Notes on Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced [revised]

In a way, Ayad Akhtar’s play Disgraced is about a war of personalities with a twist: it takes place within one man, a Pakistani-American lawyer named Amir, whose careful remaking of himself comes undone as the play progresses. What appears to be a domestic drama—it takes place largely among Amir, his wife, and two friends in the course of a single dinner party—proves to be instead, or also, a drama of identity. Though it addresses topical concerns about cultural and religious loyalties, Disgraced also speaks to America’s endless fascination with people who “reinvent” themselves.

Disgraced at LCT3

Karen Pittman, Erik Jensen, Heidi Armbruster, & Aasif Mandvi in the LCT3 production (photo by Erin Baiano)

The play premiered early in 2012 at Chicago’s American Theater Company and played later that year in New York, at Lincoln Center’s LCT3, where I saw it. It’s now running at New York’s Lyceum Theatre. I felt that Disgraced benefited greatly from being seen in a small space, just as Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth does, and in both cases I can’t help wondering whether the greater exposure the play receives in a Broadway house comes at the cost of some impact. But this may be merely my own past staking a claim, as Amir’s does; most of my theater training and experience came in small spaces. In any case, it’s hard to complain when a serious-minded play appears on Broadway.

On Thursday night, PBS Newshour carried a brief but thoughtful segment about Akhtar and Disgraced, which you can find here. Alexis Soloski wrote an excellent piece about the author and his work for The New York Times in September 2012; it’s available here.

[This is a revision of a shorter post from 10/31/14.]

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Beethoven on critics

From Alex Ross’s recent discussion of the cult of Beethoven in The New Yorker:

The coda of [the often-dismissed] “Wellington’s Victory,” with its breakneck double fugue, anticipates the contrapuntal jubilation near the end of the Ninth. Beethoven himself took some pride in the work, annotating a critic’s negative commentary with the words “What I shit is better than anything you have ever thought.”

Ross’s article is available online here.

William Gibson on writing

The conclusion of a short autobiographical sketch from 2002 by novelist William Gibson:

I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.

Nowadays, one might also like to know how much time he spends online, especially on Twitter, where he seems to be pretty active. The sketch is on this page, along with a note on a poem he wrote.

By the way, today is the official publication date of Gibson’s new novel, The Peripheral. Some reviews are already out, and more will be appearing forthwith; mine is here.

Kontakthof: Social Studies with Pina Bausch

Kontakthof (image 1)

The curtain is up when the audience arrives at BAM’s Gilman Opera House for Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof (1978), and the set immediately made me wonder. It’s a big, three-walled box, with chairs neatly aligned along the back and sides: a dance hall. But the box is topped by a totally featureless ceiling, and the walls are pierced only by a single tall, narrow window and three small doors. There’s something self-contained, isolated, and confined about this space. It could be a lab-like setting, made for controlled observations, or some other closed, bounded environment, maybe all of human society. In retrospect, I think the setting and events of Kontakthof are an early version of a realm that can be called Bausch-world, less fantastic, less abstractly theatrical, and more troubling than some of the later versions we’ve seen in New York. But at the outset it was hard to tell how to regard this space.

The piece starts in stasis, with the entire cast of 24 seated in chairs. In silence, one woman comes forward and prepares to present herself, widening her mouth as if to check her teeth or practice a smile, placing her hands out with palms up as if to accept a partner, putting one leg forward for a moment. She returns to the rear, music begins, and the other women repeat her routine. They retreat and the men do the same. As a group, arranged like a set of bowling pins, the cast moves toward the front, looking rather stern as they repeat a simple set of unison movements. A woman among them breaks into a laugh, keeps it up for a while, suddenly falls silent and collapses to the floor. The others ignore her as they return to their seats. All this happens in a measured, methodical way. Continue reading

A note on uplift and technology

From “The Planning Machine,” an article by Evgeny Morozov in the 10/13/14 New Yorker, on an early-70s project in Salvador Allende’s Chile to computerize central planning:

For all its utopianism and scientism, its algedonic meters and hand-drawn graphs, Project Cybersyn got some aspects of its politics right: it started with the needs of the citizens and went from there. The problem with today’s digital utopianism is that it typically starts with a PowerPoint slide in a venture capitalist’s pitch deck. As citizens in an era of Datafeed, we still haven’t figured out how to manage our way to happiness. But there’s a lot of money to be made in selling us the dials.

Digital utopianism even makes money by selling us on itself. That’s part of the purpose of Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Innovators, to judge from an FT review, which said (among other things) that it “presents a deeply comforting, humanistic vision.” Steven Berlin Johnson also tends toward selling technology as uplift, although he spins that into a broader view of how improvement comes from people just working together. Where are we headed? In 2012, Johnson proposed an answer in Future Perfect, the very title of which suggests a sunny-day optimism that even mid-century American musicals didn’t ask us to swallow. Every day, in every possible way, things are getting better, and if you buy my book I’ll tell you how…

[Unrelated note: I’m unsure why my two links are being displayed in two different ways. Something about WordPress I haven’t figured out yet.]

A note on how we talk about Ebola

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci put up a post on Medium yesterday for which the title and subtitle are as follows:

Ebola: The Real Reason Everyone Should Panic
Our Global Institutions are Broken

I haven’t read it yet, but I have an opinion on the heading. In a leader posted online on October 16The Economist said,

The task is to stop the toll reaching hundreds of thousands, if not millions. That is feasible only with sustained international collaboration. And so far, collaboration is something the response has tragically lacked.

International collaboration is always hard to come by. (I thought The Economist had explicitly said so; in looking back, I see I was wrong.) We can hope for it and press for it and do anything else we can think of to bring it about, but international collaboration isn’t, in my view, something that already exists. Yet Tufekci grabs hold of a veritable cliché in public commentary and says it’s “broken.” She compounds the error by suggesting that this is cause for panic, a suggestion that can’t be taken seriously and presumably wasn’t meant to be. It goes without saying that there’s never a reason to panic; panic is an escape from reason. Why even mention it?

No doubt her heading is just meant to be provocative, the kind of thing that lures you into reading (a variety of click-bait, in other words), but it seems wrongheaded. The press of time inclines me always to look for a reason to stop reading. Because I value Tufekci’s knowledge and thinking, I’m going to have to set aside my qualms about her latest post and read on.

William Gibson looks into his crystal ball again

The future has been worrying us lately. A good deal of conversation has taken place online about how it looks to us, in fact as well as in fiction, and how that matters. A smart example is Virginia Postrel’s 10/08/14 post on Bloomberg View, though it’s not, and doesn’t pretend to be, comprehensive.

William Gibson’s new novel has something to add to this. After working with the future in his early fictions, he steadily moved his settings closer to the present, and his previous three books (sometimes called the Bigend trilogy) took place more or less in the here and now. In a move that seems remarkably well timed, Gibson has returned to the future in The Peripheral, and what he finds there isn’t likely to please those hoping for techno-optimist visions.

The story is a doozy, a complex and elaborate version of a basic thriller scenario: Somebody saw something happen, and someone else is now after them because of it. The task for the main characters is to figure out what they’re mixed up in, and Gibson aligns our interest with theirs by giving us a similar experience, requiring us to make sense of what we’ve gotten into. There are no thumbnail sketches of characters as we meet them, no explanatory descriptions of world elements as we encounter them. The novel employs a tactic of indirect and delayed exposition that begins with the first sentence: “They didn’t think Flynne’s brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him.”

Continue reading