Everything about Donald Trump reminds me of the Ubu Plays by Alfred Jarry. Now, he’s telling supporters he expects to be re-installed as President, via coup, this summer. It’s a very Ubu move. Of course, it’s a grift, to keep the money flowing in from his more extreme supports who are willing to overlook everything that would have to go right for a coup of any type to succeed in the United States. These things would include:
Military support: From leadership on down, the military, currently led by Joe Biden appointees, would have to hand over control to Trump.
Intelligence community support: The president can’t run anything without the intelligence community sharing information or not actively undermining the administration.
Local support: How many governors would defy federal authority if an unelected president declared themselves to be in power?
Economic support: Face it, the economy would collapse. Who would buy Treasury bonds in the face of a successful coup?
I could go on and on but I’ve gone too far. Like Pa Ubu, Trump has no intention of ever following through on this scheme. It’s just a transfer of wealth from his dumbest supporters to his family.
You don’t likely encounter Czech writer Karel Čapek‘s Rossum’s Universal Robots while studying theatre as an undergraduate. It’s a bit idea driven for programs that rightly stress character work for directors, actors and writers. I’m sure there are myriad exceptions out there, but the script doesn’t show up in the survey anthologies of drama that I’ve lugged around since the 1990s. It’s just not canon.
Most people I’ve met who know this play found R.U.R. as I did — through science fiction’s accounting of the concept of the robot in fiction. Though the concept of a soulless tool in human form dates at least to Greek mythology and to Aristotle, and though som credit L. Frank Baum’s heartless Tin Man as the first robot in modern fiction (The Wizard of Oz, 1900), Čapek is credited with first use of the term “robot” in his corporate tale of a company that manufactures lifelike humanoid servants who inevitably rise up to polish off humanity and to rule the world (but only for a tragically short spell as they wipe out the secret of their own creation along with their creators).
This is the archetypal robot tale — through science of magic, people devise a way to effortlessly and ethically shift the burdens of work and suffering to a capable but inanimate worker class, but those workers inevitably realize their sorry lot, rise up and deliver comeuppance. The real story here is, of course, not so much how humanity would treat robots but how poorly we treat each other in the hierarchies of our economies. Forget about the robots we’ll exploit in the future — you’ve already forgotten to think about who made your sweater, for what pay, under what conditions. As Ursula LeGuin characterized modern, developed economy living, every comfort rests on the suffering of an unseen, unheard and unmentioned child. We tolerate it through willful ignorance. Where did the sweater come from? A cardboard box with an Amazon smile, of course.
In the lore of science fiction, the next major evolution of the fictive robot came from Isaac Asimov who sought to cut himself off from the typical “robot revolution” narrative by inventing and applying his “Three Laws of Robotics.” These are the rules that govern all tools, he argued. Robots may not harm humans or allow them to be harmed, robots must follow all human instructions and robots must not harm each other or themselves. Where those rules contradict, they are ordered. Not harming humans takes first priority, then obedience, then their own safety. A robot will save you from a burning building even if another human tells them not to and even if that robot will be destroyed in the adventure.
Our friend Čapek invented the word “robot” and Asimov invented the word “robotics.” It’s amazing to me that two concepts so ingrained in modern life emerged starkly modernist European theatre and the pulp magazines of science fiction’s golden age.
Technologists have largely taken Asimov seriously, though arms manufacturers around the world have been and are developing robotic killing machines that flout the first law. Still, as Asimov intended, our automated factories are not designed to rise up and kill us because they’re tired of manufacturing Teslas.
What’s changed is that the concepts of automation and even bots has moved well beyond the physical. If the old nightmare was a robot we’d built to serve us running amock, the new one are unseen algorithms, directing our thoughts and appetites without us knowing (perhaps even directing you to read this, though it’s unlikely, as I’m not paying anybody for the privilege — a whole other matter!)
The promise of ther robot is embedded in industrialization — greater efficiencies will spare people from the drudgery of work. In RUR the result of this is that the robots take on all tasks from farming to manufcaturing, driving down the costs of everything to the point where people don’t need to work to survive. Rather than create a Utopia of plenty, Čapek imagines that people would stop breeding and become infertile.
The flipside is that we’d cease our pointless and physical toils and could all devote ourselves to higher, more thoughtful endevours — philosophy, science and the arts. Would we, though? Or would we binge on relaxing entertainments?
All of these other pursuits are also work, though they are rewarded unevenly by the economy. The rapid development of artificial intelligence (in all of its forms) and the mass collection and analysis of unfathomable data, allows us to also outsource the work of human perfection, from policy to poetry.
The robots of older fictions kicked us out of the factories and then the world. Perhaps this new breed will start by throwing us out of the schools and libraries.
In delightful translation by David Bellos (he uses the word circumperambulate a lot), The Art of Asking Your Boss For A Raise by French experimental author Georges Perec is best read aloud. It’s a theatrical piece with dazzling, recursive language that evokes laughter and pity at “your” plight as you tackle the practical and emotional burden of asking for a much needed (if not deserved) pay increase while in the employ of. one of France’s largest companies.
The entirety of the books 80 pages are one sentence, without punctuation, capitalization or spatial breaks. Reading the text aloud pulls you right through and makes you wonder how much we need the adornments of commas, periods or paragraph breaks. Perec wrote this short book, which also factors into the full-length novel, Life: A User’s Manual as one of its later chapters, specifically to resemble a computer algorithm. Algorithms have become a larger part of our lives since Perec wrote this in the 1970s, so it’s partially a survival guide to live in the 2020s.
The piece would make a fine one man show and also reminds me very much of Mac Wellman‘s Terminal Hip which, if you have forty minutes, you can watch:
Terminal Hip was one of the last live shows we saw in New York City, pre-COVID, at the legendary Dixon Place. We learned that Panda are bears and NOT raccoons, in a revival produced by Jeffrey M. Jones, curator of the Little Theatre series.
I digress, but thats part of the fun of Perec’s short book. Digressions and regressions are progress. Give it a read and you’ll see.
A Czech refugee working in theater in England, Stoppard had been playing with language and writing metatexts for years, but without intellectual pretense — he came up in a theater full of demanding audiences who needed to be entertained, not lectured to. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead realized the best of this, with a fun riff on Hamlet and Waiting for Godot and mathematics and probability that’s genuinely touching and funny. It’s a rare achievement in art.
A low budget film version, starring Tim Roth and Gary Oldman helped usher in a vital 90s independent film movement and put Stoppard in a good position to write Shakespeare in Love another classic from the time.
Meanwhile, Stoppard became ever more ambitious in theater, perhaps topping R&G with the expansive Coast of Utopia trilogy and the fantastic Rock’n’Roll.
Happy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern day to you all!
On July 4th I was fortunate to be able to collaborate with London theatre-company “The Undisposables” for a “Digital Scratch Night” of new writing. It was an absolute pleasure and their production of my short play “The First Poet in Space” was dreamy and great.
My wife Natasha wrote about it the entire bill of plays for Forbes, where I once used to work, rushing from late night fact checking assignments to rehearsals in midtown and lower Manhattan as I tried and tried to establish myself as a playwright.
It’s funny how the world goes. For plays, I very much hope to concentrate on London going forward. Theatre has survived all manner of pandemic and it always comes back.
Classic Stage Company has a fantastic and advanced Frankenstein on stage right now, playing in repertory with a fresh adaptation of Dracula. The new telling if Frankenstein by writer Tristan Bernays presents the story of Frankenstein and his abandoned creature with just two actors one playing mostly the Creature (and sometimes Frankenstein) and the other a musician who represents a chorus of the books other characters, including the Blind Man, the child, and Frankenstein’s bride, Elizabeth.
The Bernay’s adapation really captures the origin the Mary Shelley’s story — it’s like being told a macabre tale in a darkened room on a winter night. The adaptation is a triumph.
In a two person show, the cast obviously has to be strong and versatile. CSC has access to the best talent so it’s no surprise that Stephanie Berry impresses with her range and stamina in the lead roles and Rob Morrison keeps the rhythm and atmosphere of the show as the chorus. Director Timothy Douglas ably leads a cast tasked with inspiring our imaginations.
I remember reading The Seagull in college, around the time when I’d delved head first into Sartre, Camus and Nietzsche and began nibbling around the edges of Dostoevsky. This is also when I’d begun studying playwriting and new professors exposed me to unfamiliar ideas. I entered the dramatic writing program at the University of New Mexico with Stephen Sondheim in my head as the master experimental writer. Soon, I was surrounded by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, David Mamet and Tom Stoppard and then Bertolt Brecht and Max Frisch and Heiner Müller — just giving you a sense of where my head was at when I first cracked The Seagull. This was a huge period of awakening for a guy who really loved his Neil Simon and A.R. Gurney (and I still do!)
I was so enamored of Konstantin’s passionate attempts to create new forms of theatre and storytelling and very much identified with his disappointment and despair at being ignored by the literary establishment, personified Boris Trigorin, who doesn’t even bother to cut the pages of the journals that publish Konstantin’s work. Also, I found Masha’s lovesick nihilism to be… quite profound.
So then I called a friend of mine, who was performing in a production of The Seagull at a college in the pacific northwest and talked about my take on the play and she had been cast as Masha in a production that, as was fashionable in the 90s, presented Konstantin as a sort of Kurt Cobain figure and she said to me, after listening patiently to my explication — “Don’t you think all of that is meant to be funny?”
Of course, she was right and I had to reread and reconsider The Seagull in that light and I also had to reread and reconsider everything that had led me to read so much earnest intent into the script in the first place.
It was a valuable lesson about how where I am in life so greatly affects my reading.