Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt
Michael Bettencourt
Writing Plays In A Time of War
Scene4 Magazine-inView

October 2011

(First published in Scene4, Winter 2001)

Maria Beatriz and I have visited the World Trade Center site.  The steps we took to get there are not important; suffice it to say that we have seen, first-eye and first-hand, what anger has wrought.

A few years ago, Maria Beatriz and I visited the Boott Cotton Mill in Lowell, MA, where they have re-created a typical floor full of 80 to 100 mechanical looms working at full throttle: deafening, and over time, maddening. Visitors are then taken through a set of professionally done exhibits, interspersed with video-taped interviews with some of the surviving workers still in the area after the shut-down of the mills in the 1930s and 1940s.  Listening to the interviews, hearing the crash of the looms, imagining what the lives of people must have been like as they were ground away under the iron need for more and more profit -- one can feel the pain and anger soaked into the heavy wood beams and fraying brick, anger and pain that will never go away.

That is what the WTC site will be like.  No matter what is built there to memorialize and commercialize, the ground has been drenched in pain and anger that no restoration will ever erase.  It has seeped into the beams buttressing our memories, into the brick that shields our mortal coils.

I know it has already soaked into my framework.  I did not lose anyone in the collapse of the buildings.  Someone I "knew of" was on one of the flights from Boston to L.A., but not "known of" closely.  And while it is possible to empathize with those who lost whom they lost in the disaster, it is almost impossible to sympathize with them: their pain can never be adequately translated, our pain for them at a remove, never cognate.  Life goes on.

Yet in my recent work I have noticed a level of anger in the words and actions unlike anything I've drafted before.  It is not just anger fed by September 11.  It is also anger fed by the stupidities that have followed — in the bombing of Afghanistan, the multiple political hypocrisies, the pointlessness of a war on terrorism by using the means of terrorism.  All of that has become in-flight fuel to an angry fire as life continues to hurtle through space and time. 

I don't like this feeling at all.  It coarsens joy and abrades the flesh.  Yet I have been unable to diminish it except by writing it out, letting its power loose and trying to direct its energy, if not into healing, at least not into more corrosion — to make it cleansing anger, purgative and commiserating.

One play I've recently finished drafting, titled "Poly X," is based on the story of Polyxena, daughter of Hecuba and Priam of Troy. The story that leads to her death, from "The Iliad," is full of Homer's usual mayhem and discord. Hector, Polyxena's brother, kills Achilles' boy-toy Patroclus; prior to this, Achilles had killed Troilus (brother of Polyxena and Hector) in the temple of Apollo, supposedly sacred space, while Polyxena watched.  Achilles kills Hector in revenge for Patroclus and drags his body around behind his chariot for three days.  During all of this Achilles has taken a liking to Polyxena; he proposes to Priam that he marry her, and that he, Achilles, would convince the Greeks to give up their siege.  Polyxena sees this as an opportunity to get revenge on Achilles, so she agrees and lures Achilles back to the same temple in order to seal the deal.  There, Paris (also Polyxena's brother) kills Achilles by firing an arrow into his vulnerable heel.  The trouble doesn't stop with death, though: the ghost of Achilles demands that Polyxena be sacrificed on his grave before he releases the winds that will carry the Greeks home after their victory over Troy.  Her throat is slit and the blood poured over Achilles' grave.

The play is about the collateral damage of war — Polyxena is innocent of any responsibility for starting or maintaining the war, yet her death, the last of the conflict, is supposedly justified by a righteous anger grounded in Achilles' petulance and bombast.  She is the mirror image of Iphegenia, who was sacrificed by her father to get the Greeks to Troy in the first place (though in some accounts she is saved from that horrible death by the gods — no such salvation for Polyxena). It is a play full of blood and cynicism, of Polyxena's anger as she tries to make the senseless make sense, to make her death mean more than butchery and the auguries of continuing bloodiness.  There is nothing redemptive about the end of the play; we will continue to suffer from pathologies induced by pride and smugness and arrogance.

Like Athena, this play came out of my head by its own accord — I have never taken notes for such a play, it has not simmered in my brain for a while, the story of Polyxena had never struck a chord before, etc.  Yet the seepage, the infusing of crushed bodies and diluted screams — it has taken up residence, and its voice will not be stilled easily, translated smoothly, folded-in to the homely routines — it will only out in plays like "Poly X," seeking through expressions of rage and hopelessness to find some shred of reason why life should be honored at all when such a species as ours stains the land.

I don't profess to understand this rage.  I'm not sure I know how to make it not take up all the oxygen in the room. And yet I do not want its energy to simply just "go away" in the name of some vague "healing." I do not want to mend quickly the cracks in soul and mind it has caused because, like a volcano or an earthquake, it has rearranged the land into new topographies of possibilities that, regardless of the barbarism, now need to be charted and announced — exactly what we artists are charged to do.

This is what it means to create plays in the time of war — to allow rage its inks and to be ready to scribble down what it divulges while not allowing everything and everywhere to be over-written by its typographies — to use the art to keep some corner of the soul available to light without denying the "darkness visible" that also pulses there.  Both lights shine in us — plays in the time of war need the illumination of both to be honest, and it is honesty above all — not patriotism, not revenge, not the "affairs of state" or the consolidations of power — that will keep us, momentarily — momentarily — secure and healed as human beings.

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©2011 Michael Bettencourt
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

Read his theatre reviews in Scene4's Qreviews
For more of his Scene4 columns and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

October 2011

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