Can theatre turn the world away and inward
By Gaëtan L. Charlebois
...in the weeks that followed, you got poems and songs, paintings and scrapbook-pages that were all, basically, over-the-top expressions of Look-At-Me grief...
I went to New York three months after 9-11. It was a planned trip; tickets had been bought for the Met's Meistersinger with Ben Heppner months before the catastrophe. But there I was, nevertheless, in the thick of a city under siege (cops and military everywhere) and a population considerably friendlier than usual.
Everyone chatted. Normally NYC is a leave-you-alone kind of place (unless you get in someone's face) but suddenly it was like London where, if someone sees you sitting alone, they will probably strike up a conversation. Comic David Cross, in discussing post 9-11, says everyone was so friendly you almost expected them to burst into song and the whole street to turn into Oliver!
But Cross also says something else: that 9-11 became the best excuse for bad art. In this he was only partly right. Indeed, if you did an internet search for 9-11 in the weeks that followed, you got poems and songs, paintings and scrapbook-pages that were all, basically, over-the-top expressions of Look-At-Me grief; the kind of grief you see in the news where well-groomed teenagers hold each other for TV cameras and mothers swat the asses of their toddlers to lay teddy bears at the scene of an accident.
Living in that scary place seemed an act of heroism, the chattiness a sign of nervousness and, let's say it, investigation: "Are you the next nut I must fear?"
But New York City was none of that. Living in that scary place seemed an act of heroism, the chattiness a sign of nervousness and, let's say it, investigation: "Are you the next nut I must fear?" The whole decade subsequent has, in effect, risen from this collective madness.
Instead of collectively refining the grief, turning the doggerel into art, turning the teddy-bears into sculpture, we have gone underground - ignoring (or, rather, absorbing) the event that has shaped us all. As a collective, we hardly questioned the abrogation of our rights, we did not dare to suggest our complicity in the event, we did not explore its dimensions, colours, textures. We didn't even, really, express our grief. (Singings of national anthems and patriotic hymns resembled whistling in the dark more than anything else.) Instead we just raged...aimlessly, most times.
Where were the other kings and queens of our various arts?
Of course there were exceptions. There were some comics, especially, who looked at the cave-dwelling monsters we were all becoming. Christopher Titus, Cross, Lewis Black. Stephen King (yes! Stephen King) explored the darkness with a very haunting short piece called The Things They Left Behind. But where were the other kings and queens of our various arts?
I suspect they, like the rest of us, were hiding. And, like the rest of the world, it was because of fear. But their fear was not like the rest of the world's; they feared - and justifiably - the hideous machine we had all created that not only squashed dissent but crushed mere doubt. I wrote a piece for Hour, when I returned from NYC, about the petty fascism I had encountered at the Albany Greyhound station. It was never published. Then, I was almost glad.
Well, folks...ten years is long enough. It is time to look at it. It is time to look at what we've become. It is time to truly explore our grief, fears, complicity, sins, guilt. It is time to shed light on the darkness...hell! it's even time to make light of it. It is time to write that play...
Only then can we find that thing. That thing I saw scrawled in the dust on a window of an empty building beside the gaping wound in Lower Manhattan that November, 2011.