'Dead End Kids': Signaling Through the Flames

Mabou Mines Plays Out Nuclear War

The piece begins with alchemy and stops as some point in the '50s. Akalaitis's reason for not continuing to the present (several in the company disagree with her): "In the '60s the issues were glamorous, with more rhetoric, and more drugs. Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement—though I'm not trying to diminish them—were in some sense a diversion, the issues had so much moral and emotional clarity. The '80s are more like the '50s, when aggression and external optimism were combined, but behind them was a deep pessimism. Now it's all come back to the feeling of Post-World War II days." If you remember those days, that's an uncomfortable thought, and uncomfortably convincing.

The piece has no precise chronology, though it's broadly true that the first part deals with aspects of the development of science from Paracelsus to Hiroshima, and the second part centers on the ways in which Americans lived with—and avoided facing up to—the possibility of destruction. Throughout the work, however, images reverberate against each other, recur, appear simultaneously.

The piece begins with a multiple image. There's a magician, slick and modern, conjuring with scarves, balls, a stick and a pair of doves—that ancient peace symbol which Picasso made into an icon for the Stalinist peace movement. There's also a warm-faced old-fashioned lad in black who turns out to be Madame Curie. Crisp young scientists in white attend a blackboard; alchemical texts are recited; a bobby-soxer is transformed into a renaissance beauty. We are taken into the world of early science, and feel its enticements. Books are scattered everywhere. So many books. The association is instant: "Ugly hell, gape not! Come not Lucifer! I'll burn my books!"

But the logical move to Faust is not made so fast. First, Madame Curie, gentle, courageous, dedicated, tells parts of her story, letting go with unnerving remarks: "Radium had its shadow, its ghost," "Radiation is contagious, like a disease." When we do reach Faust, it's through slides of anonymous, vaguely familiar, obviously eminent men of her period, and a ravishing swell of Berlioz, slightly overblown.

The Faust scene is not Marlowe but Goethe, and done in German, with Curie translating rather eccentrically into a mike, and a woman in the background signing the text. Mephistopheles is a multi-headed devil: Faust finally signs his pact with a cleric, a soldier, an academic, a scientist...the powers that be. As Curie dryly comments, "Faust cares not about the afterlife but only about the here and now."

This scene was a pleasure to watch, but made me curious and a little uncomfortable. The attitude seemed ambivalent: Does Akalaitis think all scientific yearning is damned? Or are we supposed to remember that Goethe's Faust is, in the end, redeemed: As the angels say, "Whoever strives with all his power, we are allowed to save." It also looked like a very obscure way to radicalize an audience.

I asked the company about this, and, typically, they had a number of answers. "Here's a romantic idea of the theatre," one member said, "an image which is operatic and old-fashioned and melodramatic. Everybody knows the Faust legend and to see it done in the original is very moving, to get thrown into it from the context of radiation and cold war is exciting." Another said, "Right from the beginning we've talked about this play as a vehicle for information, but even in the same language there is always a translator. This scene is a metaphor for our permanent dependence on media, or translators, who always tell us less than what's originally said." Someone else pointed out, "It's good to have one difficult scene. I assume that the audience will intellectually perceive what we're doing. And if you assume it, they'll be able to do it." Finally, "It's not that intellectual. It's just real old-fashioned theatre, like a magic candle, a dry-ice machine."

The scene, and the discussion, illustrate Mabou's lack of condescension towards its audience, a faith which makes this group—usually considered elitist, cultish, for a coterie—quite lacking in snobbery and democratic at root. They present Faust as a symbol and question, and trust us to meditate on him as we will. This is very unauthoritarian agitprop.

A similar question came up later, a propos a scene where two dopey gum-chewing kids are listening to a lecturer blather on that plutonium is less lethal than botulism and who wants to live in a risk-free world anyway? However caricatured, the students, aid Akalaitis, "are not just jerks and nerds. The government lies, the newspapers lie, we're lied to all the time, and we love it, we eat it up, we get off on it."

What prevents Akalaitis's satire from mean-spiritedness is that use of "we" rather than "they"; the work is understood as an investigation of the company's habits of mind, and the audience's, as well as the characters'. A jouncy song and dance number with the lines "Hubba hubba hubba, let's shoot the breeze/ Hubba hubba hubba, whatever happened to the Japanese?" made me cringe, but mostly because the feelings behind it are still around.

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