When We Dread Awaken

There's something prescient about Caryl Churchill's chilling new work, Far Away, but not in the topical sense that some of the hype around the play is trying to pump. Like Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, which was presented last year at New York Theatre Workshop, where Churchill's drama is also having its U.S. premiere, Far Away is being marveled at for catching the post-9-11 zeitgeist despite its having been written before that calamity. But the apocalyptic dread, which accretes in the play's brisk hour like toxic silt on an idyllic-looking shore, reaches beyond the parochial panic of a city that only recently entered the bloody history that much of the world has known for longer than a year. Far Away—like Homebody/Kabul—is prophetic not so much in predicting catastrophe, but in exposing the devastation human beings have already wrought but failed to take responsibility for. Both plays' characters get caught up in colossal conflicts that have long spun out of their control, yet cannot proceed without them.

Showing people acting within and being acted upon by history is, of course, one of the powerful achievements of the deepest kind of political theater. Such works require playwrights to be formal innovators and moral fabulists, poets of outrage and of desire. If for the Greek tragedians what we've come to call history was understood as fate, modern dramatists, from at least Ibsen forward, have questioned—forced us to question—the inevitability of the doom that their protagonists seem unalterably headed toward. Such artists create both a sense of inexorability and of possibility, a yearning recognition of the if-only—the tragically unfulfilled promise that things might turn out differently. They bring bubbling to the surface the unresolved issues that roil beneath ordinary lives.

For the millennial masters of a century ago, modernity churned up from beneath thick layers of repression and constraint. Ibsen put that very clash at the thematic and formal center of his groundbreaking works, which looked forward toward both dramaturgical and social rupture of stuffy convention—toward progress.

McDormand and Eisenstein in Far Away: "If it’s a party, why was there so much blood?"
photo: Alisa Solomon
McDormand and Eisenstein in Far Away: "If it’s a party, why was there so much blood?"


Far Away
By Caryl Churchill
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street

By Henrik Ibsen
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street

A hundred years later, Western theater's greatest political imaginations, Churchill and Kushner, see how the world is hurtling toward disaster while individuals understandably remain preoccupied with their own material and psychic survival. They stage not so much the clash between these worldviews as the gap between them, implying that any ideal of progress that may remain must be seized in understanding the connections between particular lives and the changeable forces of history. Ibsen was irked by the hypocrisy of those clinging to destructive and bankrupt values; in Far Away, Churchill indicts the get-along obsessions of daily life while the slaughter of people and ravaging of the earth go on wantonly around us. That is hardly to say that these writers produce tracts. Rather, they crystallize the most pressing concerns of an age through innovative forms that, like all things original, both employ the prevailing conventions of the day and leave them far behind.

Churchill's play seems to reinvent drama with every other line. Starting out in a realistic mode, it moves into a realm of metaphor that is both grounded in credible action and frighteningly unlike anything already known. The play begins with a painted curtain concealing the stage, showing a charming country scene—a little house snuggled among rolling hills, colorful trees, an enticing brook. A soundtrack of happily chirping birds and burbling waters fills out the bucolic splendor. Then the play tumbles tersely toward primal chaos. Far Away's world degenerates into a muddled Manichaean total war in which "the cats have come in on the side of the French," "the elephants went over to the Dutch," and even the weather takes sides.

We never learn what, exactly, the factions are fighting over, but the origins of the conflict are hardly the point. What matters are the acquiescence, willful ignorance, and moral failure that allow people to join in as if it's the most normal thing in the world.

From the first scene, Churchill sets the collapse in motion. A young girl, Joan, visiting her Aunt Harper in the countryside, has come out of her bedroom late at night to complain that noises outdoors have kept her from sleeping. Joan (played by Alexa Eisenstein, alternating with Gina Rose) admits that she snuck out of the window to investigate, and she asks increasingly disturbing questions that paint a picture of terror in the backyard: "If it's a party, why was there so much blood?" The aunt (Frances McDormand) offers placating platitudes at first, then paltry excuses, then justification. The uncle whom Joan has seen beating people "hit only the traitors," Harper insists, instructing Joan to keep quiet because the child is "part of a big movement now to make things better." The stunning revelation of this scene is not that some vague political violence is raging in the woods, but that Joan's will to question is so thoroughly quelled.

So much so that when the action leaps forward a couple of decades into the next set of scenes, the adult Joan (Marin Ireland) does not even notice how her rebellious spirit has been contained within dominant values. She is working in a haberdashery along with Todd (Chris Messina), concocting fabulous headwear for an upcoming parade out of feathers, wires, glinting thingamabobs, ribbons, and tulle. We see the whimsical hats take shape in a series of short scenes during which Joan and Todd toil while discussing the unfairness of their working conditions.

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