The Critic #03

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This text was first published in September-October 2014, in The Lifted Brow 24 – The Medicine Issue.

1. in which we do not talk about politics

The first time the Critic saw a theatre work was in a squatted factory at sixteen, in Croatia. It was turn of the millennium, the wars had only just finished. A generation of young people was trying to say something about what had just happened, find its bearings, stop being children caught up in crossfire. And so the young people squatted one of the many, many, many defunct factories that littered Croatian cities, factories that had collapsed through disinvestment, bombing, road blockades, diminished purchasing power, and rampant corruption, the extent of which would only become apparent in the peace years to come. There was art in every one of the big, empty, barely cleaned rooms of the huge building. There was beer sold straight from the back of a van. There were punk concerts, there were vegan cooperatives, and there was a small performance, in the central courtyard, for free, on one of the nights. A group of drama students doing Biljana Srbljanović’s 1994 play Family Stories, or ‘Porodične priče.’

Srbljanović was a Serbian playwright, the most famous to emerge from the Balkans in the 1990s, but her work, like any other Serbian art, was unofficially banned in Croatia at that time. The Critic, who was not yet a critic, had never heard of her before. (The unofficial ban persisted for years, and Serbian writing, dramatic or otherwise, remained impossible to obtain in Croatia, even though Croatian and Serbian languages are as similar as the American and British variants of English. In 2010, scouring a bookshop for Srbljanović’s plays, the Critic was told that ‘they were not yet translated’. The shop assistant said that with a sad smile that indicated that even she was, perhaps, aware of the absurdity of what she was saying.)

Family Stories is a sophisticated, non-naturalistic dramatic text, in which a group of children, played by adult actors, meets on the playground to play house. Through eleven games, they enact eleven domestic scenarios rife with bullying, oppression, sexual assault, verbal and physical violence. The father tortures the mother, the mother tortures the children, and the children usually kill them by the end; and then they rise again, play another house, accumulating realistic wounds from previous deaths. The world of the play is a sort of hell, in which the same patterns of violence are endlessly repeated without respite, not even after death. It shows violence as a compulsion, and trauma as a self-perpetuating, senseless force.

The Critic read many learned analyses of Family Stories in the years to come, all of them sound and accurate, but not one had been necessary to understand the play that evening, in the courtyard of the squatted factory, performed rather simply, without a set or props. The effect it had on the sixteen year old girl who would become the Critic was immense.

For the first time, the Critic had seen a work of art that cut through the over-detailed confusion of real life, and had given her an understandable explanation of reality. Life itself was condensed into this play, life as she knew it – her bullying schoolmates, their violent parents, her unhappy friends, her unhappy parents, the crooked shadow of the recent war hanging over them all, neither near nor far—all the more clear for its abstraction, for its condensed metaphor. It felt like someone had finally found words to describe the world that the girl had experienced, but did not quite understand, like her first textbook explaining electricity. That her life would be so accurately rendered by a Serbian artist, considered practically an enemy in the war that had caused so much of that depicted trauma, added another layer of revelation. The closeness of experience had been uncanny.

Dusk turned to night as the performance finished. Afterwards, she and her bestest friends had stood around a fire, shaken and quiet, looking at each other like they were seeing one another for the first time, trying to say something more than: “It’s like that, isn’t it?,” but failing, returning again to this simple statement. It is like that. They were a gang, close in the way only sixteen year-olds can be, practically formative of one another: the girl who would become the Critic; Sasha, the boy who would become gay; Luka, the boy who would become a performance artist; and Helena, the girl who would become a heroin addict. For a long time, these would be the coordinates of her universe.

The Critic saw the same play at Griffin Theatre in Sydney in 2008, in a totally decent translation by Serbian-born Australian theatre-maker Bojana Novakovic. The production, by RideOn Theatre, was probably an improvement on the makeshift sketch she had seen at sixteen. However, in trying to stage faithfully a play understood merely as an important European contemporary work, the staging ended up being both naturalistically boring, and extremely haughty. It didn’t bother trying to make connections with Australia – if such a thing were possible, which it perhaps was not. Family Stories, however layered and metaphorical a text, was immediately recognisable as reality. This production was not.

 

2. in which men bravely die

The Critic saw Daniel Keene’s The Long Way Home, when it stopped at the Malthouse for a four-day showing in March. A co-production between Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Force, it was a new drama based heavily on stories of trauma and suffering collected verbatim from real soldiers, twelve of whom performed the show, with the help of five professional actors. The production, modelled on a British piece, was a roaring success, touring Australia to sold-out houses. The Critic leapt at the opportunity to be someone’s date, so terrified was she of the possibility that she would have to write a negative review of retired soldiers performing for the first time. Another critic had said, privately: “Haven’t they suffered enough?”

The piece was, in a certain sense, great. Daniel Keene is an excellent playwright, attentive to the minute differences in emotional modulation in interactions between men. The narrative is a series of vignettes, following loosely a regiment, and two of its soldiers more closely. There are paranoid night watches in Afghanistan. There are hospital recoveries, returns home, sleepless nights, drunken evenings, domestic arguments, men pass each other by in hospital waiting rooms. There are flashbacks to character interviews upon entering the military, to training, to children playing war. There is the blackest black comedy. Homer’s Odyssey is quoted. It is well crafted. It comes together very well in the end. And this was precisely the problem.

In “Myth Today”, Roland Barthes analyses a great deal of French documentary material, newspaper photography, those kind of things, as ideological artefacts. In his extraordinary analysis, myth is a deformation or distortion of reality, but not its full negation. Myth still reports reality with some depth. The thing depicted ceases to exist in its full fullness, but does not simply become a symbol, a metaphor, or ideology—because then it would lose its power. In myth, meaning flows naturally from the form, and the two become inseparable, one naturally seems to stand in for the other. “Myth does not deny things,” Barthes writes. “[O]n the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them clarity which is not that of explanation but that of statement of fact.”

Myth is depoliticised, and naturalising: instead of arguing for ideas, it makes them seem self-evident, by slightly flattening reality until it resembles ideas—or rather, until reality seems to exemplify all of our preconceived ideas. The African child saluting the French flag is Barthes’ example. Nowadays, it would be ANZACS marching through the jungle or repairing roads in a French village. Myth is not interested in the names and surnames of these people, in their biographies, in the specific instance reported. What matters is that these people and events are real, because their realness confirms everything we ever thought was true. We walk out of myth thinking “isn’t this just how the world is? I always thought it would be so, and this only confirms it…” Myth is the absence of question.

The first act of The Long Way Home ends in an extremely bleak place, with returning soldiers showing every kind of traumatic response: insomnia, obsessive thoughts, avoidance, inability to settle into a normal life, mistargeted aggression. Wives trying to hug their husbands to calm them down, husbands responding with adrenaline, with anger. Domestic violence. The act closes with an act of stand-up comedy so angry, so misjudged, so offensive to the pleasant normality of everyday Australia, that the lights come up on a room in an oxygen-less vacuum. It shows a man trying to make sense of the world in a way that is so disruptive to how we would like the world to be.

It was opening night, though, and the audience was full of big, strong men in uniform and full regalia, and their tastefully, but beautifully dressed wives. They left a trail of discomfort behind them, moving through the space with sovereign pride. The juxtaposition was jarring, and not helped by a variety of signs that the army had vetted and fully endorsed the project. The Critic spent the interval trying to bring into the same universe the feelings of compassion and horror that Act One left in her, with the splendid military couples in the foyer, congratulating each other on this extraordinary project. Was the audience meant to pity them, the traumatised soldiers and the suffering wives? Were they meant to politely ignore the connection? Were they meant to forget that the stage carried real soldiers, who carried real guns?Or were they meant to respect them even more for their suffering, the PTSD and the battering?

She posed all those questions to fellow critic Cameron Woodhead, who was smoking an unruly cigarette. Her entire experience seemed stuck in a place with no exit. And then she asked:
“I am terrified that in the second act it will all come together into a magical, happy ending.”
“It’s Daniel Keene, it won’t be crass.” Cameron replied. “I’m sure it will be dark, but with a glimmer of hope.”

The second act solved all problems, if under a veil of bittersweetness. The soldiers got therapy, their wives got some sleep, and a modest birthday party was celebrated with some success. And then the Australian flag rolled across the big, expensive screen behind the stage, and Homer’s words appeared:

Many the men whose towns he saw, whose ways he proved; and many a pang he bore in his own breast at sea while struggling for his life and his men’s safe return.
Yet even so, by all his zeal, he did not save his men.

It was at this point, as all the themes of the work masterfully short-circuited, that the Critic felt as though she was being massaged into compliance by ideology, a feeling familiar from growing up during a war. She felt her compassion very successfully aroused, and then, alarmingly, not applied towards an intellectual purpose. All rational questions, indeed, felt swept under the carpet just as they would naturally form.

Was there any way to avoid all this suffering? Why were the men in the army? Why was the Australian army in Afghanistan? Why did they flounder, socially and emotionally, upon return? The piece resolutely refused to make any of these questions even apparent, instead making themes by short-cutting: comrades, country, compassion, and our brave men who suffer, all together, with a total absence of a question mark above it. The work naturalised the situation. It made it appear like the only possible reality we lived in was one in which men were a sacrificial caste, who fought for no reason, died for no reason, and then, upon return, had nothing left but insomnia, alcoholism, and crying wives. It omitted the final verse from Homer’s quote:

… for through their own perversity they perished – fools!

 

3. in which we tell national stories

The first political use of theatre is to tell the story of who we are.

George Megalogenis, commenting on Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap in The Australian in 2009, wrote: “It’s been a pet theory of mine for some years that the people best able to interpret contemporary Australia are women and wogs. The tertiary educated daughters of old Australia, and the sons and daughters of new Australia are middle class but they don’t belong to the mainstream, yet. They share the outsiders’ eye, so their impressions of what Australia is becoming are closer to reality than the Anglo male insiders who keep glancing at the rearview mirror.”

One of the most popular kids’ stories in Croatia in the 1990s was a comic book about a high-school romance. Boy falls in love with girl from a refugee family. Their father, a war volunteer, is missing. They find him; the family reunites. He moves in. He starts to drink, sleep badly, becomes violent, tries to kill the whole family and himself. The boy intervenes, saves his girl, saves the family. There is a lot of crying in the comic book. A lot of “we love you, daddy.”

Many men wrote plays, books and films about the 1990s: the war, the trauma, the killing, the military tactics. But the best playwrights to come out of the 1990s war period in the Balkans were all women: foremost among them Biljana Srbljanović and Ivana Sajko. They sometimes wrote of that feeling of entrapment that a woman may feel, caught in the crossfire between men, considered only a sort of loot, an object—to protect, to injure, to rape. But more often they simply wrote better plays, because they were not invested in myths of war and nationhood, myths that had no personal gain for them. What allowed them better access to truth was that the prevalent lies in no way stoked their ego.

 

4. which is about trauma

It is impossible to talk about trauma without stumbling into storytelling, because trauma is medically defined as a rupture in one’s own life narrative: life cleaves into the part before, and the part after, and the two refuse to merge back into one. The traumatic experience itself, according to psychoanalyst Dori Laub (who works with Holocaust survivors), and influential literary critics such as Shoshana Felman and Cathy Caruth, is indescribable, unspeakable. As Laub puts it, “there are never enough words or the right words […] the story […] cannot be fully captured in thought, memory, and speech.” Indeed, one of the most often used tests to assess whether an adult has recovered from a traumatic experience tries to ascertain whether they can narrate their life in a linear fashion. The ability to turn the fundamentally inconsequential bunch of life events into a story with a beginning, middle and a foreseeable end is, in a certain sense, the defining characteristic of mental health as we know it.

We would like to think that our sense of reality is rock-solid and impenetrable, but the stories that anchor us into mental health are collectively produced, through mass media, private conversations, art. They are a product of a choir, and the choir does not always sing in unison. We are vulnerable to these stories changing, which is why we respond with violence to stories that offend our sense of truth. The more fragile our reality, the more violently we will attempt to protect it. Every controversial media narrative – be it The Slap, Hair, the Mabo court ruling, or a political statement – threatens in some way narratives that are important to us: that we are good people, that we are fair people, that we have made the right choices, that bad things cannot happen to us.

 

5. which is about art

Somewhere in the middle between the mess of reality and the flatness of truism sit art, myth, narrative journalism and politics. For Barthes, myth makes us say I always thought this is how things are! Phew!, while, for Russian Formalists and James Wood, art makes us say I never knew this is how things are, but now I see they must be so. The distance between these two statements is small, but exceptionally important. In 1972, David Morell wrote a fine analysis of PTSD in his novel First Blood, in which a traumatised ex-Vietnam veteran goes on a killing spree. The film based on the book became the Rambo franchise, used by Ronald Reagan as an example of how the US should act in the Middle East. The novel is still often brought up in trauma studies for its empathetic analysis of a troubled mind. The film franchise, however, remained remembered in the entire Balkans for having inspired countless boys to join poorly trained armies. On their return, they were touted as heroes, and it took years of activism on behalf of psychologists (mostly women) before any form of therapy was administered to these young men. Rambo syndrome usually refers to a particular kind of PTSD that war veterans show. In Croatia, it came to also stand for the naive excitement with which an entire generation of men enrolled as voluntary fighters, believing it was going to be exciting, glorious, glamorous.

Many, many years after Sasha’s father had returned from the army, he would wake up in the middle of the night and evacuate the family, trying to save them from imaginary dangers. Two families in Luka’s neighbourhood were blown up with hand grenades: whether it was homicide or suicide, they never found out. Helena, who lived with her single mother, graduated high school with a thesis on rape as an instrument of war. When Sasha came out to his parents, he was threatened with a rifle to his head. Luka’s first public performance was as a soldier in Sarah Kane’s Blasted. In this seminal British play from 1995, a coercive, subtly violent romantic encounter between a journalist and a young woman in a luxury hotel room in Leeds is cleaved wide open when an imaginary war breaks in: the journalist is dismembered and raped by the soldier; the young woman returns and offers forgiveness. When it premiered, the play was savaged by the critics as “juvenilia.” The two kinds of violence had nothing to do with one another. It could never happen there.

When the Critic moved to Australia, people would look at her pitifully and distantly, and say, it could never happen here.

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