Of Values and Violence

The theater only reflects our alarmingly accelerating thirst for blood

News stories about violence—and there seem to be a lot of them lately—jangle my brain. They keep rubbing up against my worries about the theater, what it isn't doing that maybe it should be doing. Like violence itself, my worry isn't completely rational; the link my overstressed brain makes between the news and the theater is often tenuous. For instance, at a book party not long ago, people began throwing things—heavy, dangerous things like leather cases and vases—at the author whose book was being celebrated, because they disagreed with her ideas. I wasn't at this book party, I hasten to add: It took place in Hyderabad, India. The unlucky author was the Bangladeshi novelist Taslima Nasrin, whose views on the struggles of women under Islam, and on Muslim-Hindu violence (her writings are critical of the extremists on both sides), have made her an exile at home and a target abroad. The men aiming the heavy objects at her belonged to one of India's Islamist parties. Ms. Nasrin managed to shout "Barbarians!" at them before being hustled to safety, her forehead bruised by one of the hurled objects. Worse, she now faces a possible prison term on the charge of "hurting Muslim feelings."

Nothing to do with us, you think? Well, maybe not—though you, like me, probably have no idea how many of your colleagues' jobs have been outsourced to Hyderabad lately, and, for all we know, are now bringing steady salaries to members of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, the party that targeted Ms. Nasrin. Who says an online-help provider can't also be an extremist bigot, helping U.S. housewives unsnarl their server problems while simultaneously thinking they're devil's spawn who should never have been taught to read and write, much less be allowed near a computer? Biology, philosophy, and religion have spent centuries trying to teach us that we are all members of one another; global capitalism is making sure we get the message. Homo sum: Humani nihil a me alienum puto, and there is no way for anyone alive to dodge the fact. (The Latin tag comes from the Roman playwright Terence: "I'm a man: Nothing human is alien to me.")

Violence troubles everybody: the natural violence that causes flooded subways and tornadoes in Brooklyn; the intergroup violence that makes people throw heavy objects at a woman for writing a novel; the personal violence that makes people commit murder when they start out intending to commit simple robbery. Along with the increase in hurricanes and typhoons, global warming seems to have brought a shortening of the human temper. Everybody's solution to everything, apparently, is to pick up a gun, set off a bomb, throw something. Religion, formerly thought of as a realm of peace and dignified disputation, has become practically the world's worst area where anger management is concerned. One of the news stories that gave me pause recently concerned the booming popularity of a Christian "theme park" (its owners don't call it that) in Florida, where the big draw, every day except Sunday, is a live re-enactment of the Crucifixion. "Must then a Christ perish in every age to save those who have no imagination?" Bernard Shaw asked in Saint Joan. Not just in every age, Bernie, but six days every week. At least the makers of the medieval mystery cycles knew enough to confine the simulated crucifixions on their pageant-wagons to specific church holidays in which the whole community participated. The idea of miming the crucifixion on a daily basis, as just another item on the show-business docket, has a creepy ring. In addition to having a New York theater link—the Christian broadcasting company that runs the place has just taken over Off-Broadway's Century Theater—the story evokes the equally creepy image, in Suzan-Lori Parks's The America Play, of the carny-show employee who earns his living impersonating Lincoln and letting the crowds pay to play John Wilkes Booth.

We all have violent impulses. However much they may trouble us individually, they have a gratifying aspect that finds its way out when we mass together, either as imagery in entertainment or—when pushed to the edge by the urgings of extremism—in the commission of actual violent acts. However much I may dislike the violence in which certain playwrights have seemed to specialize lately (I tend to avoid their plays because the extreme gore gets on my frazzled nerves), I have to admit that its existence makes sense: A world full of violence will naturally spawn plays full of violent imagery, and it's better, surely, for the violence to appear onstage, via the sanguinary imagination of a Tracy Letts or Martin McDonagh, than to see it become all too real in the streets and schoolyards.

But the word "imaginary" offers another of those mental irritants. I see plenty of violent acts in new plays. What I don't see, especially in recent work, is any imaginative effort to go beyond the violent act, to examine not only motives but causes and consequences, let alone solutions, of the kind that Newark is now exploring in the wake of the horrific killings there. Recently, not in a reviewable context, I saw a piece of theater, essentially a love story, in which a violent act committed on the hero's true love was repaid by his committing a violent act on somebody who had nothing to do with it. This was presented as a mark of virtue on his part, leading to a sort of happy ending in which absolutely no attempt was made to perceive the events in any larger moral context. It was simply "You wrong me, I wrong somebody else." Rather like the comedy of Jack Absolute, in The Rivals, striking his servant, who strikes the errand boy, who says, "I'll go downstairs and kick the cat." Only it's not funny when perceived as heroic.

In this misperception, unfortunately, those who would tempt the world into unreflecting violence have a natural leader: the current U.S. government. The war in Iraq is not the cause of the violence in plays. Nor is the war even the cause of conflicts in the Islamic world about how to absorb the complications raised by the collision of Western and Eastern mores, though its existence has magnified and exacerbated them. But the idea of a government that believes only in armed might and its own self-righteousness, and hypocritically preaches democracy abroad while doing its best to suppress democracy at home, must surely serve as the rottenest of rotten examples. I keep on my computer, and reread every so often, the speech that Senator Robert C. Byrd made on March 19, 2003, when Congress had decided definitively—on the basis of what many even then knew was false information— to invade Iraq. "Today I weep for democracy," the Senate's senior member said. "When did we decide to risk undermining international order by adopting a radical doctrinaire approach to using our awesome military might?" A radical doctrinaire approach . . . it sounds uncomfortably like people throwing chairs at a novelist in Hyderabad. But it is what we have been living with. And if we don't compel ourselves—and if the theater doesn't compel us—to look at reality more deeply, more widely, and with a more compassionate understanding of what we cause when we commit violence, we are surely heading for a world where the daily crucifixions will not just be a matter of mime, and there will be no day off on Sunday.

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