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Frances MacDormand in Far Away

Different Hats

By Una Chaudhuri

Far Away
By Caryl Churchill

New York Theatre Workshop
Box Office: 212-460-5475




“Without research, which no one will ever bother to undertake, neither the circumstances nor the attitude of the maker towards her or his hat is finally knowable.”
--The Homebody, in Homebody/Kabul, by Tony Kushner

Last year, a few short months after words like Taliban and Kabul had leaped into the forefront of American consciousness and media-chatter, Tony Kushner’s strangely prescient Homebody sat on the stage of the New York Theatre Workshop talking about, of all things, hats.

A year later, on the same stage, Caryl Churchill’s eerily unconscious characters stood before strangely accoutered work-benches and made, of all things, hats. In the next scene, those hats and many others were worn in, of all things, a parade of prisoners, a death-march.

I seize on this image of hats, serendipitously shared by what were, arguably, the two most important plays of the past year, because for me it constellates--in a uniquely theatrical and decidedly ironic way--many of the main issues, challenges, and possibilities that face political theatre in this era of globalization, this age of realigning the “far away” with the “near and dear.” The hats that the Homebody speaks of evoke difference and distance, as well as the desire to experience--however superficially and playfully--the“far away.” She tells of going looking for certain hats that she remembers having seen in an exotic part of London, wanting to use them for a party she is planning and for which some festivity will need to be manufactured. The hats she holds in memory are fabulous, jeweled, magical. The ones she actually finds make her think immediately (as “this century has taught us” to do, she says) of the suffering and exploitation behind them. Yet, for all the economic and political mystery and misery they represent, the hats are “beautiful.” And, she adds, “sad. As dislocations are. And marvelous, as dislocations are.”

The hats of Far Away manage to be, grimly, both dislocational and marvelous. They are extravagant creations (we watch a few being constructed before our eyes, then see dozens more in the parade). Colossal creations of grotesque proportions, bizarre shapes and riotous colors, they silently scream out the horror that results when aesthetics loses all concern for the material reality from which it works. As the two characters work steadily and diligently, assembling their wild concoctions, the seduction of pure form is palpable, distracting us from the bleak sweat-shop they work in, just as their preoccupation with the particulars of their employment seems to distract them from the brutality of the system they serve. There could hardly be a more graphic rendering of a social contract in tatters, a world where art and labor have been turned into weapons of domination and alienation.

The first two acts of Far Away stage the progressive rending of the social contract, first through lies, and then through non-sequiturs so disturbing they make one nostalgic for lies. In Act One, a woman (played with frightening bitterness by Frances MacDormand) answers her young niece’s questions about the brutality the child has witnessed right outside the house, deftly covering each violent and bloody detail with banal explanations. It is chilling to see how easily moral and political concerns can be deflected, how easily the habit of not seeing what one sees can be cultivated. In Act Two, things have gone much further. The girl, now a young woman, learns fast how to not even ask questions, how to keep on doggedly talking about the wrong thing.

While the “hat act” is the most visually stunning of the play, its final “animal act” is far and away (so to speak) its most ideologically challenging. Churchill is well-known for her dramatizations of some of the most challenging modern philosophers and theorists, from Freud (Schreber's Nervous Illness), to Fanon (Cloud Nine), to Foucault (Softcops). If Far Away has such an antecedent (I do not know that it does), it could well be The Natural Contract, by French philosopher Michel Serres. The extraordinary final act of Far Away, in which we learn the consequences of the lies and alienation we have witnessed in the first two, could well be a dramatization of this most original and far-sighted of meditations on our present global circumstances. According to Serres, the breakdown of the social contract in the course of the past genocidal century leaves us confronting a different order of violence than ever before, that of the natural world that we have so long abused. Serres writes, “We so-called developed nations are no longer fighting against ourselves; together we are all turning against the world. Literally a world war, and doubly so, since the whole world, meaning all men, imposes losses on the whole world, meaning all things.” In Churchill’s play, the fraying of the social order in the domestic, professional, artistic, and political spheres leaves her characters, finally, face to face with an ecocidal free-for-all. All of creation has joined the fray--animals, plants, rivers, even the weather is part the new reality of total enmity, universal dissension. News like “the cats have come in on the side of the French,” hilarious to hear, turns sour when species after species is added, bizarrely aligned with nations who are divided not only against each other but also, apparently, within themselves, along lines of some insane new professional tribalism: “Portuguese car salesmen. Russian swimmers. Thai butchers. Latvian dentists.” In response to the dangerous extreme we have reached, Serres imagines a new “natural contract:” “We must decide on peace among ourselves to protect the world and on peace with the world to protect ourselves.”

Churchill, however, makes no ameliorative proposals. Instead, she shows the dire threat to life of things in the medium--theatre--best suited to (though rarely used for) thinking about things, for reflecting on the human relation to the non-human. Which brings me back to the hats, Churchill’s and Kushner’s, and a few others besides. Well, two others--those famous ones exchanged between and peered into by Didi and Gogo, signifiers of their vaudeville lineage and of their desperate search for meaning. Those hats--like Pozzo's watch, Lucky’s rope, the famous carrot--enacted what one might call our “co-life” with things.

An Andrei Serban production of Godot many years ago ended with a delicious joke: as the tramps sat gazing forlornly into nothingness, the boots previously shed by Gogo slowly began to move around the stage, as if with a life of their own. Churchill’s hats are in a way the opposite: autonomously evil, as if with a deathliness of their own. They seem to be man-made versions of the killing things that the final act speaks of: “there was one killed by coffee, one killed by pins, they were killed by heroin, petrol, chainsaws, hairspray, bleach, foxgloves . . .” Kushner’s Homebody wanted exotic hats to lighten a gathering of friends and relatives who “tend to afflict each other in baleful ways.” In Churchill’s dystopia that principle has been taken to the extreme. The chained and silent figures who shuffle forward wearing the hats perform the nightmare of history as a festival of cruelty, where brutality is glamorized and spectacularized.

That such vast themes can be contained within a fifty minute play is testament to Churchill’s instinct for the encapsulating image, the telling phrase, and the revelatory leap beyond logic (like the dinner party of Top Girls, the temporality of Cloud Nine). It is also a testament to her grasp--as keen as Kushner’s--of the power of discontinuity and disparity. The two parts of Homebody/Kabul (that title itself enacts the issue of distance, of the relation between far and near) convey so much through the gap between them, a gap spectators must fill by evolving, even as we watch the play, an ideology of distance. In Far Away, the gaps are not between acts or between worlds but within them, and to watch the play is to be forced to confront its constitutive distance.

The New York production brilliantly literalized this challenge visually. Entering the theatre, the audience was greeted by a painted show-drop depicting a sentimental rustic scene: a fairy-tale cottage nestled beside a lake, a translucent starry sky, trees and bushes. Bird-song was heard. We were both far away and nearby, a long way from our modern city lives, yet close to the cozy fantasy lands of our childhood. The contrast between this image and the grim world of the play was more than merely ironic; it was an encapsulation of the distance between the world we treasure and the horror we have made of it. Far Away depicts the ideology of distance that must be countered with a new “natural contract.”

(Una Chaudhuri is Professor of English and Drama at New York University.)



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