Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

In search of grace — Stories and storytellers

Nehad Selaiha is captivated by a call for resistance at the AUC

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Al-Ahram Weekly

It’s all too true, as Frank Bradley says in his director’s note to his production of Barry Lopez’s novel, Resistance, that ‘storytelling … is the oldest and purest form of theatre’, that ‘a great story told by a messenger’ could be ‘more theatrically powerful than any visible depiction.’ But it is equally true that for this kind of ‘pure’ theatre to be achieved, the absence of ‘dialogue and with it dramatic presence’ has to be compensated for by the dramatic presence of the storyteller as performer/narrator, as the sole dramatic/spiritual medium through whom absence – something that happened at some other time in some other place – acquires a magical, imaginative presence. And, of course, the story should be worth the telling.

Out of the nine narratives that make up Barry Lopez’s Resistance, Bradley excluded three (‘Rio de la Plata’, ‘The Walls at Yogpar’, ‘Laguna de Bay in A-Sharp’) and rearranged the remaining six (‘Apocalypse’, ‘Mortis and Tenon’, ‘Traveling With Bo Ling’, ‘The Bear in the Road’, ‘Nilch’i’, and’ Flight from Berlin’) in a different order from the one they have in the novel, neatly dividing them into two parts of three stories each, with an intermission in between.  In the first part, ‘Apocalypse’ kept its place as a prelude, or frame-story, as in the novel, but was followed by ‘Nilch’I’, then ‘The Bear in the Road’; the second part began with ‘Mortis and Tenon’, followed by ‘Travelling with Bo Ling’ and ‘Flight from Berlin’. An Epilogue, entitled ‘The Open Door’, which briefly takes us back to ‘The Bear in the Road story’, winds up the performance. In the interest of vocal variation and also to bond the destinies of the narrators and make their different narratives appear as different facets of the same quest, certain portions of the stories were delivered in chorus by all the narrators who also impersonated the other characters who appear in the six narratives.

These diverse narratives are meant to be received as one big story, as episodes in a macro narrative, in much the same way as we tend to think of The Arabian Nights, or El-Sira El-Hilaleya (the Arabic folk epic of Beni-Hilal). And, indeed, in some respects – its intensely poetic diction, its wild encounters and wide geographical migration – Bradley’s stage version of Resistance is meant to come across as an oral epic, but a spiritual one that maps the migration of the soul in search of healing, of reconciliation, of some kind of mystical communion with the spirit of the world, some mysterious essence of life in all its forms, some elusive epiphany. This is made clear in the prologue which opens Act I: an elegiac, nostalgic choral chant which at once mourns the passing away of beauty and innocence from the world and defiantly embraces it and affirms its worth. The chorus of narrators urge us to ‘Try to praise the mutilated world,’ to ‘Remember June’s long days, / And wild strawberries, drops of rose wine. / The nettles that methodically overgrow/ The abandoned homesteads of exiles.’ They end reiterating: ‘You must praise the mutilated world.’ This gently defiant mood informs the stories that follow and the search for reconciliation with a ‘mutilated world’, a mutilated self, is their common theme.

The opening story – significantly entitled ‘Apocalypse’, a richly ambiguous biblical word at once indicating universal destruction, a cataclysmic event, or a prophetic vision of the triumph of good over evil – acts as a frame-narrative that links all the stories. In it, Olivia Daniels, an independent art curator and author, living in Paris, receives a letter from ‘Inland Security’ telling her of the nation’s ‘widespread irritation’ with the work she and her friends (a circle of fellow writers, scholars and artists determined to dismantle government tyranny) have been doing since they graduated and ‘scattered abroad – to Brussels, Caracas, Sapporo, Melbourne, Jakarta, any promising corner’, with two or three going ‘deep upriver on the Orinoco or out onto the plateaus of Tibet and Ethiopia.’ The letter contains a direct threat. It declares that, as none of them ‘had renounced his or her citizenship,’ they ‘would be interrogated as nationals with the full cooperation of the stewards of democracy in their ‘host countries.’ They could ‘then be indicted; … or possibly turned over to local authorities, some of whom … might have no regard for due process, the writ of habeas corpus, or other advancements in law … found in civilized countries.’

The reason she and her friends are thus hounded is soon made clear as she and all the narrators take turns elucidating it: it is because they ‘share strenuous objections to the way business and government have converged to reorganize society’ and ‘reject the assertion, promoted today by success-mongering bull terriers in business, in government, in religion, that humans are goal-seeking animals’. Instead, they believe that humans ‘are creatures in search of proportion in life, a pattern of grace … balance and beauty.’ In other words, they reject capitalism, with its underpinning competitive, destructive principles, its reductive assumptions, aggressive ethics and success-oriented value system; they long for a an organic mode of life and social organisation where human labour is always creative and regenerative, where the emphasis is on the interrelation and continuity of human activities, rather than on separation into spheres of interest, where ‘industry’ is understood as a human attribute, meaning ‘skill, perseverance, diligence,’ and not as ‘a collective word for our manufacturing and producing institutions, and their general activities’, to quote Raymond Williams.

Armed with their belief ‘in the imagination’, in ‘the divinity of life, in all its human variety’, and in ‘poetry’, they search for this pattern of grace ‘within the histories of other, older cultures … in stories and performances rooted in disparaged pasts’ in the hope that they ‘would spring our culture out of its adolescence.’ The form of resistance proposed in the play is peaceful enough: first and foremost love, in the broadest and profoundest sense of the word; but also ‘repetition’ – repetition of ‘The stories the earth’s peoples adhere to with greatest faith – the dances that topple fearful walls; the ethereal performances of light, color, and music;’ of ‘ these templates for the maintenance of vision, these patterns from the artesian wells of artistic impulse’ that do not require updating.’

‘To achieve progress, we’ve all but cut our heads off,’ they declare; but if they keep repeating ‘what many already know in such a way as to incite courage, if the image or the word or the act breaches the indifference by which people survive, day to day, enough will protest that by their physical voices alone they will stir the hurricane.’ All that is required to shake people into rebellion is this kind of repetition, for ‘just as murder and infidelity are within us, so, too, is forgetfulness. We forget what we want to mean.’ However, to be able to carry on with their mission, they decide to go underground, vowing to continue to ‘disrupt through witness, remembrance, and the courtship of the imagination.’ But before they melt away they leave their personal testimonies against tyranny and corruption; they leave us stories that record their arduous journeys and misgivings, describe the events that changed them and led to their decision ‘to be no longer silent.’ They tell these stories for the benefit of ‘men and women who stand at similar thresholds’ before their initiative is stifled by government intimidations.

In the stories that follow we meet an anthropologist who has broken with his family, his society and his religion when they failed to give meaning to his life and has roamed the earth in search of ‘some force invisible but essential to life’, a kind of world soul, which is symbolized by “Nilch’i” (the Navaho word for divine wind). We meet an attorney striving for a ‘vision’, trying to recover that ‘elusive and elevated physical sense of being present in the world’ she once experienced as a child’. The haunting memory of her momentary encounter with a bear on the plains of northeastern Montana becomes a metaphor for that spiritual quest. The quest continues in Act II, which, like the first Act, begins with a choral chant in which all the narrators join to urge us to praise our ‘mutilated world’ and ‘seek refuge in memories of beauty.’ The first two stories in this part are the most vividly dramatic in the whole play, perhaps because the most realistically detailed, action packed, and most violent. In one, a cabinetmaker and folklorist finds healing from the trauma of horrific childhood abuse and recovers the ability to love and connect with other people after he is shaken out of his spiritual numbness, or ‘frozenness’, by a violent, bloody encounter with hooligans in India and a spontaneous show of love from a child. In the other, a war veteran who lost his sight and genitals in Vietnam, becoming ‘a blind eunuch with a face of melted wax’, teams up with a blind Vietnamese woman, also a victim of violence, though domestic violence in her case, and in their efforts to bury the past, get over their bitterness and become reconciled to their loss of innocence, they return to Vietnam, roam the world and end up deciding to adopt a child. Once more, love is proposed as the only way to reconciliation – the only way to ‘wash out the anger’ and recover, or ‘reengage’ one’s lost innocence. In the last story, a self-exiled indigenous rights activist and author, disenchanted with his culture, feeling from his ‘teenage years onward like a wild animal in a cage’, and that his life ‘served no purpose,’ attains peace and freedom in the jungles of the Amazon where he learns how to interact with nature, communicate ‘with what most of us separate out as the spirit world’, and regain the ‘ability to discern the half-visible life of the forest.’

This last story takes us back full circle to the beginning of the play; it connects with the frame story by reechoing the necessity of disappearing mentioned by the first narrator after the arrival of the ‘Inland Security’ letter, then by reechoing the call to praise the mutilated world, urged upon us by the chorus at the very beginning of the play, then repeated at the beginning of Act II. In this last story, the narrator mentions ‘a poem … written by a man named Zagajewski about, in his phrase, the need to embrace the mutilated world, to give in to a shared fate.’ That poem, he goes on to say, as if to reinforce the appeal of the chorus, ‘has kept me afloat, kept me from taking my own rationales too seriously, as though there could be no others.’ Moreover, the narrator’s reference to a meeting in Berlin with ‘artists, writers, philosophers, theologians, historians’, after which he felt as if ‘released from long confinement’ and took the decision to join the resistance, leave New York and retire to a remote corner of the world to be ‘restored’, as he puts it, suggests that that meeting must have included all, or most the rest of the narrators whose stories we have just heard. We can also discern certain recurrent motifs that connect the stories, like the healing power of love, the restorative power of communing with nature, or the spirit of the world, the longing to feel ‘fully alive’, and, of course, the powerful image of the bear which serves as a metaphor of reconciliation and healing in two of the stories: ‘The Bear in the Road’ and ‘Mortise and Tenon’.

That some of the stories ‘get bogged down in exposition and many end too abruptly,’ as someone has noted, is to be conceded. One may also add that some of them are more confessional monologues than proper stories  and that in all of them one misses the dialectical interchange of stands, perspectives and attitudes. And it is a credit to Frank Bradley’s subtle direction, with its reliance on ‘the ethereal performances of light, color, and music,’ to quote from one of the stories, that such defects were well camouflaged in the performance. As he himself says in his director’s note, there were ‘no tricks here, no bells and whistles, just quiet narratives of anxious souls.’  However, one wishes the ‘anxious souls’ were more audible, more articulate and more experienced in the very demanding art of storytelling. In many cases, with the exception, perhaps, of Pola Kamel in ‘Mortise and Tenon’ and Bassem El-Kahki in ‘Travelling with Bo Ling’, the narrative suffered from the vocal incompetence and monotonous delivery of the narrator. Visually, it was different. As the actors stood, sat or moved around the set (by Ziad Tarek), a single structure that at once suggested a gigantic battered kite, the carcass of a wrecked sailboat, and a string figure in a cat’s cradle game, to which they pinned mementos to future generations, framed in soft, pale lighting (also by Tarek), in Jeanne Arnold’s rough, unsophisticated, unobtrusively coloured costumes (in shades of white, grey, blue and brown), they looked like faded photographs out of some old album, or dimly remembered images floating out of the depths of some collective memory.

Frank Bradley may have been unfair to his students by saddling them with such a tough job, but the whole production was a brave, captivating act of resistance against totalitarianism, materialism and the collusion of business with government to destroy our planet and dry up the spiritual resources of our world. Nevertheless, one has to admit that its core philosophy of preservation, which rejects ‘progress’ in any form, or the idea that you can improve the world in any way (a philosophy concisely expressed by the narrator in the story called ‘Nilch’I’ when he says: ‘The world is beautiful and we are a part of it. That’s all. Our work is not to improve, it is to participate) may seem to audiences in the third world as escapist, selfishly romantic and downright irresponsible. More importantly, the strategy it proposes of eluding tyranny by melting underground in distant lands, there to continue ‘to disrupt through witness, remembrance, and the courtship of the imagination’, seems at best quite impracticable; it is a strategy that conditionally demands that its pursuers have the luxury enjoyed by all American citizens of being able to freely roam the world without requiring visas or being stopped at borders. Bradley’s Resistance is bound to touch a chord in the hearts of any audience and address some basic needs and profound longings; nevertheless, it remains a deeply American work targeting a very specific audience. How many of its Egyptian audiences who, though cognizant of the economic needs of their country and daily bombarded with the idea that the future of the country lies in foreign economic investment, still recognize the justice of its message, can hope to join in the ‘resistance’ is difficult question to answer.

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