©2004 Andrea Kapsaski
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theatre and film producer, and a hell of a cook.
In fact, theatre audiences have begun responding to more overtly political dramas in recent times and there were an increasing number of plays critical of militarism and government policies being presented at last year's Edinburgh Festival.
The Australian playwright Stephen Sewell, with his uncompromising plays in both the public and private spheres, has been known as a writer for almost 30 years, and some of his best work has resulted from harnessing his anger about politics and "writers who sniff the wind rather than determining its direction" by channelling it into drama with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
His 1998 screenplay for "The Boys", a feature film exploring the psyche of a western suburbs' murderer, won him an award from the Australian Film Institute. Sewell's most successful plays, including "The Blind Giant is Dancing" (1983) and "Dreams in an Empty City" (1986) have been outpourings of rage against hypocrisy, cynics and political opportunism.
Now he is speaking out again – in more ways than one. Sewell's newest play which goes under the title "Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America: A Drama in 30 Scenes" has already caused a number of headlines, some of them due to the fact that the major theatres in Sydney seemingly failed to pick it up for 2004, even though it completed successful runs in 2003 at both "The Playbox Theatre" in Melbourne and "The State Theatre Company" in Adelaide. Sewell increased debates on the issue by claiming that he was "being blocked from the main stages" in Sydney – a statement that was heavily denied by the artistic directors of several Sydney theatres and the play was indeed staged in Sydney at the "Stables Theatre" at the end of October last year.
Thus, "Myth, Propaganda and Disaster" marks after all Sewell's return to the mainstream state-funded theatres where it evoked enthusiastic audience responses but also heavy criticisms.
Inspired by Franz Kafka's "The Trial" and George Orwell's "1984", it captures the shocked response of those witnessing the Bush administration's onslaught on democratic rights and their terrifying ignorance of why it is happening.
The play centres on the fate of Talbot Finch, an expatriate Australian academic working at a New York university. Deeply concerned about political developments in the US, he has written a book with the forbidding title "Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America" which he believes will soon be published.
"It is like the bad old days of the Ugly American are back; we're still overthrowing governments in Latin America, murdering people in their beds; we've got a string of prisons dotted across the world filled with people who'll never be charged with any offence and we've got an intelligence service breathing so closely down everyone's necks we might as well call it a police state."
Talbot naively seems almost unaware that his arguments outline the evolution of contemporary America into a fascist state similar to Nazi Germany and even more, that he is living in a post Sept-11 world where words are no longer innocent.
"Police state" or not, Talbot's forthright views are soon regarded as treasonous. A thug invades his university office and begins to pistol whip him quoting lines from Kafka, "Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning." (The writings of Kafka, along with those of Socrates, Plato and Orwell are frequently referred to throughout the play.)
This incident sets Talbot down a spiralling path of paranoia, conspiracy and fear. Like Joseph K, Talbot doesn't understand what his crime is. He is incapable of seeing the practical implications of his theories and finds himself caught up in a nightmarish world in which the lines between reality and paranoid fantasy are increasingly blurred.
His American wife Eve misunderstands him badly. When he attempts to tell her that somebody is trying to silence him, she dismisses this notion. "This is America!" the implication being, of course, that things like that just do not happen there. When Talbot finally disappears, she too becomes enmeshed in a state frame-up against her husband.
"The drama of the piece revolves around the question of what is a democracy and what is it possible to ask and think about within a democracy", Sewell states. "We live in a time when a comparison of that sort is a very provocative thing, whereas in a democracy you'd expect that comparisons of any kind can be made by anyone."
At some point in the play, Talbot quotes Eisenhower's famous speech of 1961, in which he warned that the American military-industrial complex was a threat to democracy. "But what the characters get around to believing and what I sense as an interested amateur, is that Eisenhower's warnings are coming true", says Stephen Sewell, "Donald Rumsfeld has never stood for election in any electorate in the world, and neither has Dick Cheney. Yet these are the most powerful people in the US, directly controlling foreign policy, wars, life and death."
That is why he can't believe "why some theatre is so dull and boring at a time when the world is falling apart."
He admits he wanted to use theatre, like mass demonstrations, to validate and strengthen people's reaction to the war. "Theatre can be a space where people can feel sane and, like in the street, experience something together that helps make you feel real…I am not primarily a polemist or apolitical person. What I am aiming for in all my work is to reintegrate people who, in this kind of society, are disintegrated by the experience they have on a daily basis."
While Sewell is rightly concerned about the monumental attack on democratic rights, he adapts himself to the images generated by the "throughout corrupt and venal US media", and since he sees no social force capable of challenging the present social, political and economic order, he believes that it is the duty of all writers, artists and intellectuals "to resist, to state the truth, to put up a fight. If we allow ourselves to be shut up, or start believing the lies in order to get along, ultimately we're going to get our throats cut anyhow!"
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