical commentary that accompanies descriptions of social as well as sexual norms is lively and engaging.
In Sauce for the Goose, Lucienne is committed to gender equality even when it comes to matters of adultery. She is being hotly pursued by her husband’s friend, Pontagnac, when we meet her. Later we find out that she is also being courted by the suave Redillion. An affair is out of the question, however, unless her husband cheats on her. After she discovers her husband’s liaison with the passionate Teutonic Heidi (a trove of foreigner gags), she decides to take revenge. I liked her chutzpah and looked forward to an interesting denouement. However, Lucienne’s quest for equality turns out to be a simple trick meant to arouse her husband’s jealousy (and win him back). The same goes for Mrs Pontagnac. Both married women are kept chaste to the very end, even though their husband’s have definitely strayed. These sexual double standards are articulated by Jerome, Redillon’s manservant, when he distinguishes a “tart” from a respectable married woman.
The only sexually liberated woman in the play is Armandine. She seems to live in Redillon’s demi-monde and could very well be a prostitute. Heidi is sexually aggressive, actively seeking her married lover and demanding a continuation of their affair. Perhaps her transgressions can be more easily overlooked on account of her foreignness. In short, for all its sexual intrigue, the play remains conventional in its subscription to social norms, although it is not timid about exposing bourgeois hypocrisy.
Feydeau’s formula starts with an elaborate set-up, followed by a manic middle, and then a final resolution. The complexity of his plot, with its perfectly timed blunders, mishaps and coincidences, is often described as a “jack-in-the-box construction.”
Feydeau’s farces are famous for their challenging stage directions. Their reliance on endless entrances and exits through stage doors further emphasizes the need for precision and timing. The Orange Tree Theatre, which is an in-the-round theatre, did a brilliant job with Sauce for the Goose. Actors mimed the opening and closing of doors while an off-stage extra provided the appropriate sound effects. The set furniture was quickly converted from coffee table and couch to plush bed. The cast was able to bring rich and credible characters to life. It was their polished performances combined with creative staging and Feydeau’s hilarious twists and turns which made this a terrific production. The director, Sam Walters, is known for reviving forgotten plays. I can see why.
David Antrobus – Pontagnac
Vincent Brimble – Pinchard
Beth Cordingly – Lucienne
Rebecca Egan – Heidi
Stuart Fox – Vatelin
James Joyce – Jean/Victor
Damien Matthews – Redillion
Brian Miller – Hotel Manager
Amy Neilson Smith – Madame De Pontagnac/Clara
Auriol Smith – Madame Pinchard
Jonathan Tafler – Soldignac
Sarah Winter – Armandine
Written by Georges Feydeau
Translated by Peter Meyer
Directed by Sam Walters
Designer Sam Dowson
Lighting Designer John Harris
In the Republic of Happiness
Royal Court Theatre
Martin Crimp’s fragmented “In the Republic of Happiness” is an investigation of form and language rather than conventional theatre. It’s described an “an entertainment in three parts.” Crimp elaborates further: “For years I have been trying to write a play that would go alongside Attempts on Her Life, which is the kind of play that sets out to create a sieve in which you could collect all the residue, all the psychic shit that flows through us all.” Some reviewers, such as Michael Billington, have suggested that the tree parts of the play are Crimp’s attempt at a modern Divine Comedy: “After the Inferno of family relationships we then see the Purgatory of self-preoccupation before we get a glimpse of Paradise in which Bob and Madeleine become a modern Dante and Beatrice.” There are certainly some common elements, such as the transition from dark to light over the course of the play, but in Crimp’s hands, Dante’s allegorical journey of the soul towards God is outfitted with rich Surrealist automatism.
- Part 1: Destruction of the Family
The title of the first act is reminiscent of Louise Bourgeois’s 1974 sculptural piece called “The Destruction of the Father.” She described its narrative as follows: “The children grabbed him [the father] and put him on the table. And he became the food. They took him apart, dismembered him. Ate him up. And so he was liquidated…the same way he liquidated his children. The sculpture represents both a table and a bed.” Crimp’s first act mirrors some of this radical psychoanalysis. It’s the portrait of a dysfunctional family (parents, children, grandparents) having Christmas dinner together. There are in semi-darkness as they’re scrimping on light bulbs. One of the daughters is pregnant but refuses to name her child’s father. The family’s dysfunction takes a terrifying turn after Uncle Bob appears on stage. He begins to enumerate the ways in which his wife, Madeleine, hates them – working on each member of the family with careful malice. We begin to suspect that he might have impregnated his niece. It’s the ultimate desecration of familial sanctity.
One of the themes discussed in this act is downward social mobility or “generational entropy.” The grandmother of the family is a physician and part of the wealthy middle class. However, her children have moved down the social ladder and the future looks even bleaker for her grandchildren. This is a socio-economic reality in Britain.
- Part 2: The Five Essential Freedoms of the Individual
In this act, the play shifts totally away from plot. The actors take their place in a row of seats facing the audience. Behind them is a jumbotron with color bars in it. They are part of a TV talk show – the ultimate reality-based, modern-day amusement. The use of “entertainment” to reveal and shape our collective mentality, simplified to its lowest common denominator, called to mind the parlor walls in Fahrenheit 451.
Much of Fahrenheit 451 is devoted to depicting a future United States society bombarded with messages and imagery by an omnipresent mass media. Instead of the small black-and-white TV screens common in American households in 1953 (the year of the book’s publication), the characters in the novel live their lives in rooms with entire walls that act as televisions. These TVs show serial dramas in which the viewer’s name is woven into the program and the viewer is able to interact with fictional characters called “the relatives” or “the family.” Scenes change rapidly, images flash quickly in bright colors, all of it designed to produce distraction and fascination. When not in their interactive TV rooms, many characters, including Guy Montag’s wife Mildred, spend much of their time with “Seashell ear thimbles” in their ears—miniature radio receivers that play constant broadcasts of news, advertisements, and music, drowning out the real sounds of the world. Throughout the novel, Bradbury portrays mass media as a veil that obscures real experience and interferes with the characters’ ability to think deeply about their lives and societal issues. Bradbury isn’t suggesting that media other than books couldn’t be enriching and fulfilling. As Faber tells Montag, “It isn’t books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books…. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not.” In an interview marking the fiftieth anniversary of the novel’s publication, Bradbury indicated that some of his fears about mass media had been realized. “We bombard people with sensation, he said, “That substitutes for thinking.” 1
In this sharply satirical section, Crimp touches upon many contemporary dilemmas. The actors are not assigned any specific lines and they compete for airtime in voicing these ideas.
The myth of individualism (bordering on narcissism) is discussed at length and linked to the disintegration of the family unit and of the community at large. The talking heads on stage make forceful proclamations such as “I write the script of my own life, I am the one, I am in control,” yet they’re all completing each other’s sentences and regurgitating the same banal ideas. Andy Warhol said that “in the future everybody will be free to think exactly what they like – and they will all think the same.” This is what Crimp is trying to stress as well – the illusion of individual choice and freedom.
Noam Chomsky has written a classic on the subject, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.” Chomsky explains: “The elite media are sort of the agenda-setting media. And they do this in all sorts of ways: by selection of topics, by distribution of concerns, by emphasis and framing of issues, by filtering of information, by bounding of debate within certain limits. They determine, they select, they shape, they control, they restrict – in order to serve the interests of dominant, elite groups in the society.” Arundhati Roy calls it perception management.
Consumerism is an essential part of this management. Materialism and conformity go hand in hand, and so do excessive consumerism and citizen docility. The “happiness = extravagant consumerism = patriotism” formula was evident in the aftermath of 9/11, when President Bush advised traumatized New Yorkers to go shopping. Yet Americans have not been able to attain sustainable happiness. The fallacy at the core of this argument for limitless consumption is that we pre-supposed limitless growth. George Monbiot: “Our economic system depends upon never-ending growth, yet we live in a world with finite resources. Our expectation of progress is, as a result, a delusion.”
“The freedom to separate my legs (it’s nothing political)” is a discerning expose of the erosion of civil liberties in the name of national security. It’s timely satire. Not only are we forced to go through checkpoints and submit to invasive body searches every time we travel but President Obama just signed the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) which codifies indefinite military detention without charge or trial into law for the first time in American history. It also legalizes extra-judicial executions. An important sign of being an obedient citizen is to disavow politics: “there is nothing political about my body, nothing political about my holiday hat, don’t give me that crap about the rich and poor, stop droning on about what constitutes a just war, don’t you come here telling me what my life’s supposed to be for…” Many of these obsessive mantras are set to music in the form of cheery songs.
“The freedom to experience horrid trauma” embodies the oprahfication of mainstream media and culture, so that “15 minutes of fame” trump all concerns about privacy. It’s not just about confessional or reality TV, it’s also about the internet. Blogs and social media have shoved the intensely personal into the public domain. We must be able to “put it all behind us and move on” through collective, do-it-yourself, Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul kind of therapy.
Finally, “the freedom to look good and live forever” is about living longer than ever in human history. It’s also about focusing on the present to the detriment of long-term memory. It’s about selecting and deleting that which is unpleasant or inconvenient such as massacres and our complicity in them. This is something I am acutely aware of. My new series of artwork (titled “This heirloom”) is based on the idea of collective forgetting and explores ways of reconnecting to the past.
Paul Taylor summarized the second act of the play thus:
The self-serving delusion that you can lead an apolitical life, the individualism that’s just a type of paranoid narcissistic conformity; the culture of victimhood and therapy-speak – these things are skewered in an overlapping aural mosaic of escalating craziness (“My horrid abusive baby plus flashbacks of my abusive priest!”) and in the tartly funny songs (with music by Roald van Oosten) that imagine an almost post-human existence (“It’s a new kind of world/And it doesn’t come cheap/And you’ll only survive/If you don’t go deep”). Ending with a relationship now shadowed by dementia, this deep, provocative play refuses to heed that advice.
- Part 3: In the Republic of Happiness
The last section of the play is prefaced by a line from Dante: “You are not on the Earth as you believe.” Uncle Bob and Madeleine have now arrived in the Republic of Happiness. After a stunning set change, in which the entire stage is lifted vertically as if inside an elevator shaft, we move into a brightly lit white room, with a serene view of a river on the back wall. Is this final destination heaven or a psychiatric clinic? The view of the river from the French window looks eerily like a René Magritte painting. Magritte, a Belgian surrealist, is known for his poetic imagery which challenges our perceptions of reality. His surprising juxtaposition of objects from different worlds and his experiments with scale, produce an uncomfortable sensation. That seems to be Crimp’s intention as well. Something is terribly wrong in this perfectly shiny, sterile environment. One can sense mental violence – forceful mind manipulation. Uncle Bob is being brainwashed to believe that he is “happy.” He must be a mouthpiece for a well scripted and carefully rehearsed message directed at his fellow citizens. In the end, “happiness” turns out to be an empty and meaningless jingle (the 100% happy song) that he must sing with conviction.
…You can say anything provided you follow my rules.
…You forget how happy you are, how happy this world makes you.
…I am molding billions of malleable human cells through you.
It reminded me of the psychological torture, the state-sponsored curing of non-conformist mental fallacies, in Orwell’s 1984.
Director Dominic Cooke
Set Designer Miriam Buether
Costume Designer Moritz Junge
Lighting Designer Peter Mumford
Composer Roald van Oosten
Sound Designer Paul Arditti
Musical Director James Fortune
Duke of York Theatre
It’s hard to believe that Nick Payne’s perfectly conceptualized “Constellations” was inspired by two documentaries: “Vanishing of the Bees,” which is about the disappearance of bees due to colony collapse disorder, and “The Elegant Universe,” which discusses contemporary theoretical physics, especially string theory.
“Einstein’s theory of relativity does a fantastic job for explaining big things,” [Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe] says. “Quantum mechanics is fantastic for the other end of the spectrum — for small things. The big problem is that each theory is great for each realm, but when they confront each other, they are ferocious antagonists, and the mathematics falls apart.” String theory smooths out the mathematical inconsistencies that currently exist between quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. It posits that the entire universe can be explained in terms of really, really small strings that vibrate in 10 or 11 dimensions — meaning dimensions we can’t see. If it exists, it could explain literally everything in the universe — from subatomic particles to the laws of speed and gravity. So what does this have to do with the possibility that a multiverse exists? “There are a couple of multiverses that come out of our study of string theory,” Greene says. “Within string theory, the strings that we’re talking about are not the only entities that this theory allows. It also allows objects that look like large flying carpets, or membranes, which are two dimensional surfaces. And what that means, within string theory, is that we may be living on one of those gigantic surfaces, and there can be other surfaces floating out there in space.” 1
Although Constellations embraces the concept of parallel universes, it is less about science and more about dramatic form. Payne reduced the story to bare essentials, using two characters only, in order to better investigate the play’s structure. It’s a simple love story told in a most unusual way. Boy meets girl at a barbecue but that meeting contains infinite possibilities and we witness many of them in quick succession. As each likely occurrence is investigated further, it leads to another set of multiple outcomes. Soon we begin to discern the vastness and complexity of time and space, of the cosmos wherein we exist. Each single moment of our lives is pregnant with limitless potential.
The boy in question is Roland, a beekeeper. He is traditional, a caregiver who envies the simplicity and discipline of a bee’s life. The girl is Marianne, a chatty scientist who specializes in string theory. She finds it difficult to bring the different elements of her life together. The hunt for the ultimate theory of physics, which explains everything, is as relevant in her personal life as in her work. Over the course of the play, the exponential outcomes of their relationship become tragically circumscribed and fixed. This brilliant honing of the storyline from unmanageable infinity to increasingly narrow scenarios is accomplished through intermittent scenes in which the actors are bathed in a golden light (a twilight afterglow). Together these flash forward scenes anchor the story in one particular universe and foreshadow the play’s denouement, ever so subtly.
Paul Taylor describes this dramatic construction beautifully: “Cubist visual art crunches together many moments in time within the instantaneous stillness of a picture. Here it’s as if a magic wand has been waved over such a work so that it comes alive, the multiple variations elapsing elastically in the constantly re-angled present tense of stunningly well-deployed stage time.”
The play is non-linear, with scenes skipping back and forth in time, so the dialogue in each repeating scene becomes a sort of comforting refrain. Tom Scutt’s set, with its large hovering balloons, is simple and eloquent. Does it represent the Big Bang and the formation of constellations and universes? Do the balloons represent possibilities and this is why they begin to fall away as the story progresses? Or is it Marianne’s grey matter that is degenerating? By the end of the play, her ability to find words and articulate thoughts is greatly diminished on account of the disease attacking her brain. Lee Curran’s lighting is an integral part of the play’s architecture. Each outcome is separated by a burst of light (and sound) in the dark and the flash forward scenes are distinguished from the rest of the play due to their sepia glow.
Constellations is an ideal platform for showcasing an actor’s skills. Both actors in this production are breathtakingly sharp, switching effortlessly between multidimensional variations in time, place and emotion. Their stellar individual performances and unmistaken chemistry make it easy for them to color in their characters, dot by dot, shift by shift, angle by angle. They have no difficulty in filling up an empty stage.
Constellations are star configurations that we imbue with meaning based on our vantage point. They enable us to project a mythology onto a dark, unknown sky. Nick Payne’s clever play is laced with the same magic and mystery.
It reminded me of the 1998 German film “Run Lola Run” which is composed of three runs, in which Lola starts from the same point in time and space but arrives at different outcomes based on slight deviations in action. Like the play, the film contains flash forward sequences which show how other people’s lives were affected by their varied encounters with Lola (a reference to chaos theory’s butterfly effect). The film raises questions about free will vs determinism, and so does Payne’s play.
Rafe Spall as Roland
Sally Hawkins as Marianne
Nick Payne: Writer
Michael Longhurst: Director
Tom Scutt: Designer
Lee Curran: Lighting
David McSeveney: Sound
Simon Slater: Composer
Lucy Cullingford: Movement
The Architects is inspired by the Greek myth of the Minotaur. Briefly, this is how it goes. Crete’s King Minos refuses to sacrifice the beautiful white bull Poseidon gifted him. He breaks his promise and decides to keep the Cretan bull. As punishment, Aphrodite makes his wife Pasiphae fall in love with the bull. Pasiphae orders Daedalus, a master craftsman and architect, to build her a hollow cow, in which she mates with the bull. As a result of the union, her son, the Minotaur, is half man, half beast. As he begins to feast on human flesh, Minos traps him inside a complex labyrinth designed by Daedalus. For years, the Minotaur is sustained by human sacrifice, until Theseus, with the help of Minos’s daughter Ariadne, succeeds in killing the monster. Daedalus suggests Theseus tie a string to the door of the maze in order to find his way back out. After Theseus elopes with Ariadne, Minos is enraged. He imprisons Daedalus and his son Icarus inside the labyrinth. Daedalus fashions wings for himself and his son out of feathers and wax. They are successful in escaping from their prison but Icarus flies too close to the sun and his wings fall apart. He falls into the sea and drowns.
Although there are constant references to this mythology, especially from the standpoint of the Minotaur and the story of Daedalus and Icarus, the play is more about present day economic malaise in Europe. Greece is used as a symbol of the separation between Europe’s nostalgic past and its lackluster, economically depressed present – we have to ponder the differences between Greece as the cradle of civilization and Greece as it stands today in the midst of penury and street riots.
The Architects is a production of Shunt, an innovative company that specializes in experimental theatre. As we enter the Biscuit Factory, a huge warehouse space, there are no ushers to direct us. We have to find out way through a labyrinth. It’s connected to various small rooms and dead ends, some outfitted with video screens projecting images of lost audience members in other parts of the maze. The idea is to confuse and disorient. We end up in what looks like a cafe adjacent to a stage where three musicians are playing elevator music. We’re not sure this is where we’re supposed to be (is it an anteroom to the actual theatre?) but we sit down like everyone else. There is a bar behind us offering people beverages.
In the last room, at the end of the labyrinth, we passed by a small replica of a cruise ship. We are now on board. After a while the lights go off. When they come back on we see an exceedingly pregnant woman in an expensive silk dress, limping along, in one high-heeled sandal, to the other side of the cafe. She reaches into a hallowed out cow with a glass rear and retrieves her other sandal. She kisses the cow and disappears. It’s Pasiphae expecting her son, the Minotaur. The lights go out again and come back on. We are introduced to the architects, our Danish hosts. They are extremely zealous in welcoming us and shake hands with each and every audience member. After an interesting lecture on architecture and how it can change the world, our hosts (now crew members) begin to “sell” us the cruise. Abundant food, great parties, drawing classes, sports, making love to a dolphin inside a hollowed out shell – no problem, the sky is the limit.
We soon find out that the ship’s crew works for a debauched, obscenely rich family, mostly sprawled around in leopard print and Hugh Hefner dressing gowns, partaking of food and wine. They skype in periodically to castigate their employees. They appear on enormous video monitors and totally dominate the narrative when they do so. Greece’s powerful ancient gods are today’s Silvio Berlusconis. It must be said that in matters of taste and lifestyle, our “elite” have probably not strayed very far. As we travel past different Mediterranean ports, the crew assembles to sing in unison.
However, things soon begin to go awry. Vandalism, drunkenness and sex orgies are followed by food shortages, power outages, and finally violence. The ship has been taken over by some kind of evil. Although we never see it, we are given plastic forks to defend ourselves. The crew becomes increasingly panicked. Something’s got to give. Audience members are separated in two groups – men and women. We are led to different areas in which we are told via teleprompters that even though we were much valued by the crew, we must be sacrificed. It is pitch dark. We now move to a third area, where we witness an aerial sequence in which acrobats dance vertically, hanging from ropes. The ropes begin to fall. One acrobat disappears, then the other. Are they Daedalus and Icarus? Back on the cruise ship they were introduced to us as the crew’s “children.” In fact both of them gave us a kiss goodnight before being sent to bed.
On an elevated stage in the same viewing area, a Minotaur is stabbed and killed. The back wall is lit and we discern a giant alcove at the top. A semi-nude family, wine glass in hand, is posing in it as if in a giant window display. There is a white bull next to them. We wait for a while looking at the frozen actors, the dead Minotaur, the fallen ropes. We wait some more. Finally some people begin to move towards the light streaming in through a door. We follow suit, at our own pace. The door leads us back to the cafe. We sit down. Is the play over? We wait. Finally people begin to exit. We go back through the labyrinth but this time there is a string that guides us through it.
This is sensation theatre.
Shunt founding member David Rosenberg explains how the company was interested in exploring “fear mongering and what it would take to make an entire country sacrifice their children.” The cruise ship represents a nation, a group of people organized under a single government. We are allowed to eat, drink and fornicate to excess but we cannot disembark or change course. In times of financial distress, we are not told the truth. Rather monsters are invented to keep us distracted. Fear mongering is so extreme that we are willing to sacrifice everything for security – even that which is most valuable to us, our civil liberties and our children. The corporate elite who control our world are just as corrupt and grandiose as ancient gods – cruel, callous, greedy, and fatally self-absorbed. Our “elected” politicians are nothing more than their minions. They use propaganda to disorient and confuse us, to sell us fairy tales about terror and evil, until these over-produced charades end with an anti-climax. The play’s message is quite succinct, even though it’s wrapped in oversized myth.
This is the kind of theatre that settles down in one’s mind and begins to blossom with time. Initially I found the play to be too gimmicky, too concerned with being innovative to be truly profound. I still find the parallels between contemporary Europe and Greek mythology to be a bit forced but I appreciate the thought that went into making these connections, in assembling a cast of colorful characters, in the creative use of space, in seamless audience participation. This is sensation theatre.
Alan Bennett, a leading British dramatist, is known for writing about England’s post World War II malaise, produced in part by the loss of its empire. He has a considerable following in England and is viewed as the voice of the people. When asked about his latest play “People,” he appropriately described it as a “play for England, sort of.” “People” is a tragicomedy about a decaying country trying to cope by selling its history. Bennett points an accusatory finger at the National Trust, which is eager to turn a dilapidated South Yorkshire country estate, along with its dilapidated aristocratic owner, into a prettified part of the heritage industry. Bennett’s heroine, Dorothy, represents old wealth. She is completely averse to the idea of opening up her house (and herself) to the public and becoming a tourist attraction. She is nostalgic for an England where people and things were allowed to age and die a natural death. It reminded me of Martin Crimp’s “In the Republic of Happiness” and the “freedom to look good and live forever.”
Dorothy is so allergic to the crass commercialization of histories, both private and collective, that she is willing to consider radical options like having a shady business concern (today’s banksters and assorted corporate elite) lift up the entire house and transport it to Dorset or Wiltshire. She is also amenable to the house being used as a filming location, by an old friend of hers, a director of cheap porn. “This is not Allegory House,” Dorothy exclaims in order to diffuse any obvious analogies to England and its gradual degradation, but there it is, the idea that the most private and sacred of human experiences can be commodified and sold on the market for profit. Tourism is a form of pornography after all – it involves the same violation of privacy, the same indiscriminate mass consumption of history and culture. Like most plays we saw in London, this one too refers to the malediction of Thatcher’s 1980s, when “everything had a price” and “if it didn’t have a price, it didn’t have a value.” The house’s shaky foundations are referred to frequently in the play (it rumbles once in a while before settling down). So many natural resources have been extracted from under it, that its very integrity is now in question.
June, Dorothy’s aggressively pragmatic archdeacon sister, finally gets her way and the National Trust takes over the narrative. The scrubbing and enhancement of history is brought home to us through an excellent metaphor – chamber pots lying in the attic and once filled by Rudyard Kipling and Bernard Shaw, are sterilized and refilled with fresh urine. The idea of celebrity urine is heightened and extended to celebrity Eucharists – even religion, the domain of the spiritual, is not left unscathed by the economics of demand and supply.
Once the National Trust takes possession of the house, it is magically transformed (before our very eyes) into a glittering gallery displaying relics of the past. The lofty Dorothy, a glamorous model and actress of yore, is now relegated to the sad role of tour guide. She gives her favorite necklace, probably the most valuable thing she owns, to a young make-up artist who made her feel grand, even if it was for just a few hours, and for a porn flick shoot in which she delivered a few lines. She doesn’t tell the young woman her necklace’s financial worth. It’s a gesture rooted in friendship, devoid of any monetary return.
Bennett is known for “blending the satiric and the elegiac” – this quiet, elegant ending certainly fits that description.
The play is called “People” because it talks at length about liking or disliking people, about too many people passing through the house, about PST (People Spoil Things). It’s an amusing contradiction: the vulgarization of history and culture by opening it up to the public assumes a certain ownership of that history and culture. Does it belong to the wealthy dynasties (including the British royal family) who inherit “culture” through no achievement of their own, or to the working class that sustains that culture, tucked away in servant quarters, concealed from view by leafy trees? Whose history is it anyway?
Andy de la Tour
Frances de la Tour
Nicholas le Prevost
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting Designer: James Farncombe
Sound Designer: Rich Walsh
Jonathan Watkins photo by Catherine Ashmore
Movement Director: Jonathan Watkins
Short film by Jon Driscoll
Sadler’s Wells Theatre
Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty begins cleverly in 1890, the year the original ballet premiered in St Petersburg. The score, Opus 66 by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, had just been completed the year before, in 1889.
We then fast forward to Aurora’s coming of age in 1911.
Jenny Gilbert describes the change in costumes and set design as starting with “severe, late-Victorian opulence, a palace apartment of black marble and dim gold brocade, then, 21 years later, a very Rex Whistlerish picture of a garden party.”
Bram Stoker’s Dracula appeared in 1897, so the ballet is imbued with turn of the century gothic motifs.
Not only does Bourne change the ballet’s historical setting but he also tinkers with important elements of Charles Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant. He gives Aurora unprecedented agency. The princess is procured by Carabosse and we are, therefore, uncertain of her roots. She is an unstoppable, wildly athletic baby, portrayed by a uniquely life-like rod puppet.
As she grows up, she retains her irrepressible spirit. She is in love with a working class lad, the palace’s gamekeeper, and she is seen gallivanting barefoot at her coming of age tennis party. She is drawn to the danger and mystery of Carabosse’s son, who is the one to exact revenge after his mother’s death. Both Carabosse and Caradoc (her son) are played by Ben Bunce, a tall, broad-shouldered dancer, with the charisma of Freddie Mercury and the smoldering intensity of a young Antonio Banderas.
Coincidentally, half the fairies are played by male dancers, most prominent amongst them being the Lilac Fairy. It’s obvious that Bourne is toying with gender expectations. “Fairy” is pejorative slang for gay. Bourne confronts this prejudice by turning it on its head. The male fairies are powerful Goth characters, the Lilac Fairy being a definite vampire. In fact they are more manly and charismatic than the gamekeeper who plays the traditional Prince character, an amalgam of male virtues.
Since Aurora is already in love with the gamekeeper, this becomes a tale of true love, sustained over a 100 years. It’s more about reconnecting and realizing one’s eternal passion, less about a random crush. As Caradoc also lusts after Aurora, the Prince faces serious competition and Aurora has some choices. Both Caradoc and the Prince are vampires (the gamekeeper is bitten by the Lilac Fairy in order to become immortal and survive for a 100 years).
Caradoc tries to “convert” Aurora to his vampire life-style in a sacrificial marriage ritual. On the other hand, the Prince is happy to wed her as she is and dive into a cross-species marriage that also cuts across class lines. Their marriage does not involve any regal ceremony (the entire royal court disappears after Aurora’s awakening), they just go to bed together and are covered by a silk sheet. They re-emerge with a baby, a daughter who is even more adept at flying than her mother. She is obviously half vampire, half human, the product of true species-blind love.
Although there are references to the original Marius Petipa steps, Bourne’s ballet is robust and sensual, even comical in places. Aurora gets to dance more than in the original choreography, once again a nod to her independence and restless energy. Hannah Vassallo is dazzling in that role.
Many critics have said that the use of a recorded orchestra rather than live music took some of the spontaneity and emotion out of the ballet. It may be so but the visual wizardry of this production is breathtaking. The sets and costumes by Lez Brotherston are exquisite. The use of color (black in the first scene where Aurora is awarded gifts by the good fairies before being accosted by Carabosse, white at her birthday garden party, and red at a vampire soiree that seems to be set in a swanky bar) and the lighting design by Paule Constable are stunning.
It’s the kind of theatre-inspired ballet you’ve never seen before, and are not likely to ever see again.
Daisy May Kemp
Phil Jack Gardner
Tom Jackson Greaves
Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Bourne
Set and Costume Design by Lez Brotherston
Lighting Design by Paule Constable
Sound Design by Paul Groothuis
The dark earth and the light sky
Nick Dear’s play is a tentative, low-key biographical drama about Anglo-Welsh writer and poet Edward Thomas. Thomas’s life story is told through the voices of other characters – his wife Helen, his friend the American poet Robert Frost and his intellectual confidante Eleanor Farjeon. Thomas was an elusive, troubled man and much of the play is an effort to fit together the disparate pieces of his life into a somewhat coherent jigsaw puzzle.
Thomas used to go on long rambles into the English countryside. He observed nature with acute precision. Perpetually dogged by self-doubt and depression, mapping nature was perhaps his way of finding himself. It was also a way to spare his wife and children, whom he tormented when in the depths of despondency.
Thomas met Robert Frost in 1913, in London, when neither of them had made a name for themselves. Frost encouraged Thomas to write poetry, which he produced abundantly relatively late in life (143 poems in just two years) before he was killed in 1917 at the battle of Arras, in France.
An important subtext in Dear’s play is the demystification of Thomas’s death. What prompted his decision to enlist, his insistence on being sent to the front line? Was it the expression of an innate death wish or a generic indifference to life? Painfully self-conscious, was Thomas looking for freedom in the anonymity of the trenches? Had the war and its symbolic defense of English soil and landscape provided him the focus and purpose he needed? Was he simply trying to prove his mettle? Or was it the grand exit he was looking for? After all, he explained his last minute, impromptu dropping out of a walking race in school on the basis of how “the tragic singularity of getting out of the race was as satisfying as victory.”
Directed by Richard Eyre, the staging of the play is simple and beautiful. An earth covered stage is combined with a backdrop that captures changing light, as in a watercolor painting. At night, pinpricks of light create an effortless starry sky.
Thomas’s wife Helen is free-spirited, irrepressible and devoted. She provides the overarching narrative of the play and is played with whole-hearted gumption by Hattie Morahan. Frost is played with American can-do bluster and confidence (but with a confused accent) by Shaun Dooley. Pandora Colin’s performance as Eleanor Farjeon is contained – filled with quiet adoration. I would have liked to know more about the cerebral relationship and unrealized passion between her and Thomas. For someone suffering from profound emotional malaise, Edward Thomas was capable of inspiring constant love and devotion in many. That aspect of his personality might have been a rich contradiction to explore. Pip Carter as Edward Thomas channels many of these subtle and not so subtle dilemmas. Yet the play lacks lyricism.
Paul Taylor describes Thomas’s poetry as “ostensibly pastoral but often leading us to the mysterious, unsettling edges of consciousness.” Edna Longley talks about the quiet creative voice in his poems “which excavates scrupulously, but whispers what it loses and finds in the dark.” I feel strongly that these enticing, tenuous whispers were missing from the play.
I understand Thomas’s uncertain, self-effacing disposition. It is obvious in his poetry, especially when one compares it to Frost’s. Vernon Scannell talks about how the similarity between their work is striking: they both use the rhythms of common speech, their imagery and themes are rooted in rural landscapes; “the wind and rain blow through their lines and one meets, in both of their worlds, rustic characters.” Yet “the movement of Frost’s lines is more confident, smoother, less hesitant and exploratory than the Englishman’s, and this is not merely evidence of greater expertise. It is an indication of their basic difference, a difference of temperament.”
Apart from a few lines of poetry quoted by Frost and a recital of “Lights Out” as the grand finale, the play is not suffused with Thomas’s work. It reflects Thomas’s temperament in its oddity and nostalgia, in its undercurrent of mystery, yet it lacks tenderness, humor and exquisite beauty.
The film “Amadeus,” directed by Miloš Forman and written by Peter Shaffer, is adapted from Shaffer’s stage play. It is also told tangentially in the voice of court composer Antonio Salieri. Would it do justice to Mozart, the artist, if he were portrayed as a child prodigy turned irresponsible adult, without the overwhelming magnificence of his music? Wouldn’t Beethoven be a cranky old man going deaf if his story was divorced from his musical masterpieces? Jane Campion’s film “Bright Star” is about Keats’s life and work. Although it is not necessarily filled with the literal recital of Keat’s poetry, it remains true to its lyricism and imagery, in fact its themes and beauty are intertwined with his life story to present a vivid picture of Keats, the poet. I felt that Nick Dear’s play lacked this fleshing out. It felt incomplete.
For all of his introspective stoicism, Thomas did long for some response to his work. In James Priory’s words:
Thomas defines this language of whispers as a continuous, scrupulous song which resists conceit and exhibitionism, yet remains supple and insistent, bidding and demanding a response. Whispers convey a desire to be heard by “those like me made” who will not reject the idiosyncratic voice, but sift and answer it.
I wish the play had elicited such a response.
Pip Carter as Edward Thomas
Pandora Colin as Eleanor Farjeon
Ifan Huw Dafydd as Philip Thomas
Shaun Dooley as Robert Frost
Hattie Morahan as Helen Thomas
Dan Poole as Bott / Major Lushington
Writer Nick Dear
Director Richard Eyre
Design Bob Crowley
Lighting Peter Mumford
Sound and Music John Leonard
Casting Cara Beckinsale
Dialect Jill McCullough
Voice Gareth Valentine
Movement Scarlett Mackmin
Assistant Director Ed Viney
The Arabian Nights
After I got out of the tube station at Kilburn, I marched into a convenience store to ask for directions. I couldn’t remember the name of the theatre, so I began to rummage through my bag, looking for my ticket. The store clerk smiled and said, “The is only one theatre here. Just keep walking straight down this road and you’ll see it on your left.” Loved it – a community-oriented theatre, firmly rooted in a multi-racial, multi-cultural, working class neighborhood.
Here’s the Tricycle Theatre’s mission, in their own words:
The Tricycle views the world through a variety of lenses, bringing unheard voices into the mainstream. It presents high-quality and innovative work, which provokes debate and emotionally engages. Located in Brent, the most diverse borough in London, the Tricycle is a local venue with an international vision.
Now under the leadership of Artistic Director Indhu Rubasingham, the Tricyle was presenting one of its least overtly political plays, Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights. Not that the play lacked all political context. It was written in 1994 as a reaction to the Gulf War. The idea was to explore the rich culture and ancient history of the Arab world and in doing so to debunk some of the unidimensional stereotypes proliferated by war propaganda.
The Arabian Nights (or One Thousand and One Nights) is a collection of historical tales, legends, romances, tragedies, comedies, poems, riddles, songs, farces and erotica, compiled during the Islamic Golden Age (starting in the 9th century). The frame tale, which contains many stories within it, is about a Persian king who discovers his wife’s infidelity. He executes her and decides to marry a new virgin every day, only to murder her at dawn. After he marries his vizier’s daughter, Scheherazade, she begins to recount a series of exhilarating, fantastical stories, always leaving him with a cliffhanger at dawn. The king’s curiosity gets the best of him and Scheherazade is spared night after night, until after 1001 nights, the king professes his eternal love for her and gives up his murderous routine.
The tales are set in places as diverse as Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, North Africa, China, India, Turkey and Greece. They use complex storytelling devices in order to create a rich tapestry. The stories can be magical, profound, comedic, satirical, lewd and brutal. They have inspired and been co-opted and recycled by writers all over the world (e.g. Giovanni Boccaccio, Jorge Luis Borges and Paulo Coelho).
Zimmerman’s goal of reintroducing the West to Islam’s glorious history and literature is achieved in several ways:
• The selection of stories to be included in the play becomes important. Zimmerman picks tales of love, adultery, avarice, cruelty and revenge as well as lessons of enlightenment derived from the Quran, she even takes on an elaborate fart skit. However, she does not include Aladdin, Sinbad or Ali Baba. While Western translators have grouped these stories with the Book of One Thousand and One Nights, they have different origins and evolved separately from Scheherazade’s story-cycle.
• Zimmerman puts Islam back into the Arabian Nights. Rather than being confronted with Disney-like, Orientalist caricatures of Arabs and Muslims, we encounter real characters rooted in a vibrant religious tradition and history. Allah’s name is invoked frequently, as is the convention in most Muslim cultures. People are shown praying and wearing the hijab although costume design is updated to include a counter-culture, rap element. Some of the baggy pants worn by the actors could have been easily sported by MC Hammer.
• Jihad (a current Western obsession) is demystified. Although Zimmerman does not go far enough in explaining the predominantly spiritual meaning of jihad, she does emphasize how it’s justified on the basis of self-defense only and cannot be interpreted as a generic war cry against all “infidels.”
The first half of the play is mostly farce, with a lot of slapstick comedy. It explores the bawdy side of some of the tales.
The second act is more magical, not only in terms of storytelling that enthralls and transports one to another time and place but also visually. Lighting design is used to create constantly shifting, mysterious worlds. One scene is particularly memorable. It’s one of the stories of caliph Harun al-Rashid, who ruled the Abbasid Empire with its capital in Baghdad, from 786 to 809. Harun al-Rashid finds out that someone is impersonating him. He follows that man, across the river, on a barge. Both boats are given form by the people sitting in them and rowing in unison. It is pitch black – the only light we see is streaming timidly from lamps hanging from poles, held by some of the people in each boat. As Scheherazade continues to narrate her story we are completely mesmerized. When the two similarly clad men meet each other, Harun al-Rashid realizes that he is meeting himself. His doppelganger is played by the same actor who plays king Shahryar. This is one of the last tales told. We are nearing the end of king Shahryar’s psychosis and the beginning of his new life with Scheherazade. Perhaps it’s a last ditch effort on Scheherazade’s part to close the loop, to mirror reality in such a way that Shahryar too can finally find himself.
The grand finale is a cacophony of diverse voices, all weaving and interweaving the warp and weft of stories, all twisting and turning the strands of human myths and histories in order to create a loud and colorful brew. Maybe this is what Mary Zimmerman has been trying to say all along – our common humanity can be best ascertained by our common need for stories.
It reminded me of Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis’s work:
Other cultures of the world are not failed attempts to be modern, failed attempts to be us. Each is a unique and profound answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? When asked that question the peoples of the world respond with 7,000 sources of knowledge and wisdom, history and intuition which collectively comprise humanity’s repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that we’ll face as a species in the coming centuries.
[…] Race is an utter fiction, we are all cut from the same genetic cloth, we are all, in fact, descendants of a relatively small number of ancestors who walked out of Africa some 60,000 years ago and, on this epic journey that lasted 40,000 years, carried the human spirit and imagination, over the course of 2,500 generations, to every habitable corner of the Earth.
The great corollary of that genetic revelation, in terms of social anthropology, is that if we accept that we’re all cut from the same genetic cloth, it means by definition we all fundamentally share the same kind of raw human genius. And that brilliance and potential is made manifest through technological wizardry and innovation–which has been the great achievement of the West–or, by contrast, invested into unraveling the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth, or understanding nuances about the relationship between human beings and the spirit world. All of those things are simply a matter of choice and cultural orientation.
Jonathan Bonnick (Madman/Ensemble)
Denton Chikura (Harun Al Rashid/Ensemble)
Tunji Falana (Prince of Fools/Ensemble)
Sandy Grierson (Sharyar/Aziz)
Eva Magyar (Azizah/Ensemble)
Itxaso Moreno (Jester’s Wife/Ensemble)
Adura Onashile (Perfect Love/Ensemble)
Tahirah Sharif (Dunyazade/Ensemble)
Harmage Singh Kalirai (The Wazir)
Ony Uhiara (Scheherezade/Sympathy)
Hemi Yeroham (Jester/Ensemble)
Director: Lu Kemp
Designer: Ben Stones
Lighting Designer: Richard Howell
Sound Designer: Elena Pena
Choreographer: Ann Yee
Illusion consultant: Darren Lang
Assistant Director: Finn den Hertog
Original Music: Take It Easy Hospital
This original practices, all-male production of Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s finest romantic comedies, is an absolute delight. There is a sense of intimacy between the actors and the audience. The set is made of warm oak, partly lit by old-fashioned candle chandeliers. The backdrop is fashioned from the same mellow oak and fitted with two doors. Some members of the audience are seated on stage in two cozy galleries and get to interact with the actors. Prior to the play, we get a glimpse of what happens backstage as the cast is made up and costumed in front of us. The Elizabethan costumes, packed with lace and brocade, are sumptuous. Period music is played on period instruments by musicians looking down at the stage from a galliered landing. The attention to detail is lavish and there is throughout the play a sense of ease and shared joy which is incredibly energizing.
Mark Rylance’s Olivia is a treat. White-face and majestic “comportement” endow her with a Geisha-like otherworldliness. She takes imperceptibly dainty steps and seems to glide on stage. However, her prettiness and controlled, orderly mannerism fall by the wayside once she falls in love. It is hilarious to see all the social and cultural masks drop off as Olivia gives herself to lust and passion. She stammers and trips her way into unrequited love, struggling at each step to maintain some semblance of composure.
Stephen Fry’s Malvolio is stuffy and conceited, yet touching in his eagerness to please Olivia (even if it means sporting yellow stockings and a foolish grin), which leads to much confusion and priceless scenes between them.
Johnny Flynn’s Viola embodies the gender-bending muddle of Shakespeare’s play – it’s a man, pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man. I found his performance to be superb. There is a delicate vulnerability, a shy modesty to his performance which is hard to resist. No wonder both Olivia and Orsino fall for him.
This is one of the things I like about Twelfth Night, it’s beautiful exploration of human sexuality in all its fluid, pliable and complex manifestations. The attraction between Viola (Cesario) and Orsino starts way ahead of the revelation of Viola’s true gender and identity. Even after that revelation, Orsino continues to call Viola by her male name, Cesario. Perhaps he’s used to it or maybe there is something erotic about the forbidden nature of homosexuality.
Twelfth Night marks the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and the end of 12 days of Christmas, a period of Elizabethan celebration and revelry associated with the inversion of rules and social disorder. Shakespeare’s comedy embraces this chaos in many ways. Besides all the gender-confusion, both Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek bring a festive and rebellious spirit to the play: “care’s an enemy to life”. Their excesses are juxtaposed against Malvolio’s stinginess and dictatorial control.
This twinning of opposites runs throughout Twelfth Night. Viola and her brother Sebastian are two sides of the same person and like the coming of Christ, these outsiders cure both the lovesick Orsino and the grief-stricken Olivia simultaneously. Love is presented as an uneasy blend of pleasure and pain. Characters fall in love with the idealized image of who they perceive to be their true love – Orsino doesn’t know Olivia very well and Olivia persists in projecting her own feelings onto Cesario (Viola). They are not in love with a real, flawed person but with their glorified shadowy twin. “I am not what I am,” Viola explains to the love-struck Olivia. But Olivia insists, “I would you were as I would have you be.” The only character who doesn’t suffer from double-vision is Feste, Olivia’s jester. He takes a long, richer view of life and is deeply aware of its cycles – its ups and downs, its highs and lows. He sees the other characters’ folly when they indulge in all or nothing extremes.
With my activist inclination, I could not help noticing the doomed crossing of class boundaries and how that transgression itself is open to ridicule. Malvolio’s love for Olivia is laughable not only on account of his unattractive personality but also due to the social chasm that exists between them. Many describe Twelfth Night as Shakespeare’s “transvestite” comedy but I think that it goes much deeper than that. He’s asking very profound questions about gender and class. What makes us male or female, noble or commoner, master or servant? Is it just the clothes or is it something more innate and substantial?
What could be better than to investigate these timeless questions in a production that remains true to period practices but succeeds in being spontaneous and amazingly contemporary in its warm and vivid depiction of the human condition.
Samuel Barnett as Sebastian
Johnny Flynn as Viola
Mark Rylance as Olivia
Stephen Fry as Malvolio
Liam Brennan as Orsino
Peter Hamilton Dyer as Feste
Colin Hurley as Sir Toby Belch.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tim Carroll
Designed by Jenny Tiramani
Music by Claire van Kampen
What shines in this production, apart from the same wonderful set design we’d enjoyed earlier with Twelfth Night, is Mark Rylance’s extraordinary, mould-breaking performance. Shakespeare’s Richard III is based on the character of “Vice,” in Medieval mystery plays, who is known for his “impish-to-fiendish humor.” Rylance takes this characterization to a new level by becoming a jester and transforming one of Shakespeare’s tragedies into a macabre comedy. He adopts a manic guffaw that is warmly jovial rather than terrifying. His limp and withered arm are pitiful, not ugly. As a fool, he is given license to say and do things that others are not. Since he is not perceived as a physical threat he gets more access and has more opportunities to ingratiate himself. He hugs and kisses other characters profusely, invading their private space and worming his way into their lives and deaths.
Shakespeare endowed Richard III with a “figural position” – the ability to interact with the audience as well as with other characters on stage. In fact, the dichotomy between how Richard is known to us (through his asides) and how Richard tries to appear to other characters is the source of the play’s humor. This effortless movement in and out of the play’s dramatic action is beautifully suited to Rylance’s talent for breaking the fourth wall. As soon as he walks on stage, we begin to share a sense of complicity with him. Even with the twisted personage of Richard III, it doesn’t take Rylance long to have us in his pocket. As we begin to laugh too readily at his sinister jokes, he feigns outrage and motions us to pipe down.
Rylance’s performance darkens over the course of the play. His disconnection becomes more and more evident. There is an especially disturbing scene in which he wipes his wife Queen Anne’s tears and dabs his own eyes with them. Literal emotional transference? As Richard III moves from infantile goofiness to psychotic disconnection and fury to a mind at war with itself, his asides grow thinner and less playful, until he is completely locked within the play. When he assaults his own mother, the elderly Duchess of York, we know that he has descended into madness. He is haunted by the ghosts of those he murdered. Not only are they present in his dreams but they also appear on the battleground, where he is fighting for his life. His own mind has turned against him and is defeating him – that’s the only sign of a break in consciousness, right before he is killed.
I know that Shakespeare purists might have a problem with Rylance’s take on Richard III. It’s true that it’s hard to imagine Rylance’s grinning goblin as a warrior king, who died on the front lines, in the thick of battle. It is also difficult to make a connection to the same character, in earlier history plays. However, I believe that this production is more of a standalone piece. The fact that Queen Margaret is missing from Carroll’s staging confirms this directorial decision.
The play is rarely performed unabridged; often, certain peripheral characters are removed entirely. In such instances extra lines are often invented or added from elsewhere in the sequence to establish the nature of characters’ relationships. A further reason for abridgment is that Shakespeare assumed that his audiences would be familiar with the Henry VI plays, and frequently made indirect references to events in them, such as Richard’s murder of Henry VI or the defeat of Henry’s queen Margaret.1
Queen Margaret’s choric figure foreshadows Richard’s doomed end – she adds texture to the play. She also gives voice to an interesting belief that Richard III was the curse of God on England, in punishment for the dethronement of Richard II. His evil Machiavellian rule was a kind of cleansing, which ensured a return to goodness and light. This reading presupposes the position of England as the center of the world, both materially and spiritually. This idea of Divine Right and Appointment is still very much at work today – empires come and go but colonial exceptionalism endures.
Finally, it’s good to remember that Richard III is somewhat of a propaganda piece. It’s based on Thomas More’s “History of King Richard III” which is an excessively unflattering portrayal of the king and a tribute to the reigning Tudors. The Tudors had seized Richard’s throne in the Wars of the Roses, a series of dynastic wars between 1455 and 1485, in which competing branches of the royal family (Lancaster and York) fought over England’s throne.
Now that Richard III’s bones have been discovered under a parking lot in Leicester, there is a new drive to re-examine reality and correct some of the myths and political distortions written into history in the Tudor era.
Samuel Barnett as Elizabeth
Johnny Flynn as Lady Anne
Mark Rylance as Richard III
By William Sshakespeare
Directed by Tim Carroll
Designed by Jenny Tirimani
Music by Claire van Kampen
As a dramatist, and from all reports as a man, Chekhov had no final solution to the problems of life. Quite simply, Chekhov did not have a message. He was showing life as he saw it during the social and philosophical milieu of his day. His characters are carefully composed amalgams of the gentry and provincials of his time. Each one rings perfectly true as a character. Inherent in many of the ironic satiric characterizations is an implied criticism of certain human and class weaknesses. But it is not a specific human or a specific class. Chekhov’s detached and observant eye looked with gentle amusement and genuine sympathy on the fault-riddled characters he created. He did not judge them. He did not offer suggestions on how to improve them. This is why Chekhov’s major plays end neither happily nor wholly tragically. He did not presume to have the answers to the questions he posed. 1
Chekov’s objective, non-sermonizing approach is plainly evident in “Uncle Vanya,” a tragicomedy about wasted time and unrealized dreams. It’s a straightforward plot about ordinary lives, yet its realism is moving in how it highlights universal truths.
Here is a short synopsis of the play from Wikipedia:
The play portrays the visit of an elderly Professor and his glamorous, much younger second wife, Yeléna, to the rural estate that supports their urban lifestyle. Two friends, Vanya, brother of the Professor’s late first wife, who has long managed the estate, and Astrov, the local Doctor, both fall under Elena’s spell, while bemoaning the ennui of their provincial existence. Sonya, the Professor’s daughter by his first wife, who has worked with Vanya to keep the estate going, meanwhile suffers from the awareness of her own lack of beauty and from her unrequited feelings for Dr. Astrov. Matters are brought to a crisis when the Professor announces his intention to sell the estate, Vanya and Sonya’s home and raison d’être, with a view to investing the proceeds to achieve a higher income for himself and his wife.2
Peter Toohey has argued that Uncle Vanya is “built around the confining boredom of 19th century Russian country estates.” In this boxed-in, provincial life, hemmed in by drudgery, arrivals and departures become extremely important. The Professor and his wife’s visit introduce chaos into the well-established routine of the estate. Their indolence and restlessness are contagious and provide a counterpoint to what seems to have kept country life together – steady work.
Their intrusion triggers a reckoning on the part of the characters who live on the estate. They begin to re-evaluate their lives and self-knowledge turns out to be paralyzing and bitter. There is an existentialist sense of loss of personal volition, of being an anonymous cog in a larger social narrative.
Vanya realizes how he has been used by his brother in law, a man whom he admired but now understands to be a self-absorbed charlatan. Astrov becomes acutely aware of his disconnectedness. He is burned out and cares more for forests than people. There is a stunning motif of contemporary environmentalism expressed in his inner most thoughts.
ASTROFF. I have my own desk there in Ivan’s room. When I am absolutely too exhausted to go on I drop everything and rush over here to forget myself in this work for an hour or two. Ivan and Miss Sonia sit rattling at their counting-boards, the cricket chirps, and I sit beside them and paint, feeling warm and peaceful. But I don’t permit myself this luxury very often, only once a month. [Pointing to the picture] Look there! That is a map of our country as it was fifty years ago. The green tints, both dark and light, represent forests. Half the map, as you see, is covered with it. Where the green is striped with red the forests were inhabited by elk and wild goats. Here on this lake, lived great flocks of swans and geese and ducks; as the old men say, there was a power of birds of every kind. Now they have vanished like a cloud. Beside the hamlets and villages, you see, I have dotted down here and there the various settlements, farms, hermit’s caves, and water-mills. This country carried a great many cattle and horses, as you can see by the quantity of blue paint. For instance, see how thickly it lies in this part; there were great herds of them here, an average of three horses to every house. [A pause] Now, look lower down. This is the country as it was twenty-five years ago. Only a third of the map is green now with forests. There are no goats left and no elk. The blue paint is lighter, and so on, and so on. Now we come to the third part; our country as it appears to-day. We still see spots of green, but not much. The elk, the swans, the black-cock have disappeared. It is, on the whole, the picture of a regular and slow decline which it will evidently only take about ten or fifteen more years to complete. You may perhaps object that it is the march of progress, that the old order must give place to the new, and you might be right if roads had been run through these ruined woods, or if factories and schools had taken their place. The people then would have become better educated and healthier and richer, but as it is, we have nothing of the sort. We have the same swamps and mosquitoes; the same disease and want; the typhoid, the diphtheria, the burning villages. We are confronted by the degradation of our country, brought on by the fierce struggle for existence of the human race. It is the consequence of the ignorance and unconsciousness of starving, shivering, sick humanity that, to save its children, instinctively snatches at everything that can warm it and still its hunger. So it destroys everything it can lay its hands on, without a thought for the morrow. And almost everything has gone, and nothing has been created to take its place. [Coldly] But I see by your face that I am not interesting you.
Both Vanya and Astrov are attracted to the beautiful Yelena. She returns Astrov’s affection, but their love is impossible. Sonia admires Astrov as well, with silent forbearance, but nothing can come of this one-sided devotion. Yelena is cognizant of her misguided marriage to a much older man. She sees herself as “second rate,” as an “incidental character” in life. There is no fully realized erotic encounter in the entire play. Passions must remain suffocated and submerged. Even the play’s climax, where Vanya tries to shoot the Professor and misses, is a pseudo-climax that doesn’t lead to a definitive denouement.
Chekov was a modernist. Along with Ibsen and Strindberg, he pioneered “indirect action” which is a technique whereby some of the action in the plot happens off-stage. Broken conversations and unseen events create disorientation. This is why Chekov’s plays seem to be suspended in time. We are never sure about how much time has elapsed between different acts. For example, Astrov’s seduction of Yelena seems abrupt, almost forceful. Yet we are told indirectly that he has been visiting the estate quite frequently. The intimacy between them must have built up to that moment, which we are suddenly made privy to.
This idea of creating distance between the audience and the performers on stage, of revealing the artifice of the play, reminded me of Cezanne and the birth of modern art. Cezanne too made the two-dimensionality of painting manifest. He showed us the tools of the artist – flat canvas, line, shape, pigment, texture. Modern art used art to call attention to art and that’s what Chekov seems to be doing as a playwright. It is interesting then that one of the most common complaints about this production of Uncle Vanya, directed by Lindsay Posner, is its two-dimensionality, its likeness to television (coincidentally Sonia is played by Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael). Vaudeville Theatre’s shallow stage is held responsible for some of this flatness and so is the stolidly traditional, stiff approach to the play, where performance eclipses feeling. This two-dimensionality becomes meaningful in the context of Chekov’s modernist audience “estrangement.” It also struck me as being visually representative of the characters’ lives, which remain frustratingly thwarted and unfulfilled. Finally, the cramped stage is a metaphor for the crowding inside the house – emotional disquiet created by the compression of psychological space.
Perhaps Chekov is contrasting spacious countryside living with the congestion of urban centers. The Emancipation Reform, which abolished serfdom in Russia, was introduced by Tsar Alexander II in 1861, when Chekov was one year old. Although Chekov’s writing is hardly polemic, it does reflect the breakdown of an old social order and subsequent discussions about class, rights, and obstacles to communication across that class divide. He investigates his characters’ relationship to the land. Peasants are deeply connected to it and depend on it for their sustenance. The rich whisk by it in fancy carriages and simply appreciate the view. They have no idea of its reality – the trees and bio-diversity that Astrov is so invested in.
The play ends with the departure of the urban outsiders (Yelena and the Professor). Everything returns to normal. Marina, the old nurse, embodies this stability. She is relieved that they will now be able to schedule their meals as usual. For Vanya, Astrov and Sonia, there is less relief or hope. Death seems to be their only chance of being visited by happy visions.
SONIA. What can we do? We must live our lives. [A pause] Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile–and–we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith. [SONIA kneels down before her uncle and lays her head on his hands. She speaks in a weary voice] We shall rest. [TELEGIN plays softly on the guitar] We shall rest. We shall hear the angels. We shall see heaven shining like a jewel. We shall see all evil and all our pain sink away in the great compassion that shall enfold the world. Our life will be as peaceful and tender and sweet as a caress. I have faith; I have faith. [She wipes away her tears] My poor, poor Uncle Vanya, you are crying! [Weeping] You have never known what happiness was, but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait! We shall rest. [She embraces him] We shall rest. [The WATCHMAN’S rattle is heard in the garden; TELEGIN plays softly; MME. VOITSKAYA writes something on the margin of her pamphlet; MARINA knits her stocking] We shall rest.
Vanya – Ken Stott
Yelena – Anna Friel
Astrov – Samuel West
Sonya – Laura Carmichael
Adapted by Christopher Hampton
Director Lindsay Posner
Designer Christopher Oram
Matilda the Musical
“Matilda” is a classic, upside-down children’s story by Roald Dahl. With his usual contempt for heartwarming schmaltz, Dahl gives us sleazy, incompetent parents and sadistic, child-tossing school principals; intelligent little girls full of ideas and gumption and painfully timid teachers; imaginative, rebellious children and petty adults with limited mental and emotional ranges. Even the good adults in the story have something missing – whether it be spine or insight – and end up learning much from the scrappy kids around them.
“Matilda” incorporates powerful social commentary on modern life. Television addiction and the subsequent decline in IQ (Matilda loves to read books but her dad orders her to watch more TV), the sense of entitlement that comes from what is considered to be good parenting (“My mother says I’m a miracle!”) and the utter destructiveness of bad parenting (Matilda’s neglected teenage brother, who was raised on TV, is so disconnected and comatose, that he seems to suffer from mental illness).
Ultimately, “Matilda” is a coming of age story, not so much for little Matilda as for her teacher Miss Honey. It’s amusing that societal rules require adult guardianship for the protection and betterment of children, when the child heroine in this story exhibits much more maturity and confidence than all the adults in her life. “Matilda” is also about the importance of intelligence and knowledge – books, alphabet blocks, classrooms, and libraries form the backdrop to most of the musical and Matilda is able to solve her predicaments by using her brains. Even her psychokinetic powers have something to do with her cleverness and boundless imagination. The juxtaposition of Matilda’s brilliance against her family’s comically frivolous way of life contains a pretty succinct message: gender, age, money or looks don’t matter – you are what you think. This is a story about shaping one’s own life and identity, whatever age one might be, and about not being shy to rebel against oppression.
Rob Howell’s set design is surprisingly malleable with wooden blocks transforming easily into bedrooms, libraries, classrooms, playgrounds and school gates. The music and lyrics are stirring and the dance numbers energetic. Most of the cast is composed of children, which makes the boisterous but perfectly executed choreography impressive.
Matilda’s father exudes all the greasiness of a used car salesman. Her mother is a Latin-dance-crazed mix of vanity and resentment. Matilda’s hammer-throwing headmistress is played by a man in drag. He’s incredibly tall and muscular – a believable danger to children’s happiness. Miss Honey is sweet and self-effacing, yet constantly struggling to define herself. Finally, Matilda is a little firecracker. She’s bright, irrepressible and strong, even though she’s pintsized. To this production’s credit, Matilda is not cutified or polished into a generic child star. With her disheveled hair and stubborn mien, she looks real. I know, I have one of my own.
Matilda will be played by Eleanor Worthington Cox, Cleo Demetriou, Jade Marner and Hayley Canham
Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull
Steve Furst as Mr Wormwood
Josie Walker as Mrs Wormwood
Peter Howe as Michael Wormwood
Hayley Flaherty as Miss Honey
Melanie La Barrie as Mrs Phelps
Matthew Malthouse as escapologist
Alastair Parker as Sergei
Nick Searle as henchman
Emily Shaw as acrobat
Marc Antolin as henchman
Verity Bentham as cook
From the book by Roald Dahl
Adapted by Dennis Kelly
Music & Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Choreography by Peter Darling
Set & Costume design by Rob Howell
Lighting by Hugh Vanstone
Sound by Sismon Baker
Illusion by Paul Kieve
Silence of the Sea
The Silence of the Sea is based on a novella of the same name written by Jean Bruller, under the pseudonym Vercors. The book came out in 1942, during the Nazi occupation of France. Bruller was part of the French resistance and a co-founder of an underground publishing house called Les Editions de Minuit.
During WWII, a German officer is billeted to a cottage in a coastal village in France. The cottage belongs to an old Frenchman and his niece. Unable to stop the “occupation” of their home by the enemy, they use silence to resist this encroachment on their lives and their country. The German officer (Werner) is no stereotype. He’s a music composer, sensitive, well-educated, painfully courteous and, to top it off, an enthusiastic Francophile. Initially, he’s in thrall to German propaganda. He doesn’t apologize for the war – he thinks great things will come out of it. He rhapsodizes about France’s soul and culture and imagines that its merger with Germany’s military muscle will lead to a stronger Europe. His remark that he enjoyed a stunning view of the sea because “a tank gives you great height” is an incisive encapsulation of what he doesn’t understand about occupation.
Over the course of the play, Werner tries tirelessly to communicate with his French hosts. He jests, philosophizes, makes intimate revelations, entertains. He never forgets that he’s a guest in their home. He remains standing during these one-sided conversations – he’s never invited to sit down. But on he goes, continuing to rave about French thought and ideals.
The young woman’s relationship with her uncle is unorthodox to say the least. He felt obligated to provide her shelter after his brother died as a consequence of the war. We never see her speak to her uncle. Perhaps their silent resistance to Werner enables them to bond, however imperfectly. She loves her piano and speaks through the language of music. As she touches invisible keys to produce musical notes, she seems ethereal, otherworldly.
On a furlough to Paris, Werner sees the real face of occupation. His good friend, the Magician, and sundry Nazis humiliate a French waiter with incredible contempt and cruelty before committing violence against him. Werner encounters his friend the next morning – he’s sprawled on the floor in a drunken stupor. Werner crushes his hand with the heel of his boot and rushes out.
When he gets back to the cottage by the sea, he’s a changed man. His entire world has crumbled. He relates the terrible waiter story to his hosts. His mind is in turmoil. He goes up to his room and terrible noises issue from it. Is he on a rampage or is his mind reeling from complete chaos? We find out later that nothing has been smashed or moved in his room. At the end of his anguished tribulations, he comes down the stairs and bids his hosts farewell. He has asked to be transferred to the Eastern front where he knows certain death awaits him. For the first time we see him in a Nazi uniform. He acknowledges his role as an occupier. He cannot continue to be a part of the occupation.
The play is first and foremost about the awfulness of occupation and what it does to human beings. It’s a relationship of domination and subordination, not one of respect and equality. Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon have written extensively about the psychology of occupation and colonialism. It deadens the occupied. The old man talks about not being able to celebrate beauty anymore. Césaire describes it as the “thingification” of the occupied and the decivilization of the occupier in that he gradually returns to savagery. Fanon explains this toxic relationship as follows: “The oppressor, through the inclusive and frightening character of his authority, manages to impose on the native new ways of seeing, and in particular, a pejorative judgment with respect to his original forms of existing.” The play highlights how this relationship is systemic and how it imposes limits on what individuals can do to overturn it.
It reminded me of Somerset Maugham’s powerful short story “The Unconquered” which is also set in Nazi-occupied France. Ang Lee’s film “Lust, Caution” based on the 1979 novella by Eileen Chang, is also at its core about the emotional and social detritus that accompanies colonial ventures. It is set in Hong Kong and Shanghai, during the Japanese occupation. For all of the play’s articulation of this sad and miserable reality, I wondered if audiences would be able to make the connection with present day occupations, in which they themselves might be complicit.
The Silence of the Sea is also about communication. Language is important in defining Werner’s emotional trajectory. Initially he relies heavily on possessive pronouns – everything is available for him to own. It’s an obvious allusion to Germany’s military expansionism. Werner’s speeches are abstract, theoretical, idealistic, disconnected from reality, whereas the narration provided by the old man is factual and down to earth. One is trying to rationalize a gross injustice while the other is intimately familiar with that reality. The girl, who is isolated in her own way, shares her love of music with Werner. They both speak the language of Bach’s eighth prelude. Yet there is a communication barrier, which is too hard for them to surmount.
At the end of the play, when Werner leaves, the girl let’s an anguished “I…” escape her lips. This is the first word she has spoken – it’s a reminder of how the “I” is annihilated by a system of oppression which dictates how people must relate to one another. The play emphasizes the power of silence and juxtaposes it with relentless, effusive talk and chatter (provided by the German officer). A moral right does not have to be explained, whereas a moral wrong can never be justified, even with the most sophisticated oratory.
The young woman is played by Simona Bitmaté, an Audrey Tatou look-alike. She’s a seemingly delicate, much put upon young woman with surprising internal strength and intensity. Her silence and invisible piano endow her with poetry and mystery. No wonder Werner entertains her with magic tricks. He is played with gusto by Leo Bill. He is arrogant and charming, annoying and pitiful, a buffoon and a magician. Finbar Lynch is practical and plain-spoken in his narration, with just the right touch of sarcasm. He characterization is extremely credible. The play’s set design is minimal (the actors mime everything), making its soundscape crucial, which is provided by Gregory Clarke.
The death of a bluebottle is woven into the storyline and it reminded me of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in which the death of an albatross brings about the curse of a “living death” – what better way to capture life under occupation.
And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ‘em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!
Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
Down dropped the breeze, the sails dropped down,
‘Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!
(From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
Finbar Lynch (Older Man)
Leo Bill (Werner)
Simona Bitmaté (Young Woman)
Director: Simon Evans
Designer: Ben Stones
Lighting Designer: David Plater
Sound Designer: Gregory Clarke
Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar is an all female production set in a single-sex prison. The Donmar, which is supposed to be a boutique theatre outfitted with velvet seats for sophisticated audiences, is stripped down to look like a grey and grimy warehouse, furnished with unwelcoming plastic chairs. Bunny Christie’s design is spot-on with its corrugated walls, metal stairwells, prison cameras and searchlights. We’re inside a slammer.
The entire cast is dressed in grey hoodies and sweatpants and the props they use are the kind that might be available to prisoners putting on a play – toy guns, plastic gloves, metal carts, a tricycle and coarse trench coats. They also have some electric guitars and a drum set, which they employ to full advantage. The heavy metal music they play is loud, strident, assaultive.
Frances Barber plays Julius Caesar as a bully. She’s butch, psychotic and obviously in control of the inmate social structure. I wish that her hamminess had been replaced with more dignity and sinister charisma. Cush Jumbo, in the role of Mark Antony, is her lesbian lover. The famous Mark Antony speech acquires a whole other dimension when delivered by Caesar’s fierce, heartbroken paramour. Cassius is played by Jenny Jules. Not only is she an intelligent manipulator of the human psyche, but she also brings fire and excitement to the role. Her interaction with Brutus is particularly captivating. Harriet Walter’s performance as Brutus is nothing short of brilliant. She endows the part with the complexity and naive idealism it deserves and makes transparent the inner conflicts that plague her relentlessly. She struggles to justify her actions in order to remain honorable. It’s a fight worth witnessing.
Caesar is murdered in a violent scene where a bottle of bleach is forcibly emptied into Barber’s mouth. The murder is filmed by one of the inmates, in real time, and projected on several surveillance monitors.
One of the play’s most visually memorable moments is Caesar being feted by her prison devotees. A crowd of masked inmates carries her. They are all sporting her face. It’s disturbing. It reminded me of the Venetian masks in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” In the film, masks signify illegitimate, secret, promiscuous activity. The scene is also an apt metaphor for a cult of personality, the idea of using mass media to create a god-like, ubiquitous image. Modern day politicians do it all the time and their constituents are often happy to indulge in ready to ingest hero worship.
What about the play’s all-female cast, against the backdrop of a women’s prison? I think it worked on many different levels.
In her review of the play, Alexandra Coghlan writes:
There’s no ignoring gender in Julius Caesar. Whether it’s Portia’s “I grant I am a woman” speech, an enfeebled Caesar likened to a “sick girl”, or Cassius raging against oppression – “our yoke and sufferance make us womanish” – the issue is written into the language and ideological fabric of the play. So all those who might be tempted to rage against the travesty of Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production for the Donmar should take their complaints directly to Shakespeare’s door.
In short, Shakespeare’s testosterone-pumped play is clearly asking for it – the need to negotiate gender roles in order to create interesting shifts in how the play feels and how the characters bond and work with one another, and within society.
Some reviewers dismissed the play as an “absurd contrivance,” a “gimmick” and compared it unfavorably to Mark Rylance and the all-male cast of Twelfth Night and Richard III at the Apollo Theatre. Although I enjoyed Rylance’s star turn as much as anybody else, I found such criticism to be sexist and asinine. The women in Julius Caesar brought as much heart and talent to their roles as did the men at the Apollo Theatre. These reviewers embody society’s resistance to seeing women, especially those of a certain age, on stage or in film. Alexandra Coghlan explains:
Her [Phyllida Lloyd’s] public rationale is primarily a practical one – redressing the balance that gives women (and particularly those over 40) far fewer character roles than men in classical theatre. Pragmatic in philosophy, in practice it’s an approach that yields some exhilarating results.
Exhilarating indeed. The staging of the play in a women’s prison is genius. The political dynamics of prison life echo those of the Roman Republic: gang hierarchies and the dynamics of power, loyalty and tenuous allegiances, conspiracies, rivalries, corruption, and outright war. When presented in the restrictive confines of a penitentiary, the human need to rebel against suffocating authority becomes even more lucid and urgent. As soon as the inmates indulge in their liberation fantasies by eliminating the dictatorial Caesar in a theatrical production, the prison wardens intercede and put them in their place. That’s institutional authoritarianism for you. The audience too is playing a part, within the limits of institutional rules dictated by society and state. They are part of a larger societal play, in which they’re watching a play within a play.
Lloyd’s production was also criticized for the ensemble being “uneven in caliber.” This might have something to do with the inclusion of ex-offenders in the cast, all graduates of the non-profit Clean Break, which “uses drama to help women in the criminal-justice system.” It reminded me of Deborah Luster’s beautiful black and white photographs of the Angola Prison Drama Club’s staging of “The Life of Jesus Christ” at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
The theatre offers us a chance to recognize our humanity by offering us glimpses of ourselves and allowing us to share that important experience with others. Prisons dehumanize inmates. What better way to empower incarcerated men and women, than having them perform Shakespeare?
“I think Shakespeare is fantastic in terms of teaching us about what it means to be human, exploring the full range of human emotion,” says [Jonathan Shailor, founder and director of The Shakespeare Prison Project] referring to his belief that connecting with Shakespearean characters can develop a greater self-awareness, discipline and moral reasoning. And among inmates, this seemed to ring true.
Even though the second half of the play, with its slack battle scenes, was a bit less successful, all in all, this was an electric, thought-provoking production. Exactly what theatre should be.
By William Shakespeare
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Designer: Bunny Christie
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Sound Designer: Tom Gibbons
Composer: Gary Yershon
Harold Pinter Theatre
I wanted to see “Old Times” because of Harold Pinter’s Nobel lecture in 2005, when he was awarded the Prize for Literature. Entitled “Art, truth and politics,” it is, in large part, a scathing critique of American imperialism. What I didn’t remember was that he had discussed “Old Times” in that speech. He had talked about truth being forever elusive in drama, about there being many truths. He had explained how his plays are “engendered by a line, a word or an image” and for “Old Times” that word had been “dark.”
‘Dark’ I took to be a description of someone’s hair, the hair of a woman, and was the answer to a question. […] I found myself compelled to pursue the matter. This happened visually, a very slow fade, through shadow into light.
[…] ‘Dark.’ A large window. Evening sky. A man, A (later to become Deeley), and a woman, B (later to become Kate), sitting with drinks. ‘Fat or thin?’ the man asks. Who are they talking about? But I then see, standing at the window, a woman, C (later to become Anna), in another condition of light, her back to them, her hair dark.
That’s exactly how Ian Rickson’s production of the play starts. Husband and wife, Deeley and Kate, (played by Rufus Sewell and Kristin Scott Thomas) are seated across from each other on comfortable couches, talking about the imminent arrival of Kate’s friend, Anna (played by Lia Williams). During this entire conversation, Anna stands in the shadows, a dark silhouette against the light streaming in from the window. It’s the exact visual cue that had inspired Pinter.
Deeley questions Kate about her relationship with Anna. She tells him that Anna was her only friend back in her youth when they shared an apartment. Deeley is obviously curious, Kate remains vague in her answers. Once Anna makes her entrance they begin to reminisce about their past. Anna does most of the talking. Kate remains silent and non-committal.
Soon Anna and Deeley begin to vie for Kate’s attention, not just in the present but also in the past. They compete against each other for Kate’s possession with songs and elaborate recollections. As the piece progresses their narratives begin to conflict and challenge one another. Pinter is analyzing memory – its unreliability, its suspect relationship to truth and the possibility of its devious misuse. “There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place,” says Anna. Memory can mix with desire and become vivid and real, even when divorced from truth.
Throughout the first act, Kate remains passive and aloof, while the other two characters try to give her shape through their words. They talk about her as if she were “dead.” In fact, she does seem to exist on a different plane.
In the second act, we move from the drawing room to the bedroom. The orientation of the furniture (two beds instead of two couches) is flipped around. Kate is taking a bath and in her absence Anna and Deeley lead us to believe that they might have known each other. There is unmistakable sexual chemistry between them but that too becomes a weapon in their battle for control.
Once Kate reappears on stage, everything changes. No longer is she detached or ethereal. She articulates her own version of the truth with such frightening, irrefutable authority that both Deeley and Anna are left speechless. Instead of being seated for the most part, as in the first act, Kate is now standing. She is in control. At the end of the play, Deeley is left sobbing quietly while Anna prostates herself after turning off the lights, as if she had died in accordance with Kate’s memory of her death in their apartment, many years ago. Memory is no longer an abstract interpretation of a defunct past, it overwhelms the present.
“Old Times” is one of Pinter’s most enigmatic plays. To me, this piece is more about memory, truth, language and power than trying to decipher a specific storyline.
Pinter’s obsession with language is on full display in this piece. Kristen Palmer describes it as “the self-conscious use of language – characters commenting on words that they don’t hear often, misunderstanding the object of sentences, using strange constructions. The careful placement of pauses, of stage directions, of laughter – that seems menacing.” These linguistic devices are combined with slippery memories in order to present a skewed world where there is no distinction between truth and fiction. We are confronted with the complicated relationship between memory and the arbitrary construction of the past, of history, which in turn delineates identity and the outlines of the characters in the play.
In the first act, Kate seems to represent an idea, an object of desire, which is fleshed out by the other two characters. Kristin Scott Thomas plays her beautifully as an alluring, languorous puzzle. Deeley and Anna bully each other persistently in order to control the narrative, through the intentional use of memory, language and sexual one-upmanship. Yet they are left defeated when Kate finds her own voice and destroys their version of the truth in a terrifyingly final way.
In his article, Demolition Man – Harold Pinter and “The Homecoming,” (The New Yorker, December 24, 2007) John Lahr explains Pinter’s approach to playwriting:
The thrill of the play is its realization of Pinter’s aesthetic: a precarious balance between ambiguity and actuality. “There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false,” Pinter said in his Nobel speech. “A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” This paradoxical approach forces both the actors and the audience to play harder. Both are drawn into a highly charged dramatic metaphor in which, as Pinter said, “everything to do with the play is in the play.”
The characters’ parries, challenges, and volte-faces are violently emotional improvisations, whose drama is only underscored and heightened by Pinter’s signature pauses. “The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear,” he once wrote. “It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place.”
I was drawn to the charisma of the work in the same way that Pinter—I later learned—had been compelled by Shakespeare. “You are called upon to grapple with a perspective in which the horizon alternately collapses and re-forms behind you, in which the mind is subject to an intense diversity of atmospheric,” he wrote in “A Note on Shakespeare,” in 1950, six years before he started to do a similar thing with his own plays.
Kristin Scott Thomas as Kate
Rufus Sewell as Deeley
Lia Williams as Anna
Harold Pinter: Playwright
Ian Rickson: Director
Hildegard Bechtler: Designer
Peter Mumford: Lighting
Stephen Warbeck: Music
Paul Groothuis: Sound
Sam Jones CDG: Casting
Sonia Friedman Productions