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Language and its Opposite

The Walworth Farce –

6a00d8341c630a53ef0128758fc6af970c-500wiThe longer you work in theater the more intriguing it becomes. The basic fact that audiences are able to look across an imaginary line and see into a different time and place becomes more remarkable the longer you ponder it. The embodied nature of theater – that there are bodies up there speaking the words – also seems to accrue significance. In a subtle way the embodied present of the speaking actor pulls against the basic truth claim of the words themselves, opening a little window of freedom. The fact that dramatic characters are almost never attuned to this freedom only makes statements on stage inherently poignant and ironic in a way they can never be on the page. When playwright, director and performer are sensitive to such subtleties, theater rises to another level. And so, to me, it’s not at all reductive to say I love theater most when it’s “about” theater. Seeing Enda Walsh’s celebrated play The Walworth Farce at UCLA Live last week only underscored this fact because The Walworth Farce is a very good play, and every moment of it is “about” theater.

0910_event_images_druidwalworthThe characters in The Walworth Farce are trapped in an extreme feedback loop of memory and action. Confined to a tiny flat in London, a father (Dinny) and his two sons (Sean and Blake) spend each day re-enacting the same horrendous sequence of domestic murders from a decade earlier in their native Ireland. Embracing this conceit with gusto, Walsh dramatizes what psychiatrists call “repetition compulsion” – our tendency to endlessly re-enact the very worst things that happen to us. The play demonstrates how emotional traumas warp our perceptions of reality, forming controlling narratives that follow us around, defining and also confining the range of our experience. By constantly replaying the family trauma, the murderous Dinny keeps his feelings of guilt at bay while also diverting the rebellious energies of Sean and Blake, who might otherwise destroy him. When love, with its illuminating power, enters the apartment late in the first act, the jig is up.

The public response to The Walworth Farce suggests that the issues addressed by the play are timely ones. The night I attended you could feel a certain gratitude in the air; troubling aspects of our lives were being illuminated with compassion, wit and clarity. Even the most balanced among us glimpse now and then a greater freedom that lies just out of reach. Way back our sensitive gray matter was marked by the trauma of birth, and then again by the traumas of infancy, childhood and what comes after. The stories we concocted to ameliorate and make sense of these traumas have come to shape our organs of perception. Now, unable to step outside conditioned perception these stories have become scripts we can no longer revise. We recruit the people in our lives to play assigned roles in the ongoing dramas forced upon us (more or less) by brute chance. The Walworth Farce presents a more extreme version of basic psychological tendencies that limit us all to one degree or another.

This picture of the human psyche can no longer be dismissed as literary or poetic conjecture. A short distance from Freud Playhouse at UCLA is the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Like similar institutions breaking ground across the country, Semel is devoted to researching exactly how experiences, and particularly traumatic ones, get hard-wired into the brain. Issues of mindfulness and embodied mind that were once the province of esoteric awareness traditions are now being mined scientifically for their insights into healing human dysfunction. It’s one of the developments that give one hope for our common future – that the transformative power of the material sciences in the West might be married to the equally transformative insights of the wisdom traditions of the East.

th091112a_farce_to_be_reckon480x172But while Walsh’s play is to be celebrated for its content, The Walworth Farce seems least interesting in one area where people are praising it. In interviews I’ve read Enda Walsh can be dismissive of, for example, the realism of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. To my ear the two playwrights are not so dissimilar in their aesthetic. Despite all the fun Walsh has with the lurid stage business his characters deploy in their endless looping drama, The Walworth Farce does not traffic in meta-theater. The playwright does not put any pressure on the conventions of the traditional realistic play. The characters do not break frame and address the audience. Walsh has been careful to keep the line of separation between spectacle and audience inviolate such that we are not implicated in the events on stage. And his indictment of the authoritarian Dinny never resonates in any larger social or political context.

Think about a playwright like Sarah Kane and you realize how conservative Walsh is. In 2004 I saw Kane’s remarkable 4:48 Psychosis at the Freud. It was the night George W. Bush was re-elected and Kane’s pitch-black anthem for three turned out to be the perfect play to see on that dark night. Here, at a moment when the Big Lie was reaching its zenith, simple truths were being told. On a formal level the play was pure meta-theater, the actors speaking from a place halfway between the separate stage space and our own world, and the effect was somehow devastatingly intimate. Perhaps we can’t afford that intimacy any longer. Today, five years later, the nation seems ever more locked in its own repetitive farce, with authoritarian figures pressing sensitive cultural buttons to keep a traumatized population circling endlessly the same tired clown show. Despite Obama’s victory demons stalk the land.

Like it or not we are accountable for what our national demons do. Tragic drama has always been one of the best ways to keep track of such creatures and to find out what makes them tick. In a presentation over the summer the ebullient David Sefton, Artistic Director of UCLA Live, commented on how remarkable it is that anyone attempts to create theater in America because there is simply no money for it. If art is analogous to the dream life of a culture then America is like a man who has decided he will not dream. This, of course, begs the question of whether it is better to have our psychoses acted out on stage or in the Oval Office. Regardless of how we answer this question, insightful writers like Enda Walsh (and vibrant cultural Institutions like UCLA Live) are to be supported whenever possible in this troubled time. So do us all a favor and go see Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom at UCLA Live next week.

Conversation with Enda Walsh on the Walworth Farce

Comments

  1. harvey Perr says:

    Brilliant piece. Very inclusive and insightful. You can go to

    stageandcinema.com

    to check out my review; it’s in there somewhere.

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