Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Notebook

Hmph. It seems Tim Etchells has already thoroughly critiqued Forced Entertainment's The Notebook here.

This is becoming a theme for me in FEs work - this defense against criticism, and by extension a kind of forced production of new pathways in critical thought. It's about as thorough a program note as you'll get, and, yep, covers virtually everything I was about to try and write. I suppose if you block off all other avenues, then all that remains is the creation of a new response. I'm yet to exactly make my mind up about whether this is really good or not... something about a correct theatrical intention being impenetrable to the words 'I liked it' or 'I didn't like it', and so instead demanding something else be said.

The Notebook is adapted, pretty strictly it would seem, from Ágota Kristóf's 1986 novel, translated into English with the same title. The story follows a pair of twin boys who one day are shipped off to live with their grandmother, and subsequently learn their survival during WW2 by teaching themselves. The ambiguous process of this learning and decision-making is presented without judgement in both novel and play, and the boys become desensitised to the horrors and pleasures of life. This desensitisation occurs the extent that they are able to respond to situations in ways at once empathetic and inhuman, training themselves into unwavering ethical machines.

The two actors on the stage (Richard Lowdon and Robin Archer) read the play from books, and it's split into stories which we later find out were written by the boys themselves as part of their 'Mind exercises' aimed at improving their chances of survival. The situations they witness include beastiality, killing their mother, whipping a visiting officer for sexual pleasure, blackmailing a priest, and so on. In each scenario, the decision of the boys is almost entirely, and very interestingly, justified by the context, to an extent that is hilarious, absurdly consequential, yet totally rational. Oh, you fucked a dog? Guess that didn't hurt anyone, and you're very poor. No problem. You don't want to give us these notebooks, which we absolutely need, for free or in exchange of eggs? Then we will just stare at you until you do. And when you ask us never to come back, we will tell you that, naturally, we will be obliged to come back - when we run out of paper.

It's indeed an ethically interesting text, a fact somewhat downplayed in Etchell's program notes ("in some senses ethical questions"??) - at which point, for once, I'm in disagreement. Considering it's a 1991 novel and speaks of a WW2 context, its ethical focus feels remarkably up-to-date. Slavoj Zizek has gone into this plenty of times and it's worth watching virtually any of his lectures from the early 2010's, where he mentions the novel continually. Briefly: for Zizek, the novel's central characters represent an aspirational form of ethics, one which does not ask for nourishment or validation, but that simply assesses the situation according to an informed system of ethics, and then takes the ethically correct action. So, if the situation calls for me to lie, and I am capable of doing it, I just do it - I don't feel anything about it. If I have the means to feed someone, and that person needs the food, I just feed them. It's not a compassionate action - it's a rational ethical one. So the priest, as he is being told by the boys that he must pay a weekly sum to Hairlip, a local scavenger who he previously gave money for letting her stick his fingers in her vagina, can say:

"I think you boys are too young to understand what you are doing"

To which the boys reply:

"No - we do. It's called blackmail".

I am less interested in FE's extremely serviceable (and I mean that in absolutely the most complimentary way it could be used) presentation of the text, than in their, dare I say, 'ethical', decision to stage the text itself. This is a question Etchells dances around in his notes - answering first by linking that decision to their earlier work, and then slapping the ethics in the face somewhat. You can do that - but it's a story about ethics, and survival. And today, that does still mean something. And I would like to think it was chosen for a particular reason, which I suggest below.

Are ethics are all but gone from life?

The Pavlovian system of punishment and reward has become so disciplined, so militant, so streamlined, as to crush any sense of rightness from the individual. It doesn't exist even as an ideal any more. The machine, manifest in nuts and bolts in the 20th century, has grown wings and now surfs the clouds. The company of the 21st Century knows no boundaries, it's 1st world employees only limitless wealth and its third world producers only new definitions of poverty. The expectation has become that you simply acquire wealth using whichever means you can - and if you don't have those means, you should want to get them. And all of this is likely to get worse.

The individual's escape from that ethical void is into other ethical voids - into entertainment, into madness, into self-erasure. There is no room for rightness in this system of insanity, and no room for reality. There is only fear - there is only survival, and competition.

Here, for me, in this kind of context, is where the decision to stage The Notebook must necessarily lie - as a reality that re-inscribes ethical rationality over, particularly, individualism and self interest. Where the morality of compassion and emotion is cynically exposed for what it is - an empty narcissistic gesture. And within that logic, as Zizek would attest - what is required is an ethics without ideological judgement - an ethics that is purely ethical, for its own sake, and nothing more.

What's clear is that the disturbing parts of the narrative are not the deviancy or transgression, which seem almost natural in the context, but the violence of decisions taken without ethical consideration. It's a sharp warning of the pitfalls of human behaviour and a devastating reminder of the collapse of logic that defined the holocaust - and more than a faint suggestion that something of this logic pervades today.

In a chilling example of the hypocrisy of charity and a reversal of this 'ethics without feeling', the same priest who identifies the blackmail would later agree to their demands, saying "very well - as long as you understand that I am doing this to be charitable, and not because I am forced".

"Oh, we expected nothing less", reply the twins.

The Notebook

HAU, Berlin, until the 17th (with performances of other Forced Entertainment work continuing until Sunday)

Based on Le grand cahier by Ágota Kristóf
Directed by Tim Etchells
Conceived and devised by the company: Robin Arthur, Tim Etchells, Richard Lowdon, Claire Marshall, Cathy Naden and Terry O’Connor

with Robin Arthur and Richard Lowdon

Design Richard Lowdon 
Lighting Design Jim Harrison 
Production Jim Harrison

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