- Performing Post-Truth: An Interview with Director Ashlie Corcoran
In my essay in the March 2020 (72.1) issue of Theatre Journal titled “Sarin Gas Heartbreak: Theatre and Post-Truth Warfare in Syria,” I examine how two theatre productions respond to the difficult problem of ascertaining the truth about the Syrian Civil War by adopting what I describe as techniques of “post-truth.”
The term “post-truth” entered the journalistic lexicon during the 2016 US election, when then-candidate Donald Trump’s public relations team began making claims to the press that were easily disputed by verifiable evidence. When he was caught blatantly lying in the media, Trump’s senior advisor Kellyanne Conway notoriously turned the question back on the press, asking, “Why is everything taken at face value? . . . You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.” The importance of emotions over evidence is at the heart of the definition of post-truth that the Oxford English Dictionary used as their word of the year that November. Post-truth and its correlatives—post-facts and fake news—quickly came to stand in for a culture that values emotional attachment and loud opinionating over knowledge derived through evidence.
But as Barry Freeman and I argued recently, the problem with arguments that define our age as one of post-truth is their “suggestion that there is—or was—ever an unproblematic ‘truth’ from which to depart.” Indeed, performance has long been fascinated by more obscure forms of truth or even by the impossibility of discerning something called “truth.” In the first play I examine, The Pixelated Revolution (2012), Rabih Mroué stages a lecture about his fascination with images of government repression taken by Syrian protesters. The low-resolution images fail to accurately capture the atrocities they are trying to expose, however; Mroué is less interested in their truth value than in how they capture the spirit of the protests in a way that clear, professionally shot images never could.
Similarly, Guillermo Calderón’s play Kiss (2014) begins by promising to show us an authentic representation of Syria, but it gradually works to undermine its spectators’ confidence in its truth claim. The play begins with a living-room drama about two [End Page E-1] couples in Damascus who are involved in a complicated love quadrangle (fig. 1). After the forty-five-minute realist drama ends, the cast reappears onstage playing themselves. They announce that they have secured a rare live interview with the playwright, a Syrian refugee living in exile in Lebanon, whom they have arranged to interview by Skype that evening. They set up a laptop and projector, and we watch them ask questions to the playwright via a translator. However, as they do so, it becomes apparent that they have massively misinterpreted her play, taking as melodrama what was in fact a coded criticism of the Assad regime. Moreover, the cast’s questions are naïve, as they fail to grasp why the playwright is being evasive about politically sensitive subjects. After the interview, the cast decides to restage the play in light of their new understanding of it. This second staging is frenetic and experimental, a total contrast with the tight naturalism of the first version. As their restaging builds momentum, it becomes increasingly absurd, reaching a climax when the character we were told was the playwright overseas suddenly walks onstage singing a song in Arabic. Over the course of these scenes, the audience gradually realizes that they have been duped. The playwright was fictional; the interview was staged, and the spontaneous second attempt to stage the play was scripted. The play performs post-truth as a strategy to draw attention to the fraught ways in which we determine what is true about conflicts on the other side of the world.
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When I went to see Kiss at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto, I admit that...