What’s the connection between a suburban schoolyard brawl in which an eleven year old boy gets two teeth knocked out and the Darfur genocide? That’s the question raised by the play, God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza. In its current excellent staging at AstonRep in Chicago, the intimate theater with a thirty seat capacity brings the audience right into the living room of the play where two polite, middle-class couples descend into violence, a physical proximity that forces us to see that the question is about us, too.
I had the pleasure of moderating a post-show discussion at the theater after the Saturday evening performance. During the conversation, the actress Kelly Lynn Hogan (Veronica) explained the difficulty she had in describing to her family and friends which female role was hers. The play has a simple plot: two eleven year old boys are involved in a school yard altercation in which one boy strikes another with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. The play opens in the living room of the parents of the injured boy as the two couples meet to discuss what to do. So which of the two moms was Kelly Lynn playing? “All of the characters mirror each other so much,” she said, that she could not resort to easy brush strokes – she couldn’t say she was the female lead as this is an ensemble piece in the extreme. She’s not the good mother or the bad mother, since the question is moot. (The director, Doug Long, explained that for him it was important to recognize that these are four good people just like us.) Nor could she simply say that she plays the mom of the victim because which boy was to blame for the violence is a fraught question that ultimately is not answered. She tried, “I’m the artist,” but that was met with blank stares so finally she just said, “I’m the one who doesn’t vomit!”
Indeed, anyone who is familiar with the show knows that the other mom, played by Amy Kasper (Annette), is so distraught that she vomits onstage, a moment of hilarity, embarrassment, and disgust that elicits groans, moans and nervous laughter from the audience. This play has been called a comedy of manners without the manners, an apt description as the four refined, well-educated parents descend into tantrums, name-calling, finger-pointing, the destruction of physical property and at one point, a wife pummeling her husband in uncontrolled rage. The question of violence permeates the play and the play itself can feel like a kind of assault to the audience – just witnessing the outbursts is traumatizing, a reality made undeniable by AstonRep’s intimate theater. The audience is so close to the actors as to feel as if they are silent, horrified witnesses in the living room, too, helpless to stop the carnage. The point that the hurling of insults needs to be counted as acts of violence, is made by Annette explicitly when she says, “An insult is also a kind of assault.”
At various points, the playwright continues to expand the definition of violence and to challenge our sense of ourselves as remote and peaceful noncombatants, by inviting us to make a connection between what happened in the schoolyard, what unfolds in that living room and the killing fields of Darfur. We are told that both Veronica and Alan (played by Robert Tobin) are well informed, albeit for different reasons, about the Darfur genocide and Alan tells us he is heading off to The Hague the next day because he has a case at the International Criminal Court. The ICC, as we all know, hears only the most serious crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. I believe the connection that Yasmina Reza is pointing to is that all violence, whether trivial or horrific, is made possible by the same mechanism: Whether in the schoolyard, in comfortable living rooms or in killing fields violence is committed by people who think of themselves as good people. When violence happens, many of us go in search of the bad guys but the problem is that it’s almost impossible to find someone who self-identifies as a bad guy. The people we think are bad guys, think of themselves as good in spite of the violence they commit. And when good people commit violence, our faith in our own goodness is rarely shaken.
Let me offer only two examples from the real world: one is taken from testimony at the ICC of a wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Momcilo Krajisnik, whose job was to oversee the “ethnic separation campaign” in 37 Bosnian townships. He was found guilty of “deportations, forced transfers and persecutions as well as murder and extermination of Croats and Bosnian Muslims.” Yet in his defense Mr. Krajisnik claimed that he was unaware of any crimes he might have committed and that he considered himself to be a peacemaker. Even more chilling, if that’s possible, is the statement made in Norwegian court by Anders Breivik, the murderer of 77 young people in Norway’s worst peacetime atrocity. He said, “I did this out of goodness. I acted in self-defense on behalf of my people, my city, my country.”
We can see clearly that Krajisnik and Breivik were not peaceful or good and are victims of profound self-deception. But their claim of goodness, of being peacemakers and acting out of patriotism sounds remarkably like our own claims, made when we talk about our own violence. For example, as a nation our invasions and wars, secret prisons and use of torture, drone attacks and bombing raids are all committed in the name of American values, a claim of ultimate goodness that transforms acts that we would condemn when others commit them into noble undertakings. So here’s the question raised by God of Carnage: are these self-justifying statements about violence lies only when other people make them and the truth when we make them? Or are they always lies? That’s a question that we must allow to haunt us if we want to live up to our claim of being truly good as individuals and as a nation. We must face the truth that perhaps our goodness is more of a self-deception than a reality. Perhaps it is a convenient way for us to justify our own violence while condemning the violence of others and to never face the truth that all violence is committed by good people doing very bad things. When violence is involved, we lose our individual identities and the line between good and bad becomes so blurred that we become mirror images of each other, the very dynamic that the play dramatizes so well and Kelly Lynn described to us.
The play confronts us with this choice between the lies and truth in the final few minutes when Veronica receives a call from her daughter about the most trivial act of violence in the entire play – the abandonment of their daughter’s pet hamster, Nibbles, onto the street by the father, Michael, played by Ray Kasper. The hamster was terrified and is most likely dead, but Michael is unrepentant and so Veronica comforts her daughter with lies – that Nibbles is resourceful and happy now, that her father is sad and sorry about upsetting her. When she hangs up, Michael hides from the pain that facing the truth would surely cause by saying that the hamster is probably stuffing its face, but Veronica won’t have it now. She utters a quiet but plaintive, “No” and we are left to wonder how far that “no” will take her. Perhaps she’s done lying about violence and the suffering if its victims – we can only hope, but the last line of the play is Michael’s. “What do we know?” he asks. It’s a question for us to take home with us. What do we know about what being good truly means? What do we know about how violence happens and our complicity in it? I’d say we know all we need to know, but it’s kind of like that old joke about how many psychiatrists does it take the change a light bulb. The answer: only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change. What do we know? After seeing this play, we know everything. The choice is ours.
P.S. My heartfelt thanks to AstonRep for bringing the profound, provocative and darkly funny God of Carnage to life for us. Their production is a great example of the transformative power of theater. I am looking forward to their next offering, the Chicago premiere of Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts coming in spring 2013.