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The Cassandra Syndrome

Cry, Trojans!, The Wooster Group, Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte,
REDCAT,  February 27 – March 9, 2014 —

The first responses to The Wooster Group’s Cry, Trojans!  I heard were strong, but then opinion began to curdle, finally setting into an unpleasant gel seeded with the landmines of identity politics. Arriving at REDCAT I was not sure what to expect – all the way back to LSD – Just the High Points in the late 1980s, I’ve enjoyed Wooster productions, but I typically don’t take issue when someone doesn’t respond to the challenges of their work. Taking my seat in bleachers flanking the stage, I got a close up view of Scott Shepard, Ari Fliakos, Kate Valk and the other Woosters fully embodying their gestures and utterances, while also walking each of them back, directing our attention instead to the expressive mobility of the stage. For me, this muscular tension was heightened also by the presence of Shakespeare’s gorgeous language, and by the rich archetypal characters of the Homeric myths – tasty stuff, all in all. Far from experiencing the Woosters trademark archness as gratuitous, I found myself hyper-aware of the political dimension of their deconstructive antics. The harsh reaction in the L.A. press seems to me not wrong so much as wrong-headed, so I find myself called to pull back the veil on exactly this political dimension.

An offshoot of Richard Schechtner’s The Performance Group, LeCompte and company provide the most sustained engagements with transformative aesthetics of Antonin Artaud and Jerzy Grotowski, and their assault on the representational model of dramatic realism. As L.A. Weekly writer Bill Raden astutely reminded colleagues in a recent online exchange, the bedrock of the Wooster Group’s aesthetic is the idea that “all representation is misrepresentation.” This may sound like one of those indecipherable statements out of unreadable books on literary theory, but the issue could not be more germane to where we find ourselves today. The world, this aesthetic asserts, is not a place of fixed, atomized entities that can be depicted objectively from a comfortable remove. Rather, the world is a place of processes engaged in an endless transformation of emergence and collapse, and the fixing of those processes into a stable representation is always a thoroughly political act. Those who pretend otherwise, those who peddle the view that there is a solid ground on which to erect hard-and-fast delineations, do so in pursuit of an agenda. Entrenched structures of power and domination are especially invested in this idea of a static world governed by fixed verities it makes no sense to worry our pretty little heads about. Mesmerized by alluring ideas of safety and security, we lose touch with our full capacities as active beings: we grow quiet and deferential toward those attempting to corral the flow of events. This is why, regardless of their narrative content, representational narratives tend always to lend affective weight to the bedrock idea so succinctly formulated by Margaret Thatcher: There Is No Alternative (T.I.N.A.). But of course, T.I.N.A. is the logic of death, and this is why modern artists in all the disciplines have for decades devoted themselves to complicating the aesthetic of simple representation.

What do you do as a theatre artist after you recognize the political implications of representation? Various strategies present themselves. You can embrace narrative for its propulsive lyricism, and construct affective ramps that send audiences stampeding into the open space of the raw stage (a minimalist approach has worked for several avant-garde voices in Los Angeles.) You can get ceremonial the way Robert Wilson did, at least at the beginning of his career, in works like DeafMan Glance. Or you can embrace irony with both arms, and this is where LeCompte risks triggering powerful reactions in those to whom identity issues are sacrosanct. Every gesture and utterance in a Wooster productions has to be utterly committed, expressive and embodied but also self-conscious – winking, mugging, arch – what Artaud called the “gratuitousness” of the stage is never allowed to slip from view into the shadows. The Woosters, to paraphrase Nietzsche’s statement about the Greeks, are profound in their superficiality.

But what of the sensibilities of local indigenous American performers who angrily decry the racism allegedly at work in the Wooster’s appropriation of native American imagery? Here again, unspoken political dynamics swirl around the production; LeCompte’s decision to deploy a parody of American Indian motifs and tropes in her staging aims to critique the flawed representational logic of identity politics. LeCompte’s work seeks to remind us that the rhetorical strategy of identity politics is to erect fixed boundaries around a corner of the terrain that can be defended as fixed and inviolable: “this denigrated subject-position belongs to us, and upon it we will build a new world of authentic social justice.” Unfortunately, LeCompte suggests, this project is not only doomed from the start – we do not in fact live in a world of stable entities – but its faulty presuppositions perversely lend the energies of protest to the fixed hierarchies that deliver various social and historical pathologies in the first place. This perhaps explains why the great era of identity politics (the 1990s) coincides with the great era of social re-stratification in the U.S. – while the left was re-playing the great moral victories of the Civil Rights era, the right made off with all the moola. If you think that’s a minor detail, I’d like to introduce you to my pal Karl Marx.

In its irreverent way, Cry, Trojans! shines a light on the contradictory conservatism by which much multicultural discourse betrays its liberatory intentions. The Wooster’s aesthetic formed at a time when theater artists embraced the deeper political dimensions of theatrical form, in collusion with such astute and acerbic critics of power as Michel Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari and Judith Butler. Difference is primary to identity, these philosophers tell us;  difference, they say, is found at the origins. Hence, when you lobby for the “rights” of some identity viewed as primary to difference, your efforts will inevitably serve the causes of social hierarchy, repression and domination. For those who have already made psychic and social investments in such an identity, this is hardly a welcome message, but of course there are better ways to protest and redress the injustices done to women and men whose lifestyle choices, genders or ethnicities have been used as pretexts for injustices large and small. When based on the idea of difference being primary to identity, progressive efforts have the huge advantage of serving their actual intention, promoting liberation rather than its opposite. To put this another way, those seeking to reconnect with or defend collective identities that have been savaged by Protestant capitalism should, as a first step, reject the representational logic by which that power has exerted its dominance.

In Cry, Trojans!, the presence of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida amplifies the urgency of LeCompte’s critique immeasurably. Here, as elsewhere, the figure of Cassandra emblematizes our inability as human beings to exert control over the powerful forces that have us in their grip, forces that operate by way of delusion and domination. The collapse of Troy stands in for all regimes that disappear in epochal shifts, and in Shakespeare’s text it can be read as a foreboding about the arrival on the horizon of Protestant modernity, the hyper-dynamism of industrial modes of production. How, you ask, might that be especially relevant to me today? Well, reflect for a moment that just last week, according to the scientists, the thermohaline flow in Antarctica began to collapse. Reflect also that the cultural dynamics and forces that exterminated indigenous American peoples are directly implicated in these astonishing events, these irreversible markers we pass on a daily basis, and that these dynamics and forces are ongoing and conspicuously centered around Southern California, our sunny, automotive way of life. Far from inhabiting a distant past, the fate of indigenous Americans haunts us today, as does the fate of all the species following vanished populations into extinction on a daily basis. Seen from this angle, Cry, Trojans! offered the REDCAT audience a chilling Cassandra’s cry, and it’s disturbing to watch the L.A. community turn away with a petulant annoyance that only aids those on the right.

One of the great services the leadership of REDCAT  have rendered to the LA theater community is providing a platform for Elizabeth LeCompte and the Wooster Group to stage iterations of their ongoing experiments with theatrical form. When REDCAT first opened, I was among those who believed the institution ought to devote more of its resources to indigenous L.A. Theater. But today, be-numbed perhaps by a forty-year assault from above by neoliberal plutocrats, the L.A. theater community — stage companies and critics alike — has become dangerously a-political, if not downright conservative. Today we need work like Cry, Trojans! to remind us of the political stakes of what we do, lest we stumble into the embrace of a shuttered provincialism, inclining our lips toward the glove of power.

 

Comments

  1. Jim Fletcher says:

    This is excellent. Political thought is actually all-out exciting, who knew? Thank you for this articulation…

  2. Steven Lavine says:

    Thank you for this refreshingly brilliant reading of Cry Trojans and the work of the Wooster Group generally.
    It is a powerful reminder of the conversation about performance we are not having and need to.

  3. Hank Bunker says:

    Fierce, Guy, and quite right. I studied years ago with Albee who insisted that an act of theater — true theater — will always in and of itself be a political act — incisors bared toward the glove of power, if you will. It took me awhile to perceive just how, but prompted me finally to search for meaning in form as much as in content, and to understand finally the power of theater to bear witness to truth. You do a great job explaining why.

  4. Excellent and refreshing. When Theater Communication Group held their national convention in LA, the most excellent counter discussions were held across the street at an alternative get-together. I’m increasingly interested in this discussion of “difference being primary to identity” and theater’s gradual shift to the right.

  5. Guy Zimmerman says:

    For those interested in some background on the right-wing effects of identity politics, here’s Adolph Reed:

    http://www.salon.com/2014/03/09/we_are_all_right_wingers_now_how_fox_news_ineffective_liberals_corporate_dems_and_gop_money_captured_everything/

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