'Dead End Kids': Signaling Through the Flames

Mabou Mines Plays Out Nuclear War

 November 12, 1980

A conversation between two colleagues, overheard the day after the election: A—"Depressed?" B—"Very. Abortion, welfare, energy, business running everything. . . what's going to happen?" A—"I mostly worry about war." B—"Jesus. I don't let myself think about it. I have kids."

Joanne Akalaitis let herself think about it, and has made Dead End Kids, a play with Mabou Mines on nuclear development, nuclear power, and nuclear death. The piece is poetic, sensuous, bitterly funny, a collage of surprises. It is also filled with agitation and what I supposed Edward Teller would consider propaganda. A brave, astonishing event.

What's brave is that it takes on our worst fears about the future—the ones barely faced in private, rarely in art, abstractly in social science, never in theatre. And what's astonishing is that Mabou Mines—a group praised and damned for many things, but never yet for its politics—has merged uncompromising experimental theatricality with outfront didactic intent.

It's about time. Theatre no longer addresses our inner lives with any intensity, and ignores that outside world which, finally, controls us. Reagan seemed to take over mainstream showbiz before he won the election; probably producers didn't vote for him—they just anticipated his taste while too afflicted with Zeitgeist to challenge his message. And those few remnants of the avant-garde which haven't died of artistic or financial exhaustion seem to perform less and less about less and less. (Chaikin's Exiles and Refugees was a moving, though gentle, exception.)

As for political theatre, Bread and Puppet preaches Christian pacifism in the hills, defends the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in the city, and ignores the contradiction, while lesser groups use old techniques—agitprop skits, allegorical pageants, naturalistic problems plays (a dwindling genre except among minority groups), Brechtish derivations—to deal with subjects which may not always be simple, but which are bearable to contemplate. Nuclear war is not bearable.

I asked Joanne Akalaitis how the play came about "I Started thinking about it at the time of Three Mile Island, as part of my growing dissatisfaction with the subjects of art, especially in New York—a sense of decadence, of total irresponsibility. My piece Southern Exposure wasn't directly political, but it was socially concerned. I stopped reading fiction, started reading about science. I don't think I'm alone in this, or unusual—except in theatre, perhaps." She mentioned a Theatre Communications Group Conference, set up specifically to get theatre workers in touch with thinkers from the sciences. "I heard Richard Falk and Sheldon Wolin and other guys say that the probability is there'll be some sort of 'small' nuclear war within five years, and a wider one within ten and then all the theatre people kept talking away about next season's Shakespeare. She was further depressed and surprised, taking the train to her teaching job upstate, by conversations with sophisticated, liberal middle-class academics who supported nuclear power.

But the decisive reason was personal. "I have lived a lot of my life already and it's been a good one. Now the desire for my children to have a good life has become very powerful, and it is threatened. Their lives themselves are threatened." This is an almost universal dread (and one good reason never to vote for a President who has faith in the afterlife), shared of course by people without children who have some affection for lifer itself. Including the members of Mabou Mines, most of whom never cared much about the size of their audiences, or the nature of their review, or whether a piece was clear to everyone as long as it was to the best of their art clear, but who now find themselves trafficking in persuasion and forced to care about these questions.

The first thing one notices about the way Dead End Kids persuades is its acknowledgement of fear and ambivalence, its use of humor. Taking fear first, I'll use myself as example: I must have spoken the title Dead End Kids for a week before I "knew" what it meant. The kids are at a dead end. If something isn't done right away to turn the course of history, they are going to die. I have recurrent, though not frequent, nuclear-war nightmares in which I am frantically looking for my daughter and know she is in horrible pain—but the title couldn't connect, because I didn't let it. Thought it had something to do with gangs and pop culture, or with the macho boys who play with nuclear hardware.

In this play, such fear and defensiveness is never exploited. It is aroused, but without cruelty; in such a way that it can be considered, as well as felt. The use of theatricalism and satire to achieve this distancing is the most delicate and powerful aspect of the work. There are, after all, many ways to mobilize people. A nuclear accident will politicize those it immediately affects, but those farther away will "forget" as fast as they can. Doomsday statistics, the clock on the cover of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Hiroshima documentaries, make most people freeze like deer caught in headlights. Routine facts-and-figures didacticism reinforces the convinced and bores the others. Unless you're cynical enough to wish on us a series of consciousness-raising nuclear accidents, the only way left is to recreate through imagination the threat which, finally, makes people rebel. The means used cannot be so literal that they paralyze us, or so abstract that they fail to break thorough out defenses. Such a play cannot be cathartic in any traditional manner, for if we're purged of our anxieties we won't be moved to act. Sloganeering and scarifying, on the other hand, are insufficient, too puny for the subject. Dead End Kids, combining Mabou Mines' far-ranging intellectual and technical resources with a vast, unsentimental despair and outrage, seems to have found an alternate form.

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