Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Death of God takes a Long Day

O'Neill and Beckett share the same metaphysical ground.
Normand Berlin, Cambridge Companion (1998: 85)

This metaphysical ground is assumed to be the absence of God: O'Neill goes so far as to quote Nietzsche in Long Day and Beckett's Godot (despite the author's denial) is frequently accepted as the absent YHVH. But 'the death of God' is not simple atheism, but a recognition of the disappear of an entity that once existed but has now disappeared. And God as an absence has always been a legitimate (Christian) theology, a via negativa for the pilgrim who approaches the divine through 'the cloud of unknowing'. 

Even accepting a raw atheism - a meat-hook fact believed by both playwrights and a metaphysical reality advanced by post-enlightenment secularisation - both O'Neill and Beckett describe a universe that is not so much mere materialism but defined by a lack. The absent God retains a personality, the diegetic worlds of Godot and Long Day exhibit the contours of the deity, although what was once solid is now the hollow. The characters struggle to assemble meaning - to maintain hope of redemption - using the fragments of religious scripture or childish memories of faith, yet without foundation in ontological truth, these fragments offer nothing but sound and fury, signifying nothing. This description of a reality without God conforms to a Christian notion of hell, stripped of colourful metaphor and reduced to a simple equation: life without God is hell. 

A more ambitious attempt to reconfigure the godless universe can be found in Sartre's existentialism. Bad faith replaces sin, the language of theology is translated into a materialist philosophy, replacing spirit with consciousness and relocating religious ideals within the mind. O'Neill and Beckett never abandon the language of Christianity - either desperately defending the vestiges of a barely remembered Catholicism in the words of James Tyrone or the direction quotations by the tramps in Godot - and this only deepens their alienation. Far from embracing the death of God, and rising to become the ubermensch, the characters wallow in their defeat. The memory of the hope of salvation becomes another torment.

For Nietzsche the death of God was not merely a bland statement of atheism, but simultaneously a celebration of human potential and a final rejection of meaning. That he would later erect a metaphysics of eternal recurrence, a materialist afterlife that saw the perpetual repetition of existence, only emphasises the complete breakdown of meaning that this death implies. Nietzsche is compelled to invent another fiction, a system that has as little validity as the theologies that he hopes to replace. In a reality defined only by a lack of definition, only another lie can replace God. 

Long Day refuses the celebrations that Nietzsche offers, and sees only the desperation of a doomed humanity. O'Neill destroys the possibility of language, depicting its ultimate inability to communicate or resolve. The dialogues between father and son, son and mother, husband and wife are merely further expressions of this inability, a satanic corruption of the Platonic dialogue (which served to discover buried meanings). Like Derrida and William Burroughs, O'Neill is deconstructing language itself, pointing out the futility of the entire philosophical project.

 And yet... the via negativa, the path to God that describes only what God is not is older than Nietzsche. 

Monday, 23 April 2018

It's about alcoholism

Nietzsche said:

I am afraid that we are not rid of God because we have faith in grammar.

I am not interested in what Nietzsche had to say about God's ontological qualities, but I am interested in the way that he relates the death of belief in something to a failure to stop believing in its consequences. 


In Long Day's Journey into Night, Eugene O'Neill reveals, in realistic detail, the attempts of a family to discover the 'original sin' that has corrupted them. They talk and argue, they debate and confess, until the mother remembers her long abandoned vocation to become a nun. In the last words of the play, the loss of religious belief is exposed as the moment of 'The Fall'. The characters have all abandoned God, but not for the philosophical ideals of Dawkins. Alcohol, selfishness, egotism and short-term pleasure made good enough temptations for this family. And without God - or the Blessed Mother, since they might have been Catholics, once - there is no meaning. So the conversations, the torrent of words, have no meaning. There is nothing to guarantee the meaning. All they are merely sounds aimed at disguising the void. 

Long Day is the articulation of Nietzsche's concern with grammar across three hours of tragedy. The ultimate tragedy is not the death of God, but the inability of language to forge meaning. The connection between humans, the understanding and appreciation that makes compassion possible - that makes meaning possible - cannot be reached by words. Every single line of the script is marked by its failure to say anything, except perhaps the sharp confession that 'stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people'. 

It is easy to believe that atheism is the great redemption of humankind, that it is a matter of intellectual ascent to a scientific world view. O'Neill says something else: it is a tragedy, a bad thing happening to a good person. In celebrating the technological achievements of the past centuries, the emotional cost is forgotten and, as Men's Rights Activists are wont to insist, who cares about the feels?

Refusing the emotional price of atheism is a typically capitalistic trick. It privileges progress and materialism above the human feeling. Might is right, knowledge is power and facts matter more than feels. The spreadsheet shows the rise in standards of living, the computer says no and the void is just the truth, isn't it?

Long Day isn't an apologetic for Catholicism: the sons are determined atheists, rejecting a church that preaches poverty but praises wealth. One son even says that Nietzsche is right and that God is dead and the family end not in redemption but tragedy. O'Neill himself rejected Catholicism as a teenager, after his prayers failed to cure his mother of her morphine addiction. The famously autobiographical elements point to Long Day as the description of O'Neill's crisis of faith. The universe depicted on the stage and in the script is godless. There is no divine intrusion. The poetic fallacy of the fog might suggest a universe which reflects the consciousness of the humans, but there is no light that can break through it and reveal the truth. 

The final scene confronts the audience with a bitter truth: what is represented on stage is a reflection of their lives. It is empty, desolate, loveless, individuals competing for their own space, their own freedom, at the cost of others. One brother feels that his only possible victory is to bring the other down to his level. The father is more concerned with his own comfort than his son's illness and possible death. The mother hides in addiction - although that has the biological force of compulsion that avarice and envy lack. Long Day's Journey into Night is the image of the family without religion. 

But of course, it's all just entertainment, isn't it?

Friday, 6 April 2018

The Cold War and Comic Books

The period of 'The Cold War' and the mounting tensions between the empires of the USSR and the USA after World War II provided the world with an iconic dualism, between Communism and Capitalism. While many of the moments that expressed this conflict - such as the 'kitchen debate' of 1959 between Nixon and Khrushchev  - have
disappeared from public memory, the atmosphere of paranoia, the imperialist propaganda and the articulation of ideology from both sides determined the context for the theatre and comic books of the post-World War II era. Just as WWII had inspired Superman's messianic status, the Cold War inspired the Silver Age, and the heroes and villains bear the imprints of what could be considered a polarisation of good and evil that compares with the Manichean outlook of some medieval Heresiarchs

Ironically, the Silver Age heroes of Marvel rapidly outgrow this simplistic dualism. The Fantastic Four may have been created by Reed Richard's enthusiasm for beating the Commies into space (the justification he gives for stealing a rocket and taking his best mate, his girlfriend and a teenage boy into outer-space), but they quickly became more concerned with fighting Dr Doom and each other than the Red Menace. The Red Ghost (pictured above) did have a crack at defeating the FF for the Soviets (he trained his apes in Marxist dialectic, but the combination of a bad haircut and the apes staging their own little revolution at the end ensured that this ersatz Fan Four didn't stick around to trouble the Capitalist Heroes for long.

This talk of dualism makes me wonder whether the Marvel Age of comic books ought to have happened. The development of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's books in the early 1960s displays a movement away from the pure melodrama of the Golden Age towards a more sophisticated (and serialised) structure, with character becoming as important as plot (and often driving the narrative). Melodrama thrives on dualism: it is usually a symbolic playing out of the classic form, good versus evil. If I take a doctrinaire Marxist view (the economic and historical superstructure defines the work of art), or even a strictly structuralist vision (more or less the same as the Marxist one, with less shouting about the dictatorship of the proletariat), Lee and Kirby ought to have written a series of self-contained melodrama, in which villains (usually allegorical communists) were dispatched by the Four, who were a picket-fence perfect family unit and not a bunch of squabbling misfits. 

But they didn't, did they? 

My Methodology

I have been calling my methodology 'radical subjectivity' for years now. That's partially because I like to show off that I know what 'radical' means (it comes from the word for 'root' in Latin and isn't just another word for 'extreme'), but mostly because I reject even the possibility of 'objectivity'. Only God has objectivity, and other critics' beliefs about themselves notwithstanding, a review of Macbeth is not holy scripture.

Subjectivity is my excuse for the ramshackle, incomplete, uncertain and questioning products that emerge from my process. I am all about post-modernism, the rejection of the single narrative or interpretation. Once it becomes impossible to cover all the bases, it seems best to admit it. It's one reason why I claim to enjoy the plethora of competing voices in criticism. Sure, most criticism is crap, but at least it disagrees with me.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

I Hate Science

Let me be clear: theatrical naturalism is nothing more than a painting of a Dog Shit with Wings that pretends to be a Living Nightingale. It is a delusion, a deceit that doubles down on its dishonesty by claiming its affinity with 'the real'. When Zola states his faith in the 'scientific spirit' he does not notice the idiocy of a belief in reason. Reason itself can only be trusted, it cannot claim any absolute meaning. To believe in reason is to substitute faith for analysis (especially when Zola expects his statement to be accepted without qualification).

Of course, it is possible to modify that faith, to seek reason through it in the manner of the Jesuit. But this is not the way of the naturalist. Rather, they have the enthusiasm of the fundamentalism, protected by simplicity and buoyed by the material successes of technology. In this case, it is applied science, not the methodology or some spurious spirit that is being invoked. Zola has seen the factory, has seen the locomotive. Therefore, science achieves. Therefore, it will save theatre. 

I can hear the echo of Plato's chuckle, as he reveals the punchline to The Republic. My rational city, with all its functions defined by thought and reasoning, will be based on a myth. Do you get it? Eh? Eh?

In the adaptation of Zola' Nana (1881), Arnold Mortier reported that 'the young Georges Hugon... shakes a cardboard tree from which real apples fall.'The wry wit of the scenographer explains something that Zola does not understand.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Against Dramaturgy

"...there will always be those who insist that the script is the template, or even the essence of the theatre. At one extreme, the eccentric professor of English Literature who will insist that his own personal reading, in his chamber (an office chair, a desk with a typewriter and surrounded by books) represents the most authentic of experiences and even the discussion of the reading weakens its purity... this position can be found in the thoughts of Louis Becq de Fouquiere's reflection that 'the need for mise en scene becomes all the greater if the work is weaker... artificial means of distraction'. Never mind that the choice to remove the decor, the props, the scenery and lighting are, in themselves, dramaturgical, but tell me again how much better Shakespeare is without all these modern interpretations...'