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Michael Bettencourt
The Desert of the Real
Scene4 Magazine-inView

june 2007

Maybe it's just the kind of theatre I've been seeing lately, but it all feels so unreal.  This is not the unreality of experimental theatre or anything like that but, in fact, the opposite: plays earnestly (and I do mean earnestly) trying to investigate the human condition—or at least the human condition as understood by the playwrights, which seems to consist of lots of family dramas with secrets aplenty revealed or earnest young people having to come to grips with some dark side of themselves or love in the ambiguous Naughts.

But it's not really the subject matter on the stage—even if overly familiar, these setups are of the human condition.  It has more to do with the actual act of being in the audience: I feel at a distance, both literal and aesthetic, from what's going on up there.  In other words, I do not feel any complicity in the action and the story.  Nothing much is being asked of me, and, in return, there is nothing much that I have to give back.

What is going on?  My current reading is Slavoj Žižek's "Welcome to the Desert of the Real," his observations of September 11, 2001, published a year after the attack. (The title comes from Morpheus, in "The Matrix," which he got by way of Jean Baudrillard.)  In it he talks about the "virtualization" of reality under the pressure of global capitalism, and this offers a helpful pry-bar to get at what I have been observing.  These plays, though set on examining what appears to be reality, feel unreal because we have all already seen these stories before in some form through the relentless efforts of our economic system to take in everything and return it to us for sale.  So relentless is this system that we have encoded in us hundreds of "scripts," the collection of which we consider to be a map of the real world and upon whose truth we stake our bet that life has meaning.

Another telltale sign of this virtualized reality is how unreal the real feels, as if it has lost some anchor in substance, some link to the physicality, the "thereness," we associate with something real. Reality becomes just another show seen through the mediation of a capitalist structure intent on never losing our attention.

This distancing (which is not the same thing as Brecht's alienation effect) is something I clearly feel in the theatre, and it comes not from (or not only from) the repetitiveness of the stories but from what I mentioned above: my lack of complicity in the proceedings onstage.  In other words, nothing about how the theatrical piece is being done—its "means of production"—causes me to have to examine myself as part of what is going on "up there," on the boards. I am allowed to hide behind an aesthetic scrim and voyeur the proceedings—much like how our capitalist system works, which affords us all manner of choice as a way of fooling us that we are actually participating in the machinery that determines the course of our lives.

I confess I don't know how to create a theatre of complicity, at least one that isn't contentious, sententious, and/or pretentious.  It's more than just some avant-garde kind of audience-teasing (or -bashing).  It has something to do with reconfiguring the actual topography of the theatre space, getting outside of "black-boxness" with an audience "there" and a playing space "there," and see the whole space as "theatre" (and "theatre" not being confined to what is confined by the four walls, ceiling, and floor).

It also means giving reality back its weight, and then "enstranging" it (to use a term by Victor Shklovsky) so that we can not only re-see just how weird the ordinary and mundane really are but also see that we have a place in reality and are not just some brains with software floating outside of it while gazing at it.

As I said, I don't have the talent—yet—to create this sort of  theatre, and it's likely that even if I can, it will not make much of a dent or acquire much of an audience—after all, most theatergoers don't go to the theatre to be shaken out of their virtual scripts, they go to have those scripts confirmed.  But theatre, I believe, is the only artistic form that can challenge and re-appropriate our virtualized commodified consciousness because of the dialectics of how it is done and the collaborative process at its heart (despite the usual industrial model that most productions follow).  And I will figure it out—especially if anyone reading this has any ideas about how to go about it.

Care to share?  Let us share.

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About This Article

©2007 Michael Bettencourt
©2007 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt has had his plays produced
in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles, among others.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Arts and Media

june 2007

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