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I attended a funeral of a friend some weeks back. At the end of the occasion, they played "always look on the bright side of death ..." from Monty Python's "Life of Brian". And this reminded me of the absurdity of all our existence and the weight we place on our own experience and even our ethics. The comical antics of despots in culture and nations is imaged and reflected in the comical antics of despots in families, communities, institutions and businesses of all kinds. And I wonder if so much of the rampant neurosis we see in society today is more the product of our inability to reconcile our idealistic perception of what ought to be OR what we would like to be with what actually IS! What if it is this inability to make this reconciling attribute more potent than any chemical imbalances in the brain that makes for our culturally insane society?


Erich Fromm and The Sane Society and Aldous Huxley

It is practically a truism that George Orwell's "1984" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" are not futuristic works but are descriptions of much that is evident today. Orwell's world of fear as a control method and Huxley's "love your slavery" positions sum up so much of what is happening to this human frog in a socially and metaphorically tepid tank water that is continuously hotting up. Either situation is of course doomed to ultimate destruction; taking with it much of the human race! And so we "always look on the bright side of death" as the Monty Python group so ingeniously imaged in the late 1970s.


Theatre simply smiles and flicks the bird at the insanity of the brilliant personages in our society. The discourse of our intellectual gods entrenching the vaccine of indolence towards the deplorables who despise them is providing even wider schisms between the reality of what we see and know and the semantics of egoistic cleverness worthy of a Harvard Ph D! The clever ones who use language as a debasing weapon to construct totally absurd notions as absolute truths in order to placate very questionable agendas; these clever ones who have manufactured viruses to infect the most intelligent minds with perfect arguments to prove the great delusions as being necessary truths; such an intelligent and clever neurosis so obvious to the deplorable minds that cannot process the machinations of slight-of-hand academia will nevertheless create the dividing lines between Orwell's "1984" and Huxley's "Brave New World".


The Tik Tokers and Instagrammers gladly parade their never-ending despair in posts about their meaningless lives while the masters of the ruling elites cast despising glances and eye-rolling at the plain absurdity of whole generations contributing to their inevitable lemming-like plunge into nothingness! The insane society of Erich Fromm's "The Sane Society" (1955) was a companion piece to Huxley's fictional "Brave New World". Nearly seventy years later the largely hidden cultural neurosis of disorder is so evident with large scale drug companies the biggest beneficiaries of neurotic enslavement. And when it suits to label a certain disquiet or emotional response as a psychological disorder, the smart ones and the elite minds of academia are quick to find the correct label so easily contain the disturbance that can erupt if the elite were to see such response as more than some natural response to the absurdity of human condition!


Depending on where your ideological stance is placed will depend on what you consider this piece is actually talking about. While the metaphorical Nero is fiddling and the coliseum is packed for the circus, the real agendas are engaging allies and reinforcing the neurotic society in order to maintain and increase power. The political domain is of little consequence except in the construction of perpetual wars. Academia and academic institutions linked closely with the big corporations hold the real oligarchical power in the Western world. The Alliance with Jihadism while publicly opposing terrorism is the most obvious example of neurotic response! In bed with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan and elsewhere, while bleating about the condition of Gaza, the USA and the West, and the UK, proffer financial gain over any consideration of ethics or the human condition. At the same time, the Deplorables or the Proletarians don't understand the mind speak of the elites and just know that their lives are being ignored and demolished. They are made to feel like ghosts in their own countries. Have a look at enclaves like Luton in the UK! Then have a look at peoples' experience in Alice Springs as still alien cultural precepts smugly over-ride any sense of personal belonging by indigenous populations!


So as we create theatre, does any of this ring bells? I haven't seen or heard such bells. Where are the Deplorables in all this? Simply seen as fodder for Donald Trump? Or other hard rightists in Europe? Or simply as a joke in China or Japan? Yet, do people's real lives that are disrupted by the machinations of elitist groups simply not matter.


This is the central question for theatre in this era. Yet it is not addressed nor is it contemplated as a true subject for writers. Where is the Arthur Miller who wrote "The Crucible"? Or the Ibsen who wrote "Enemy of the People"?


Do contemporary writers and theatre practitioners accept their own betrayal of their art and practice by not addressing the most pressing issues of the age? Cultural neurosis and cultural hypocrisy! Is it cowardness or self-preservation? One has to wonder if that same neurosis of "politically correct" conclusions isn't providing the straitjacket of conformity to the elitist rules dictated by unseen and covert shaping of agendas by the Ministry of Truth (George Orwell "1984"). Yet we are all so happy in a neurotic kind of way by the ease of Consumerism (Huxley, "Brave New World") that our main focus is on our sexual attraction and narcissistic feelings fuelled by drugs from the international global conglomerates!


Joe Woodward










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Terror of one's own absurdity ...

The stage is empty. The field is cold. The city is a silent buzz of conflicting nothings and you are alone ... As the Ancient Mariner suggested: "alone, alone, all, all alone on a wide wide sea ..."


Metaphor within metaphor and the terror of being alone with one's own impulses that no one, literally no one else, is in anyway interested! The inertia ... ohhhhh ... the INERTIA of public acceptance and absolutism! The terror of attack from one's closest allies in art as the conflicting neurotics of public discourse converge in an avalanche of certainties like swarms of bees disturbed from their habitats of convenience and sanctimony! And then you write something down on a shit of toilet paper a final draft for performance ... you rehearse and you hope that someone will see, listen or observe! But what if NO ONE could give a shit and you are the lone worrier standing on a marshmallow sea of quicksand possibilities! What then? How do you feel about that isolation and confrontation with your own absurdity that just perhaps what you feel and think and create is of no significance or value to anyone else? And this is of particular relevance in theatre where the very concept is relational! It isn't a journal for personal reflection! It isn't a poetic output that in time others may find and read. It is a here-and-now creative form that requires a viewer and a performer at a given time in a given space.


The Rhino and the Seagull and Absurdism


Ionesco's Rhinoceros is alive and kicking. Many writers would generally prefer to be a Rhino than a wallowing and hopeless Konstantin Treplyov from Chekhov's "The Seagull". Pleasing and getting plaudits from official playwriting colleagues and organisations has a real appeal to anyone wanting to climb the ladder of acceptance in a field that has limited reach. One can predict the likely subjects awarded in any arena. Prizes given by the sanctioned few who appeased the dominant cultural /social milieux are predictable and the subjects of such awarded talent are obvious regardless of the actual work!


Art as affirmation of particular religions, world views, social movements or ideologies has a powerful tradition. You can probably see this on the walls of the Lascaux Caves let alone on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel! Ancient cave drawings and paintings going back up to more than 40,000 years suggest the importance given to creative presentation and representation through art. Only in more recent times has art been seen as a window to less obvious affirmations of the dominant values and consents of the supreme culturally framed artistic endeavour. It might even attack the very things you feel are most significant!


A curious feature of much ancient art is its placement in inaccessible locations; in some cases, almost no one other than the artist could see it! Art works in in the jungles of Borneo suggested that the inaccessibility of the works was a deliberate act. Just as the stream-of-consciousness writer might create for their own purposes, the ancient artist was creating for some higher purpose that we can only surmise!


Since World War Two, there has been an emergence of Absurdism. Most Absurdist writers concluded that no matter how sincere the intention or the effort, the likely result of any human activity is likely to be severely flawed; even eventuating in the opposite of its intent. The revolutionary person merely mirrors the tyranny of their opponent. The ideals of Modernist intent and post-modern semantics in power of any kind results in theatre and art that reflects the Rhino in all of us! The fragile and more vulnerability within artistic, philosophical and social reflection is too often stamped upon by the Rhinos of artistic and social agendas.


Salmon Rushdie and the Denial of the Obvious


In August 2022 Salmon Rushdie was attacked by a Muslim man with a knife; he lost an eye as a result and nearly died from at least ten stab wounds received while giving a lecture.


"Mr Rushdie was repeatedly stabbed in 2022 while preparing to deliver a lecture on free speech in New York. The vicious stabbing put the author in the hospital for six weeks and left him blind in one eye. The attack came after an assassination order was placed on Mr Rushdie — called a “fatwa” — in 1989 because of his novel, The Satanic Verses. His 1988 novel generated massive controversy and Iran’s former Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared it blasphemous because of its depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. While the fatwa was later lifted, Mr Rushdie went into hiding for a period before rejoining public life." (https://au.news.yahoo.com/salman-rushdie-first-tv-interview-005706351.html accessed 15 April 2024)


Did you hear about this? Was it headline news that a 75 year old man who had death threats made by the head of a Nation against him for writing a novel nearly forty years ago was now attacked and nearly killed?


How unpopular would it be to do a play about Salmon Rushdie! Think about this. And think about how unpopular it would be to do a play about the employees of Charlie Hebdo murdered by Islamic extremists in 2015 or the massacres in Baga in Nigeria at around the same time.


It would take a Steven Berkoff or someone with the same audacious attitude towards all his theatre colleagues, competitors and critics to take on such projects. Others would likely be ostracised or cancelled before beginning.


And think about why it would be so unpopular! I am not going to answer the question. Though I feel the answer is obvious. Such works would be against the current flow of narratives that select appropriate material. Arts practitioners know the signs and if they want to be successful and choices are made accordingly; just as Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni knew how to conform and affirm the masters of his art! There is nothing new. Yet there is a compulsion on some of us to create from the swamps and cracks in cultural perceptions. Condemned to arts cockroaches one can only appear and disappear as fast as possible.


Theatre in a Car and the Audience of Three


A 1995 Toyota Celica is possibly not the most obvious venue for a theatre show. But four 12 minute performances in each hour for four hours meant that up to 48 people might see a production in an evening. Small audiences, sixteen performances and the risk of no one showing up created its own anxiety. But between 2009 and 2014, Theatre in a Car was a regular performance at The National Multicultural Festival in Canberra. Initially the brainchild of Jorian Gardiner and with the final presentation assisted by Creative Producer, Amy Dunham, Shadow House PITS writer and director, Joe Woodward, wrote and directed theatre works designed for the small venue; later hiring larger vehicles and finally one with air conditioning. Apart from Woodward, actors in the productions included Lloyd Alison-Young, Hanna Cormick and Lucy Boon.


The point in discussing Theatre in a Car was simply to suggest that there is a possibility for small scale theatre that can even pay its way if there is creative producer-ship and innovative practice. Yes! Theatre in a Car was a gimmick. But it created curiosity and had audiences cueing up to get into the vehicle. There was an element of danger and sense of daring for both actors and audience. But it happened in the normally staid Canberra.


Without huge access to funding and to the affirmative aspects of theatre that indulges dominant frameworks of thinking, those dominant ideologies that attract the disciples of whatever mode is socially prioritised, theatre needs to find those cracks in the tables of cultural nourishment.


When I was child in the 1950s, a man would come to our house with his wife and baby child and would perform hillbilly songs with his guitar. My family provided a meal and a cosy atmosphere and a small fee. We all rugged up to listen to his stories and songs. There were six of us including my baby sister, the man and his wife and baby. It took place in Chester Road, Annerley in Brisbane.


So much theatre and theatre practice might do well to think of itself as cockroach theatre. And yes, it doesn't do much for the ego! However, it won't hurt to realise the honour in one's commitment wherever that might be. It also means that there is scope to step outside of the dominant rhino of cultural and artistic acceptance!



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Performing Arts on a Spaceship to Oblivion

"I cried when I realised there was no direction and no ending and no beginning ... I cried tears of joy and energies of anger! For we existed in a void so deprived of history and tradition! At once liberating while at the same time terrifying! The transparent painting of current identity on canvases of smoke only added to the ennui of nightmares and the falling sky that threatens to smother us into that straitjacket of infant perceptions and semantic chains of reductionism into total insignificance!" ("Festival in a Spaceship" by Joe Woodward, 2024)


Oh Dear ... and so the dance of oblivion is the hit of the Festival of Performance on a Spaceship to each of our destinies. At least, so the metaphor goes.


FESTIVALS IN VACUUMS OF NOTHING SPACE

Occasionally, I ponder the wonderment of being so attracted to the absurdist comedies of Ionesco, Beckett, Pinter, Albee and others! Being called Satan by some colleagues because of my gravitation to the absurd and the comic riddles of absurdist dramas has left me wondering if I am the true neurosis or simply the observer of the cultural rhinoceros! In a post modern world, even murder and massacres can be turned into the actions of saints, martyrs and freedom! The opposite of one's values can be embraced as the holiest of one's considerations! The semantics of bullshit can be elevated to the inspiration for cultural action for justice and freedom! And the anti-offence league polices the offing of all aspirants to creative and artistic insight! The vacuum has its own hysterical voice of sanctimony that screams in the ears of all who might protest the given certainties that can't be challenged. And so the spaceship drifts through twilight zones of antithetical asteroids of limited thinking and irrational emotions all garnered to the agendas of universe eating monsters from the local sham factory.


And speaking of riddles ...

So as an artist, educator, existent individual in the world ... can we seriously nail our dogma or our hands for that matter to the cross of any particular belief? I wrote an essay "To Believe Is To Kill" in 2008 and updated in 2022. In that essay, I commented:


BELIEF is bigger than perpetration. Belief is the following of unproven notions that inspire action. How often over the centuries have we heard the phrase: "willing to die for one’s beliefs"?


But would it not be a more truthful phrase and one more in tune with the whims of history to say:

"willing to kill for one’s beliefs"?


Is this not the true nature of the crusade or the jihad or the "just war" or the right to defend oneself or enacting the judgement of god … Is not the very notion of belief itself the energizer that sets in motion the blades of the reaper? The hangman’s rope? The flames of the inquisitor? The bullets of the soldier? The diseases of the conqueror? The destination of the bombs? The words of fear? The gods of Babel? And isn’t it a paradox that the words of faith and the belief in the rightness of causes can, perhaps unwittingly, bring down the angel of death on unsuspecting recipients of the good news? Cultural decimation at the hands of the righteous beliefs of the inspired carriers of god’s word and god’s work has been the pattern of experience hand in glove with imperialism and imperialistic action from the religious and the secular adherents of rock solid and certain beliefs.


The despicable actions of Hamas on October 7, 2023 in the glorifying of death and then followed by the genocidal actions of the Jewish state government in its attempt at the total destruction of a whole group of people and their existence in Gaza illustrate the madness and the existential power of belief to mobilise whole groups of people in consistent action to cause the self-destruct strategies that ensure annihilation of both self and the other!


Both cases illustrate more than the actions of any individual evil perpetrators: both illustrate the collective consciousness of hundreds of thousands of people. From whatever side you stand upon, once you side with the killing of one family or other, you are a perpetrator of death! Your faith releases your conscience to not only feel empathy but to actively engage in the dismembering of children's bodies and the bleeding of whole human entities of their spiritual and physical selves ... To believe is too kill!


ABSURDIST DISGUST WITH THE WORLD

If we think Absurdist drama is simply a nihilist cultural reaction to the horrors of war and brutal cultural edifices, then think again! Absurdist drama brings out in stark contrasts the relationship between the individual conscience and the societal acceptance of barbarism and stupidity. "The Bald Prima Donna" might seem an offence-less comedy of total ridicule of English mores. On a closer examination it is a damming indictment of insular narcissism and the withdrawal of humanity from the humane! In today's post-modern political and social dilemmas and the fabrication of truths, we see the absurdist dimensions of such logic. It is indeed frightening in its scope.


But yes ... Ionesco is comedy! And so it should be ...


A SPACESHIP TO OBLIVION

And now I am working with students to create a Festival of Performance ... a near impossible project to promote! Eight productions plus a short film evening is simply absurd! Comedy at best! It is like being on a spaceship where the participant astronauts are asked to present a play or performance to keep morale high ... yet each participant is aware of their own absurdity and limitation as a performer! Students of Drama are often made aware of their own absurdity in trying to shape performances because of their interest in theatre and performing! They are told of the waste of time they spend on such frivolous endeavours when they could be devoting their skills to serious subjects that have real value in a post-modern world where spirituality and art are dirty concepts!


However, this said, students are struggling with the works of key practitioners, writers and advocates of the 20th and 21st centuries. Will they be successful WHEN only 2 audience members clap at the end of the performance? Will Mum and Dad admonish their naivete in taking up such an anti-establishment view of theatre and art? Are we and our students on a spaceship to oblivion?


Albee, Chekhov, Ionesco? Even shades of Pinter ... The right to create our own expressions of what is happening in the given universe? Are such workings in such a suffocating vacuum that the spaceship is doomed to crash on some lonely planet of extinction?


Joe Woodward























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