Feb 27, 2009

Prophetic Brit(s)

A colleague just pointed out this Newsweek piece by Jeremy McCarter, which I missed at the end of last year. He makes the case for Caryl Churchill's Far Away, written in early 2001 and seen in New York in 2002 (and in a stark, effective production I saw in L.A. in 2004), as the defining work of the Bush years:
The story, like the decade, begins on a deceptively placid note. A girl named Joan tells her aunt that she can't sleep. Joan has heard shrieks, ventured outside and found people tied up in a shed. Aunt Harper assures her that her uncle is only trying to help the detainees, but the lie doesn't work. "He was hitting a man with a stick. I think the stick was metal," says Joan. "He hit one of the children." Before the brutality has been explained, Churchill skips ahead a few years. Now a young woman, Joan works in a shop designing hats so huge and ornate they'd make a pimp self-conscious. They are worn, we soon learn, by scraggly prisoners who are paraded before fashion judges on their way to execution. In the final scene, Churchill ventures even further into deadpan science fiction, as Joan and Harper discuss the shifting allegiances in a weird war that rages all around them. "The cats have come in on the side of the French," Harper reports. "The Bolivians are working with gravity," says Joan.

As McCarter notes, more than any specific parallels, it's the play's po-faced surreality that makes it feel eerily prophetic, and McCarter's comment about the Bush years, "Almost by the month, things that once seemed barely imaginable became all too real," immediately put me in mind of arguably the era's defining pop album (released on the eve of Bush's election), also courtesy of an unsentimental Brit: PJ Harvey's New York-inspired Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, with its indelible line, a mix of horror and wonder, "Things I once thought/Unbelievable/In my life/Have all taken place."

Come to think of it, that line still reverberates post-Bush, for good and ill. And I have the sinking suspicion that Far Away, alas, will always seem close to home.

1 comment:

Malachy Walsh said...

I always felt the play was a lot bigger than Bush (or Thatcher where I feel the play is really rooted).

Ie, it always seemed to me to make few predictions beyond the ones you might usually expect from critique of globalism.

What I found brilliant in it was the way showed how truth us altered in small steps (as happens in the opening scene) with modest justifications until we wind up in a hat factory with slaves manufacturing opulent head dresses for a class of people those lies keep in power.