The Birds Are on Fire

How Should Theater Respond to September 11?

"The sky can still fall on our heads," Artaud wrote in 1938, "and it is the function of theatre to teach us that above all else." The sky fell on our heads here in New York on September 11. Now it's falling elsewhere, and will likely continue to do so.

I'm not one of those who believe that if we change our way of life, "the terrorists will have won." When the sky falls on you, change is inevitable. It is even necessary and desirable. A new kind of imagination was awakened on September 11, an experience of reality that no Hollywood Armageddon had prepared us for. Nor, for that matter, had any theater prepared us for it—neither Artaud's unrealized Theater of Cruelty, nor any other.

The images before us that day do place it in the tradition of Artaud. The New York Times quoted a child who saw burning bodies jumping from the buildings. "Look, teacher!" she screamed. "The birds are on fire!" Her vision, poetic and terrifying, was matched soon after, for all of us, by that smoldering mountain of debris downtown. In it we see, writ large, the late Reza Abdoh's meditations on ruined cities, or, writ small, the debris at the foot of Walter Benjamin's famous angel of history, the accumulated products of the storm of progress.

In describing the events, the genre on everyone's lips has been tragedy, even though it seems to be playing, at many news organizations, as melodrama: a stark conflict between good and evil, complete with bearded villain and plainspoken hero. But if tragedy it is, which of the various interpretations of catharsis—purgation, purification, clarification—are to be had, and where? The major news media seem to favor purgation, whipping us into a fury of emotional response. More moderate media go "Looking for Answers" (as a recent PBS program was called), thereby offering catharsis as clarification. Finally, our best public fabulators—the writers of The West Wing, for example—strive for purification, allowing us to eat our emotional cake and have our thoughtfulness too.

The scale and ubiquity of media response to the events seem to leave little space for the arts, especially for a tiny minority discourse like theater. But theater, like Hamlet's "old mole," has the virtue of burrowing underground, being hic et ubique, here and everywhere, never knowing where its message will flare forth and illuminate a subject. Moreover, surely these "extraordinary times" invite us to give up timidity and dream wildly about changes that might illuminate those rubble heaps downtown and in Kabul.

I dream of a theater that is genuinely committed to remembering both rubble heaps, and many, many more. Someone remarked recently that "terrorism is the downside of globalization." I dream of a theater that asks what (on earth!) the upside of globalization is. Which means that I dream of a theater based on the principle of reciprocity, of making sure that we understand as much about those parts of the world as they are expected to understand—even accept—about us. A South Asian friend of mine was once asked by a hostile colleague: "How come there are so many of you Indians in American academia nowadays?" My friend replied: "When you tell me what Mickey Mouse is doing in my village in Sri Lanka, I'll tell you what I'm doing here."

The theater could do much more than it has to interrupt the mushrooming logic of globalization. It might dedicate its remarkably flexible space—whether actual or virtual, indoor or outdoor, formal or otherwise—to putting us in touch with the big questions of living in a big world. Not just questions of what Mickey Mouse is doing in a Sri Lankan village, but where and how we've all crossed paths before and will again—the true story of globalization, which is more complex, ironic, heartbreaking, maddening, and hopeful than any call to war ever recognizes.

The theater I dream of would invite our playwrights to look beyond the American horizon. It would encourage them to bring their insights and compassion (or, in recent Pulitzer terms, their wit and proofs and lessons) to the intersections between this culture and others, whether forced, or fortuitous, or fearsome. It would be a theater that creates American versions of the kind of complex geopolitical theater—I'm thinking of plays like Churchill's Mad Forest and Edgar's Pentecost—that explores multiculturalism as a force in the world rather than merely a colorful strategy for narcissistic identity politics. This would then also be, automatically, an ecological theater, contesting our leaders' denials of the link between our lives and the deaths of species and ecosystems. Such a vision might even transform the tiresome ironies of avant-garde theater—the theater of images and effects—into bracing dialectics, connecting aesthetics and pragmatics, sights and sites. Playwrights like Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks, Mac Wellman, and Naomi Iizuka, among many others, have amply shown in their past work the imaginative breadth required to move in this direction.

The theater I dream of would create a space outside the melodrama of good and evil. It would be a Theater of Cruelty where the painfully complicated realities of life—"cruel to myself," as Artaud put it—can be inhabited. It would be a searching theater rather than a cathartic one, a wounding theater rather than a healing one, a theater willing to question all those towering twin monoliths—East and West, artist and critic, terrorism and war, us and them—that dwarf our humanity.

I think I glimpsed an image of this theater in Union Square the other day, when a belly dancer, unfurling a costume of glorious golden wings, danced to an Arabic version of "Imagine." Watching her, I heard a hopeful note alter that terrible cry—"the birds are on fire"—that had filled my ears since September 11.

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