Adam Ash

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Deep Thoughts: the price of irony

The Price of Irony -- by Benjamin Barber

IF YOU FOLLOW these things, you will know that Martin McDonagh’s new play The Pillowman – it’s about torture, fratricide, child murder, totalitarian law enforcement, and lying — is being celebrated as a “spellbinding stunner” (The New York Times) and is the hottest ticket on Broadway. For all its cleverness, however, it is ultimately just one more fashionable example of the dismaying hold irony has over our culture. As we really do torture terrorists at Guantanamo, as nine year olds really do murder eleven year olds in New York, as the global disparity between rich and poor widens, as cultural war threatens our civility and the media make a mockery of journalistic integrity (they recently paraded the convicted criminals of Watergate to offer “objective” witness against the “treachery” of revealed deep throat whistle blower F. Mark Felt), McDonagh spins tales within tales about the darkest places in the human spirit without meaning a word of what he says or illuminating any of these sorrowful matters, and our popular culture sinks deeper and deeper into the distancing consolations of irony.

Irony is the postmodern form of conspicuous self-consciousness and suits our era’s puerility – its fey aestheticism and political cynicism — to a tee. It is complacency’s rationalization, disengagement’s excuse, the alienated spectator’s self-justification. The ironic bystander (the phrase is redundant) is the citizen’s jeering nemesis and the poet’s wily shadow trying to make sure that truth and beauty and goodness, those stalwarts of the world before it was disenchanted, do not re-infect the post-modern’s cool voice with hot earnestness. Or make us think too hard or feel too keenly. While intellectuals work – Stanley Fish making irony respectable, Richard Rorty wrapping it in the cloak of privatization to minimize its political impact, Jedediah Purdy laboring more recently to expose its costs to community – artists play, assuring that irony endures and spreads in sanitized screen violence (Kill Bill or Sin City), television news wryness (The Daily Show), knowing Broadway shows (The Pillowman) and teen consumer advertising (the beer commercials, for starters). For irony allows us to armor our self-consciousness, and make our moral puzzlement and anxiety seem almost virtuous – though we can only utter the v word ironically.

As Claire Colebrook has noticed in Irony, irony is deeply implicated in “the huge problems of post-modernity; our very historical context is ironic because today nothing really means what it says. We live in a world of quotation, pastiche, simulation and cynicism: a general and all-encompassing irony.” We might even say that irony defines the postmodern sensibility and that to be anything but ironic is to be hopelessly old-fashioned, gauche, out of it – in a word, me. Yet irony is sometimes literally killing as in Brian McDonagh’s play. Irony plagues politics and the arts alike, and hence signals their ongoing intimacy with one another. Want to kill citizenship? Undermine what is earnest and engaged in the world of art, as McDonagh does with the subject of child abuse. When McDonagh is done, feeding Viagra to sex offenders seems quite normal, in an ironic kind of way, and children killing children is, well, a clever and costless game. Want to put an end to art’s ‘pretentious’ ambitions? Assail self-serious politics and civic responsibility.

Anyone challenging what would be the appalling (if they were not so mindless) political implications of The Pillowman will be castigated for political tendentiousness and moral Puritanism. Irony is also killing in that British sense of being remarkable, terrific, overwhelming. It is killing metaphorically in that it is killing theater with smart-ass self-conscious alienation and killing literary studies by deflecting attention from the study of literature to the study of the study of literature—meta-theory—and the discussion of meta-theory’s legitimacy (meta-meta-theory). It is doing so with plays enormously pleased with themselves for being able to play at playing with perversity, with morbidity, with death, in a display of wise guy impertinence only those without irony would name as such. It is killing audiences who no longer engage in the theater experience as contributors but sit back, convinced of their own cool, secure in their own superiority, applauding themselves with routinized standing ovations because they have not allowed themselves to be disturbed by an icy ironist’s murderous stage games.

So yes, irony is bad for art — but then what’s art? asks the ironist artfully. It’s bad for audiences — but then who cares? asks the careless spectator. And it’s bad for civility in both the civilizational and civic senses – but then are not civilization and the civic sensibility two of the ironist’s more fetching targets? ask the complacent aesthetes who pass as artists in the age of irony.

There are many other examples, but McDonagh’s award-winning show stands as a perfect paradigm of the ironist’s trade, so effortless, so successful, so critically acclaimed, so ethically flaccid and empty of meaning and morals (which is, of course, the point and how “Victorian” of me not to get it). One critic (it did his reputation no good) observed that if you “look behind the diverting façade of (McDonagh’s) vivid, sardonic writing, no real insights emerge.” There was a time when a playwright was measured by such standards. At Arthur Miller’s memorial service last May, Edward Albee said of him “some writers matter and some do not. Some of our most clever writers don’t matter. They teach us nothing and they do not render ourselves coherent.” But Albee was showing his age, and was obviously wrong. In the age of irony, teaching something, rendering ourselves coherent, doesn’t matter while cleverness does.

I’ve been going to the theater for a long time, periodically working in it, and writing stubbornly about its connection to the civic heart of democracy. The work I love – boringly, predictably, the ironist will notice – is the tradition of Ibsen, Shaw, Brecht and Miller; more recently, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Robert Wilson, Brian Friel and yes, Edward Albee. These writers work in the genre of what Peter Brook calls holy theater, reinforced by what he calls rough theater. Holy theater, Brook wrote nearly forty years ago in his still widely read The Empty Space, “could be called the Theater of the Invisible-Made-Visible: the notion that the stage is a place where the invisible can appear.” At the same time that the Holy theater is dealing “with the invisible… (which) contains all the hidden impulses of man” “the Rough Theater deal(s) with men’s actions, and because it is down to earth and direct – because it admits wickedness and laughter – the rough and ready seems better than the hollowly holy.” Think of Shakespeare or of No Theater or think of Peter Brook’s own extraordinary works for the stage.

Let’s be clear: it’s not earnest moralism and a resistance to fun I have in mind. Comedy is theater’s other face, and quite aside from the fact that “serious” playwrights from Shakespeare and Shaw to Brecht and Stoppard are very funny, comedy teaches as it punctures and uplifts as it brings down. Without what Brecht called Spass, theater cannot hold an audience. But the irony I am describing is not about making fun of those who are hypocritically self-serious (as in Moliere), it is about making fun of making fun. Like Plato’s Cave images at a third remove from the Ideal Forms Plato regarded as the essential reality, the ironist is thrice removed from his subject. McDonagh does not want us to laugh at murder. He wants us to laugh about laughing at murder, he wants to remove us not just from murder via his story telling about murder, he wants to remove us from the story as well. Irony alienates us from alienation, depriving it of its critical purpose and leaving us and the artist free to be – well, more or less nothing at all, other than self-consciously voided of our self-consciousness. It is the ideology of the age of emptiness. It offers bearings on a sea with no ports, no longitude or latitude, and no destinations and hence (ironically) without need of bearings.

Irony is particularly dangerous in the theater because it undermines the theater’s particular strength, thea or seeing – a term at the root both of theater (spectacle or seeing) and theory (seeing beyond, seeing beneath). Irony nurtures opacity, and intends to obscure rather than render meanings. Yet from the time when tragedy first emerged from Dionysian religious rituals in ancient Greece, theater in the West has been a craft of seers, much more than a flattering means by which (as Schiller once put it) the tired minds of exhausted businessmen are given an evening’s gentle rocking. While the first imperative of theater has always been to grab its audience, it has throughout its history also been a way into deep collective seeing, into civic self-scrutiny and critical reflection about the identity of the social “we.” Thus, along side the pure entertainers (nothing wrong with them), theater has always produced writers and directors for whom the stage is a place where the invisible can be made visible, and where apparent reality can be made transparent so that deeper realities underneath can be discerned. This is why many political theorists and practitioners and social seers have also been dramatists (Machiavelli, Voltaire, and Rousseau come to mind, and more recently Vaclav Havel and Pope John Paul II) while many serious dramatists have also been social theorists (Ibsen, Shaw, Brecht, Artaud and Arthur Miller, for example).

This does not mean that players on the stage have not been preoccupied with playing with playing, re-imagining the relationship between the actual everyday and its reproduction via simulations on the stage. Pirandello and Ionesco engage dazzlingly in such play, but are hardly ironists. Ionesco’s The Lesson might be said to address a theme akin to McDonagh’s: the intimacy between story-telling and murder, between teaching and annihilation. Except that Ionesco uses the story to help “render ourselves coherent” while McDonagh uses it to shock, titillate, excuse, and amuse and proudly teach us nothing.

If McDonagh has an antipode it is Peter Brook. There is perhaps no figure in modern theater who better embodies a theater that is visionary yet still entertaining and comedic and ‘rough’ without being enticed into irony than Peter Brook, the celebrated international theater researcher and director who works today from his Bouffes du Nord theater in Paris.

Brook’s career in theater and film has bridged legendary Royal Shakespeare Company productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Marat/Sade, and the Vietnam War piece US as well as controversial films of King Lear and William Golding’s disturbing Lord of the Flies (in which children marooned on an island retrieve murderous tribal identities), not to mention world theater experiments such as Orghast and Mahabharata, which were launched by the theater and research institution in Paris that he has run for the last 35 years.

At this moment in history, when (in Brook’s words), “world theater audiences are dwindling” and the theater is not only failing “to elevate or instruct” but “hardly even entertains” anymore – when Brook himself was produced last spring in New York not on Broadway or at a great presenting organization like the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) but at Columbia University’s theater department — irony offers us not a way to revive theater but a white flag of surrender. On the other hand, the theater of Brook may offer hope at a time when theater is fragile – as Brook says, it “is always a self-destructive art, and it is always written on the wind” – and the importance of being earnest has never been more important.

Michael Kustow, himself an important figure in English and international theater, has just published a compelling biography of Brook. Although not pretending to be comprehensive and unwilling to engage in the kind of gossipy exposé typical of the show business genre, Kustow’s biographical study takes both Brook and the idea of the theater seriously in a way that would outrage ironists, if irony could be outraged. Brook’s life-long seriousness was to be sure no bar to wit, sex or fun, as Kustow shows, and no one is more attuned to the dangers of an overly earnest “Deadly Theater” (as Brook calls it) than Brook himself. Irony, on the other hand, has mainly yielded a theater with formal and aesthetic power but with unilluminating moral confusion and political sterility.

The difference between Brook’s visionary theater and the theater of irony can be captured this way: in the title of his theater treatise The Empty Space (1968), Brook wrote, “ I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theater to be engaged.” Now a tragedy might be said to unfold when the man walking, looking heavenward in search of God, stumbles into a snake pit. A comedy might have him land on God supping with the snakes. But for the ironist, such twists and turns stink of meaning and perhaps even transparency, where opacity is the goal. So the ironist might ask “Who is telling the story?” or “Is it really a story?” For the ironist the telling of the telling is more important than the telling, and the idea is to move attention away from the story and its meaning and towards the author and his story. The ironist twists the pointing figure of the writer around and back so that it points at itself. Solipsism is the ironist’s strength. Perception is no longer a tool but the subject. There’s the connection to post-modernism and its abjuring of meaning.

Yeats wrote “after us, the Savage God.” Today we might say, “and after the Savage God, the ironist.” So that savagery is voided of the savage, and we need no longer suffer the loss of meaning associated with post-modernity because the ironist helps us lose the loss of meaning, so that the loss is not felt. William Golding told a tale of children at war with children as a parable of the Hobbesian state of nature, showing how fragile the thin skin of civility really is and how easily virtue and civility can succumb to the darkness of our nature. McDonagh makes the same themes an occasion of his authorial skills in distancing, and allows his audience to hoot and cheer at the play’s conclusion in those self-congratulatory standing ovations that are now de rigueur for bored audiences trying to whip themselves into a frenzy. Were there really any horror in the horrors McDonagh ironizes, audiences would sit still and ponder – perhaps breaking into habitual clapping after moments of stunned inwardness (as I have seen happen at productions of Ibsen’s Brand and Brook’s Mahabarata, where audiences are drawn so far out of themselves that they find it hard to recover their hands to clap).

The dirty little secret of the ironist is of course that irony is always parasitic and can exist only by virtue of the earnestness it takes such pleasure in annihilating. Like sentiment, which has been called unearned emotion, the new irony is a form of unearned skepticism. It creates nothing of its own but waits to ambush moral purpose, to play havoc with common sense, to deny reason its moment. It is true that we live in the age after Nietzsche, after the ‘death of God’ and the deconstruction of reason. But irony is not existentialism. It is not brave. It avoids a confrontation with God’s passing in favor of clever parsing of the sentences in which his passing is asserted. The only stand it takes is that there is no stand to be taken, so neither the author nor the audience has to take one.

Irony asks nothing of us. In letting itself off the hook, it lets us off the hook. We don’t just laugh at the cruel and the bizarre – which might leave us feeling some culpability even as we laugh – we laugh at ourselves laughing. We do not merely distance ourselves from our terrors for reasons of psychic survival, we congratulate ourselves on our distancing. Audiences at Pillowman do not seem to be stunned by the cruelty of life; nor even transformed by the transfiguration of mere pain into something fabulist and imaginist. Rather they stand and cheer as if they’ve just enjoyed an aria from La Boheme by their favorite soprano, as if Jerry Springer had just taken the stage with a couple of pathetic misfits parading their deviance to spectators who are beyond not only compassion or pity, but beyond contempt and derision as well.

Irony is liberation on the cheap; irresponsibility without regret. Puritanism may be too hard to bear; skepticism may be the price demanded by reason; but irony is all too easy. No wonder our infantilizing, attention-deficit, lazy, consumerist times are in love with it. No wonder that the less crafted, less crafty version of McDonagh is found at every studio script conference for the latest thriller or HBO movie. The Puritans make work of play, moderns make play of work, but ironists make nonsense of work and play, seriousness and fun. To be too serious may at times be a sin; and to laugh too much at seriousness may be a greater one. But the ironist laughs at those who laugh at seriousness, somehow thinking this will enable them to recover seriousness without embracing its vices as seen by those who mock it.

Nonetheless, Peter Brook keeps beginning, again and again. He is not alone. The price of irony is just too high. Although audiences must deal with all those little and big screens that impose their demands on our attention-deficit challenged minds, and fight off the ironists’ comforting but empty nihilism, there is something about theater, something co-extensive with being itself, we seem unwilling to give up: live actors enacting stories that render the invisible visible in front of live audiences whose communion with one another mirrors their communion with what unfolds on stage.

Happily, this means Brook is not the last of a dying breed. Nor are McDonagh and the myriad screenwriters who wish they were “that good” likely to put an end to what Brook named Holy Theater and Rough Theater. Among the hardworking professionals and talented flacks who do the commercial thing, we can still today find theater creators who believe that theater is something more than an exercise in irony or an evening’s self-exculpatory amusement. A generation down from Brook is Robert Wilson, just reaching his artistic zenith and at home everywhere in the world (except, perhaps, America); or another generation down, Simon McBirney, who at mid-career is astonishing us with the work of his international theater de la complicite; or, in the newest generation, Josh Fox, just revving up in New York but also in Thailand and Japan, creating stunning new work with ardent international collaborators. Works that risk having meaning, works willing to be mocked for teaching, comic works that use satire to provoke and disturb. Although Miller is dead and Brook’s journey is nearly done, and the corruptions of commerce are everywhere, and though McDonagh & Co. will go on sweeping the awards being offered up today for proffering painless, costless, cleverness, there will still be theater that we can say matters — without first having to be ironic about what ‘matters’ really means.


At 3/09/2006 5:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are indeed in a bind, my friend. Perhaps it's time to explore the social sciences?


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