Category Archives: theatre

“Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics” by Stephen Greenblatt (2018)

“We learn not simply what Trump tells us about Shakespeare but what Shakespeare tells us about Trump. Illuminating scene after scene, Greenblatt is especially fine on the mechanisms of tyranny.”

The tragedy of revolution is that liberation conspires with terror.

Watching the other day Nicholas Hytner’s promenade staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I heard Cassius say:  “Men at some time were masters of their fates./The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars./But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (1.2.140-3).

The reference to fate reminded me of a recently published essay.  Since I have been following with special interest the progress during this decade of Simon Critchley’s book on the philosophy of tragedy (read: sophistry) as an alternative to the tragedy of philosophy, I was particularly glad to read “Tragedy’s Philosophy,” a “rough torso” of his project, in Fisher & Katsouraki, eds.: Performing Antagonism: Theatre, Performance & Radical Democracy (2017). Regarding the understanding of tragedy as misfortune the philosopher brings up fate: “Tragedy requires some degree of complicity on our part in the disaster that destroys us. It is not simply a question of the malevolent activity of fate … Tragedy requires our collusion with that fate. In other words, it requires no small measure of freedom. … Our moral of tragedy, then, is that we conspire with our fate. That is, fate requires our freedom in order to bring our destiny down upon us” (31). Therefore he suggests that we see “the bloody events of the contemporary world in a tragic light,” and reiterates: “To see political events tragically is always to accept our complicity in the disaster that is unfolding” (36). The question of tragedy today should not be limited to a particular dramatic genre. “A tragic sensibility obliges us to see our implication within the struggles of the present and our responsibility for them. If the present is defined by disaster, then tragedy shows us our complicity with it” (40-1).

This ethical argument reminds me of Critchley’s political point in an interview where he recalls that Raymond Williams in his book Modern Tragedy (1966) “makes a link between tragedy and revolution and it’s a kind of melancholic link. He says, for example, something like: ‘We need to understand revolution tragically’. If we see revolution as a throwing off of repression and the experience of liberation that’s all very nice but we see just half of the picture. Revolution is always a dialectical process where revolution undergoes inversion in counter-revolution. So a tragic understanding of revolution would show the experience of liberation as always risking flipping over into a new experience of oppression and terror and the two things are intrinsically linked. Liberation and terror are intricated, are dialectically interdependent and that’s what a properly tragic understanding would lead us to. If we want to maintain something like revolution or rebellion then we have to see it tragically in terms of the inversions to which it is subject.”

A tragic understanding admits that revolution is subject to counter-revolution, that liberation is risking oppression. Drawing on Williams, Critchley makes the melancholic point that, when terror destroys revolution, instead of blaming destiny, we must accept the complicity of liberation, keeping in mind that freedom conspires with fate.

May 12, 2018

Bonnie Honig on agency in “Antigone”

Antigone’s actions are “embedded in and enacted on behalf of forces, structures, and networks larger than the autonomous individual that modern liberals, humanists and even radical democratic theorist tend to both love … and berate” (Honig, Antigone, Interrupted, 8). “Under the name of Antigone, A,I tracks not an exemplary individual but rather a set of discourses, styles, genres, vocabularies, citations, collaborations, conspiracies, reactions, interruptions, negotiations, failed and successful communications” (piece on the Leonard/Porter panel, 330). Antigone is “a veritable swarm of figures. Not a subjectified reified figure, but a host: … all dissidents, martyrs, counter-revolutionaries, philosophers, feminists, and diasporic actors who have claimed her or been claimed by her. Indeed, Antigone seems to me to be less of a singular heroine … than a signifier overflowing with contested meanings and available for mobilization as a heroine in many particular contexts” (331). Honig insists that “the world also always passes through us, and that we are, therefore, only ever individuated, never individuals as such, always en procès” (335). “I do press for a politics that seeks out sovereignty, but not for individuals. Individual subjects are anything but sovereign. As actors in concert, however, we can set the terms of our collective life together in small and, sometimes, large ways” (piece on the Walsh panel, 571).

Charles McNulty: “How theater should respond to a democracy in meltdown”

“Today would seem to be a prime time for agitprop.”

“All the President’s Shakespeare”

“What Trump administration officials would you cast in Macbeth?”

Laurent Dubois: “Heroines of the Haitian Revolution”

“What is the role of an artist in the face of political repression? What is the place of culture in the midst of injustice and terror? Haitian writer Marie Vieux-Chauvet (1916–1973), author of powerful novels representing the experience of living under the Duvalier dictatorship, confronted such questions throughout her life.  One of Vieux-Chauvet’s earliest novels, Dance on the Volcano (1957), just published in a new English translation, does so by journeying back to the world of plantation slavery and of the Haitian Revolution. The novel is woven around the life of a real historical figure, Minette, a free woman of African descent who overcame the racial barriers of the time to become a star singer on the colonial stage. It focuses on Minette’s struggle to find both an artistic and a political voice, using her story as a crossroads through which to explore broader questions about art, sexuality, politics, and revolutionary change.”

J. Michelle Coghlan: “Afterlives of the Paris Commune”

Coghlan’s book Sensational Internationalism: The Paris Commune and the Remapping of American Memory in the Long Nineteenth Century (2016) recovers the now largely forgotten story of the Paris Commune’s spectacular afterlife as specter and spectacle in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century American culture.

“Revolt. She said. Revolt again” by Alice Birch

The New England premiere of a feminist play that “morphs language and explodes boundaries to explore the myriad ways women are styled, shaped, and confined to fit society’s expectations, asking us: What happens when we rebel?”