Power to the people
From his fascination with human relations and the complex emotions they bring about, Mesut Arslan started working on one of the most frequently performed classics of the twentieth century, Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? of Edward Albee from 1962. City dramaturg Purni Morell talked to Mesut Arslan about his choice to take on this particular piece, that has already been performed and staged in manifold ways.
Why is this play making you think about power, Mesut? It doesn’t seem immediately obvious…
In every play that you work on, you find connections with your own life. In my case, without going into too much detail, I can see that I have been both George and Martha – I recognise both of them in me and I tried to stop being like them. Actually, a few years ago I made a conscious effort to change some of my relationships – not just private ones, but with friends and at work. In that process, the process of analysing and thinking about my relationships and why they were how they were, I came to see there is a remarkable thing we do – we humans, I mean – and that is: we have an ability to turn our feelings into a truths with which we punish other people. As in: I feel something, I feel justified in feeling that feeling, and somehow, quite quickly, I can turn that into something to punish you with, a stick to beat you with. That’s what happens in this play.
You think this is something we all do?
Yes. In different cultures it happens in different ways. In eastern cultures for example, people don’t talk about it so much whereas and in western cultures we make agreements about it.
You say you’re interested in the political aspect of this behavior, this desire to destroy, if you like. Can you explain that to me a bit?
Well, I was thinking about this idea of feeling justified in hurting or destroying another person, and as always, I was influenced by many people, but in this case in particular by Vilem Flusser, who wrote about the political sphere in the 1990s. He said it works like this: someone has an opinion about something, writes about it and publishes an article, which I can then take home and read and think about. Suppose I have a different opinion on the subject, then I might write a counter-article and publish that, and you might take it home and read it, and so on and so on. In this way, the political discussion happened somewhere in the middle, between people’s minds. It was communal, it happened in the public sphere, if you like, whereas now we trade private opinions quite directly from one to another. Another influence is Yuval Noah Harari, who talks about what makes us different from other species.
Harari’s point is that we people - and that’s exceptional in the animal kingdom - can communicate effectively with large numbers of strangers, and that we do this by creating fiction. A zebra can maybe tell another zebra that there’s a lion down by the river and to avoid going there but it cannot persuade all its zebra friends to co-operate around an idea, the existence of God, say. Fiction, telling stories and gossiping all use words, they broaden up perspectives and possibilities, and words make room for co-operation and alliance. Animals can only communicate with a limited number of individuals whom they know – let’s say 150 of their own kind – whereas we can communicate with millions. With our stories, we try to persuade others – that God wants us to build a cathedral, for example, or use money as currency, or set up nation states. This is also the way in which we are able to persuade ourselves that the majority is right, or persuade large numbers of people that immigrants pose a threat. No other animal can do this.
You know, the alpha male chimpanzee is not necessarily the smartest or the largest, no, in fact he is simply the most convincing. Humans achieve this through systems of cooperation, and the majority usually makes choices that are not in line with any single individual’s preference. Look at politics, for example: I may prefer Politician A and you might prefer Politician B, but we agree to believe Politician C because he appeals to both of us and he’s a good compromise.
I’m not following how this links to George and Martha and the play…
Because it’s about the difference between truth and persuasion, and about the private and the public. Look at it like this – George and Martha have been stuck in the same patterns for years. They believe in certain truths about themselves, accuse each other of many things. Nothing really happens, they’re just locked in there. Then the younger couple, Nick and Honey, arrives – suddenly there is an audience. Now suddenly, the power of persuasion becomes important because each word and each sentence carry meaning and resonance.
George and Martha’s words take on new meaning because they are being heard by fresh ears, there’s someone to persuade. Not in the least because Nick and Honey are on the same linear trajectory as Martha and George, they might even become just like them one day, so they also have an investment in being persuaded. ‘Linear’ is the right word to use here, because what we’re dealing with in this play is the difference between the instinctive, immediate desire and the political, public and represented, which are as much as the instinctive made linear.
I think every thought is the politisation of an instinct. A thought is an instinct or feeling that has been politicised, literally made public for consumption. Everyone operates on both levels, but in this play, we see someone like Martha, who speaks from impulse, whereas George never speaks without first thinking about it. The insults between them are precisely about that battleground, they put each other down to win the public argument, which we also see in the political argument. And it gets much more interesting once someone else is listening to them.
I have another question, which is: you’re using a chorus of voices in this production… can you tell me a bit about how they augment this idea?
As a creator, you see that in any given moment there are myriads of possibilities to say a line, or hear an idea, even if they’re repeated every night. That’s what happens in rehearsals. If one moment has a thousand possible interpretations, which one shall I choose as a creator? I chose to surround the four protagonists with twelve voice actors, who repeat, amplify, drown out or shout over the words of the main actors. It’s what we see in public debates: the words of one party find a lot of resonance through the media and their followers, while the words of another party are barely heard.
More specific: sometimes there are three voice actors standing behind each ‘character’ but at other moments there might be eleven of them behind Honey, eleven against one, and in that way, Nick is drowned out.
It’s a metaphor for the majority.
Yes, exactly. And of course the majority is louder. It’s also a metaphor for the media; because it’s through the media we get our information, mediated information. Each moment is politicised by virtue not only of being turned into thought, but in being presented in multiple ways. The audience also gets an active role. Before you enter the space, you get to choose your own chair, which you can then position in the room wherever you want. You can sit in the middle of the performance space, right between the actors. Or you can choose to stay on the side and experience the show from the perspective of a certain character or just keep a distance. During the performance, you can still decide pick up your chair and sit somewhere else. I’m interested in asking you, the audience, which choice you make. I want you to see the different possibilities for different ways of thinking in the same moment. And if you make a choice, that choice will be political.
And what if you can’t hear what the other person is saying?
It’s up to you to decide what to do about it. You could stand up and move your chair to get closer to someone you can’t hear well. Obviously, it’s a metaphor for how we respond to politics in this day and age. Instead of saying, “I couldn’t hear what they were saying,” you can get up off your ass and move. It’s also interesting to note that George and Martha refer to George and Martha Washington, the founders of the American Dream.
You want to ask us to reclaim our agency.
I want to give the power back to the people, yes.