Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Read How I get From Eve Ensler to Battlestar Galactica in Just a Few Paragraphs

I almost didn't read Jeremy McCarter's review of Eve Ensler's (of Vagina Monologues fame) latest play The Treatment in New York Magazine. The Vagina Monologues always seemed more about Ms. Ensler than it did about women in general -- or so I figured from all the hubub -- so it never occured to me to pay it any more mind than I do any other production where the entertainer out-performs their message.

But I was on the subway and I had one magazine, so I read it: Ensler's play, which closed on October 22, starred Dylan McDermott and a woman who goes by the single name Portia. It's a two person play about a soldier who tortured prisoners and a psychologist who tries to put him back together.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that McCarter was writing about something bigger than Ensler's treatment of torture. The problem, he writes, is that the play has no angle. It, like many other "political" plays and much of today's political rhetoric, cannot be argued with. There's no moral dilemma, no push and pull. It's black and white. It's very clear what's right and what's wrong. What is there left for the audience to do?

Here's McCarter:
"With all due respect to the mild virtues of Ensler’s play, I have had enough of inarguability. I’m tired of affirmation—I want an argument. At this point, I would very keenly like someone to write a play defending the tragic necessity of torture. I’d like someone to convince me that Dick Cheney genuinely has our best interests at heart and that Jesus really wants me to be rich. At least I wish someone would try. But until Karl Rove puts some playwrights on the payroll, I bet I’ll go on wishing."
McCarter sees a difference between politcal plays and what he calls issue plays: "The issue play dramatizes (or merely presents) a problem that has been in or near the headlines. Sometimes it suggests a solution, but almost always it points us toward a villain, if we can’t spot him already."

A political play, he says, is one that forces us to argue with ourselves rather than merely affirming a belief. He holds up recent productions of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt as examples of good political plays.

I would point to the SciFi Network's amazing series Battlestar Galactica. It's not a play, but it's got everything McCarter asks for. The plot of the remake of the 1970s show is simple: there are 12 colonies of human beings. They created some robots that got too smart and rebelled. After a long war, there was a treaty and decades of peace. The show starts when the robots (called Cylons) come back with new, improved models that look human. The new Cylons obliterate every human on all 12 planets except for about 50,000 that happen to be aboard space ships fast enough to get away.

Battlestar Galactica has dealt with stolen elections, suicide bombing, torture, concentration camps, and secret trials. Behind all these issues are questions about what makes us human, questions made all the more urgent by the fact that there are only 50,000, then 45,000, then 40,000 human beings left in the known universe.

The show is so compelling, not because it gives us a one-to-one comparison of America in Iraq, as some ornery critics have complained, but because it dramatizes current events in ways that make us rethink our positions on the issues behind the events.

Virginia Heffernan put it well in the New York Times last week:
"Fortunately, it’s not crystal clear. And that’s what makes 'Battlestar,' week after week, riveting. The truth is, allegories don’t really exist. Characters who initially seem to “stand for” figures in myth or current events eventually take on their own dimensions and — with any luck — subvert the symbolic system that was supposed to confine them."
The point is, a show like this jump-starts the debates on issues like torture because unlike plays that present one inarguable side, they give you disturbing questions to wrestle with.

Can a whole generation turn itself into monsters in order to save their species to see another generation? At what point are we off the hook because Darwinism is kicking in? At what point are we absolved of guilt because we're killing machines and not people? That's good drama. That's the kind of stuff McCarter is talking about, the kind of stuff we need right now.

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