Thursday, October 05, 2006

Leering Over Your Shoulder

Be warned: this post contains a lot of high language and a lot of anger and paranoia. It's not everything I feel, and I recognize things that mitigate it, but it's a reality that I would like to express.

Last weekend I saw, through the grace of a family friend, the Goodman Theater's production of King Lear. The forceful, flawed production gave me pause not only about the play itself, but also about the social world, the detainee bill, and some new and disarming thoughts I've been reading about Abu Ghraib.

Robert Falls's production of King Lear took me very much by surprise. I'm accustomed to thinking of the eponymous king as a megolomaniac, a ridiculous, inflated egotist whose ridiculous request to his daughters makes him deserve everything he gets. It's easy, from that perspective, to separate ourselves from him, and even as a good actor can make our pleasure at his fall into schadenfreude, he's still a protagonist with whom we can only sympathize in madness. Falls, however, turns these conventions around. Lear is, instead, the logical leader of a painfully decadent society very much like our own. The production's done in contemporary, if stylized, dress, and the Lear dancing into the banquet hall in a pale blue suit and inviting his daughters up to the microphone for their speeches is not the removed, ridiculous monarch one might expect. Why wouldn't a man who has a cake made of his kingdom, in a room where incompetent white rapper Oswald deejays behind a display of lavish wealth in all its forms (from old-money academic Albany to young drug lord Cornwall), ask his drunk and devious daughters to quantify their love? Immediately we recognize Lear, as we recognize the Paris-Hilton-like Regan and the current of violence and threat bubbling beneath the room. Immediately we're present, immediately we recognize where we are.

Doing Lear in contemporary dress and tone, however, would seem to present the same problems as doing a modern-dress Oedipus Rex: namely, poking out eyes is an integral part of each script, and that's something we rarely encounter in our day-to-day lives, or even hear of among royalty. Falls and his cast, however, manage to create a world in which the undercurrent of violence is present from the beginning. When the unlucky Kent protests Cordelia's banishment, the drunken, slightly ill, tempermental Lear immediately threatens him with his own sword—and the roomful of people simply watches, captivated. No one acts to save the man; it seems to occur to no one. The lavish mansion Regan shares with her husband Cornwall is protected by a ten-foot barred gate and armed guards; when Cornwall puts the angry Kent "in the stocks," the man's limbs are duct-taped together, guards place rubber tires over his neck and soak him with gasoline, and the cocaine-addled Cornwall waves a lighter close to his face. The true threat is not simply that action, but the number of times that the phrase "in the stocks" is used in that scene by any number of people; this is not simply an insane drug lord's punishment, but a form of casual violence known and used in the world of the play. By the time the lights came up on the house for intermission, I realized that the imminent blinding of Gloucester would make perfect sense.

Certainly the production's flawed. The woman playing Goneril is grievously miscast. In the second act Falls becomes unpleasantly self-indulgent—a scene on a landfill-esque battlefield where young soldiers move body bags continues for far too long, for example, and Lear's wheelchair, white bathrobe, and shaft of white light when he encounters Cordelia for the first time since banishing her are really quite unnecessary. But Falls has succeeded in a task I would've thought impossible—or at the very least silly—before seeing his production: he has genuinely made Lear's world ours.

Which matters to me all the more as I become certain that disaster's over our shoulders, closer than we think. I can't pretend that's not a dramatic statement, but nor can I say any longer that I don't believe it. While I recognize that Bush has probably signed several other pieces of legislation that could reasonably be perceived as spelling doom for civilization as we know it, something about the clear doubletalk, immorality, and anti-Constitutionality of the detainee bill seems more egregious to me. The administration can choose which criminals are terror suspects, and a terror suspect, being engaged in combat against the United States, is denied a writ of habeas corpus, whether a citizen or otherwise. To me that seems almost the textbook definition of a dictatorship, yet we're hearing no more outcry about it than about any other measure the administration has taken since September 11. Maybe it isn't, in fact, that different; maybe this just happens to be the one that's smacked me in the face. But it seems more and more that if we pay lip service to the salient elements of a republic, no one's going to bother to read the legislation, and even my beloved Constitution only matters if the violators care about the idea of violating it.

But we don't see. That current of violence, of threats, of boiling over that is present in Falls's Lear is present here. Perhaps it's not quite at the point that it was when Lear asked his daughters for praise, when Cordelia alone presented an ethical (if wimpy, at least in the writing) way of negotiating her father's request. But is there anything that doesn't have to do with money, with maintaining safety and decadence, that Bush can possibly want out of this bill?

Following Dahlia Lithwick's articles on the Supreme Court and the occasional Fraywatch on Slate, I've found a couple of tidbits that have stayed on my mind. One was Lithwick's article on the phenomenon of school shooters, even those who threaten or plan school shootings, being prosecuted as terrorists. Another is that on the Fray (the site's comments section), a startling number of people say that none of what happened at Abu Ghraib can be classified as torture. Not everyone goes as far as Rush Limbaugh, claiming the soldiers' actions were "stress release" or fraternity pranks, but many more than I would have expected see the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib as reasonable, necessary coercion. To get information, to make people crack, one must obviously create an atmosphere of fear.

Abu Ghraib isn't torture in the same way that school shootings aren't terrorism. Which is to say, both those statements are correct in some ways and completely miss the point in others. Again, as always, it's a question of kicking 'em in the postulates (a phrase Tyromaven and I coined in recent conversation). The point isn't the lines between torture and extreme coercion and hazing, the point is that all of these behaviors contribute to our social definition. Law has no choice but to be abstract; it's our definitions and thoughts that have to be concrete, and we have to realize how far our definitions extend. If disturbed adolescents are brought to fruition in a culture of violence, a culture that shuns "torture" but wears its "extreme coercion" on its sleeve, and are completely unsupported, in what direction, exactly, do we expect them to go?

Yes, lines have to be drawn somewhere, somehow. And yes, probably there are situations that necessitate torture, somewhere, somehow, as Alan Dershowitz has argued. With those who argue against Dershowitz, though, I would say that the question isn't pragmatic. The question is what we become as a society if, while torturing as may, indeed, somehow be necessary, we think it's okay, we think that society endorses our choice. At the rate we are going, we will very soon look at the society we've endeavored to protect and find we've created a new one by means of this protection. A new one in which we are, inevitably, no longer safe.

That's what happens to Lear in Falls's interpretation: his social assumptions, having lost his daughters and his decadence, are taken from him by force. We, as Americans living in the last days of the Republic (an interpretation coined by my friend Annie's husband), will have the same thing happen to us.


At 12:03 PM, Anonymous tina harris said...

When we Americans allow and see nothing wrong with school hazing, I don't see how we will comprehend the monstrosity of what is happening abroad.
My 14-yr.-old son was attacked and left in the middle of the street at one a.m. He is a 10th grader, he was lured into a trap, the principal refused to do anything about it until orders came from above. The group was suspended. They are well-bred, supposedly.

I liked you style. I will look for your blog more often. Good luck.

At 6:09 PM, Anonymous tyromaven said...

why sustainability should scare us more than terrorism:


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