Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt |
Michael Bettencourt
Necro-Political Theatre

October 2013

This scramble to (re)direct the peoples' gaze toward the meaning of 9/11 reaches something of a frenzy each year in New York on the actual date because, ironically enough, twelve years out no one can agree on what the event means. That is, no one person or group has been able to gather the powers -- moral, political, financial -- to emboss the event with an official profile (the way, for instance, World War II is now completely encased in the aspic of the "good war" and the "greatest generation," thanks to Ken Burns and Tom Brokaw).

So, in the interim, those who can appropriate it for their own purposes: the President to legitimize illegitimate political order, the governor and mayor to show the world New York's "resilience," Giuliani rising like a wraith to promote the myth of his (non-existent) competence, the families of those who died to impose an endless regime of grief and shame.

Each of these, and many others, have, by now, dramaturged the event to their own specifications, honed the stage business to a razor-sharp timing, and produced a long and successful run promoting a managed message of doom and uplift. Adding in the endless battles over what should be a proper memorial on the site and the on-going real estate lust that has given us glass-encased useless skyscrapers, they have turned a day of tragedy into cultural and political kitsch.

But what does "means" mean anyway? In one way, 9/11 has no meaning at all, that is, it is not a term in a dictionary that one can look up and get its denotation and connotation. 9/11 is more like a Rorschach print, an arbitrary fractal image upon which people project whatever happens to be roiling around inside of them. This is the only definition of "means" that makes sense in this case.

But this projection of what is inside to the outside is not without some cultural and political discipline and instruction. To be sure, part of the projected package may include completely private fears and hatreds, but these are shined through the larger lens of the indoctrinations and tutorings we have all sculpted, and had sculpted for us, into that thing we call a "self" and an "I."

Thus, the importance of creating a "Theatre of 9/11" in order to capture what attention-spans, and thus political influence, are out there to be snared, especially when we have another president ginning up the machine for another war.

To be sure, this is cynical manipulation, but it is on a continuum of theatre-making, not its antithesis. All theatre, as does all art, seeks to manipulate a response out of an audience -- otherwise, why go to the bother of making it? (Even if artists make art for themselves alone, I assume that they, the audience of one, want to be moved by what they make.) That continuum can run from what I call "journalistic theatre" (using a current event to teach the audience about that current event) to the absurdist wing, where the audience is meant to be challenged, even chastised, by bafflement.

"Necro-political theatre" obviously falls somewhere in-between, though it borrows elements from both extremes: it grounds itself in a current event in order to instruct us about that event (even if that "current" event is a dozen years old -- part of necro-political dramaturgy is to try to immortalize something that is, in itself, time-specific) but also (though probably unintentionally, since necro-political theatre has no irony in it) absurdizes the situation by grafting onto it all sorts of ersatz mythology and religiosity that tip it into the realm of the fantastical.

All of this might be consigned to the academic world (fodder for PhD dissertations) if it didn't have such ramifying repercussions in the "real" world. Necro-political theatre got us into Iraq and may propel us into Iran and Syria. It has savaged our civil liberties and hollowed out any will for radical (even moderate) social and political change. And the "enemy" deploys its own necro-political theatre as well, doing a far better job at it than our government's clumsy apparatchiks.

One cost for living in a virtualized world like ours, where image and a kind of pre-literary, infantile narrative model prevails over nuance and close reading, is an increase in gullibility and destruction.

An antidote? Some form of theatrical criticism that peels away the excrescences and shows the nakedness of the Emperor and his empire. And it needs to be a theatrical criticism, using a theatre vocabulary and a dramaturgical logic to lance the boil. Each of us needs to become a savaging theatrical critic of the necro-politics that drive our polity today, or else there will be no polity left to criticize and thus redeem.

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

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