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.
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.
Only when the parade is staged—a procession of chained prisoners sporting the millinery confections, accompanied by scratchy military oompah-pah—do we begin to understand the purpose of Joan and Todd’s labors: The fanciful hats prettify a gruesome death march of the condemned. Our earnest artisans are revealed to be nonchalant apparatchiks in a promiscuous state practice of political execution. But Joan’s moral choices are limited to whether she should risk her livelihood by challenging the corruption of the hat-shop bosses; she has completely internalized the values that demand making the hats at all.
From a world where executions are not only accepted but a ritualized and festive spectacle, the further decline into Churchill’s surreal dystopia feels dramatically logical, if unsettling. The writing is laconic, opening space for us to put the pieces together, much as young Joan does in that first scene when she hears screaming and sees blood.
But our critical imaginations can only be productively pricked if Far Away is played lightly: The characters must be carrying on normally even as we recognize the bizarre and troubling nature of their actions. Though directed here by Stephen Daldry, who also staged the first production in London, this version lacks the subtlety and charm of the original. Foreboding crept up in the London production. Joan and Todd flirted affably while going about their work. Aunt Harper remained sweet and reassuring in the opening scene. In devastating contrast, the American cast—adding some 10 minutes to the running time—inserts lugubrious pauses and underlines portentousness at every turn. Messina comes on bursting with hostility, as if wanting to convey a disturbing inner life of confusion and rage. With fussy gestures and long silences, McDormand calls attention to Harper’s complicity in the mysterious activities in the yard. Such pointing at the unstated forecloses our own considerations, removing us from the collusion that Churchill insists so urgently that we face.
Ibsen’s ability to hook into and reroute audience expectations, forcing spectators to confront the pretenses and rationalizations of their own decaying world, is harder to recognize nowadays. Lanford Wilson’s playable, colloquial “translation” of Ghosts goes a long way toward removing the stodginess unfairly associated with Ibsen’s prose plays. But it’s more difficult to update the play’s collapse into a melodramatic ending. Still, cleanly directed by Daniel Fish, and played crisply by a tight ensemble, Ghosts continues to raise compelling questions about duty, love, and morality.
The play centers on the return home of Oswald Alving (Ted Schneider) for the dedication of an orphanage in his late father’s name. His flirtations with the household maid Regina (Lisa Demont) and his confession to his mother (Amy Irving) that he has been diagnosed with syphilis (though it is an illness that dares not speak its name, even in Wilson’s more explicit version) unhinge the structure of falsehoods that has kept the family—and, by extension, society in general—miserably intact. Freethinking Mrs. Alving’s confrontations with preachy, prudish Reverend Manders (Daniel Gerroll) provide the ever-timely intellectual agon of the play, while the manipulations of the decrepit Jakkob Engstrand (David Patrick Kelly) demonstrate how easily knee-jerk moralizing can be bent to nefarious purposes. There aren’t any revelations in Fish’s minimalist staging. But then there aren’t any concept-y encumbrances either. Ibsen’s grapplings with the forces of change are plain to see, in all their profound prescience.