Reviewed by Gary Corseri
“But where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?”
—The Book of Job
“… with the finding of the language the feelings begin to change again.”
These are ideational works. They are clever and literate, but rather unusual, and even the judicious reader might like a little “framing.” The authors, and/or publisher, seem aware of that need with this blurb on the book’s back cover:
“Peace studies are usually presented as essays, in social science, political or philosophical-ethical discourses. This book is an experiment with drama as peace discourse, by authors versed in the other three. Drama is multi-angle and dialogical; it can be argued that so is the road to peace. The authors know something about peace, whether they can write drama is another matter. But those who do usually know very little about peace.”
I suspect that little disclosure was written by Johan Galtung, about whom I know a little from my recent discovery of the TMS website (TMS (Transcend Media Service). That site, edited by Antonio C. S. Rosa, is a compilation of some of the finest work—original postings and re-postings–appearing weekly on the worldwide Web, “in social science, political or philosophical-ethical discourses.” It also presents works of art—poetry and art criticism. Works that are “multi-angle and dialogical.” The challenge at the website and in Peace Plays is to maintain focus. “Those who do [know about writng drama] usually know very little about peace,” we are informed. Is this an apologia?
If it is, it is unnecessary. Each of these plays has merit, and Galtung’s, while not the most producible, may find its place among the great dialogical pieces of world literature.
Those “dialogical pieces” would include, of course, the Book of Job, which has been called the world’s first, great play. I used to think of it that way, too, but, after reading Galtung’s “The Cardplayers,” I now conclude that Job is not so much a “play” as a serries of dialogues between Job and his “tormentors,” Job and his wife, Job and God. Archibald MacLeish thought he could employ his formidable poetic skills, update the text, transform Job into “J.B.” and he made a clever go of dramatizing it, but I suspect his modern version is much more often read than performed. The thorny question–“what, exactly, is drama?”—persists.
Aristotle, who liked to think about everything, put the matter simply: Drama is the “imitation” of an action. We need not actually see Iphegenia sacrificed by her brutish father (eager to ensure smooth sailing towards war!); the “imitation” (or, intimation, suggestion, description) of the act should be sufficient to effect “catharsis”—a purging, and renewal; a revisioning.
In those terms, it would be difficult to apprise Galtung’s “The Cardplayers” as successful drama. There simply is not enough “action”—imitated or actual; not enough “stage business.”
Of course, we need not transgress as far as Seneca and the Romans, with their buckets of fake blood on stage, or their real gore in their “circus maximus,” nor should we descend to the lowest common denominator of the contemporary American theater-scene, most American TV fare, etc. But, we do have to answer that challenging question on the back cover of this book–whether the authors can write drama.
In the case of Galtung’s “The Cardplayers,” I am not so certain. On the other hand, I am certain that it is splendid writing that should be read and pondered, debated and discussed in university classrooms and elsewhere around the world!
Generally, I am less generous with my praise! In Galtung’s case, that and more, is well deserved. By 2010, this Norwegian-born octogenarian had published “about 150 books and 1500 articles on peace….” One need only Google his name or check out Wikipedia to learn of his seminal contributions to “Peace Studies” at universities around the world. The book cover informs the reader: “He founded TRANSCEND: A Peace, Development and Environment Network, in 1993 and was founding rector of Transcend Peace University.” There is no sign of his tiring or retiring any time soon….
What we have in “The Cardplayers” is not so much drama as a Platonic dialogue. We have a presentation of parallel lives: The President of the USA and the Secretary General of the Soviet Union. (This was undoubtedly first written some time back, but it remains painfully pertinent!) There is “The Ambassador,” representing the U.S. President, and the Foreign Minister of the S.U.. And there are “shadowy mafia types” in both countries. In an ironic, Jobian, but contemporary, twist, there is also “God, a middle-aged woman,” and “History, a middle-aged woman.” And various subordinates.
The “action” consists of these “leaders”—i.e., political and military hacks–planning a “peace conference,” which, in fact, will be no peace conference at all, merely a bit of cosmetic surgery to make their side look better to the part of the world that each side dominates: the world that invokes “God” and religion and righteousness to justify its violence and barbarism, and the parallel world that invokes “History,” social dynamics, etc. to justify its comparable suzerainty. The dialogue is always clever, often elevated and profound. Here’s a bit of tasty irony, the “Ambassador,” speaking to the “Foreign Minister of a US client country”:
AMBASSADOR: “I love a frank debate, that is the nature of free societies, isn’t it—that our country could never contemplate an attack, we who have never done so in our entire history of more than 200 years….”
Of course, anyone with a prehensile grasp of US history would dispute that, but the client state’s rep lets it go. (That’s what client states do!)
The wrangling over where, exactly, to position a new missile system, sounds ominously analogous to NATO’s expansionism to Russia’s borders in 2016:
FM: “… that is about as close to the Soviet Union that you can come and very remote from any population center you, I mean we, might like to protect—”
AMBASSADOR: “But you have unemployment in those districts, don’t you? Be frank, I know something about the votes in those parts of your country. Your party is seriously threatened. A little unemployment assistance… might be handy…. These are naïve country folks, they know nothing of politics. And, of course, we choose places far away from the big cities, and…far away from universities, with students who seem to have nothing better to do but demonstrating for one thing or the other the whole year long.”
(If this has echoes of the 2016 US presidential campaign, it is a sign, I think, of Galtung being “plugged in” to repetitive political, social, psychological, even psychic, currents!)
The FM must next meet with various “representatives” from his own country in order to “sell” the US position. He encounters some opposition, but out-maneuvers those dissenting voices.
In Act 2, Scene 2, “we are in the Kremlin, Moscow, a huge Soviet flag instead of the huge US one; the same world map. The Secretary General is new; otherwise, the same people for the same positions, the same dark clothes, the same male society, the same shadowy types. As light comes on they are all listening to the tape-recording of the White House meeting.”
And, on the tape they hear:
PRESIDENT’S VOICE: “–in short, cosmic secret, not a word leaked, the usual game plan, I say!”
(Echoes to 2016 again? The Snowden/Greenwald/Assange/Manning expose that “not a word [must be] leaked” was an absurd idea back then, and much more so in our age of instant communications, hacking, etc.)
Back in the good old days of the Cold War, of course, “spying” had much more to do with beautiful, Russian women! The S.U. Foreign Minister declares: “We trained her the usual way, as a dissident, peacenik type, down with nuclear arms in the West and East, that type of objectivist stuff… got her on prime time US television. She is a hero over there!…. [When] actually they catch her she has a couple of stories to tell about their sex life…the gist…is what lousy lovers Americans are, watching TV instead!”
What we see on both sides of “The Cardplayers” is a level of ignorance and self-serving delusions about “our side vs. their side” as might make the gods weep and advanced humans take to the forest to become wandering sadhus!
It is no wonder then that in Act 3, Scene 1, Galtung presents us with a 7-page, interwoven dialogue between God and History!
GOD: “… they never grow up!! They are…children, always looking for somebody to punish them so they won’t have to be…responsible….I never chose any people above others, never took it seriously whether they believe in me or not….All I wanted was that they should be responsible, face the consequences of their action!”
And the reply is sad, and all-too fitting:
HISTORY: “You gave them free will, I protected that gift. Sometimes I wonder whether they simply want to commit suicide! And this idea that I should have chosen one people above all the others for that ride on a single track through history! Morbid….They do not have the courage to take on real…responsibility, to make choices! There can be no revolution without a revolution from the inside….”
GOD: “We both are in them, and in nature, not above….”
There is no real ending. It’s a dialogue that each of us must continue with those we encounter and with ourselves. “The Cardplayers” is a dialogical work in the manner of Job, or Plato’s Socratic Dialogues; in the manner of Augustine’s Soliloquies; Peter Abelard’s Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew and a Christian.” It is Jefferson confronting himself in “My Head and My Heart.” It is Descartes working towards a vision of a univied science in Discourse and Meditations. And, it is singular.
The last play in this trio (I’ll get to the second one shortly) is fun to deal with, and there’s no qualms about assigning it to its genre. It’s a one-act play of some 20 pages, lively, intelligent, easy to visualize and “hear” in the imagination. It’s called “Sh…it Happens.”
S.P. Udayakumar’s play is off-beat “theater of the absurd,” but the message is as downright, level-headed serious as the fact that we are facing mass extinction on our planet and we are bringing it on oursevles with our wasteful ways!
In fact, our waste is killing us!
Yeah, that kind of waste, too!
So, what’s a good, capitalist solution?
Why, make it profitable! Collect it, and use it as fuel!
Udayakumar sets the stage and tone in Scene 1:
“[ACME Corporation Head Office at Wall Street, New York City. The R&D Committee meeting is taking place on the 105th floor, far away from the Earth and the common people. The participants are all sitting around an oval table in formal business attire.]”
The R&D Manager, straightens his tie, “with both hands,” and stresses the gravity of “getting down to business.” He “stiffens his neck” and declares: “The globalized world throws tough challenges to remain in business today. We need to come up with a…novel product…to diversify…and stay in business.”
First, an “Academic Consultant” delivers wearisome academic gibberish: “As a Professor of Economics, I must put things in perspective. The Law of the Returns states very unambiguously that for the combination of economic goods of the highest order there exists an optimum….”
And, blah, blah, blah!
Other consultants offer ideas like “making a killing to neutralize outer space threats” (like nukes and missiles and ICBMs). Such “reasonable” peaceful “deterrents” to war are “shot down” because they will “take a lot of resources” and will have to have “political sanction,” too.
Then, the Academic Consultant muses again: “Waste is a waste only when it is wasted. In other words, there is nothing called waste. When we do not waste waste, waste is no longer waste but a profit-making non-waste.”
Hearing which, “two ACME staff… roll their eyes….One of them…mutters…’Shit!”
And the R&D Manager has a revelation! Make the recycling of human waste profitable! “We will design a biodegradable plastic bag and distribute to all the households in a participating community. The ‘fuel suppliers’ use the bag as a single-use toilet, collect the ‘fuel’ in it and bring it to the collection point in a larger duffle bag.”
Well, of course, “things fall apart,” as Yeats wrote, and what looks good on paper, or sounds good in a committee meeting, doesn’t work out so well in a single-use plastic-bag toilet! The fact that ACME is depending on poor countries like “Mansoniapur” [one assumes, India] to supply the “fuel” rubs Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Communists into perfect disharmony and acrimony!
In the last scene, a young woman climbs a banyan tree and tries to set the world straight: “Listen to me, you old men,” she cries. “You are the reason for all this stinking mess. You did not know how to rule yourselves…you…sold your souls to these mercenaries.”
It’s a clear indictment of our capitalist-consumerist-profligate modern world. The play is just the right size to deliver a sharp bite and make us think.
Regrettably, I do not have such a sanguine feeling about the 2nd play, Vithal Rajan’s 25-page 1-Act, “The Spartan Conspiracy.” The work begins with a 2-page preface about similarities between Homer’s “Iliad” and the Hindu “Ramayana” epic. Well, I’m all for universal themes! (One of my supreme memories is from my 29th year–watching a perfomance of the “Ramayana Ballet” in an open-air theater, on a beach in Bali, mesmerized by the dancers and the sound of gamelons!) And, this also works for me: “The dismal economic reasons for war, to control the means of production and reproduction, to control land, slaves and women…these days, when everyone recognizes the importance of economic concerns, war is never ever portrayed as a grab for the goodies.”
A stimulating preface, but the roll-out is not. “This play,” the author tells us, “written half in jest, attempts to highlight what might have been the real economic factors that led the Greeks into a long and protracted war.”
A bit too much “hedging” here: “written half in jest”; “attempts”; “what might have been.” I admit to losing interest when Menelaus started calling Agamemnon “Aggy,” and Odysseus called Menelaus “Loosey” and Achilles is transformed into “Asch”! It’s kind of a joke that’s too long getting to the punch-line.
All in all, taken as a whole, Peace Plays is a splendid book: a lens with which to contemplate our modern world of foibles, follies, self-and-mass destruction. It’s a book to read, and re-read, and savor. It is whimsical and sobering; grating in a positive way; uplifting and transformative.
Gary Corseri has published and posted articles, fiction and poems at hundreds of global venues, including, Countercurrents, Redbook Magazine, Counterpunch, The New York Times, Village Voice, Outlook India and Japan Times. He has published 2 novels and 2 collections of poetry, and his dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta and elsewhere. He edited the Manifestations literary anthology; has performed his poems at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum; and has taught in universities in the US and Japan, and in US public schools and prisons. Contact: Gary_Corseri@comcast.
(This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on October 3, 2016. Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: How Do We ‘Package’ Peace? Can We Make It Palatable?, is included.)