Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Demolition plot (slight return)

Back when I was reading Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell, there was a passage about the Zapatistas that shone so suggestive a light on Dead Centre's show Chekhov's First Play that it sparked me into writing about it (this is a postscript to that text). In a chapter on revolution, especially the social revolutions that have taken place in South America over the past few decades, Solnit talks about carnival and the idea of jubilee, a Biblical notion of social renewal whereby once every 50 years liberty from work, ownership and exploitation is proclaimed “throughout all the land” (now that's a religious tenet I can stand behind). It leads her to celebrating the Zapatistas, and to a discussion about their literary figurehead, Subcomandante Marcos. She reports how, in response to journalists' speculation as to his identity, Marcos wrote:

Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian on the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany … a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the metro at 10pm, a celebrant of the zocalo, a campesino without land, an unemployed worker … and of course a Zapatista in the mountains of southeastern Mexico.” This gave rise to the carnivalesque slogan 'Todos somos Marcos' ('We are all Marcos')...

So much of Chekhov's First Play is concerned with the possibility of social revolution: of smashing down hierarchies and all the structures that (up)hold them, of replacing the cult and the claim of the individual with the selfless anonymity of the collective. When the wrecking ball falls, the stage picture shatters with carnival energy, and at the centre of that chaos is Platonov. Plucked from the audience, Platonov could be anybody – in the same way that Marcos could be anybody.

In his confusion, his hesitant movements, his inability to keep up with the action, the manifold ways in which he doesn't fit, Platonov radiates the imposed powerlessness of the outsider, no matter how much the characters on stage are magnetised by his presence. And again, that not-fitting makes him one with the ostracised whose identity Marcos so joyfully adopts, whose presence is a problem to authority, and yet who can, through persistence, through simply continuing to be, challenge their surroundings and even change the script. The slogan that Platonov inspires, the line that every character repeats in turn, is: “You made me nobody.” Once they've said that, they fall silent: the final vestige of hierarchy – language – demolished as surely as the country-house set.

That's pretty much what I intended to say when writing about Chekhov's First Play the first time, but it wasn't the only thing, and somehow in the (general indulgence of the) writing I forgot to say it at all. And I might have carried on forgetting, except that I'm now reading another Solnit book, Hope in the Dark, and again there's a bit of writing about the Zapatistas that reminded me of Dead Centre. There's a beautiful line, also quoting from Marcos, on facing the future with bravery and expectation of change: “With our struggle, we are reading the future which has already been sown yesterday, which is being cultivated today, and which can only be reaped if one fights, if, that is, one dreams.”

Solnit picks up on this because it supports her reasonable and reassuring thesis that political despair is a drain on human resources; that while fatigue is understandable, and temporary loss of faith a natural response to disappointment, the defeatism of long-term despair is unacceptable: “even an indulgence if you look at the power of being political as a privilege not granted to everyone”. Despair rejects the slow, patient and repetitive work required to bring about social change, and replaces it with inactivity and maudlin doom-mongering. It's necessary, she argues, to believe in other possibilities; even, quoting F Scott Fitzgerald, “to see things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise”.

This argument for an embrace of the unknown is exactly what she illuminates in Chekhov's First Play. Despair in the play is figured in the character of the “director”, who seems perky enough at first, but gradually reveals his self-doubt and crushing sense of failure. He shoots himself out of proceedings, only to return at the end, still “tormented, without anything to believe in”, but now aware of the need for hope: for “courage … to keep on living”. What might happen in the future he doesn't know: he just has to continue – and do so reaching outwards. When he speaks his final word, hello, he's no longer the “director” but a single being with Platonov, their identities merging just as “todos somos Marcos”.

Our relationship with the unknown was a central concern in another work by Dead Centre, Lippy – but there they undermined their own proposition, maintaining a sense of visual mystery in the staging while chipping away at narrative ambiguity in the text. Chekhov's First Play similarly (but with less self-contradiction) shapes its dream of the future even as it professes uncertainty: the other slogan repeated by each character in turn, just before the “You made me nobody” sequence, is: “Is this mine? I can't imagine owning anything.” This is the politics of anti-capitalism, of the Zapatistan maxim quoted by Solnit: “Todo para todos, nada para nosotros” – “everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves”. And the word “imagine” is crucial: it suggests not a physical shift, but a mental one, the same as Solnit advocates in her book. All the social and political transformations we've witnessed in the past century and that are yet to come have one thing in common, she says: “they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. … To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.”

Dead Centre plucked Chekhov's First Play from the past, tore it and transformed it into a commitment to imaginative hope. No wonder I'm still thinking about it.

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