part one: phallacy of dramatic action

medea

The patriarchy has a lot to answer for.

That’s it, end of essay.

——

For those who need more proof:

The tentacles of patriarchy curl around, into, through so many aspects of our lives. It is so pervasive that it often goes unnoticed, unchallenged; if there’s an elephant in every room, you stop seeing it as unusual, it’s part of the furniture and getting rid of it would mess with the interior design.

Our world is built around patriarchal structures—structures that position the cis-het white man as ‘normal’, as the default setting, and all others as, well, ‘other’. These structures are slowly, very slowly, being dismantled, but even to chip away a little bit requires herculean effort (or perhaps Medean effort? She overcame great obstacles and killed her own children out of jealousy, too, right? But she’s a villain and Herc’s a hero. Thanks Patriarchy). At times challenging the patriarchy can seem like clearing a veggie patch: you clear the surface weeds, plant and tend to your veggies, only to discover that beneath the surface the earth itself is choking with couch grass, anything you plant will suffocate. You need to dig the whole patch up and start again.

Storytelling is a key feature of the socialisation of human beings, a founding stone in the construction of civilisations throughout history and across the globe. Storytelling is ‘cognitive play’, a way of training a lively mind. It rewards intelligence, encourages pattern-seeking and creates a framework of expectations and empathy through which the world is filtered and understood. And yes, the patriarchy is all over that business.

Representation in storytelling is a vital part of dismantling dominant ideologies like patriarchy and colonialism. It shakes the central pedestal of maleness or whiteness, presents alternative perspectives that should never have been considered ‘alternative’, and demands empathy for the people who have often been denied it under the harsh gaze of an oppressive dominant ideology. The representation revolution is starting to build momentum; stories focused on the lives of people of colour, women and LGBTQI people are flying off the shelves at bookstores, breaking cinema box office records, winning Oscars and selling out mainstage theatres (though the straight white man still dominates).

But the patriarchy has dug its roots deep into the tradition of storytelling; it has narrowed our engagement with narrative form, the way we structure our stories and interpret various interactions of people-as-characters. As phallocentric—shall we say phallobsessed— as the patriarchy is, you don’t have to be the Principal Lecturer in a department of Literature, Language and Theatre to see that the narrative form dictated by the dicks* in power seems eerily similar to the form of the male sexual encounter (or at least the concept of the male sexual encounter that has been deemed accurate and appropriate by patriarchal society).

But don’t take my word for it, here’s Harry Derbyshire, Principal Lecturer in the Department of Literature, Language and Theatre at Greenwich University, who describes Western drama as a product of patriarchy: ‘its linearity, its drive towards certainty and a single climax, reflect male priorities and experience, and the point of view which the audience is encouraged to adopt is mostly – some would say always and necessarily – a male one’. And don’t take Derbyshire’s word for it, either. Hélène Cixous, in her spinetingling essay ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, asserts that ‘writing has been run by a libidinal and cultural—hence political, typically masculine—economy’.

You can take Cixous’ word for it. It’s solid.

Derbyshire’s statement comes from an essay about Caryl Churchill, and he goes on to detail exactly how many fucks Churchill gives about phallocentric narrative structures (hint: none). Just as we as a society are starting to openly acknowledge that sex doesn’t have to be about a single male orgasm, storytellers and theatre makers are escaping the confines of linear narratives that build towards a single climax. Far Away, Churchill’s masterpiece (don’t @ me, I don’t even have Twitter), demonstrates the power of rejecting patriarchal narrative forms. It is a story of individuals as tiny cogs in a massive machine of death and destruction, sustaining the machine through denial and apathy. It is a stunning portrait of the banality of evil, and the absurd place that the logic of hate leads to. But it’s not only the sharp, efficient dialogue and precise characterisation that convey these ideas; the overall form drives it all home. The play is unevenly paced and has a disjointed timeline, there is no peak in dramatic action, and there is no real ending, just a trailing off. The play contains moments that would traditionally be turning points—moments of tension, violence and destruction—but the play rolls on ever on, crushing these moments like a tank crushing a body as it trundles down the road. The dramatic action peaks but offers no release in that moment; no rolling over, wiping yourself down and going to sleep. Far Away embodies a sustained apathy, and in that apathy a unique urgency that demands far more of its audience. And arguably, it reflects the world more accurately than more conventional (read: patriarchal) forms of narrative.

In the real world, the people in charge of the global narrative (politicians and corporations) seem to firmly believe that the world is still in the early stages of its ‘Hero’s Journey’; everything is about growth, growth and more growth ad infinitum, because if we ever stop pushing towards that climax, it means that our story is almost over. But now even economists admit that this narrative is a fallacy (phallacy) and our obsession with growth destructive. We all know that our lives are more than a single trajectory, a single storyline that reaches a peak and then settles. The world, as they say, keeps on turning; the end of growth, a climax, isn’t the end of the story. Sustainable living, and storytelling, doesn’t rely on growth or ever-building action. It allows itself to slow, to explore the full possibilities of a single point on the horizontal axis, rather than always looking to climb vertically.

Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated film Lady Bird is a perfect example of storytelling that resists patriarchal forms. Not only does it embrace the female gaze, with Lady Bird always appearing as an active figure in the frame, rather than an object to be gazed at (that role is reserved for her male love interests), it also rejects the idea that a life is dominated by a single narrative thread, all building towards a single climactic event or moment. The film is like a cross-section of Lady Bird’s world, we see glimpses of the complex lives intertwined with hers—all stories that seize our attention and imagination, all impossible to explore to their full extent in a mere 93 minutes. We are given brief windows of triumph and melancholy. The priest at the hospital, the father and son interviewing for the same job; these moments are loaded, bursting with ideas and emotions threatening to spill out and swamp the storyline we’ve been following, but Gerwig snatches us away as the world keeps turning and we are left marvelling at the great web of people in this place. Everyone has a story worth listening to, but few are afforded the time or attention. It is a gentle, yet brutal, way of storytelling, a reminder that in reality nothing ever has a happy ending because nothing ever really ends. The films closes with a sharp inhale (no spoilers, but if you haven’t seen it yet you should). We are left with the endless tumultuous possibilities of Lady Bird’s life, her complex relationship with her mother and her self.

Describing my sister feather, Liv once said that the climax of the play happens in the first fifteen minutes, hits the stage like a plane exploding, and the rest of the play is watching the ash slowly fall from the sky. Like Lady Bird, the play explores the breadth of a moment, of a time and a place, resisting the impulse to push things forward towards some impossible resolution. The characters themselves feel that impulse; to sit and let things settle would mean looking out beyond their immediate surroundings, the immediate narrative and objectives, to see the sadness and loss that has followed them their entire lives. It takes time for Egg and Tilly to break free of the structure put in place for them, the narrative, the push towards finding meaning through closure. There is no such thing as closure in the real world—the break-up talk is never going to feel like enough, the apology after an argument never really heals the wound.

They play and dance around the sadness, speaking, lying, squirming away from each other because they want an ending, a resolution, but they know that the stillness and sadness will open, not close, so many doors. But slowly, gently, through Liv’s quiet and considered script, they shake it off, sit quietly and let the past settle, like feathers, around them. Perhaps ‘dramatic action’ is lost, but who decides what makes action dramatic? The shrinking space between the bodies of estranged sisters is alive with drama, just not the kind we’re used to seeing on stage and screen.

Thankfully our stories are changing. Not only are the voices and faces starting to reflect the full breadth of our communities, but the way we tell those stories is shifting. We are not satisfied by the single-climax experience, and we’re demanding more.

Deny the phallacy. Sit with the sadness. Let the feathers settle. See what (doesn’t) happen.

—-

*as in bad people, not all enforcers of the patriarchy have penises.  

This is the first in a series of critical responses produced by playwright (and assistant director) Fiona Spitzkowsky about the my sister feather rehearsal room. Keep an eye out for these weekly installments.

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