Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Political Theater: Trust

It's very easy, in the current political climate, the conclude that democracy is a binary system of government. 1 = Democracy, 0 = Dictatorship. A whole range of governments can fall into 0: Putin's Autocracy-in-sheep's-clothes, Lebanon's terrorist-hijacked-confessionalism, China's outright-totalitarianism, and Chavez's centralized cult-of-personality. In the other category, differences are considered purely superficial, divided between two categories: parliamentary or American-style.

But in reality, it is not just the form of government which determins the "democracy" of a country-- whether or not the people are free and representative. It is also the nation's culture. Voter apathy may make a government unrepresentative, or a culture in which politicians are not held accountable can become unrepresentative. One need only look at the titles of some of the 20th Century's greatest villain, to notice that Chancellor Adolf Hitler, President Mugabe, President Milosovic, or President Taylor all ran so-called "democratic" countries that quickly made it undemocratic, even when preserving most of the country's laws (except a few of the most important).

Our founding fathers, in addition to the form of our government, tried to instill a culture of revolution in our country, or at least a culture of criticism and skepticism. That's why we've engrained the protection of multiplicity of voices; why libel and slander laws don't protect public officials the same way, and why freedom of the press is held as important as a fair trial. Because in order for our democracy to stay a democracy, we need to examine the way that power is being allocated--not just in theory, but in practice. This is precisely the sort of examination we need to make today.

So why is this post about Theater? Because the form of my play Orchestration is designed for the examination of power on the stage. Because it is not just heads of state and international organizations who wield power; even on the personal level, the examination of power is key. Racism, sexism, marriage, education; almost any issue can be examined from an angle of power verses powerlessness. Perfect equality is perfectly impossible, so there is always a power balance, which is the nature of drama.

So this form which I've developed is built to exaine precisely that. Because I believe that you can never have something as the subject of the play which is not built into the form of the play. And indeed, the form of the play can also be part of the subject; a play willing to lay itself open to examination encourages that examination from the audience both in itself and in the world outside.

The form is as thus:
  • to create a theatrical world on the stage which is aware of its own theatricality
  • to invest power over that theatrical world in one of those characters
  • to allow that theatrical world to both come into being and leave existence before the eyes of the audience.
Orchestration proceeded as such: a character named Jean enters the space, greets the audience, and leads in characters. He cues the music, organizes the dance, and proceeds to control the play as it progresses. Power flows out from him, through his pet creatures, and into the world. What is important is that at no point does he actually force anything onto the characters of the play; when one ensemble-member rebels, it is the other ensemble members who (at Jean's prompting but without coersion) force him to conform again. As more and more characters become alienated from Jean, however, the power fades, until at the end, Jean is powerless over the ensemble, who leave. Jean then ends the lights, lashes out at the technical operator onstage, and ejects the audience from the theater.

The universe of power is consistent, because it revolves around power as a mutual belief. In human society, one of the most powerful phenomena are the collaborative fictions which are given the weight of truth. Take, for instance, money. Money has absolutely no intrinsic value; even in the days of gold bars/coins, it was intrinsically valueless, and nowadays we have pieces of paper which by their own admission are only valued inasmuch as they represent something elsewhere. In short, money is only worth because we all agree on what money is worth. And as our collaborative belief in money gains or loses confidence, so does the worth of the money.

Yet if you read a play like Death of a Salesman or Glengarry Glen Ross, you can see the power that this fictional concept of "money" can wield over people. Why? Because of our belief in money. These beliefs, invested with our suspension of disbelief, can have such complicated and absurd powers as to take on a life of their own; an excellent description of this is in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, when he discusses the confrontation between Farmers and the representatives of the bank:

The tenant men looked up alarmed. But what'll happen to us? How will we eat?

You'll have to get off the land. The plows'll go through the dooryard. ... We know that--all that. It's not us, ti's the bank. A bank isn't like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn't like a man either. That's the monster....

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you're wrong there--quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it.
It is imporant to know about these collaborative fictions and their effects, for obvious reasons. At the end of the day, it is possible to control them; in our current banking crisis, for instance, there are options of how to control or allieviate the beast.

In Orchestration, the ensemble enters the play with the implicit assumption that Jean carries that power. Like Laws in the United States, if enough people strongly believe that a law is real, it doesn't matter what makes them believe the law is true. The question of "Why?" is irrelevant. One strong example of this, for me, is in the audience. When Jean ends the show abruptly, when he speaks after having not spoken for more than half of the play, the audience is jarred. Why? They have implicitly taken the assumptions and conventions of theater to be their own, because they trust the production. We call this trust "suspension of disbelief." They trust that there is a reason the artist wants things this way, so it does not entirely matter why. So too does it not matter why Jean has power over the ensemble; he simply does.

Then the ensemble discovers, almost by accident and almost by fate, that there is no power at all except the power that has been in their minds. This liberation can only happens when the vast majority are of the same opinion--for instance, when one character in the first half rebels on his own, he is unable to break free. But when each of the characters has abandoned Jean, it is inevitable that they break free.

My history teacher once remarked that the transition from 'kings' to 'tyrants' in Ancient Greece was the first step toward democracy, because 'tyrants' could only rule when a majority of the military was on their side; they were often forced to be populist. Plato, in his Seventh Letter, describes a tyrant who abuses the people, philosophers, politicians, but suddenly finds himself in danger when he attempts to lower the pay of the soldiers. A far cry from representative democracy, but the first moment when a group of 'people' has the right to hold a leader accountable.

Why is a 'king' not the same way? Because a 'king' has, behind him, the collaborative fiction of religious right to rule. The early kings were absolutists; they had absolute power because they ruled by divine right. And so long as the people respected that divine right, the rule of power could be easily passed down from king to king. But once the fiction of 'divine right' was overturned (in England, for instance, at about the time of the Magna Carta and King James I), Kings lost the safety which allowed them to disregard the desires of the people.

The inspiration for this train of thought in my work, which is far more eloquent than I could ever be, is President Vaclav Havel's essay "Power of the Powerless" about totalitarian communism. Because more than any other society in the world, totalitarian communism had a deliberately constructed form of collaborative fiction; communism had a loaded, complicated set of assumptions that folks were required to be a part of in order to avoid punishment.

This is the power of belief; the power of mental enslavement. Orwell's 1984 is another excellent exploration of the phenomenon; or Aldoux Huxley's Brave New World. In fact, most Utopian/Dystopian "worlds" require the author to knit a very tight, worldwide collaborative fiction in order to hold their clockwork societies in place. With 1984 it is the important maxims of "War = Peace; Freedom = Slavery" and the concept of doublethink; with Brave New World it is the important role that "soma" plays in society. In both, it is a childlike trust in the policies and directions of the leader.

Trust. Trust is a form of belief which grants a huge amount of power to the person in whom trust is vested. Whether its Big Brother or Lenin, in order to turn over a large amount of power to any one individual it requires a large amount of trust. Patriotism, for instance, has been defined as some as trust in your country. This is why it is invoked by those who want more power; they want you to 'trust' them to run the country right.

Is trust compatible with democracy? Yes. In fact, democracy cannot operate without trust. Yet at the same time, democracy cannot operate with total trust; Americans, for instance, have an innate and deep trust that no matter what happens, America will survive of prevail. It does not matter who is in charge, the worst that can happens is something bad for certain people. But the truth is, there needs to be a constant scrutiny--distrust--in society to keep it operating.

And yet at the same time, in order for solutions to be found, some folks must earn our trust; some folks must be given the power to search for solutions and implement them. If we distrust that our government can ever provide healthcare or services to the poor, then we will never empower them to provide those things.

Trust is a dicey issue, as is power, which is why we never tire of seeing it in art or in the media. Our country obsesses about trust and its betrayal--certainly, the media around the recent resignation of Eliot Spitzer and the divison between Clinton's voters and Obama's voters speaks to certain cynicisms regarding trust. Just as we continue to love even with our hearts broken, we continue to trust even after betrayals. But we need to continue to examine trust and where we invest it.