Theatre as therapy

Young New Yorkers are taking their post-11 September angst to the Edinburgh stage.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘The explosions that downed the Twin Towers have also blasted the Edinburgh Fringe’s obsession with the private sphere’, said journalist Johann Hari on 12 August 2002.

Writing in the New Statesman, Hari contrasted yesteryear’s self-obsessed Fringe, which gave ‘no thought at all for [its] social and political context’, to today’s 11 September-saturated Fringe, which ‘reconnects theatre to the world outside the living room’. ‘Politics is back’, he declared excitedly (1).

It is true that, in the words of The Scotsman theatre critic Joyce McMillan, ‘11 September has left a giant footprint on this year’s Fringe’ (2). Young New Yorkers bare their post-9/11 souls on stage; cross-dressing comedians sing weepy ballads with tongue-in-cheek titles like ‘Penta-gone’; Hollywood heavyweights Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon pay tribute to New York firefighters in a play called The Guys; and the darling of British theatre Steven Berkoff recites a one-man memorial poem about ‘that terrible day’.

But far from ‘re-engaging the Fringe with big issues and big politics’, as one melodramatic critic put it, the focus on 11 September seems to have made the Fringe more introspective than ever. The 11 September plays are as self-indulgent and obsessed with the private sphere as anything from previous Fringes.

One of the most celebrated plays this year is Project 9/11, where seven New York drama students act out their instinctive, emotional and visceral responses to the collapse of the World Trade Centre.

Each student presents a monologue of his or her experiences from That Day. There’s the goth girl who traipses the streets singing REM’s ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it’; the hyperactive girl who decides to take up smoking even as the ‘world’s two biggest matches continue to burn’; the student in such a hurry to be evacuated that he forgets to put his socks on (‘This is gonna be a shitty day’, says one of the actors, prophetically).

According to director Elizabeth Hess, from the Playwrights’ Horizons Theatre School in New York, the aim of Project 9/11 is not to provide any particular insights into the events of 11 September or to tell a ‘dogmatically rigid’ story, but to allow the student actors to ‘articulate their own undigested feelings’.

‘I envisioned the piece as taking place in three distinct scenes’, says Hess. ‘The first scene is composed of the monologues….The second scene begins with a crystallisation of each actor’s emotional statement. This then begins to break apart as they enter into the fragmented world of their deepest, most instinctual responses that eventually overwhelm them as they collapse into a heap of broken humanity. The third scene begins with the gradual stirring to life as the actors rise out of the debris.’

Sounds heavy – and it is. The end result is not a theatrical or artistic response to 11 September, but an emotional one. According to Hess, the less the actors thought about and consciously constructed their monologues, the better – as the real aim was to ‘foster a healing environment in the very process of creating the piece’. This ‘healing environment’ was in evidence when I went to see Project 9/11. After the show some of the actors broke down and hugged one another, while audience members cried openly.

This is more like theatre as therapy than the critics’ long hoped-for return to political theatre. As the Guardian’s Mark Lawson observed: ‘[T]he mood of these theatre-goers most resembles a church congregation: solemn, dutiful, hoping that what they feel is awe rather than boredom.’ (3) Towards the end, Project 9/11 descends into a sort of primal mime, as the actors collapse and writhe about on stage, before rising again and lighting candles for the dead. The actors act out their own angst in an attempt to cleanse themselves. ‘And why not?’, said one of the actors to me after the show. ‘Theatre is therapy.’

Project 9/11 is not about the events of 11 September – and as an audience member rightly said: ‘How boring would that be?’ Rather, it is about young New Yorkers’ reactions to 11 September. In this sense, the play does unwittingly offer some genuine insights into our post-11 September world.

The phenomenon of 11 September was more defined by the reaction to it, than by the collapse of the World Trade Centre and the destruction at the Pentagon. From day one, the media seemed more concerned with giving us experiences and responses to 11 September, rather than analyses or insights – and these experiences and responses became what 11 September was all about.

The response articulated in Project 9/11, however unintentionally, is the exacerbation of young Americans’ quarterlife crises – the way in which the devastation of 11 September heightened young Americans’ sense of confusion, angst and fear of the big bad world around them.

In one of the more captivating monologues, a female student wonders if there is something cool about living through this period – whether these events taking place around her will be her generation’s ‘moment’, the historical event that will define their life and times. This feeds into a concern raised by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, authors of the book Quarterlife Crisis, months before 11 September.

Robbins and Wilner observed that American twentysomethings lack a ‘strong, collectively shared historical moment that helped to define them and continues to shape their identity’ (4) – and many wondered in the weeks and months after 11 September whether the destruction of the World Trade Centre would shake young Americans out of their complacency and give them their defining ‘socio-historic moment’.

But if Project 9/11 is anything to go by, 11 September seems only to have compounded young people’s sense of being, in the words of one of the actors, ‘messy, confused, alone’. As one of the student actors said to me after the show: ‘This is us, laid bare.’ On stage, as each actor delivers his or her monologue, the other actors fade into the background or become little more than props – capturing the heightened sense of individuation that followed 11 September, rather than any kind of coming together around a shared historical moment.

When the actors do come together on stage, it is only as victims. Towards the end of the play, one of the actors says, ‘I feel safe and part of something’. What is that something? ‘A mass of shock’, says another. Watching a group of well-to-do young New York actors playing the parts of lost and beleaguered individuals, you soon realise that Project 9/11 provides a real insight into the contemporary American, and indeed British and Western, mind.

Another play that has been praised for its ‘emotional bravery’ is Jumpers, also produced and acted by young New Yorkers. Jumpers is a more traditional piece of theatre than Project 9/11, complete with a plot and characters. It tells the story of five twentysomething New Yorkers struggling to cope with their memories of 11 September 18 months after the event, as the US military is active in over 20 countries and the American president is threatening to ‘bring back the draft’.

In the words of Johann Hari, Jumpers does indeed take us ‘outside of the living room’ – but straight into the bedroom. The central character Joe has had a post-11 September nervous breakdown and continues to have nightmares about seeing people jump from the World Trade Centre (hence the title).

The play opens in Joe’s bedroom. The first line he speaks is: ‘It all started with my nightmares.’ Got that? It doesn’t start with the World Trade Centre collapsing or the attacks on the Pentagon or the sight of dead bodies on the streets of New York – but with a young New Yorker’s nightmares about those events. Add to that the fact that every scene is interspersed with snippets from Radiohead songs, and you have a truly morbid and introspective piece of theatre.

In contrast to Joe’s pathetic character who can’t cope, there’s a redneck soldier on leave who thinks we should do ‘everything we can’ to catch the terrorists, and a hardnosed bitch of TV reporter who is too busy climbing the career ladder to have an emotional response to the events around her. But by the end of play, both of these characters collapse too, and admit that the post-11 September world is too much for them.

The TV reporter says that she ‘hurts too’ and often weeps at the senseless violence she witnesses while in war zones – while the redneck soldier eventually convinces Joe to join the army, not as a macho, militaristic exercise, but as a form of therapy, to help him come to terms with his anger and fear. The redneck says the army is the perfect place for Joe, describing it as a ‘community of people who cannot sleep at night’.

Both Project 9/11 and Jumpers depict young Americans at a loss in the wake of 11 September – characters who are only able to come together in a ‘mass of shock’ or as part of a ‘community that cannot sleep at night’. By responding emotionally to the events of 11 September, both plays actually capture something of the ‘lonely crowd’ phenomenon that followed the collapse of the World Trade Centre – where people came together, but were ultimately alone, confused and uncertain.

A common theme of Project 9/11, Jumpers and many of the other 11 September plays at the Edinburgh Fringe is the idea that 11 September shook young Americans out of their complacent ways and catapulted them into the real world – the world of emotions, politics, violence, international affairs, foreign wars, ‘the draft’. ‘One of the first things I told my kids when it happened was: “You have now joined the rest of the world”’, said Susan Sarandon as she arrived in Edinburgh to star in The Guys. According to Sarandon, 11 September was a ‘kind of wake-up call’, which was one of the more positive aspects of the terrible events.

But if the representation of 11 September at the Edinburgh Fringe is anything to go by, American youth’s complacency seems only to have been replaced by insecurity and uncertainty. What is so positive about that?

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) ‘Sex and violence’, Johann Hari, New Statesman, 12 August 2002

(2) Jumpers review, Joyce McMillan, Scotsman, 7 August 2002

(3) After the fall, Mark Lawson, Guardian, 16 August 2002

(4) Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties, by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, Putnam Publishing

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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