Every work I've seen by Melanie Wilson – Autobiographer, Landscape II and now Opera for the Unknown Woman – has been a fight against falling asleep. Each one is also high up in the list of the most galvanising things I've ever encountered. That sounds like a ludicrous contradiction I know, but in my head both are direct responses to the meticulous quality of her work. Slow, deliberate, patient, it acts on me like a mesmeric charm, and what it inculcates within that mood of hypnosis is an increasingly radical feminist politic. Any frustration I feel as my brain begins to lull and drift is with my own difficulty calibrating to her work in the room, my own failure to meet its demand. Within the general culture this failure would be framed as Melanie's alone, because demanding work is seen as anathema to the accessibility, entertainment and instant gratification deemed necessary to attract and placate audiences. But I resist that, and so does she, committing herself instead to sculpting new forms for performance, and creating space for different stories about women.
Watching Opera for the Unknown Woman at the Wales Millennium Centre (and I guess someone will want me to disclose that I was there on the invitation of Fuel, Melanie's producers), I felt the usual somnolence, but also more than usual excitement. There is a sense of urgency to it, if not in pace then in theme, that I haven't felt from Melanie before: I'd name it a call to arms except the libretto itself argues against the militarism implied by that phrase. It's certainly a song for action, though, for global feminism to unify against the patriarchal structures that are relentlessly destroying life on earth. That destruction registers individually and socially, in poverty, military aggression, and xenophobia in all its fear-of-the-other guises; and it registers ecologically, in the depletion of resources and degradation of land and atmosphere. You know this, I know this, there's nothing new being argued here, but to quote Audre Lorde – which Melanie does in her libretto, too – “There are no new ideas, just new ways of giving those ideas we cherish breath and power in our own living.”
Lorde is one of those writers I might have read years ago, if only I'd been less white-centric in my approach to the feminist library. I feel I'd be a better person if I had. There's quite a lot of repetition in Sister Outsider – a collection of essays first published in small-press periodicals and speeches first delivered at academic and feminist conferences across the US, events so distant in geography that in each instance her message was probably received fresh – but it's a repetition I find useful, because everything she argues for is fundamental and yet as rare to encounter as it was when she was active, in the 1970s and 80s. On 24 February 2016 I was reading “Learning from the 60s”, a talk delivered at Harvard University in February 1982, and feeling nauseous at how similar the world she described is to our own:
“We are Black people living in a time when the consciousness of our intended slaughter is all around us. People of Color are increasingly expendable, our government's policy both here and abroad. We are functioning under a government ready to repeat in El Salvador and Nicaragua the tragedy of Vietnam, a government which stands on the wrong side of every single battle for liberation taking place upon this globe; a government which has invaded and conquered (as I edit this piece) the fifty-three square mile sovereign state of Grenada, under the pretext that her 110,000 people pose a threat to the US. … Decisions to cut aid for the terminally ill, for the elderly, for dependent children, for food stamps, even school lunches, are being made by men with full stomachs who live in comfortable houses with two cars and umpteen tax shelters. None of them go hungry to bed at night.”
I can date the reading because I was on my way to the Royal Court to see Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone, and Lorde's words shifted my entire sense of the show. Escaped Alone is another meticulous and hypnotic work that had me struggling against lethargy yet sent me out electrified, and I scoured reviews to find someone who had the same reaction to it as me but no one did. To recap: Churchill sets the play in an elderly woman's “backyard”; in this production she is white and English and her garden a microcosm of a green and pleasant land, lawn neat and borders maturing beneath a bright blue sky. Three women gather within its high wooden fences and a fourth, eavesdropping as she passes by with her shopping, is invited in to join them. Their conversations are elliptical, words flitting through them like butterflies, most sentences starting in the middle and halting before the end, but accumulatively they make a rough kind of sense: one day they talk about their children and grandchildren, another about a TV series they're all watching; they get exercised about the disappearance of local shops and the relative merits of visiting the doctor or the hairdresser, and gradually, surreptitiously, they plumb their deepest secrets: the depression that keeps one slumped indoors, the phobia of cats that has another scurrying about the house enacting obsessive-compulsive rituals to make sure none has snuck in, the six-year prison sentence served by a third for manslaughter. Their afternoons didn't make much sense to me at the time of watching; it was like looking at the back of a piece of needlework and seeing only loose threads and random knots. It was only on turning the text over since it ended that I've been able to see the intricacy of the stitches, not one of them out of place.
Interspersed with these seemingly placid scenes are speeches delivered off-set by the interloper of the group, Mrs Jarrett, the only one of the four to bear a husband's name and speak about him regularly, too. I say that still not knowing what its import might be. Those off-set speeches – delivered in James MacDonald's staging just outside a framed rectangle of sizzling copper light, the size of a cinema screen – have a flavour of Hollywood apocalypse about them, disease and destruction and death coursing through them like poison. They seem far-fetched and yet each contains a sentence so blandly familiar that Mrs J could be describing our immediate tomorrow:
Water was deliberately wasted in a campaign to punish the thirsty.Gas masks were available on the NHS with a three-month waiting time and privately in a range of colours.Commuters watched breakfast on iPlayer on their way to work.Buildings migrated from London to Lahore, Kyoto to Kansas City, and survivors were interned for having no travel documents.
Watching Escaped Alone through the lens of “Learning from the 60s”, it felt clear to me that the sense of global political and ecological catastrophe that Churchill anticipates in these speeches from Mrs Jarrett isn't new, that this anxiety reaches back decades, and always it has been a legitimate response to the same thing: the abusive power of men, whether presidents of countries or companies, leaders of armies or representatives of religion, to twist shared resources (human or natural) to personal advantage. The three women Mrs J encounters in that back garden – I'd argue – are in their own way damaged by the attempt to live within even a supposedly “developed” society because it remains conservatively patriarchal.
Where Churchill tightens the radical-feminist screw is in the closing moments of the play. Everyone except Mrs Jarrett has had a moment in the spotlight in the back garden (a bit of staging I didn't especially like) in which the air seemed to chill momentarily as their thoughts unspooled, and when she has hers this happens: she sits on her chair and repeats the words “terrible rage”, just that, 25 times in the printed text, the voice of the actor (Linda Bassett, exceptional in her anorak of mundanity) thickening like a storm cloud with each repetition, growing in force and crackling energy as though it were attached to a dimmer switch and the voltage were being inexorably increased. My god it was fucking extraordinary; by approximately repetition 19 I was simultaneously nauseous, in tears and ready to stand on my chair shouting along in solidarity. This, this is what simmers beneath the surface of women, what courses through Audre Lorde's writing, what historically has been dismissed as hysteria; this terrible rage, poured down the sink with the dirty dishwater and wiped away with the shit from a baby's bum. There's so little time or space for that rage once you're a mother or a grandmother; motherliness is synonymous with fondness, nurture, shelter, protection. At any age rage is deemed unfeminine, an unacceptable form of expression for a woman, because expressed that rage inevitably challenges the status quo.
“Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. And when I speak of change, I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives.”
Lorde knew a thing or two about anger; that quote is from a keynote speech delivered at the National Women's Studies Association conference in 1981 called “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.” Among her uses of anger is a challenge to each woman to “see her heelprint upon another woman's face”, to comprehend the complexities of intersectionality and that anyone who benefits from the status quo in a “developed” western society does so at the expense and exploitation of invisibly poorer women in the same society and elsewhere. There is nothing of that in the idle chitter-chatter of the women in Churchill's backyard, hardly anything you'd recognise as an overt feminist articulation: their rallying cry is a (glorious) close-harmony rendition of a 1960s girl-group popsong. And yet there is this rage – and there is a recollection of its use. The woman imprisoned for manslaughter killed her husband, in their kitchen: it was accidental, she says, “kitchen knife happened to be in my hand”, but the owner of the backyard has her suspicions, that the retaliation (“when I hit back”) wasn't instinctive self-defence but revenge unleashed against sustained domestic abuse. Watching Escaped Alone through Lorde's exquisite anger, I saw that accidental stabbing as a microcosm of feminism's relationship to patriarchal structures: is Churchill putting forward – mildly, affably – the possibility that feminism as a movement might one day find itself, knife in hand, finally snapping at so many centuries of injustice, slicing into the arteries of how-things-are, severing the tendons of history?
On the train to Cardiff to see Opera for the Unknown Woman I passed the Daily Mail building and, not for the first time, wanted to throw a bomb at it. The idea of insurgency terrifies me, I know I wouldn't want to live it in reality, but the romance of it is strangely alluring. With her habitual clear-eyed composure, Melanie Wilson offers protest, collaborative reasoning and the occupation of space as better courses of action. Her Opera itself enacts an occupation, of a codified and elitist art form historically the province of male composers; in a brilliant column for the Guardian she wrote: “Opera can challenge its sexist evolution, once diverted from being used as the mouthpiece of a male narrative, which has driven so many of its best-known examples in the past. The goal now is to repurpose the tool for our needs, making the journey from a female voice that suffers to a female voice that speaks up and out.”
There are 11 female voices speaking up and out in Melanie's Opera, with very little instrumentation – a pulse and patter of percussion, a satin ribbon of cello – to distract from them. The music instead is made from their voices: gorgeous ululations in Arabic, multi-vocal refrains, and the aural texture found in the variety of accent and intonation of the performers, each from a different culture and country, drawn from every continent. The set-up for this global gathering is simple: it's 2316 and humanity is exhaling its final gasp, as carbon dioxide begins to overwhelm the atmosphere, surging seas drown coastlines and forest fires rage inland. An outer-galaxy committee convenes a taskforce of women in 2016 and entrusts them with averting this destruction. The sci-fi landscape is established in the first three minutes of the libretto and understood from then on (Alistair McDowell, with your clunky exposition in X, please take note). What's less clear is the action the women should take, or even what they should seek to save. Their discussion, sometimes tense and argumentative, doesn't just campaign for collaborative reasoning: it embodies it.
As if having 11 women on stage weren't panoply enough, Melanie includes other female voices too: some of them silent but expressive, in photographs of women finding solidarity with each other during the Arab Spring uprisings; some of them in the form of quotes, from Kathleen Hanna, Christine de Pizan, and of course Audre Lorde (other inspirational women are credited in the programme, including VandanaShiva, Wei Tingting, Shelley Jackson, Doris Lessing, Minna Salami, Nina Simone, Valentina Tereshkova and Malala Yousafzai, and I want to see the Opera again for a multitude of reasons, but mostly to listen more closely to the libretto in case I can hear their words woven into it). Lorde's line is repeated twice; taken from a paper delivered as part of a “lesbian and literature” panel in 1977 called The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”, it states: “Your silence will not protect you.”
It's so, so easy to be like the women in Churchill's play, wittering away in one's own backyard. Lorde demands more than that, and so does Melanie's libretto. There was a bit of me astonished by its blatant, unapologetic articulation of feminist and left-wing politics: where was the BBC-mandated counterbalance of climate-change scepticism? Where was the toning down for people who don't want to feel preached at? She is invigoratingly forthright in this piece: environmental catastrophe is real and it's here and we don't have time to wait for someone else to deal with it. That sense of urgency can be a source of fear on the one hand, depression on the other, but there's a wonderful line in the libretto that says (quoting roughly): saving humanity is the work of a generation. The hope in that line is heartening.
Lorde's essay speaks directly of opposing silence in the face of racism, and there's a bit of me anxious at the expedience of a white feminist appropriation of her words: Melanie's in the libretto, mine in writing about it. Similarly, I felt ruffled watching the Opera by the decision to have one of the black women raise the possibility of violent action against government/military/capitalist cartels: the other women reject this as perpetuating masculine aggression, and I felt uncomfortable watching them disagree so vehemently with the black woman, would have felt better if the suggestion had come from one of the white characters.
But the discussion across difference in Melanie's libretto feels both vital and true to Lorde's spirit. In another speech, from 1979, “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House”, specifically taking women in academia to task for their lack of “consideration of lesbian consciousness or the consciousness of Third World women”, Lorde speaks about difference as essential to creative political thinking: “As women we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist.” Melanie's opera forges community, both within the group on stage and with the real-life women who inspired the work. The voices of those women resound across centuries – Christine de Pizan was writing 600 years ago – and remind us that our history as feminists is long and nourishing. What is being called for here – the slogan on the badges handed out at the end – is “affinity and resistance”: and that's what Lorde was looking for, too. I love the openness with which she says, in “The Transformation of Silence...”, that “I am myself – a Black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?”, because she doesn't specify what she thinks your work should be: are you working against racism, capitalism, ecological disaster? It's all good.
And it's all connected. This, for me, is the correlative of intersectionality: a recognition that all the different oppressions have systemic exploitation as their root cause. Earlier this year, a man in Stockholm told me that we don't have time to fight against capitalism: the urgent crisis is eco-catastrophe, and we have to focus all energy on that. I found I wasn't able to answer him, and it was the silence of non-comprehension: I couldn't understand how he doesn't see that eco-catastrophe is the result of capitalist exploitation, just as racism is, just as poverty is, and so on and so on, and that battling one requires battling the other. Opera for the Unknown Woman attempts exactly that cohesion of battle, idealistically but so valiantly, and is all the more inspiring for it.
Shortly after I wrote that bit about my dream-theory of feminism stabbing the patriarchy built into Escaped Alone and wanting to bomb the Daily Mail building, the news emerged of the murder of MP Jo Cox, by a white man who, it's been emerging, had consorted with neo-Nazis. My own words have gnawed at me since. I say the romance of insurgency is strangely alluring, but – like any romance – that's so naive, and ignores the truth of violence. I've been reflecting since on how my entire existence, as a white middle-class woman, is one of allowing myself to ignore the truth of violence, whether at the extremes of experience (refugees struggling to leave a war zone) or on my doorstep (endemic racism in British society). This week, with the shooting in Orlando closely followed by Cox's murder, that truth has been impossible to ignore, and amid the tumult of things I'm feeling is a volcanic sense of rage. Terrible rage that our “democratic” choice has been distilled to different flavours of conservatism. Terrible rage that people voting to leave the EU are also in the majority climate-change sceptics. Terrible rage at the powerlessness of the left. Terrible rage at my ineffectuality and unforgivable privileges. Terrible rage terrible rage terrible rage.
What to do with it? Lorde's counsel, in "The Transformation of Silence", is clear: “For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it. For others, it is to share and spread also those words that are meaningful to us. But primarily for all of us, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.” I look at my writing and want to erase from it the language of violence. I listen assiduously to voices both known (Harry Giles and Selina Thompson, people of such wisdom and empathy that knowing them makes me want to work much much harder) and unknown (among them Ash Sarkar, Chimene Suleyman, Robert Somynne and Sam Ambreen), and begin to share them. I work to transform silence, knowing that Lorde was, remains, right: silence will not protect us. I acknowledge that the work is also not to sink into the hopelessness of thinking nothing will.