The killing is the worst part, and the best part. It’s the worst, because it doesn’t feel right. …And the fact that it makes you feel awkward, uncomfortable, like something’s not right – that’s the best part. –Siobhan Keogh, “Eyes on The Last of Us”
In a word, we believe that there are living forces in what is called poetry and that the image of a crime presented in the requisite theatrical conditions is something infinitely more terrible for the spirit than that same crime when actually committed. –Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double
Trevor was contemplating her next project. She didn’t know what form it would take Nor how much time Nor even what material She only knew It was to be brutal. –Sheila Callaghan, Roadkill Confidential
There are moments written into ROADKILL CONFIDENTIAL as well as some we’ve extrapolated in our production at Son of Semele that push the audience to a precipice, and which way any member goes from there is entirely up to the member herself. A person might be outraged or entranced, she might be heartbroken or she might be giddy. There’s just no way to know until one of those moments arrives. I have to admit, it’s an odd feeling to sense that the unity of the audience has been smashed and every individual has to decide whether to laugh or grind her teeth on her own.
Antonin Artaud’s essays were assembled into the book The Theatre and Its Double in 1938, an age which he found catastrophic as well as without suitable theatre. Of course, he couldn’t see the future and therefore didn’t know World War 2 was imminent, however he was entitled to his disgust at the state of contemporary theatre. In fact, he wrote, “it is no wonder the elite abandon it and the great public looks to the movies, the music hall or the circus for violent satisfactions, whose intentions do not deceive them.”
At least a part of the goal of Theatre of Cruelty is to get audiences to a state of visceral relating to the harshness of life/reality depicted on stage. The other side of that coin is to goose the theatre practitioners just as much as the audience so the urgency and truth remain vibrant and expression avoids becoming cliche.
So why refer to THE LAST of US, a video game that will be coming out next year? Here’s the story: My friends are largely either theatre/performing arts geeks or comic book/gamer geeks, with some crossover here and there. Thus, even as I was up to my eyeballs with putting up ROADKILL, my Twitter and facebook feeds were awash in announcements from E3. LAST of US, from articles I’ve seen seems to have wowed quite a lot of people with groundbreaking insight into survival scenarios where the player’s primary antagonists are other perfectly ordinary humans just as desperate to survive.
It’s striking to me, a non video gamer (purely out of protection for my time, I burned entire years on LARPing and some table top gaming – I’m sure if I picked up a video game I wouldn’t see the sun for weeks), that there are articles like the one I quoted above in PC World that speak from a point of view well over the spectacle of violence in the medium. Of course, articles like those are written to the gaming enthusiast who’s pretty well inured to incidental thrills of destroying all opponents for points. This new take on needing to kill in order to survive and the truth of what taking a life might be like is so startling to Keogh it’s almost exciting.
It tells the truth.
Or it seems to. I wouldn’t know and likely neither would Keogh and her reviewing compatriots. The point being, the act of playing the game itself may just alter the gamer. THE LAST OF US promises an emotionally complex journey, one where the player will have decide for herself how to handle ethically questionable situations in an environment where the usual system of societal consequences has fallen away.
Back to ROADKILL: set aside for a moment that one of the characters is a 14 year old boy who expresses himself best through the extraordinarily violent dance/fight moves of his video games, and look at the relationship it has with violence. Instead of imagining a world post-civilization, ROADKILL is utterly contemporary to us, where the most likely tragedies that could befall the characters would be a car accident or perhaps a virulent infection contracted through contact with an adorable woodland creature.
Instead of exposing us to invented tragedy, ROADKILL reminds us of the horrors currently in progress in other parts of the world through the obsessive news consumption of the central character, Trevor.
Early 21st century in upstate New York is about as far as an American can go to get away from war and strife and critical shortages and still participate in society. In American terms, the region is synonymous with a comfortable, unchallenging lifestyle. Thus, even hinting at the possibility of intentionally messing up this lifestyle would scare the powers that be. The answer to the unasked question is to send in an agent to assert security and mastery over the frightening situation. This conceit lets us elide the issue of how or why we are entitled to safety at the first sign of a potential threat.
So let’s go back to the 14 year old with the violence issues. He doesn’t play the games that ask hard ethical questions but the ones that give him the option of eating the hearts of his vanquished foes. And for some reason his step-mom (Trevor) won’t let him play them in the house. Even given the gruesome nature of his mother’s death when he was six, we tend to assume teenage boys will be into expressions of violence and pastimes that exploit these, and even if we haven’t any proximity to teenage boys, Bowling for Columbine will connect the dots for us. So we accept that he’s going to seek violent outlets and just about imagine we can understand how his childhood trauma would lead him to it. And finally we agree with the choice to keep the violence and casual horror of his games away from him.
So. Randy, the boy, can’t play his excruciatingly violent video games but Trevor, his step-mom, can create a work of art that by its nature may threaten the health and well-being of the community. To put Trevor’s work on a par with a real world event, remember Bill Gates releasing mosquitoes into a TED audience? His Foundation said the mosquitoes weren’t infected with malaria, but his own comment at the time was “not only poor people should experience this.” It’s a little more challenging when an adult wants to scare us. They might have a point. (Is it enough to have a point? Ah, good question.)
Even if we do live in a relatively comfortable first world, where maybe we have to perform some financial legerdemain to pay the cable bill but we won’t know what it’s like to go hungry or protect our stores of food from the neighbors, there’s still going to be that hinge, that regard, that relationship with the concept of a lack of societal structure.
If we choose to keep up with the news we have the privilege of knowing about the parts of the world that struggle in abject misery, with no security apparata worthy of the name.
If we wish to simulate a test of our mettle, we can walk through an immersive experience, told with as much verisimilitude as game designers can invoke. (“…guns, ammunition and other resources are rare. Enemies will flee for cover and warn one another if they see Joel brandish a pistol. They’ll also charge when they hear the click of an empty chamber. Health is finite–it doesn’t regenerate” –Jared Newman, “The Last of Us E3 Preview: Violence for a Reason”)
If we want to express to our community the potential for everything going wrong we have but to flex some creative muscle, blur the lines between safety and civilization and the wilds beyond and let the chips fall where they may.
Whether it’s a naturalistic story about getting from point A to point B or a surrealistic hodge podge of a situation developing in intensity until the stage can’t take anymore and erupts into epic rubbernecking, that axis point is there. That is the spot on which we turn from having been people who kept a coolly detached, intellectual understanding of the relative ease of our lives and become people who have had to choose a reaction on the fly without a society to praise or condemn our actions.
Its through experiences of such art that we learn a little bit more about who we really are.