Terror, theatre & The Hairy Ape

Richard Murphet

Willem Dafoe, The Hairy Ape

Willem Dafoe, The Hairy Ape

The performative history of terror was first rehearsed in thought as myth. Hesiod…describes the birth of this terror from a curious union: the marriage of Kytheria and Ares, eros and war. The conjunction bears a malignant fruit, the twins Panic (Phobos) and terror (Deimos), the stage stars of the theatre of war…
A Kubiak, Stages of Terror

I have over the past few months been haunted by 2 images. One is predictable enough: ‘Ground Zero’ it came to be called, the compacted remains of the World Trade Center towers. I did not experience it at first hand. The image that haunts me has been mediated by TV, framed by it, reduced to a manageable size, and was repeated sufficient times over the days succeeding the attack to ensure that it lodged securely in my mental image bank. (For a time CNN used it as a bridge to sashay out of the latest instalment in its ‘War Against Terror’ and into an ad break.) Still it was an image of undeniable potency: shot from above, the tangled mass of steel, concrete, glass, and presumably, though invisibly, human remains were swathed for weeks in a mist of smoke and dust, such that it looked like an ancient marsh filled with rotting material but seething with emergent life.

The second image was more particular but has recently begun to conflate in my imagination with the first. The Wooster Group’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, opened in Melbourne only 5 weeks after the September 11 attack, while the wounds were still red raw. It took place in a metal construction 2 levels high, which surrounded, dwarfed, and finally trapped the humans working within it, much as the metal remains of the Trade Center trapped the bodies of the workers within, or indeed much as the once-standing towers trapped the humans who worked within them in the ceaseless engine of production.

Yank, the protagonist of The Hairy Ape, believes that he controls the machinery of the liner on which he is chief stoker:

Hell in de stokehole? Sure it takes a man to work in hell. Hell, sure, dat’s my fav’rite climate. I eat it up! I get fat on it! It’s me makes it hot! It’s me makes it roar! It’s me makes it move! Sure, on’y for me everyting stops. It all goes dead, get me? De noise and smoke and all de engines movin’ de woild, dey stop.

The ontological contradiction at the heart of the play is there unknowingly in that last sentence. A man may think that he moves the engine but it is actually ‘de engines’ that move ‘de woild.’ It was the ensemble skill and the conceptual brilliance of the Wooster Group that they were able to use the very illusion of representational theatre to reinforce that essential paradox. All aspects of the production—choreography, sound design, lighting, stage management—worked to develop the illusion that the metal construction could be made to move, could be shifted, could be ‘worked’ by the humans working on it (a couple of times, Willem Dafoe as Yank with seeming superhuman effort ‘lifted up’ the enormous grid with a roar of triumph—the reference was of course to King Kong and his even more illusionistic filmic brethren). In fact the set remained implacable, unchanging throughout and what we were most aware of was the sheer skill necessary for the actors to survive on this dangerous construction.

What did change, however, were the locations that the set represented throughout the play: stokehole, promenade deck, Fifth Avenue New York (the World Trade Center once occupied the bottom end of Fifth Avenue), a prison and finally the monkey house at the zoo. Wherever Yank went, whatever aspect of the world he encountered it had the same shape, made of the same material, needed to be negotiated in the same way—so that finally the set became experientially what it already was conceptually and metaphorically; an image of the world itself, the engine that will seduce us to believe in our own power but will finally trap us and crush us to death.

In the November issue of Interview magazine is a remarkable photograph of Ground Zero by Bruce Weber. The mound of rubble towers above the firemen, policemen, ambulance men (the current working class heroes—the Yanks) most of whom stand, for this moment at least, immobile, facing the impossible task of peeling back the girders and concrete that have crushed their fellow humans. In the surrounding mist, almost indistinguishable from the skyscrapers that hover in the background, are a series of tall wooden scaffoldings lining the skyline. Are they part of the original construction or have they been placed there to hold the rubble in, to stop it spreading across the city? They are Brechtian in their insubstantiality, bits of stage machinery to remind us of what had been there and of how unreal the whole sham of the specular actually is. Two pages earlier at the start of his photo essay, Weber has a view of Manhattan from the sea, as we remember it, the twin towers still dominating the downtown skyline. Now it is here, now it is gone. Presence/absence.

The relationship between these 2 states is what Anthony Kubiak sees as “the implicit dialectic of the stage.” And the heart of that relationship, the shift from being to non-being, he names as “terror”.

Terror, the threat of non-being, is what calls life into question and so gives it its reality.
Terror is what, in the catharsis of danger and pain, re-presents life as life.

Kubiak’s book is called Stages of Terror (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana). It was written in 1991. It is an attempt, no less, to write a history of theatre as terror. More than that, it argues that theatre’s ability to name that terror at the base of life has always been one step ahead of the society in which it has played. That the culture of perception which it has engendered in all its forms has, far from mirroring its society, found ways of developing for that society an understanding of the terrifying interplay between power, production, coercion, ideology and identity—an interplay that is based upon the application of terror and its close allies, violence, pain and panic. This may seem to be a bleak reading of theatre and of history itself. I don’t think so. It is bracing to witness with clarity the powers that cloak themselves in all sorts of coercive masks within our society and it is true that theatre above all is the artform that can, that has and that should reveal those masks—even if it does so (as in Restoration comedy) by applying them even more rigidly.

Terror lay at the centre of The Hairy Ape. The visit of the rich society girl to the stokehole of the ship is a moment of ontological terror for Yank, the stoker—simultaneously he becomes aware of who he is, of who he isn’t, of who made him what he is, and of how hoodwinked he has been. None of this operates at the conscious level; terror this deep is unsignifiable, unspeakable (captured acutely in the Wooster production in a moment of long silence in which all that moved on stage were Dafoe’s eyes as he tried to register the implications of her presence) but it is there and it drives him to his own futile terrorist attack against New York and to his final annihilation in the zoo, crushed in the arms of the ape. One imagines that for Eugene O’Neill that form of death suggested a man succumbing to the fatal strength of his own primal power. In the Wooster production it is clear that it is Kate Valk (who played the girl) who wears the monkey suit—here, the real power over life and death lies in the hands of the oppressor, and whatever is repressed will return to destroy you.

Four days after the attack on the twin towers, Patti Smith wrote: “Once, in another century, I penned with arrogance, ‘I am an American, and I have no guilt.’ Now I feel compelled to utter, ‘I am an American artist, and I feel guilty about everything.’ In spite of this I will not turn away. I will keep working. This I perceive as duty. As I pray to God that in days to come, I will not awake and rise with the blood of the Afghan people dripping from my hands” (Interview magazine).

Well, we have witnessed how little effect her prayer has had. State terror has launched all its self righteous power pitilessly against a people redefined as the enemy because their home was the supposed source of an act of anti-state terror. At the time of writing, the central protagonist, ‘The World’s Most Wanted Man’, has slipped through the holes in the net, which is to be expected because we need to ‘want’ him more than we need to have him.

All this is constructed reality, pretence, feeding our desires for Violence while it distracts our attention from how much the new world order is oppressing us too. Theatre has foreseen this pretence: “The history of theatre also seems to tell us quite plainly that what is seen is in essence false because what is seen is inessential. The ‘ocular proof’, then, is always a lie, because it is always infected by the desire to see, and to see what one desires” (Kubiak).

How can our theatre respond to such bleak times? With empathy? “I’m not persuaded by those who insist that theater’s proper corrective to these ultra-ironic times is a return to empathy” (Alisa Solomon, “Irony and Deeper Significance”, Theater, vol 31, no 3, New Haven Connecticut, 2001). With harmony? “Even when the purgations of terror are explained in terms of the pleasure they produce, the final result of that pleasure more often than not seems to be something like stasis, stability, or harmony (Harmonium, sister of the terrors), a ‘harmony’ that functions as a cloaking of violence” (Kubiak). It is, finally, the excoriating force of theatre’s perception of the masks of terror that is our truest ally in confronting them. “Just as pain and terror both cause and effect each other, so, in its articulation of terror, theatre operates as both cause and resistance to that terror and oppression” (Kubiak).

The Hairy Ape, Eugene O’Neill, The Wooster Group, Melbourne Festival, The CUB Malthouse, Oct 19-Nov 6

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 4

© Richard Murphet; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002
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