So, mental dilemma of the day.
I’m not sure if this has more to do with the fact that I’ve just not had as much time to write here as I like, or that I’ve just not been out to see as many things as usual (blame time, of course, but also maybe the fact that this fall has been more dance-heavy in terms of programming at my usual haunts compared with the last couple years), but as we head towards winter, I’m getting the impression that this fall season has not left as much of a mark on me as previous ones.
This isn’t necessarily to say that everything has been terrible—The Way She Dies was, as expected, a highlight of the rentrée—, but more that I haven’t been “marked” by what I’ve seen to the same degree as I have previously. Maybe I’ve just become more discerning (read: picky haha). Maybe it’s just mental fatigue from the fact that right now the finish line for my dissertation is right within my reach and I just don’t have the capacity to open myself to much more (and anyway, the rest of my mental energy goes towards dealing with my teaching).
Or maybe it’s quite simply because a number of things I’ve seen so far have just been…eh.
This isn’t to say that none of them tried to go outside the box at all. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I went out to Nanterre-Amandiers to check out Pillow Talk, an immersive experience that involved transforming the main stage of the Amandiers into a sort of futuristic lounge space, with pillowed pods set up for individuals to lay down in. The general idea was that you would talk to an AI for about an hour, the position of the microphones on the pillows designed in a way that, in order for the AI’s voice to be heard, one would have to arrange one’s body in such a way that it would mimic cuddling.
Listen, as someone who really thrives in (and ok, maybe really craves right now) that kind of intimacy, let me confirm to you that there is nothing that will shove you into the uncanny valley faster than listening to an AI whisper a joke in your ear and then “laugh”. Ok, maybe it asking you to sing “Killing Me Softly With His Song” with it comes a close second.
And yes, I get the whole thing about using this medium to question our own perspectives on interpersonal connectivity, but it’s also become such an obvious approach, I wonder if it even makes sense to do it anymore.
Anyway, enough of that. That’s not what I actually want to talk about today. No, today what I want to do is tackle a question that has been asked many times, yet nevertheless still remains relevant.
Why the hell are we still crafting redemption stories for asshole men?
Now granted, the asshole in question here is a character who, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t do anything particularly egregious other than just generally be a dick to other people (especially the women in his life). Compared to some other real-life less-than-savory individuals out there, this dude is almost inoffensive. Almost. Because at the end of the day, the everyday, small-scale nonsense of his that his friends and colleagues are convinced to forgive in order to help him have a moment of revelatory introspection is the kind of thing that, once it starts building up, contributes to the larger toxicity that not only keeps a certain hierarchical power structure in place, but also, and to varying degrees, silences those (read: anyone who is not a straight white cis-gendered man) who are not at the top of said hierarchy.
Anyway, let’s get to it.
Mort prématurée d’un chanteur populaire dans la force de l’âge. Written by Wajdi Mouawad with Arthur H. Dir. Wajdi Mouawad, La Colline, November 17, 2019
Of course, this also just happened to be the first show I saw as a 30-year-old. Eh, can only go up from here though, right? Right.
Actually, I almost ended up missing this show entirely as I was still…recovering…from the festivities the night before. Somehow though, I managed to shower, eat something, and make myself look just presentable enough to make it out the door in time.
It’s the small successes in life that count.
Much like the other of Mouawad’s pieces I’ve seen recently, this one (other than the aforementioned character problem…which I’ll get to in a moment) suffers from a certain imbalance. More precisely, similarly to Notre Innocence in spring 2018, its first half is much stronger than its second.
The piece opens at the end of a concert given by the singer mentioned in the title. Alice (yes, that is his name; no, it’s not for “Alice Cooper”) is an aging former punk rocker who, like many others before him, is contending with the discrepancy between his past and his present reality as, well, a “sell-out”. No longer outside the system, he is now part of it. And he’s sick of it. Literally. I mean the first thing he does when he enters the backstage area (the set design is such that the concert that opens the film sees Alice upstage, facing away from the audience, with the backstage area set up downstage) is shut himself in a toilet and take a very long, very vocal, shit. And then he complains about his stomach hurting and needing to shit more. And then eventually he shits himself during a photo session.
Clearly, something is rotten on his insides.
I should also mention that this first half is very clearly a satire, as based on not only the rapid-fire jokes and “second degree” humor flying around, but also because the characters themselves that are featured here can be reduced down to certain tropes:
-The aging, cranky rocker
-The overworked manager (who Alice always refers to by a nickname rather than her—yes her—actual name, at least until she has a breakdown over it in Act II)
-The critical journalist who, with one brutally honest article, sets our protagonist on a downward spiral that ultimately contributes to his decision to do something very stupid (though also very silly)
-The former manager with questionable judgement and a nostalgia for the “good old days”
-The girlfriend who is an established artist in her own right, but who is nevertheless still second to the whims of her partner.
-The newcomer who has travelled over from the other side of the world (in this case, Canada) and, though she may not know the other characters well, nevertheless becomes the key to them rebuilding their relationships (and themselves), after a crisis. Oh, and she also does this using a mysterious ritual (that, yes, is made-up, but it relies on tropes and stereotypes of First Nations culture).
And honestly, if the tone did not shift so drastically between Act I and II, this could have ended up being a decently entertaining piece. Alas.
Anyway, the short version of the story is that Alice, in a rather low point after being skewered in an article (worse still: he was replaced on the magazine’s cover by a new, up-and-coming musician), reconnects with his old manager with whom he had parted ways with after he started becoming successful. The two commiserate a bit about what their lives once were, what they used to stand for before money, marketing, and success got in the way, when the latter of the two comes up with a plan. A last “f**k you” to the system, if you will. Simply, Alice would fake his death. The moment was perfect. Yes, he was just taken down a notch in the press, but he was also in the middle of a successful tour, and there was no indication he would need to be slowing down any time soon. There would, of course, be a period of mourning. And then, after the initial grief had died down a bit, the manager would release a “recently-discovered” (in reality: recorded in his in-house studio while he was making the necessary press calls) album of unpublished recordings. People would go crazy for it: I mean, it would truly be the last new music they would ever get from Alice, and really, given how hot posthumous records sales have been in recent years following the loss of several high-profile artists, huge profits were almost a sure-thing.
In the meantime, Alice would go lie low in Ukraine (yes, Ukraine). For added security, a sham funeral/cremation ceremony would be organized so that there would be no doubt as to how really dead he was. After a year in hiding, he would return to France, triumphant, a middle finger in the face of all those who bought into the ruse, a true condemnation of our consumerist society.
Of course, one thing that Alice and his manager did not count on was the former’s girlfriend. See, in order for the more essential part of their plan to work (read: the cremation and funeral), they would have to have had a closed-casket funeral. The girlfriend, on the other hand, insisted that the ceremony not only be open casket, but that she and those close to Alice be present up until the final closing of the casket and the final shove into the fire.
Anyway, to get around this, some associates of Alice’s manager gave him some drugs that made him fall stone asleep as if dead. This worked to fool the doctor who came in to sign the death certificate (no autopsy though?), but the dosage needed to be upped if they wished to keep the illusion going through a full-on funeral (getting Alice out of the coffin in time would come later). As expected, however, the dosage wore off a bit early. More precisely, it was during the funeral when Alice’s girlfriend was in the middle of singing a song he loved to hear her sing.
Anyway, it’s not like he got off easy. Other than terrifying literally everyone, Alice also ended up blinded by the drugs. Classic punishment.
So ends Act I.
Act II largely involves the fallout from all the above, with Alice’s girlfriend dumping him for the trauma he put her through (as well as for his general selfishness), his current manager standing up for herself and refusing to represent him any longer, the press eviscerating him even more than they had previously for his nonsense, and Alice having to attempt to navigate the world without the use of his sight (instead of going to see a doctor like literally everyone was telling him to).
It’s in this period of loneliness that Alice reconnects with a superfan of his who had come all the way from Canada to follow his tour, and who he had first met outside his stage door following the concert that opened the show. Her name was Nancy. He signed a condom wrapper for her because it was the only thing he had in his pocket.
Nancy had expressed to Alice during their first meeting how grateful she was to him for how much his music had helped her through some difficult times, and now, seeing him in this state, she decides to take it upon herself to give back some of the help he had given her. This is where this piece truly started to lose me. Nancy kind of helps Alice navigate around for a couple of days, but then she ultimately takes it upon herself to call all of Alice’s former friends together. She had a plan to help Alice rid himself of the demons, of the bad thoughts inside him, but she needed their help.
They, of course, wanted nothing to do with any of it, and with good reason. This is where I want to go back to what I mentioned earlier about why the stories some people create still feature men like Alice getting a full redemption arc in which the burden of the work is not placed on them but on those they have wronged “getting over themselves” first before banding together to pull the asshole in question back “into the light”, so to speak.
And this could have played as a satire as well, except Mouawad had written and directed it with incredibly evident sincerity that it was impossible to interpret it otherwise.
Anyway, as Nancy points out as a means of convincing the others to put aside their anger, it wasn’t like Alice had done anything incredibly terrible like kill someone, or start a call for genocide. He just happened to put his friends through a short period of an incredibly stressful Hell, and that, plus the fact that he was an artist whose music had helped others like herself, meant that he deserved a second chance.
But what she doesn’t bring up—and conversely what the other two women in the room do—is the lasting damage his regular behavior has caused. His manager has sacrificed not only time with her daughter, but also ended up suffering a miscarriage because of the constant stress he put her under, what with his steadily bad humor, his erratic behavior, and his preferred manner of addressing others by yelling at them. His girlfriend, meanwhile, brings up her feelings of not just betrayal at what he did, but also her general frustrations at their relationship, at the imbalance felt when it became clear that one of them was investing in it slightly more than the other.
But we can put that aside now.
And in any case, as a sort of Hail-Mary, Nancy mentions that she is ill, that this trip to France was a sort of last hurrah for her before she begins treatment.
Ultimately, what Nancy’s plan consists of is her leading Alice out into the woods under the assumption that once there, he would encounter a shaman who would perform a ritual to cleanse him. Nancy—who mentions she is part First Nation, though the actress playing her is white-passing—will of course play the shaman. Alice’s friends, meanwhile, would dress up in bird costumes (there is literally no purpose for this other than the fact that this is happening in a theatre, as Alice wouldn’t be able to see them since he is still blind), and at the appropriate moment, swoop in and “peck” at him, thereby removing all the bad things inside his spirit.
There is a lot of sage. Nancy at one point starts banging a drum.
And ultimately it works. The final scene of the piece opens on a hospital waiting room in Quebec where Alice has come to visit Nancy, after having discovered she was ill via his friends…with whom he is back in contact with.
He mentions to her during their last conversation that her ritual managed to push him not only to see a doctor (miraculously, he can see again…because “clarity”…), but also to take the difficult step in reaching out and apologizing.
And you know what, yes, that isn’t really an easy thing to do. But it’s also something that 1) only happened as a result of an initial effort of forgiveness on the part of the hurt parties and 2) occurs offstage. His act of apology, of taking the necessary steps to interrogate himself and engage in a process of self-assessment are, to a degree, secondary to his friends momentarily ignoring his bullshit to see the goodness in him. There are times when, perhaps, such a stance could be justified, but one could argue that those moments generally follow events that are out of the person’s control. This situation, on the other hand, along with everything preceding it, is, on the other hand, a direct result of Alice’s conscious behaviors.
Yeah, it’s true that he didn’t kill anyone. But to minimize his past actions for the sake of advancing the question of his supposed “goodness” (that we have had little evidence of, other than Nancy’s comments on his music) is, for lack of a better word, lazy. We can do better. Our stories can do better. No one should have felt the need to forgive him. The choice to not forgive, to step away for the sake of one’s own mental/physical health is also a justified one, yet here the sacrifices are continually made by those who have performed that gesture time and time again.
But, then again, this also all fits in with Mouawad’s greater ethos on the spirituality of theatre. It goes back to his affinity for the classics (especially the Greeks). Maybe I’ll address it here in another post.
For now though, I have a dinner to get to.
Here’s to the end of fall (and hopefully a more inspiring winter theatre season).