News & Articles
2010-2011, Volume 5
Unfreezing the Play
by Polly Carl
Theater is a series of ongoing interpretations. The artists come together in a collaborative process seeking a multitude of possibilities for the presentation of a play. But at some point, in order to bring in the audience, the play freezes and everything is “finalized.” But the possible meanings of the play are open to interpretation long after the curtain call. I hope to provide some heat to your post-show conversations—to thaw what we’ve temporarily frozen and invite you to collaborate in making meaning and theater with us.
“Because it’s the same problem everywhere. It’s like the internet, or cable TV—there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off.”
--Walter Bergland from Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom
In Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers, Ethan Strange mines the tensions of an American understanding of freedom as he publishes his sexual exploits on a blog. He turns an intimate act and private behavior into a public spectacle without apology. Ethan firmly believes the public sphere is a democratizing force that takes judgments about art and life out of the hands of the few. When Ethan tries to convince Olivia to exploit the blogosphere for her own gain she’s less quick to see his point of view “But isn’t the world already choking on all the shallow, trivial observations of millions of self-important morons?” Olivia wonders if the proliferation of online writing dilutes our ability to discriminate between the good the bad and the mediocre—is online self-publishing freedom realized or freedom gone awry?
John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government articulates the founding principles of what would shape our American democracy: “To understand political power right… we must consider, what state all men are naturally in… a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit.” For Locke, this state of freedom has only one law to govern it—our exercise of freedom can’t be harmful to anyone else. But inevitably, our private freedoms go public and can wreak havoc on the lives of others.
Jonathan Franzen takes a layered look at the many ways in which as a nation we have not properly examined the impact of Locke’s presuppositions. In his new novel, Freedom, Franzen challenges us to consider freedom as a problem rather than a right—a problem exacerbated by a modern world where our personal, public and political lives are in a constant state of intersection. Towards the end of Freedom, the novel’s protagonist Walter Bergland engages a battle of wills with his neighbors over free roaming house cats. Walter’s concern is for the birds, the victims of the free will of predatory cats. When confronting his neighbor Linda about keeping her cat inside, she replies, “To be honest with you, all I care about is letting my children learn to take care of a pet and have responsibility for it. Are you trying to tell me they can’t do that?” This unresolved exchange becomes another defeat in Walter’s ongoing battle to reign in a rogue definition of freedom where there is “no communal agreement” about what is good or right but just a host of individual wills at odds with one another. Like Ethan’s cajoling of Olivia “look, you don’t have to wait for anybody’s permission anymore. You can just put it out there and see what happens,” because there’s no need for “communal agreement” about what constitutes good art when anyone can self-publish anything and freely call it art. How has an unchecked definition of freedom interfered with our passions, be they birds or books?
Both Sex with Strangers and Freedom ask us to ponder the need for a new treatise on the value of freedom in 21st century America as pertains to both life and art. But will such pondering lead us to Franzen’s/Bergland’s conclusion that “all the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off” or to something more hopeful as I think Eason is suggesting at the conclusion of Sex With Strangers?