‘Dead End Kids’: Signaling Through the Flames


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.

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.

The play is funnier as it goes along, when old magic and early science turn into modern terror, lyricism becomes the panicked laughter of denial. The lecturer and his students are funny. So are two generals who piously describe their leaps of faith during the first successful explosion at Los Alamos; meanwhile the multiple Mephistopheles, now a group of psycho-adolescent braintrusters around a tilted table, turn the generals’ platitudes into dirty jokes. A hysterically giggly sex-pot technician doing a demo of her home model red-white-and-blue H-bomb reminds us how far we’ve gone from Curie. We laugh with the people on stage, but we recognize the blackness of their laughter and our own.

Though the play gets harsher, it avoids cruelty to the audience. We are not immersed in easy documentary horrors; almost every event is refracted, parodied, stylized, made emblematic. Our minds working, our senses pleased, we can consider the subject without falling apart. I was shaky towards the end, and sad, but I wanted to say, “What an optimistic event!” When I did it precipitated a rather fierce discussion—some of the company wanted the piece to be more accessible, others wanted solutions and affirmation. Some thought it was up to the audience to take its despair, anger, and knowledge and do something, others thought they were all crazy and that the play, far from being a bummer or even negative, was completely open to the spectator as entertainment, information, humor, beauty, theatricality.

But all I meant was that this first attempt in many years to take the most imaginative form conceivable and push it to its limits, to trust the audience to move beyond its artful surface and carry away its hardest meaning, was a leap of hope for theatre.