If we look clearly, without making excuses, human civilization has been one long war against women. And while certain privileged quarters of the world may boast of some improvements, the vast bulk of our collective culture carries the memory of thousands of years of violence against women and their bodies. Civilization could have been a great idea. But it never really delivered on its promises for half of humanity.
In Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. — now playing at Soho Rep in an invigorating production by Lileana Blain-Cruz — the English playwright Alice Birch provides a bracing reminder that our language, customs, and basic ideas about work and life are all encoded with the legacy of brutality.
In the first part of the play, Birch looks with fresh eyes at words and rituals we take for granted. In brief dialogues, played on a mostly bare stage, pairs or trios of actors scrutinize everyday forms of gendered violence and contemplate radical solutions.
A couple on the brink of hooking up parses the surprising brutishness of our basic vocabulary for seduction: Why, for example, is making love something men do to women rather than with them? Why do we think in terms of penetration, of thrusting and filling? As an estrangement device, Birch suggests an equally extreme lexicon of verbs that make the woman the unassailably active agent of the encounter: drowning, suffocating, or consuming the male body.
As Birch digs more deeply into the archaeology of gender, our civilization appears corrupted at the root. Her central question grows increasingly urgent: How can we imagine a new world free from the vestiges of ancient oppression?
One answer is to destroy everything — onstage, and in our minds — and start again. In its second half, the production turns apocalyptic as Birch despairs of humanity’s future. An eerie dinner table scene becomes, suddenly, harrowingly gory, as three generations of women reckon with the legacy of male atrocity. A grandmother, brutalized by her absent husband, rejects maternity and the ensuing generations. Her daughter strives desperately for recognition, even as her granddaughter, mute with pain, directs inherited violence against herself. In the sequence’s grotesque conclusion, the women definitively repudiate language, biology, and love.
This allegory of absolute refusal is quickly succeeded by a madcap scroll through cacophonic fragments of our culture’s bewildering array of contradictory ideas and attitudes about women. Like a Twitter feed gone riot, the ensemble enacts cultural memes at a breakneck speed intended to bewilder and outrage — and to simulate the way in which women are bombarded daily by overdetermined images of (and reductive assumptions about) femininity: the sexualized dancing of music videos; the pornographic fantasia of the internet; police harassment; idiotic discourse about rape in the natural world.
At the end of this sequence, in which our society tumbles pell-mell to its own destruction, the apocalypse actually arrives, with flaring lights and rumbling soundscape to match. In the smoke and wreckage, a trio of female voices broods over the tragic waste of millennia and vows to begin afresh, having first eradicated all men. It’s hard to disagree.
For Birch, as for the philosopher Walter Benjamin, every document of our civilization is a document of barbarity. If only we could start again. But with Birch’s dauntless vision as exemplar, we can try — in our imaginations, at least.
Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
46 Walker Street
Through May 15