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A Meditation on the National Forest Service

Stages of Resistance
Justin Maxwell washed in yellow light smiles at the camera, very close up on his face.

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series throughout March and April 2017!


“…in times like these/ to have you listen at all, it’s necessary/ to talk about trees.”
—Adrienne Rich “What Kind of Times Are These”
Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995

As a playwright, I’m an artist whose medium is language. I should be at my desk every day and in the theater every night. Instead, I find myself compulsively watching old documentaries about the Maquis—a French word for a dense area of evergreens. The documentaries talk about how people waited. I find myself up, late at night, watching these old videos, but I am not actively waiting. The Maquis became master loiterers, perpetually hanging about on the boundary between boredom and terror. I am merely anxious. Perhaps the Maquis’ strange boundary is the natural experience of a tree? It waits in a place, nothing to do, knowing it could be easily axed down. Maquis members often waited for a contact in a self-made hell, knowing the way out of their suffering was to simply walk away. Perhaps, while waiting, they casually ate a radish. They waited because it’s dangerously easy to turn into a rhinoceros.

I’ve been thinking about great-grandma Gertrude and her Cubist words, watching the Maquis breeze through her back yard at night and the Wehrmacht march through her front yard during the day. I’ve been thinking about doe-eyed Audrey who perhaps had nothing to do with the Dutch resistance, perhaps was just carrying a basket full of harmless flowers—it’s a good anecdote, and flower picking is such a nice thing to do in the woods. I’ve been thinking of an Irishman with bad eyesight, scribbling in Switzerland for the second time in his life. The established artists watched. The artists-to-be waited. Where are the great works of art written from within Occupied France? Or Vichy France for the matter?

I’m none of those artists, and this isn’t Paris in 1941. I could write a play, but it’s hard to concentrate. Hell, I am writing a play. It’s about identity and power, the silencing of a complex woman by an entire culture, and being on the losing side of history. I started writing it well before the 2016 election cycle began. After that play goes off to the production company, I might write a show I’ve got notes on, tentatively called “Great Again,” about Fritz Haber, a German-Jewish chemist. He invented weaponized chlorine gas in WWI. Then he won the Nobel Prize for inventing the Haber–Bosch process, which currently supports food-production for half the globe. Then he fled Germany. Then his insecticide, Zyklon B, became the primary tool for the Holocaust. He was a patriot.

What will these plays accomplish? Will I feel better for writing them? Will audiences feel better for watching them? If feeling better is the goal, is theater the best way to achieve it? Isn’t the goal something bigger than a feeling? If personal catharsis were enough, if it was the socio-emotional end stop, wouldn’t we have stopped writing about theater with Aristotle? Drama goes back to the Iron Age in Greece, and performance is already there when the first mists of pre-history start to clear. Yet nations have turned themselves inside out at least since Akhenaten’s tryst with monotheism. After all, Gilgamesh built those walls for a reason.

Whenever I try to take meaningful action, I get lost in the forest. At some point the problem is so unreasonable and the responses so limited one can only wait and talk about how happy their day is. My prose fills with Point of View shifts, which create personal distance from worrisome things. My psychological background noise makes focusing difficult. Each time I try a new path, I end up watching documentaries on YouTube. This is not an essay of solutions. This is a trail map of my dead ends. Perhaps people with better forestry skills can blaze to results or follow a topography I can’t navigate.

I can imagine a potential-tyrant seeing Guernica’s Cubist horror and going down a different path, but such art can only stop one viewer at a time, can only stop someone who is in the teachable moment when they’re looking at the painting. Even then, such an epiphany doesn’t really stop anything, just redirects that person. A few minutes of trauma can wipe out such a gain.

How do we get people, who believe they’re intrinsically entitled to be on top of the social hierarchy, to value a different world view? The answer entails a two-part paradigm shift, both an existential crisis and a de-valuation of perceived merit. For many, such a shift also represents a crisis of faith. Changing those three things is asking more than a work of art is up for. Many people would rather die than accept such change.

Reverse the situation for a moment and experience the challenge we put on theater for making cultural change. What would it take for you to come around to Mike Pence’s world view? To Sam Brownback’s? I can’t imagine being converted to it. What does it take to embrace an ideology that caused an HIV outbreak in Indiana? What play could make such a change in you? I modify my socio-political positions based on evidence that those positions produce the greatest good. I can’t imagine a work of art that could convert me to the world view of Pence or Brownback.

Treat yourself to an unpleasant Cartesian thought experiment. Imagine a Berliner in 1945 looking out their window at Soviet troops fighting towards the Reichstag. Imagine that person taking off their red, white, and black armband and saying “We were betrayed again!” What does it take to convince that person they were in the wrong? That the devastation around them is an organic consequence of their ideology? Can art do such convincing? Given the gutting of the NEA, clearly some people think art can convince people, but that gutting could also be the easiest way to end PBS NewsHour (the most accurate source of information in our culture) without the difficulties of overt censorship. Do you think Pence watched Hamilton and changed his mind on anything? I doubt he even had a poor night’s sleep.  

In “Credo of a Passionate Skeptic,” Adrianne Rich says “the personal is political….” Her compass should be my way through the woods. But it isn’t. Implied in that quotation is the reason theater doesn’t regularly change the world: something that invites deep political change simultaneously doubles as a threat to one’s personhood. It’s easy to see one’s self atop a perceived hierarchy and disengage, to see people as an alien “other” while HIV flares up and teachers flee in droves.

In Theatre of the Oppressed, August Boal posits that

art is affirmed to be pure contemplation, and on the one hand, it is considered to present always a vision of the world in transformation and therefore is inevitably political insofar as it shows the means of carrying out that transformation or delaying it."

Boal is right in the abstract, but how much change is really produced? What is the scale on which change matters? If my new, political play changes one person’s mind, have I done enough? Is the investment of hundreds of hours of labor by a dozen people (who are making huge personal sacrifices for almost no money) worth one vote in one political district? Can such labor change a state-level vote? It’s a Wonderful Life is annually re-watched, yet a significant minority of Americans just voted to make America a neo-Pottersville. It’s a Wonderful Life played under Nixon and Reagan. Did it produce change I missed?

The experience of a play expanding my consciousness is amazing, but I go to the theater seeking that outcome. Even when art does provide me with that profound expansion, can it expand my consciousness so much that Congressional gerrymandering is undone? It seems if performance manifested change, at least a few politicians would be funding plays instead of buying advertisements.

Someone like Pence goes to the theater because of a sense of cultural formality, a moralized sense of economic self-worth that prevents the teachable moment. In other words, some people can’t learn the lesson because they don’t want to learn it and they don’t have to. A belief someone is trying to inspire engagement is enough to make many people disengage. We’re a threat for trying. At Hamilton, Pence saw a lot of cool costumes, listened to complex music, and felt good for conforming to a social norm. In seeing a Broadway show, Pence affirmed he had the economic and cultural cache to see it. Moreover, his ability to purchase a valuable commodity places him above the people making the commodity (in his perception of the cultural hierarchy) and their complaint only serves as a tacit acknowledgement of that power.

Our problem is anthropological. We may not like that complex, engaging art can be easily dismissed, but it gets dismissed nonetheless. Humans are hierarchical animals. Such a perspective is implicit in a host of experts, including the philosopher Benoît Dubreuil, in Human Evolution and the Origin of Hierarchies; the Pulitzer Prize winning socio-biologist E. O. Wilson, in On Human Nature; and the cultural anthropologist/primatologist Christopher Boehm in Hierarchy in the Forest. Performance lacks the cultural station to alter an individual’s established views or beliefs. I would speculate this phenomenon of dismiss-ability is another reason some people hate the National Endowment for the Arts; the NEA gives hierarchical validation to art. The NEA’s endorsement reduces the ease of dismissal, thus the NEA threatens them.

Western culture has been overtly making art to change society since the Dadaists, and the change hasn’t happened yet. Maybe such change is just a glacially slow process: Magna Carta, to American Revolution, to World War I, to Post-Colonialism, to globalism, to whatever’s next—capitalism running its course from feudalism to the system that inevitably replaces it. Unfortunately, a process of change happening at such a pace is going on so surreptitiously it is invisible. Change for the better that happens outside the scope of a lifetime isn’t much use to us alive now.

As part of the presentation “Consciousness, Creativity, and the Brain,” at the Majestic Theater in Boston, David Lynch said, “[i]f you have a golf ball sized consciousness, when you read a book you’ll have a golf ball sized understanding; when you look out, a golf ball sized awareness; when you wake up in the morning, a golf ball sized wakefulness.” Can art grow consciousness for those disinterested in growth? For those who find the threat of growth feels like death? Tony Kushner’s character Aaleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov gives one answer:

Change? Yes, we must change, only show me the Theory, and I will be at the barricades, show me the book of the next Beautiful Theory, and I promise you these blind eyes will see again, just to read it, to devour that text. Show me the words that will reorder the world, or else keep silent."

That is the answer of a writer. I like his answer, but I’m a writer. His answer doesn’t challenge me ontologically. It’s easy to talk, to read. Talking feels like meaningful action. Well-intentioned people, including me, have talked a flood of essays since November. Ideas are a beautiful result of talk, but what do we do with all these ideas? Do we simply generate more? Talk staves off the worry many people feel in isolation. Talk suspends the hell of waiting and negates my anxiety. Talk makes me feel like I’m not going to turn into a rhinoceros. Sometimes, when I talk myself out, I sleep well. Of course, what’s a new idea but a threat to an old one? When a nation wants socio-cultural hierarchies based on race, income, and gender more than it wants survival (always evidence-based), it might be time to wait in the woods.