• JOE WOODWARD

To Believe is to Kill

Theatre's role in culture is not to affirm but rather to see through the cracks; it isn't here to play the tune of its cultural masters ...

Launching a book by former ALP speech writer Graham Freudenberg on 30 October 2008, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating forcefully lashed out at key elements of the Gallipoli myth leading to the rise of ANZAC DAY. He was quoted in the Australian as saying:


  • “The truth is that Gallipoli was shocking for us. Dragged into service by the imperial government in an ill-conceived and poorly executed campaign, we were cut to ribbons and dispatched — and none of it in the defence of Australia.

  • “Without seeking to simplify the then bonds of empire and the implicit sense of obligation, or to diminish the bravery of our own men, we still go on as though the nation was born again or even was redeemed there. (It is) an utter and complete nonsense. For these reasons, I have never been to Gallipoli and I never will.”


In response, the Prime Minister Mr. Kevin Rudd was reported as saying:

  • “That’s part of our national consciousness, it’s part of our national psyche, it’s part of our national identity, and I, for one, as Prime Minister of the country, am absolutely proud of it … I think Paul is completely wrong on that.”

(reported in The Australian Nov. 1 2008)



Belief transformed into action can be lethal. Regardless of what this belief might be, it is potentially the most potent weapon available to human kind. If you are part of an agenda promoting particular beliefs, your strategies are enhanced. The possibilities for political actions and social reforms are intense. So theatre needs to take very seriously the potential beliefs that it enhances, propagates and endorses.


This applies to writers, directors, actors and above all to producers and venue operators!


So let us consider the role of theatre in the affirmation or challenging of beliefs within cultural, social and historical situations.


Power and the manipulation of belief

We hear that “in hindsight” we might have acted differently. Or that it was a different world then and people saw things differently. But when considering the situation indicated above re Australia's involvement in World War 1, the truth is, our involvement was no war of independence; nor was it a war to liberate anyone; nor was it a struggle for some higher ideal; nor was it to repel an invasion; nor was it even to protect the mother country from invasion.

Rather our involvement was based more on the need to impress greater powers; to overcome an inferiority complex of small men with highly inflated egos and their sense of their place in history; to build their political fortunes by tapping a public’s sense of isolation and sentimental attachment to its past. And does this sound familiar? I’m sure historians can probably locate the “weapons of mass destruction” theme equivalent in the manipulation of public belief in 1915.

It is very significant that a high profile person from the mainstream of Australian public life has come out with such a strong statement that attacks the myths of Gallipoli. Most public figures tend to fall into line almost completely unaware of their own underlying assumptions they have as part of their belief system. Few people, even in public life, can articulate the story of our involvement. It gets lost in myth and sentiment. It’s easier to simply form a belief about something than to seriously challenge and think about it.


Belief as sentiment or as epic statement


Patricia Lovell's and Robert Stigwood's highly significant 1981 film "Gallipoli" written by David Williamson and directed by Peter Weir highlights the devastating effect of equating war with sport; and the beliefs held by the individuals over whom such beliefs held sway. For dramatic effect, it followed the characters through their innocent acceptance of such beliefs to their tragic end.


The psychological power of identification produced in its audience a sense of horror and outrage while engendering pity and sorrow at the death of characters for whom great empathy had been achieved.


However, at no point was the myth of ANZAC really examined. The tragedy was largely at the behest of incompetent and dogmatically stoic British officers. They were the real villains. Greater military competency might have given a different outcome. The ANZAC attack on the Ottoman Empire might have been more successful. Our characters might have had a better chance of staying alive. The film would not have been as powerful and it would have needed a different hook.


But what if the film had given some attention to the cultural, social and political forces that created the environment and the circumstances in the first place? The deliberate inculcating of beliefs and attitudes that made possible the deliberate and callous cynicism of those who whipped up public support for objectives that had little to do with a Nation's survival or collective responsibility.


"Gallipoli" was made by Robert Stigwood and Rupert Murdoch; the same Rupert Murdoch who is Donald Trump's mouthpiece and the supporter of all things ultra-conservative and against Environmental advocacy. An article in Murdoch's "The Australian" (19 April 2014) by Peter Cochrane pointed out how ANZAC Day was dying out in the 1970s. It was losing significance. Among other war films and stories, the film "Gallipoli" helped a population reignite its passion for the event.


Cochrane uses Christina Twomey's writing in "History Journal" as an explanation for the resurgence in popularity. He suggests:


  • "Twomey argues that the resurgence of the Anzac tradition, and with it the intense interest in Australia’s war heritage, comes from a contemporary fascination with the traumatic impact of war experience.

  • "She notes how we can see this in the way we talk about our war heritage: the replacement of words about heroism and valour and manhood with talk of suffering, trauma and the horrors of war.

  • "She calls this change “the rise to cultural prominence of the traumatised individual”, a rise that is not peculiar to Australia or even to the military sphere but is evident throughout the Western world." (Cochrane, Peter, THE AUSTRALIAN, 19 April 2014)

The film "Gallipoli" then becomes unwittingly part of a propaganda initiative to disguise the culpability of state sanctioned murder through the voluntary participation of the population acting like lemmings jumping from the trenches into the bullets of certain death. The growing acceptance of and empathy for the very real suffering of the soldiers who experienced horrific circumstances becomes a very convenient and deceptive distraction from the epic nature of the callous strategies used by powerful people to entrench their own power and control.


By confirming the sense of inevitability of war (one country's treaty with another etc) while emphasizing the suffering and traumatic effects of war, a false set of beliefs is being affirmed through the cinema. Everyone is appalled by the horror. The depicted events bring tears to the eyes of the audience. So yes, we get it that war is bad. Without challenging the basis for the very framework of this particular war, we are left with our beliefs in tact so accepting of future wars based on the same levels of public manipulation.


Beliefs can kill. The act of believing something so fervently can lead to the ordering of young men to advance from the trenches to certain death with no discernible strategic advantage.


And at the same time more justification for killing

Another news report a little over a week following 30 October 2008 when Paul Keating launched Graham Freudenberg's book, focused on the Bali bombers. The ABC reported that three Bali bombers were executed for their part in the 2002 bombings in which 202 people were murdered.


Their lawyers issued a statement saying their blood "would become the light for the faithful ones and burning hellfire for the infidels and hypocrites." (ABC News 9 Nov 2008)


The sadness of their families and their need to find solace have led to the following reported statements:

“The family don’t feel burdened by the execution, in fact we’re happy because it means God and the prophet have given good news,” Mr Chozin (an older brother) said. (ABC 1 Nov 2008)


It is significant that Mr Chozin runs an Islamic school.

“If they die because they are standing up for the religion they will be placed in paradise,” he said.

Likewise, the mother of the brothers involved in the bombing said: “I feel that killing infidels isn’t a mistake because they don’t pray.” (quoted in The Brisbane Times 2 Nov 2008)


Beliefs are not isolated individual phenomena. They are constructed around interconnecting social, cultural, personality and historical elements. And they can be manipulated. The articulated beliefs of these family members are very similar to those articulated by the Christian Church in medieval times.


The following observations are relevant: “To most medieval theologians, no illegitimate violence was being done to Jews, infidels, and heretics put to the sword at the behest of the Church: these people had no rights to be violated. Although theology recognized that all men were made in the image of God and even that Christ had died for all men, the infidels by virtue of their deliberate choice of error had cut themselves off from humanity. " St. Augustine believed that the individual had no right to dissent. He and those who followed him insisted that "error had no rights and that ignorance of the law of God was no excuse.”  (Jeffrey Burton Russell: "Witchcraft In The Middle Ages," NY 1972, p.148)

“The Church’s most common justification for it’s use of force, one congenial to the medieval spirit, was the argument that it was legitimate to force to salvation on those who would otherwise reject it. The passage of Luke 14.17-24, ‘Compel them to come in,’ was frequently cited as authority for the idea that torture or threat of death might bring about a salutary repentance. If all else failed and the accused

had to be executed, the hope remained that in his last moments he might repent

and reconcile himself to god. (Jeffrey Burton Russell: "Witchcraft In The Middle Ages", NY 1972Russell: 149)

This Christian theological thought from times past places the actions of Islamic militants in recent times into an age old context.

“A 13-year-old girl who said she had been raped was stoned to death in Somalia

after being accused of adultery by Islamic militants, a human rights group says.

Dozens of men stoned Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow to death on October 27 (2008) in a

stadium packed with 1,000 spectators in the southern port city of Kismayo,

Amnesty International and Somali media reported, citing witnesses. The Islamic

militia in charge of Kismayo had accused her of adultery after she reported that

three men had raped her, the rights group said.” (AAP report)

What could possibly inspire 1,000 spectators to watch the slow and torturous murder of a little girl by supposedly pious men acting out the instructions of the “direct law of god”? Some overarching will compelling like a psychic magnet? Some kind of automatic response to impulses and urges they cannot understand yet enact?

Think about it … dwell on the thought. The possibilities are horrible. And what of the crowds watching the executions, the burnings, the slow torturing of witches and heretics condemned by the Inquisition? How often do we focus on the perpetrators? But what of the spectators?

Then think about young men on the beaches of Gallipoli charging as lambs to the slaughter. Those who survived have had to think about what they saw and experienced all their lives while the men who put them there were onlookers over the history they felt obliged to shape.

to believe is to kill 

A given set of beliefs might lead to incredible acts of kindness and personal sacrifice. The Islamic and Christian traditions of justice and looking out for one and other is drawn from the same set of beliefs that gave rise to suicide bombings and the inquisitions. The belief in the ideals of mateship and sacrifice identified in the ANZAC experience has become embedded in myths that inspire a nation. However, the same belief has been used to mask the reality of state sponsored commitment to a murderous participation in humanly constructed orgies of destruction and death.

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.


Theatre and belief


Theatre generally works best when there are strong elements of audience identification with the main protagonist. The same can be said of film and novels. The film "Gallipoli" certainly had this quality. The representation of physical and psychological truth in character portrayals can be a very powerful tool for communicating ideas, morals and perspectives. It can also have severe limitations!


Individual character behaviour is entangled within a complex paradigm of cultural, family, historical and social interactions. It is virtually impossible to untangle one's actions from the beliefs formed from within this web without some physical or/and emotional trauma that cuts through this metaphorical straitjacket. For theatre to represent characters as if they were somehow separate from this paradigm would be to enable a lie; at best a partial truth; at worst a propaganda.


In a time where competing beliefs are converging into a violent explosive situation, theatre needs to be careful that it doesn't become a propaganda agent or a purely sentimental exposition seeking sympathy for particular psychological events. It is tempting to propagate one's own narcissistic disposition into the creation and presentation of theatre. It is only human. But I suggest the task of theatre today and probably in any era is to open windows and doors that go beyond the orthodoxy of individual, group or cultural dispositions. This is very difficult in an era of identity certitudes.


I suggest Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud, two very different practitioners, hold keys to the questions of belief and art; more specifically for theatre!


Brecht in his later works stepped outside his advocacy for a Communist system in order to go deeper into the issues that lay the ground work for political action. Possibly his greatest play, "Mother Courage and Her Children" presents an unlikable character who profits off the war (the Thirty Years War). It is never sentimental. The character's need for survival leads to the death of her three children. But the audience is left with the question: "What choices did she have?" It was not a "prosperous universe" and the "laws of attraction" somehow didn't seem to apply to her. How do I relate to the world inhabited by Mother Courage? This is such a different question to that left by the film "Gallipoli".


Artaud was not an effective director, playwright or producer. In these areas he was an abject failure. Most of his writing was not directly related to theatre at all, in spite of his "The Theatre and its Double". However, Artaud opened up the liminal space; the relational effect of psychological and social gravity that binds art, the personal, the historical and the dream. The spectator is like the prisoner in Plato's shadow metaphor. People's beliefs are formed by the same misinformation that led Plato's prisoners to misinterpret what the shadows on the wall actually were. Artaud's theatre ideal would shatter the audience's comfort in their knowledge of the shadows. His shock theatre could be used to jolt the smug certainty of belief into disarray. His total theatre and dreamesque reality confronts the audience's desire to kill for their beliefs by subverting and undermining the social maturity derived from cultural transmissions.


While engaging theatrical elements in the cause of some ideal or social or political strategy is a useful weapon in the hands of the proponents of a particular cause, such use is NOT theatre.


I suggest that theatre used to overtly support and propagate a particular cause, regardless of its worthiness, is NOT what theatre is about. Theatre's role in culture is not to affirm but rather to see through the cracks in certainty and orthodoxy; it isn't here to play the tune of its cultural masters ...


Theatre should not be used as an enabler of belief as a killing tool ...

No wonder the madman in some hidden prison cell cringes and tries to hide whenever he hears someone say: “I believe …”

Joe W  (Nov 2008 revised 16 June 2020)

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