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No Time for Comedy

Robert Brustein on Theater

I was hoping to do a review this week of the late-summer London theater season, but like everyone else in America I had to change my plans. Writing drama criticism seems very trivial labor after watching the herculean efforts of police officers, fire fighters, and city workers to retrieve the remains of victims buried under the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. How does one continue to evaluate plays in the face of all that grief and all that rubble? It is being said that among the many things destroyed forever by the terrorists was our innocence. They may also have killed--I hope temporarily--our craving for serious art and hard-edged entertainment.

When, for example, will any of us be able to watch a disaster movie again? As has been noted, the spectacle of thousands of terrified people running down city streets pursued by clouds of smoke and debris was already so familiar to us from films such as Independence Day and Godzilla that it was almost impossible to separate fiction from reality on that fateful Tuesday. Were authentic human beings or crowds of Hollywood extras fleeing toward the camera as two giant buildings imploded behind them? No wonder the studios have announced that they are canceling all their forthcoming disaster films--including an Arnold Schwarzenegger epic about a man whose family is killed in a terrorist attack--and replacing them with patriotic stories, family dramas, and other escapist fare.

The impact on the theater has been just as daunting. The show is famously supposed to go on, regardless of internal problems or external catastrophes. (London's Windmill Theater boasted that "We Never Closed" even during the darkest days of the Blitz.) But this plucky thumbs-up attitude in the face of adversity did not characterize the mood of theater people after September 11. For several days, all Broadway shows were canceled. Five of them have since closed for lack of attendance. New openings were delayed for a week or more. The Roundabout revival of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins was postponed until further notice because, as its director Joe Mantello observed, the musical "asks audiences to think critically about various aspects of the American experience," and in light of the murderous assault on our nation, "this is not an appropriate time to present a show which makes such a demand." Especially when the show is about the assassination of American presidents.

In the early 1940s, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, S.N. Behrman wrote a play called No Time for Comedy. Sixty years later, we again find ourselves in a situation where there may be no appetite for comedy, not to mention critical thought. The late-night comedians went off the air for a week, and when they returned all Bush jokes were proscribed. It would seem that the only fully acceptable public activities have been churchgoing, praying, and flag-waving. (In the days immediately following September 11, we are told, Wal-Mart and Kmart sold a total of 514,000 American flags.)

So the terrorists accomplished in one brief morning of depravity what had seemed almost inconceivable after three decades of identity politics: they managed to unify the country into a nation of patriots, turning numerous multiculturally diverse factions into a people with a common cause. But at what cost? I fear the effect on civil liberties of a concerted war effort. During the divided days of Vietnam, artists had more freedom to criticize their government than at any time since the fourth century B.C.E., when Aristophanes satirized Pericles's conduct of the Peloponnesian wars. But this nation is now more united behind its government than it has been at any time since 1941. As we again consider risking American lives abroad in order to annihilate an enemy, critical voices may be considered as objectionable as they were during World War II.

The fall season at my theater in Cambridge was intended to be a festival celebrating the Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo. It started with Johan Padan and the Discovery of America, Fo's satiric comedy about the adventures of an anti-hero fleeing another kind of religious fanaticism, the Spanish Inquisition, to join Columbus in America. This was to be followed by one-person shows starring Fo (Mistero Buffo) and his wife Franca Rame (Sex? Don't Mind If I Do). We elected to cancel the Tuesday performance of Johan Padan. Fo and Rame canceled the remainder of the tour. "We do not feel capable," they wrote to me, "of performing ironic and grotesque shows, which deal among other things with sex and eroticism, in such a grave state of national mourning. `The show must go on' and the clown crying behind his mask are stereotypes that we do not wish to perpetuate."

In other words, no time for comedy. In a speech to the audience on the night that we re-opened Johan Padan (the same night that our sister theater, the Huntington, was opening the unfortunately titled The Dead), I did my best to argue that comedy--like all forms of art--has the capacity to humanize us in the midst of inhuman events. But to tell the truth, my heart was not in it. I did not feel much like being humanized one day after those planes rammed into those buildings, engulfed them in fireballs, and toppled them to the ground, killing thousands of innocents. I wanted revenge. Some of my theater students were eager to know what America had done to make "those people" so angry at us, indeed why we were so roundly hated throughout much of the world. "You just don't want to believe in evil," I bellowed, comparing this question to trying to "understand" why Hitler hated the Jews. I was out of patience at that moment with the way the liberal mind always picks at its own scabs. Against the background of bodies catapulting out of the top-floor windows of the World Trade Center, the self-hatred of American political correctness never seemed more incongruous. (Actually, PC is probably dead as a doornail now, another casualty of the terrorists' flight plan, and sharing a grave with the Peace Now movement, which has been blown to smithereens by Palestinian suicide bombers.)

A few days later, my thirst for vengeance began to diminish, mitigated by a growing fear that our president, inspired by his own frontier America "dead or alive" imagery, might pack on his six-shooters and pick off a lot of poor shlubs in the rubble of Afghanistan. As one commentator wondered, how do you bomb these people into the Stone Age when they already are in the Stone Age? I began to feel ashamed of my previous feelings of indiscriminate belligerence. What we need is a focused police action, not a protracted general war. One of my anxious students wrote to me that she had been a prison guard in Israel and had watched herself grow so "callous and punitive" over the way her ratty charges berated her, smelling of urine and perspiration, that she was forced to request a transfer. She understood full well, she said, the origins of hatred and revenge.

I was even more ashamed when Jerry Falwell, with Pat Robertson concurring, blamed the whole catastrophe on secular America. "I really believe," he fulminated, "that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'" He has since apologized. But this was almost enough to make one embrace political correctness. (Far from being the result of secularism, of course, the terrorist attack was the work of fanatical religious fundamentalists who shared the revulsion of our own fundamentalists at America's "moral corruption" and "secularism.")

My student ended her letter by saying that she was "blessed to be able to work in the theater" because of the opportunity that it gave her to "criticize and rebuild my conscience" rather than to "simplify issues into good and evil." That was my blessing, too, and I was grateful for being reminded, in my current state of anger and confusion, of the obligations of art in a bad time, of why literature and drama continue to remain relevant despite our horrifying glimpses into the darkness of the human heart.

Or maybe the arts remain relevant because of those glimpses. They help us to understand, not to excuse, the motives behind evil actions--as Shakespeare was able to suggest, not to condone, the reasons for Macbeth's murder of Duncan; and as Dostoevsky was able to examine, not to exonerate, the political ideas that led Raskolnikov to plunge an ax into the brain of his landlady. It is one of the functions of great art to help us see how the hatred and viciousness of our enemies can begin to infect the brains of relatively normal people like ourselves.

It can also help us to understand the origins of that infection. I want to go back to Conrad's The Secret Agent, perhaps the best account of state terrorism in literature. And I want to re-read The Possessed, in which Dostoevsky examines the anarchism and nihilism and despair that make a sane man into a criminal killer of innocent bystanders. I also need to refresh my memory of such bracing criticisms of our military establishment as Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove, because the greatest danger of the moment--with ninety percent of the country in favor of strong military action (an opinion I share), but apparently willing, according to a recent New York Times poll, to sacrifice many innocent civilians in the process--is a blank check for the military. As Genet once wrote in The Balcony, if we behave like the other side, then we are the other side.

If only for that reason, it is necessary to look past the waved flags, and the silent moments of prayer, and the choruses of "God Bless America," and try to keep the arts in focus. By lighting up the dark corridors of human nature, literature, drama, music, and painting can help temper our righteous demand for vengeance with a humanizing restraint. The American theater presently stands, like Estragon and Vladimir, under that leafless tree in Beckett's blasted plain. The show can't go on. It must go on. There can be no time when it's no time for comedy.

Note: Some people should stick to comedy. Since I wrote this (last week), Dario Fo and Franca Rame have been circulating an appalling newsletter called "Give Peace a Chance." There they attribute the attack on the World Trade Center to "the bloody beasts of capitalism," claiming that brokers were yelling orders into their cellular phones while screaming people were hanging from the flaming towers. "Great speculators revel in an economy that every year kills tens of millions of people by reducing them to poverty," they wrote in a widely quoted passage. "Faced with that, what are 20,000 deaths in New York." Claiming that the Oklahoma City bombing was a white Fascist effort to provoke an anti-Islamic reaction, they also pretend to be in doubt about who armed the terrorists ("Islamic extremists? Rightwing extremists? Mad Zionists?"). Fo and Rame are friends, but this sort of vicious--and fatigued, outdated, and melodramatic--Stalinist ranting is inexcusable. There have been a lot of dumb, insensitive responses to the evil explosions that shook this country. But it is hard to argue for the complexity of art when the stupidest of all may have been written by this Nobel Prize winner in Literature.

This article originally ran in the October 8, 2001, issue of the magazine.