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Overthinking the Play: Fake

by Polly Carl, Director of Artistic Development

I've always liked to think too much, or so I’ve been told. For the past eleven years, the subject I’ve spent the most time thinking about is new plays in the American theater. Along with the work itself—the pages, set designs, performances—thinking about the American theater means engaging with the world in a particular and compelling way. The theater opens me up to the world of ideas, politics, art—the three basic thought groups to my mind—the things that catapult me into over thinking. This season I will take a moment in the program to "over think" each of the plays. I look forward to your responses and ideas as we meet and engage with one another in this headspace. --Polly Fake "All nationalisms have a metaphysical dimension, for they are driven by an ambition to realize their intrinsic essence in some specific and tangible form…Although the problems created by such an ambition are sufficiently intractable in themselves, they are intensified to the point of absurdity when a nationalist self-conception imagines itself to be the ideal model to which all others should conform." --Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature, Seamus Deane In Fake, I'm struck by how a group of highly educated men could insist on the authenticity of the Piltdown Man for almost 40 years. I would argue that a whittled down cricket bat taken for a weapon or tool of this Piltdown Man—The First Englishman—is an absurdity that can only be accounted for within a transcendent form of nationalism—a deep desire to believe in the truth of a national character. Isn’t it a kind of hubris defined by boundaries that drives nations to invade other countries—to believe our values and our ways of life are superior? The English colonized Africa and Ireland, the Nazis rose to power and we invaded Iraq based on the truth of our own superiority. One of the real fakes in this play is the truth of a singular notion of nation. The core of Eric Simonson's play Fake is about belief, about our faith in objects to tell the story of our past and present. When we look past the frame for the play—past the objects themselves—I think we see the burgeoning role of nationalism in Europe at the turn of the 19th century. We see the desire of all European countries leading up to World War I to establish not only a delineated but also a superior national identity. When the play begins in East Sussex in 1914 on the cusp of the Great War, England and Germany are the two great military powers and the competition between the two nations makes the Piltdown Man discovery particularly important. The idea that the link to modern man is found on English soil is not only "a scientific shot in the arm" as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle says in the play's opening, but affirms in the minds of the English that the Englishman came first. This is an archeological find that suggests a genetic edge for the British over their European counterparts. It takes until 1953, after the devastation of World War II, for the great minds of the Museum of Natural History in England to be open to the possibility that they believed wrongly about these objects they had held sacred. This acknowledgement and embarrassment is made possible because the authenticity of national identity within Europe has been so thoroughly corrupted by Nazi Germany. Perhaps only Teilhard De Chardin anticipated the divisions inherent within nationalism, as his ambitions were less parochial. He made it his life-long mission to create the Omega Point—an unstoppable evolutionary biological and spiritual drive toward one man, one nation. As he says in the play, “to me there is no such thing as borders when it comes to putting together pieces of the past.” Chardin's words presage the value of the internet, Facebook—the way our identities merge together across borders, through technology. But do these new tools create a more complicated genealogy through a less fixed notion of identity or merely flatten our contemporary notion of self?