A Trolley Problem

So, I normally prefer to wait a couple of days or so before writing on a show I’ve seen but given the insanity that is my pile of papers to be graded (and while I’m *allegedly* on holiday, no less), I’m going to break with that and instead dive right into the piece I just got out of seeing thanks to my slightly rambling voice notes. 

Don’t worry, I’ve toned down the rambling to a somewhat more legible and organized text.

As usual, I will be spoiling things (though given who reads this, I do not think that will be a problem). Suffice it to say, however, that after being slightly underwhelmed by Dans la mesure de l’impossible at the Odéon last month, I can confidently assert that Tiago Rodrigues has once again cemented himself in my mind as one of the best playwrights working today who really takes advantage of all the aesthetic possibilities afforded by live theatrical performance, even – and in this case especially – when such action could create instances of intense (but very likely purposeful) discomfort.

Let’s get into it.

Catarina et la beauté de tuer des fascistes, texte et mise en scène de Tiago Rodrigues, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, October 26, 2022

A family has reunited in their house in the Portuguese countryside for a yearly celebration. A long table has been set, as waiting for a feast (the “Não Passarão!” printed on the white tablecloth is a nice touch), the wine is flowing, and everyone is dressed to the nines.

Except “the nines” in this case mean long skirts, blouses, and shawls, evoking peasant dress of the early – mid 20th century (side note: I think my grandmothers had blouses that were very similar to some of the ones seen on the performers). This is true for both the women and the men in this family, with one notable exception who we will get to presently. In addition, they are all called “Catarina” regardless of gender identity or presentation, not after some long-gone matriarch, but rather of her dear friend, the first Catarina, who was shot three times in the back by a fascist soldier during a workers’ demonstration. Next to that soldier, however, stood another, the husband of the aforementioned matriarch of this family of Catarinas, whose inaction that day would result in him receiving three shots in the back from his wife, a promise to her friend to avenge her as well as ensure the injustice done to her will not go unpunished in the future. Every year, then, the family of Catarina’s gathers to kill a fascist, with each new member being fully initiated into the ritual at 26. After the execution, the fascist is buried under a cork tree. 

This year, it is the second-to-youngest Catarina’s turn to kill her first fascist, yet, unlike her predecessors, she does not pull the trigger. Instead, she hesitates, and so begins a dive into not only her own moral dilemma regarding her own family’s history and legacy, but also larger questions about revenge and, of course, how to fight back against fascism. 

It would be easy here, for instance, for a lesser playwright to craft a piece that centers its thesis around the notion that killing is morally wrong and/or that a mission of killing fascists makes those carrying out that mission almost as bad as those they are targeting. Thankfully, Rodrigues’s piece is more nuanced than that. As the younger Catarina points out, for instance, her family has been killing fascists for 75 years, yet this has done nothing to stem the rising tide of fascism in the country, including its ascent to the highest offices in Parliament. At the same time, however, when she counters by proposing that the family change strategies and instead work to change the minds of those who vote for fascism through writing articles, posting flyers, giving speeches, etc., her mother (also Catarina) rightly retorts that expecting a fair fight within the rules of democratic fair play in this case is impossible, precisely because the opposing party is known for openly flouting those rules anyway. Yet, what both (along with the other Catarinas) also acknowledge at different points during their dialogue is the fact that after this ritual, they will all go back to Lisbon to carry on with their lives until the next year’s killing.

In this above exchange over the dilemma regarding how one stops fascism, however, one can also note a critique of not only legacy, but also arguably of the frictions that have underscored antifascist movements both in the past as well as today. These “Catarinas”, for instance, are not just descendants – or offshoots – of a singular person, they are both a multiplication as well as a pluralization (and likely fracturing) of the “original” body as well as its singular purpose. The original has thus become contradictory in its continued propagation of itself, so we thus see in the mini Catarinas not only an inherent plurality that was already present in the original Catarina (as it is in all individuals), but also the inherent pluralities and contradictions in the many movements that align themselves as anti-fascist and must find a way to co-exist. Returning to the piece, the dilemma that young Catarina and her mother have, then, has less to do with the “legitimacy” of fascism or its place in public discourse (both agree that it is something that must be fought against), but over different understandings of notions of morality and justice that ultimately shift the focus away from the much larger problem that is fascism’s continued rise in the country which neither of their two perspectives on its own has managed to stave off (as evidenced by comments made at the start of the piece regarding recent policies made by the new government). One thing that the older Catarina does bring up, however, is the importance around speech, specifically, the danger in allowing a fascist to talk, to spread their rhetoric and infect the larger political landscape like a virus, thus becoming harder to stamp out.

I’ll return to the question of speech momentarily, but first I must get to the second dilemma that comes up in the piece: the infamous trolley problem. In short, after Catarina starts having doubts during the start of the piece, her uncle, remembering that she had a particular affinity for riddles as a child, poses the trolley problem to her, supposedly to help her get out of her head and not think too much about what she is about to do (what counts, after all, is that she makes a choice, that she acts, in this case by shooting her fascist). Predictably, however, instead of ultimately choosing between whether to divert the runaway train so it hits her village or so it hits a lone house with her mother inside, Catarina declares there is a third option: putting herself in front of the train tracks so that she is killed, and the weight of her corpse would slow the train down. Her uncle, however, is very frustrated with this, claiming she has ruined the exercise, but also that it does not actually matter since she will have to make a choice at some point anyway. Yet, Catarina does make a choice, though it is not the one the other Catarinas would have liked. She chooses to not act, in a sense, putting herself between the bullets and their initial target in an act of self-sacrifice that speaks to, perhaps, her hope that some kind of justice that is larger than what is being carried out will prevail and put an end to what she and her family have been fighting with the efficacy of repeatedly lobbing off heads of an ever-growing hydra. 

This, then, brings us to the final monologue in the piece – featuring the one actor mentioned earlier who is not dressed in peasant wear – following a last round of chaos that sees all the Catarinas save one (young Catarina’s male cousin, Catarina, who does not speak much, save for when he has his headphones in) shot dead and the fascist prisoner still alive. And it is in this final act, as is usual for Rodrigues’s best pieces, that the piece’s full embrace of theatricality comes in like a sucker punch to the face.

See, the fascist set for execution that day was a speech writer, arguably the one who can most easily disseminate propaganda because he has a way with words, or the power of the pen in the art of communication. After dusting himself off, readjusting his tie, and slipping on his jacket, he who was formerly silent comes down center stage and starts giving – and I’ll just be blunt here – one of the most blatantly fascistic monologues I have ever heard in my life. There is zero attempt to hide what it is he is doing or the ideology behind his words, given his open use of coded language or symbolism (dog-whistling) as well as his, at one point, gesticulating that comes very close to a Nazi salute, yet in his open-ness he also directly confronts those of us seated in the house, whose presence had already been acknowledged several times by the other actors before the start of this final monologue. Yet, he is a survivor, one who not only escaped an execution, but also who we had watched squirm in fear at the prospect of death approaching. Such a trajectory could normally be used to inspire sympathy on the part of an audience, but here that expectation is ultimately used against those of us seated in the house. We are being confronted, yes, but more precisely, we are being confronted with the fact that, when this man starts speaking, we in the house are at risk of ourselves transforming into that soldier from the story that serves as the origin myth for the Catarinas: the one who sat by, saw what happened, and did nothing.

In essence, this final sequence works the way it does largely because it happens in a theatre, and more precisely because it also forces a confrontation and open acknowledgement of the fact that those listening to this monologue are in a space that is governed by a certain set of rules and regulations for audience behavior. Namely, we are to sit down and shut up and not participate nor react directly other than a laugh or an applause. Granted, all of these “rules” are themselves artificial, given that theatre prior to the 19th century was very much not like this as far as publics are concerned, but the way in which these rules have been largely internalized by theatregoing publics meant that, to a certain degree, this last monologue became something of an endurance contest to see how long this guy could go before someone shut him up.

Eventually, towards the end of his speech, there were people in the house who started speaking up or vocalizing their disapproval. I started hissing and stamping my feet at some point, but I also remember thinking to myself that I wanted to say something or boo this guy earlier, but I didn’t. I didn’t because I realize now that while I was being confronted with his rhetoric, I was also listening to it in a space that imposes a silence on my presence there. I then found myself thinking: would I be looked at as a weirdo, as someone who was taking this performance too seriously, if I did react how I wanted to? At the same time, nothing that man said was outside the realm of possibility for anyone in politics who aligns themselves to the right of the political spectrum (and honestly yes, I will go far enough to say that). Eventually the reaction and response from the crowd did get him off the stage and the lights went out, though it took a minute for anyone to start applauding (it was almost as though that moment between the end of the piece and the return to our own temporal reality needed to be prolonged a bit). But what was truly fascinating about this was the way in which here theatre functioned as a means to reveal both the little holes or fissures through which this kind of discourse can flow through unobstructed, as well as how almost used to it we’ve become to the point where it can slip in and flourish right under our noses before we even think to stamp it out, and that is terrifying.

I’ll end here with one final comment on the constant quoting of Brecht in the piece. On the one hand, yes, the use of another playwright whose work was dedicated to raising class consciousness as well as fighting against right-wing totalitarianism and/or fascism does make sense here, especially considering that one of the fundamental characteristics of Brecht’s theatre is the alienation effect, and its role in raising a greater collective consciousness as to the larger superstructures that shape our society (particularly in terms of distribution of power). Yet, while Rodrigues’s piece never aesthetically hides that it is a work of theatre, it also does not go quite so far as to try and replicate alienation. Instead, it makes its public complicit, particularly in its re-shifting of the locus of action onto each seated audience member during the last monologue. Call it a new kind of consciousness-raising, maybe.

Oh, and for the record (and not that this counts for much), Catarina’s mother was right…shutting them up is paramount.

It may be time to go back and listen to the Dead Kennedys a bit…while grading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: