The power of propaganda

Both history and art have demonstrated what happens when the language of politics and its ideological positions have been emptied of meaning and turned inside out. Belief replaces facts, emotion supplants reason, and expediency supersedes ethics. 20th century writers and philosophers who have tackled this dilemma in various dystopian works have issued a warning for the future.

Orwell’s “doublethink” is fully operational in the cacophony of the information economy across the political and social spectrum. And much like the populace of Albert Camus’ 1948 play State of Siege, we have not paid attention until the most dire signs are upon us and we find ourselves trapped inside an endless cycle of lies, hypocrisy, denial, and fabrication. Thus the revival of Camus’ parable of political despotism and demagoguery, and a population under siege is indeed timely on more than one level.

Staged by the Theatre de la Ville–Paris, and directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Moto, this new production was an unrelenting multisensory barrage of sound, language, and image.  Performed in French with English subtitles, the unmodulated intensity of declamatory expression was almost overwhelming. But the metaphors and the power of the ideas prevailed.  The dark ominous industrial production design that had more in common with Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis than with the shiny bright opaque urban landscape of 21st century techno culture, gave it both historical weight and a certain timeless apocalyptic presence, thus preventing it from becoming satire rather than an existential vision of human failure, folly, and redemption. However the production’s dramatic imagery and sound effects operated at the same volume level as the text, sometimes blurring the dialectic within it.  Sirens blare, spotlights flash, plague doctors in raincoats and terrifying beaked protective masks round up infected citizens, and grim projections loom above.  With the exception of an effectively stark interrogation scene, spectacle dominated throughout.

Photo credit: Jean Louis Fernandez

The town that falls victim to a Plague may be taken for a paradigm of the decline and fall of a nation, and perhaps even the very ideals of western democracy and civic responsibility.  The characters are archetypes. The Governor, the Magistrate, the Judge, the Priest, the Counselor are models of corruption and self-interest, who make way for the power-drunk authoritarian Dictator (called the Plague) and his predatory Secretary of bureaucracy. The exceptions are the Nihilist (aptly named Nada), and Diego, the youth whose fierce individualism, idealism, and willingness to sacrifice himself for the larger good, brand him as the hope of the future. Or from the opposite viewpoint a dangerous rebel, a cancer in the body of the State. Much like Winston in 1984 he is a seeker of truth and love, both of which are forbidden and forcibly made obsolete.

The precipitating event is the siting of a comet in the sky that the townspeople take as a sign, a warning of impending disaster, which they question the meaning of.  As in the present discourse around climate change, they are told to go home and ignore it. “Let everyone go back and resume their work. Good governments are governments under which nothing happens. It is affirmed that on this day nothing happened. And from this sixth hour on, any citizen who speaks of comets other than as an astral phenomenon will be punished,” the Magistrate declares. To which Diego responds, “It is stupid! Lying is always stupid.” He is answered by Nada’s astute observation with just the right tone of sarcasm. “No, it’s political. What a great governor we have here!  If his budget is in deficit or his household adulterous, he will cancel the deficit and deny the affair.  Cripples, you can walk, and you who are blind, look: it’s the moment of truth!” A fitting epithet for our current state of the nation!

And thus the stage is set for impending doom. It arrives in the form of a rapidly spreading epidemic disease, which the officials hide from the public since it is only affecting the overpopulated neighborhood of the poor. Meanwhile ignorant citizens fear it is God’s punishment for their sins. Public gatherings and entertainments are forbidden and officials attempt to contain it with quarantines and curfews. Some try to flee by sea, as others succumb. But it is too late, for the Plague is not only an infection within the body and soul. It is also the absolute brutality imposed on the body politic from without.

Photo credit: Jean Louis Fernandez

The Plague arrives in full force in the persona of an invading omnipotent Dictator (Mein Führer!) whose reign of destruction and terror knows no limits. He begins the process of elimination of all those found to be infected or “defective,” to be followed by the building of walls, and surveillance towers. In an extraordinary moment of staging a tarp piled high with corpses raining from the rafters is pulled off the raked stage.  “One plague, one people! Concentrate, execute orders, keep busy! Deport and torture, there’ll always be something left! A good plague is better than two freedoms!” is his dictum.  Ideas that have once again become prevalent in today’s rhetoric!

Photo credit: Jean Louis Fernandez

The administrator of all policies is his vamping Secretary who orders that all citizens must have a “certificate of existence.” But the process of obtaining this document is an impossible bureaucratic maze of unanswerable questions such as what is your reason for being alive. Thus all attempts are already doomed to fail. The spineless submission of the officials to the will of the Plague as they go along with his commands, certainly references the abdication of the French government to the Nazis. But the message has many implications in our complex world in which the tyrants and demagogues come wearing many deceptive masks, bearing slogans ranging from false promises of greatness, to fear-mongering, to the incantations of violence draped in holy robes. It is the language of fabrication in which there is no verification of “truth” only opinion.  At this moment it serves as an apt metaphor for the moral lassitude of many Republicans in their continued support of Trump’s destructive agenda, out of convenience and cowardice not conviction. For beyond the vulgarity, ignorance, and narcissism of our current Commander-in Chief, the deeper danger lies in his piece-by-piece dismantling of the institutions that protect and hold democracy and justice together.

State of Siege’s moral center is Diego who raises the question “What if the law is crime?” in response to the Judge’s chilling reversal of purpose,  as he administers the law to oppress not protect the people. Diego’s defiance of authority and resistance to propaganda is fueled by his passionate desire and love for the Judge’s daughter Victoria. The implication is that love is the true weapon against tyranny. But the naïve idealism of their Romeo and Juliet style romance with all its youthful urgency ultimately ends in an anguished choice. Diego makes a deal – his life in exchange for Victoria’s and the freeing of the town. Such nobility of purpose seems almost quaint in this age of entitlement when personal gain has displaced a civic desire to serve the larger good. Diego’s refusal to be silenced despite the Plague’s declaration – “Smash theirs mouths! Gag them and teach them the keywords until they too repeat the same thing over and over, until they finally become the good citizens that we need,” re-enforces the meaning and importance of free speech in a free society as well as it’s responsibilities.  Despite its shortcomings I am grateful for this theatrical revival, since it is unlikely that Albert Camus is being read, discussed, and debated in institutions of higher learning lest it disturb or offend anyone.

Camus’ treatise may have been written in the aftermath of WWII as a response to Fascism and Nazism as well as the Cold War threat of Soviet communism, but it remains a relevant warning generations later as to how a society succumbs to totalitarian forces. Thus the importance of this restaging, for its message is also an appeal to our better nature to refute and prevent tyranny in all its insidious disguises wherever it may arise. A challenge more urgent than ever!

Photo credit: Jean Louis Fernandez


Deconstructing a philosophical conundrum

If Theatre de la Ville-Paris’ production of Camus’ State of Siege is political allegory in the form of rhetorical “spectacle”, Chilean director and playwright Guillermo Calderon’s latest work Mateluna is a postmodern deconstruction of the mediated political landscape in both its performance structure and interrogatory content.

Is there an objective truth? Or is what is true or false a matter of context and perspective? When an art activity interfaces with actual political violence and its ideology what is the outcome? What constitutes a lie versus a fabrication? And if the fabrication is an artwork can it reveal the hidden “truth” behind the political falsehood. An investigation into these questions provides the structural architecture of Mateluna.

Photo credit: Steve Gunther

The plot revolves around the efforts of the company of performers to determine the guilt or innocence of real-life Jorge Mateluna, a former anti-Pinochet guerilla who is serving a sentence for a bank robbery he claims he did not commit.  In the present context of so-called “fake news” — fantasy versus disinformation versus fact – what makes this performance work so engaging and revelatory is the way in which the performers debate and critique their own actions as they attempt to find answers in their role as artists. Instead of engaging in the tyranny of political correctness, didacticism is replaced by reasonable doubt, dogma by skepticism, and self-righteousness by dark humor and a self-deprecating sense of irony throughout.  At the same time they confront a corrupt justice system, question bloodshed as a viable weapon against oppression, and acknowledge the seduction of consumer culture as another form of political manipulation.  Although it was in Spanish with English subtitles, the natural conversational tone of the dialogue made it as easy to follow as a subtitled film. The result was a refreshingly candid look at how language and images work to shape and control what we believe.

Photo credit: Steve Gunther

In their search for answers the artists became both detectives pouring over actual evidence, and judge and jury trying to come to a conclusion as to guilt or innocence. This raised the question of motive and whether or not that should be considered in accessing the evidence. As a youthful member of an underground guerilla group fighting the Pinochet dictatorship Mateluna was driven by his passion for justice, not money. Thus, after having served time as a political prisoner, why would a gainfully employed family man rob a bank years later, they ask. Despite a video of so-called incontrovertible evidence, the performers are not convinced.  If the eyewitness identification of Mateluna is false, and he is convicted despite his alibi, what part did his political past play in the police action?

The overall approach is one of documentary exposition.  A narrator invites the audience to join the process as the cast presents a series of vignettes using art as a means to prove whether or not Mateluna was wrongly convicted. The subsequent investigatory performances and videos were re-creations of possible scenarios that positioned the cast in the various roles of young radicals caught up in opposing facts and fictions.  We are told that the 39 year-old Mateluna himself participated in their initial workshops that led to the first play Escuela set in a guerilla “safe house” for participants in a “war that never took place.”  The second one is an absurdist satire called COW involving a discussion about making a bomb of “poo and nails” called a “cheese”, and ending up in prison like all their friends.  And for what when history will betray them! By the time they come out there will be “neither people power nor a revolutionary party.” And “All that is left in the present are threats on the internet.

Comunicado, the third performance — a video again set in a safe house — is about a guerilla group that renounces violence and guns because one member proclaims he ”wants a normal life, a regular life.” He will “pretend to be Mahatma,” embrace non-violence and be redeemed.  But the now defenseless group still ends up being massacred by the military. The fourth scenario Estetica, a philosophical debate based on Peter Weiss’ novel The Aesthetics of Resistence, is a parody of academic theory in which the definitions of Fascism, Communism, Anarchy, Socialism, etc. disintegrate into contradictory Orwellian slogans. “Culture is rebellion. You can’t trust intellectuals.” Mateluna informs them that previously prisoners drank matte and sang folks songs. Now during his second incarceration they talk about the best car of the year and listen to Reggeaton! Subsequently political radicals and artists both end up questioning the effectiveness of their actions.

A hilarious video mimics a TV procedural complete with a wild car chase. The cast sets out to trace the events of the day of the bank robbery to prove Mateluna’s version of that day are true and he is in fact innocent. All held together by a narrator whose running commentary on, and critique of the entire enterprise provides a bridge between audience and cast members. We are told that these earlier “performances” were attempts to get the Chilean court to reopen Mateluna’s case. Yet whether or not all or any of them were actually ever performed prior to this staging, is left unsubstantiated.  At the same time the interior debate concludes that both the guerilla radicals and the artists failed to prove anything other than that violence only begets more violence.  The ironies of their ideological contradictions prevail.

The humor is sharp and biting as it holds up a mirror to the dilemma of belief, the fallibility of convictions, and the mutability of language itself.  The proclamation – “Rebellion arises when class awareness is missing, where hate governs” reminds us of where we are now. The fact that we are all caught up in this predicament makes this work utterly contemporary and auspicious. The irony and beauty of its darkest humor and skepticism is that it sheds light on the madness of the realities we have constructed, and makes room for us to laugh at ourselves along the way.         

State of Siege by Albert Camus
Theatre de la Ville-Paris
Directed by Emmanuel Demarcy–Moto
Center for The Art of Performance UCLA
Royce Hall
October 26 and 27, 2017
Photo credit: Jean Louis Fernandez

Written & directed by
Guillermo Caldero
October 26-28, 2017
Photo credit: Steve Gunther

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