Dear Tanja Jacobs and Philip McKee (Or, Greek Tragedy Is Dead; Long Live Greek Tragedy)

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bloodyfamily_largeDear Tanja and Phil,

I really liked Bloody Family, your re-imagining of Aeschylus’ Oresteia that’s now playing at Toronto’s Theatre Centre. I hope a lot of people attend your final four performances. Among those people, I hope, are some artistic directors and other programmers who see the value in this work and offer you a chance to develop it further and showcase it for a bigger audience, in a longer run. I think that could be a very good thing for theatre in this city and country.

I headed down to the Theatre Centre last night because I had a hunch, fed by your production’s marketing copy and my sense of your and collaborator Rose Plotek’s past work, that Bloody Family would raise the question of why we should still pay attention to Greek drama, would somehow deal with the fact that an hour or two of portentous bloodletting is not, in itself, obviously worth a grown-up audience’s attention.

My hunch was right and then some. In a style that resembles Anne Carson’s poetic riffs on the ancients, Bloody Family blows open Aeschylus’s original. A theatre director appears onstage and meets a woman who introduces herself as Clytemnestra, the Oresteia‘s murderous wife and mother. He says he wants to interview her. He wants to test his ideas about her tragic family history, get her feedback on them. She’s cooperative and challenging. Where he raises objections to the misogyny of Greek tragedy (which, he says, so often treats women’s suffering as negligible) and to the moral repugnance of Agamemnon’s wartime sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia — where he makes enlightened, modern liberal arguments — she defends the necessity of war. She claims that war is an inevitable part of civilization, civilized life. That it entails sacrifice.

This casual, witty, metaphysical opening scene lets the audience know immediately that they’ll be asked to think carefully about what unfolds in front of them, examine its meaning. The trappings of the scene are anti-theatrical — there’s almost no set, little movement, nothing of visual interest onstage except two human beings seated in chairs — but the effect of it, the way it involves its audience in the show’s questions and ambiguity, is great theatre. It gave me permission to keep my brain awake. It made me lean forward.

Still, it’s a relief when this dynamic opens up, when an atmospheric score and a few strong, simple images expand the sensual life of the play. The style shifts for a while to representational drama, we get to see at least some of the Oresteia unfold in front of us, though what I especially liked was the way you’d essentialized the language and action of the story, found a tone and syntax for it that could reveal its raw emotional life without becoming artificially formal or “high,” and without winking at the audience about its informality. By not attempting some sort of stiff-backed “classical realism” (the way we do the classics when we try to do them “correctly”), you made this old play feel quite real. And new. 15347162826_3b10a19cd3_k-726x484

I always felt you were telling this well-known story not for its own sake, but to ask specific, pressing questions about the contemporary world. How do we cope with vigilantism, honour killings, the desire for vengeance? Is war a necessary counterpart to civilization? To whom or to what do we owe our highest allegiance: our family, our country, our sense of transcendent right (if we have one)?

It’ll be objected that though Bloody Family does many things, one thing it doesn’t do is stage The Oresteia. It’s true that an audience member with no familiarity with that story might find himself a bit confused by your production.

My answer to his confusion is a broad political one. There’s absolutely no reason why a citizen of a resource-rich, progressive, modern state shouldn’t receive a public education sufficiently comprehensive that he’s well acquainted with the classic documents of Western civilization long before he starts to attend the theatre as an adult. This standard of education is acknowledged as at least the ideal (if not always the norm, thanks to inequities between social classes) in Germany, Russia, Britain. Canada claims to be a classless society, with high quality universal public education. If that’s true, or if we want it to be true, it shouldn’t be the theatre’s job to introduce 45-year-old Canadians to The Oresteia or King Lear for the first time — the theatre should rather assume that its audience is intelligent, educated, politically aware, and sure to be bored by a straightforward rehash of a text first studied at the age of 14.

(You can read that last paragraph as elitist — “He wants theatre to be just for people who’ve gotten expensive liberal arts educations, not working people who don’t have time to study the Greeks” — or you can read it as democratic: “He wants everybody to have a free, thorough, early education in the essentials of Western civilization, to prepare them to play their part in society later in life.”)

Plato famously exiles the poets from his ideal Republic. Yet, as the author of many beautiful literary documents, Plato is himself a poet of sorts, and he seems to find his own art conducive, even necessary, to civil life. The “poets” he has no time for are those who spread palpable falsehoods as if they were true, those who manipulate the public’s emotions for their own self-interested ends. Call them advertisers, corporate marketing departments. Call them producers of ultra-violent, formulaic network TV. Or producers of theatre that “moves” its audience but doesn’t engage the audience’s intelligence, judgement, or conscious convictions.

Bloody Family may not always “move” its audience in the typical sense, though it contains many moments of beauty and, I think, features more genuine emotion onstage than does your average robes-and-wailing production of the Greeks (a lot of it emanating from you, Tanja, and from Ishan Dave as your son). I found it to be an important production because I felt, if not always moved, consistently activated by your art: woken up, made more alert, drawn into the world.

I recently finished the latest season of Mad Men, which I think is just about the greatest TV show ever, and I was so moved by it, so engaged, so charmed and pleased by its characters, stories, subtleties…but after every episode, or every multi-episode marathon, I’d rise from my couch and feel sort of lost, heavy, returned to my life without any more wisdom than before I spent time with that art. I’d feel so passive. And I love that show.

What I loved about your show is that I felt it gave me something new, helped me to better formulate my questions about the world, engaged me as a whole person. It was unlonelifying, in its way: it drew me into a collective — the audience; our society — but in a way that also preserved and animated my individuality, my individual capacity for reflection, discretion. It held up what’s perhaps the social question par excellence, What Is Justice? or What Is Just?, and it said to me: This question matters. Your answer to it, political or spiritual or both, matters. That we find a public way to express the question, and to answer it, matters. It matters because democracy demands that all its participants be awake and responsible and oriented towards some good, some clearly articulated notion of what’s good. And we need structured public spaces in which to sort that out.

review-bloody29rv1Where or who is the playwright in your production? Who is the author? It’s not clear, and I don’t think it matters. But I’m convinced that this kind of work can be produced not only in a “devised,” collective-creation context but also when there’s a strong single authorial voice, be it a playwright’s or a director’s.

Is this work “postmodern”? Only by the shallowest application of the term. Your show is devoted to creating meaning, making sense of an ancient text. It doesn’t deconstruct language, doesn’t suggest a basic separation between signifier and signified. It affirms the power of art to shape social thought and, maybe, social action. If we have to deal in traditional/modern/postmodern categories at all, I’d say your show feels thoroughly modern to me — of a piece with the high modernism of Kafka and D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, say, not kin to Beckett or Ionesco. There’s no good reason, in short, for your sort of work to be placed in an aesthetic ghetto, for it to be deemed unusually “difficult” or “inaccessible.” I found it far more accessible, more relevant to my life, than any production of a classic play I’d seen in a while.

I did find the ending of Bloody Family unsatisfying. The Oresteia builds to the rejection of vigilante justice, the institution of the rule of law. It gestures towards the modern judicial process, modern civilization. Structurally, it provides a sort of answer to the question or problem the rest of Aeschylus’ trilogy sets up.

I mistrust that old saw about how art/theatre exists “to ask questions, not provide answers” and wish you’d taken a shot at offering some provisional answers to your play’s problems. Is war inevitable, necessary? Should Canada get involved in a combat mission in Iraq, as the Harper administration has just announced? Are we motivated, in that instance and others, first of all by a desire to avenge the blood of innocents? Is that instinct synonymous with justice?

To provoke these questions, as you’ve done, is crucial and commendable. I also feel it’s not enough. Why not be partisan? Why not be aggressively bi-partisan? You conclude your performance with a sequence of actions and images that address the ways violence is enacted on the body, how the body is mortified by the suffering wrought by vengeance and war. This feels like a smallish insight compared to your production’s earlier revelations. It feels like an inadequate replacement for the Oresteia’s original conclusion, a substitution that isn’t as meaningfully in dialogue with the original as your production usually is.

Bloody Family‘s truncated, too-easy ending feels to me like the product of a kind of humility on your parts. It’s as if you don’t want to reach a political conclusion, would rather keep faith with the ambiguity, the irresolvable character of the problem of justice. I think this is an honourable stance but not a courageous one. I wish you’d gone further. Yours is one of the only pieces of theatre I’ve seen in years that I wanted to be longer.

Maybe it will be longer in its next version. I sense that it’s in flux, that the play is a living document with which you’re still grappling. I’m excited to see where it goes. I wish more of the “classical” theatre in Canada were as self-aware, as constantly surprising, as thoughtful as yours — I’d attend more often, and I could make a better case to my friends and neighbours for why they should attend.

Best of luck with your last few performances. I hope they all sell out.

Yours,

Daniel

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