Whenever dramatists find themselves feeling unimportant in comparison with other media, they often hold discussions among themselves about being relevant and vital and other such advertising words. One of the ways this manifests is that drama becomes topical.
But this is not why I listen to radio drama. Not because I shy away from topical issues–I am a journalist, after all–but because purposefully topical art tends toward superficiality. The last thing the 21st Century American needs is more superficiality in life. There is more than enough to go around already. I am not looking for the artist who is motivated to bring me up to scratch on some global issue, obscure or otherwise, in my experiences with art. Rather, I seek art that is conscious of the news yet looks beyond it, as William Carlos Williams writes about in Asphodel:
My heart rouses thinking to bring you news of something that concerns you and concerns many men. Look at what passes for the new. You will not find it there but in despised poems. It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.
BBC have often turned topical over the years. Over the past few years, this turn has become quite sharp. Entire series like From Fact to Fiction have been dedicated to topical drama for years but even the Afternoon Drama has included numerous topical dramas. Many of their topical plays are pabulum or, worse, drivel. Every so often, though, they produce something brilliant that does not merely seek to “bring you news” but to bring “despised poetry.” Dan Rebellato’s trilogy of plays about Syria, Negative Signs of Progress, is an example.
What makes the trilogy work is Mr. Rebellato’s brilliant narrative conceit. One of the most difficult problems a listener faces when listening to the news or watching television journalism is that the news tends to present a single point of view. Particularly when the news is of a non-European culture, reportage tends to privilege the European perspective; this is even worse with American news. Mr. Rebellato takes this simple fact and plays against it.
Each of the three plays in the trilogy uses the exact same dramatic situation: A woman who works for an NGO is kidnapped in Syria. From there, each individual play treats the situation from a completely different perspective. This is not Rashomon in which conflicting stories each belie the possibility of ever knowing anything. The purpose is quite different. Each play treats not the stuff of news, but rather what the news cannot convey: the human consequences of a “simple” news item. That they overlap only in basic situation and share no events in common strengthens the drama and argues forcefully Mr. Rebellato’s idea that there is more to the news than merely news.
The first play in the trilogy, Here, is the story of the kidnapped woman’s husband, who has a late night visit from a man who claims to be working with the police. But rather than simply delivering the bad news about his wife, the man approaches the husband as possibly connected to an illegal arms dealer and terrorists. The intelligence officer knocks on the door, says that he is with the police, then subtly and politely probes the man’s entire life without telling him anything so much as a reason–it takes almost a half hour before the husband even has the faintest idea what is going on. The tone is distinctly English, but here the superficial politeness of protocol and procedure quickly takes on the menace of a work by Vaclav Havel. It is wicked, cruel and infuriating. It is also extremely powerful.
The second play, There, tells a story from the point-of-view of the kidnapped woman’s NGO comrades. The tone here is almost diametrical to Here. Much of the play is spent listening to a male and female co-worker arguing about the virtues of freshly ground coffee over instant, the proper temperature at which to drink tea, and the actual number of tea biscuits in the office while the female co-worker attempts to break her high score on a minigame on her phone. It is light, glib, completely unserious but sketches perfectly that unique combination of bored idealism, passionate humanity and repeated tedium that one finds only in the office of an NGO overseas. Once the boss appears, however, to give the two workers their training in how to deal with a hostage situation, the tone subtly changes. As one listens to the training session, it becomes clear that these people have no real idea of the harsh realities of their political work. They are as ill-prepared to deal with a hostage situation as any typical citizen would be. With such simple strokes, Mr. Rebellato creates a beautiful metaphor for the entire situation of the Middle East where, as I have myself experienced, the soldiers know just as little about the area or why they are there as these poor NGO workers do.
If the second play is an extended metaphor on Euro-American involvement in the Middle East, the third play is explicit argument. Somewhere tells the story of the kidnapped woman herself and her “protector.” It begins with soft machine noises outside and the opening of a door, as the protector leads the woman into a library, the pièce de résistance as he says. But there is no menace here whatsoever. He is polite in the extreme. He talks about literature and Debussy and invites the woman to look at his first edition of Francis Marrash al-Halabi’s Ghābat al-ḥaqq fī tafṣīl al-akhlāq al-fāḍilah (which he translates as The Forest of Goodness). All the woman can think about, however, is whether or not she will be killed.
The setup is far from accidental. It is a reversal of every Western cliché. The woman does not know Debussy or books, is not political or religious; her protector knows all about the arts, knows multiple languages, fine scotch, the poetry of Verlaine, and has a horror of guns. Instead of the oh-so-cultured Westerner and the brutal gun-toting Arab à la True Lies, or indeed any Hollywood film since Delta Force, the roles are reversed. Once the interrogation begins, however, it is game on. The dialogue is punishing:
Hussein al-Zawiya: And as for “unstable,” Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was president of Tunisia for 24 years, Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled Yemen for 34 years, Muammar Gaddafi Libya for 40 years. These are hardly unstable regimes.
Eleanor: You make it sound as if people should be happy to live under a dictatorship.
Hussein al-Zawiya: Hardly a dictatorship. Did you know that President Assad was elected several times into office?
Eleanor: I know this. Some very dodgy elections were held, yes.
Hussein al-Zawiya: I see. So if I understand you correctly, your belief is that a legitimately elected government may be brought down by an angry mob?
Eleanor: No, of course not, but this isn’t a legitimate government by any reasonable standard.
Hussein al-Zawiya: So again, just for my own clarity, your belief is that unless a democratic system is perfect, it has no legitimacy and the government that it produces may be brought down by an angry mob?
Eleanor: No, but angry mob is a leading phrase.
Hussein al-Zawiya: Perhaps I might be permitted to put it like this. In your political theory unless the electoral system is flawless, governments can quite reasonably be brought down by armed crowds.
Eleanor: I think yes, the voice of the people should prevail, yes!
Hussein al-Zawiya: Is your own electoral system at home in England a perfect system?
Eleanor: No. But anyway I’m not English.
Hussein al-Zawiya: Well, quite so. And do you think a group of armed protesters should be supported if they wish to bring down the British government?
Eleanor: I’m not exactly saying that.
Hussein al-Zawiya: Well, what are you saying?!
Eleanor: Why am I here?
What Mr. Rebellato understands that few other writers do is that the reason most topical drama fails is the reason most drama fails: all the good arguments for the sympathy of the author get stuck into the mouth of the sympathetic character(s). In Somewhere this is not the case. Quite the opposite. Ellie’s arguments are weak, her character is feeble and she comes off as largely clueless. Her Syrian protector makes all the good arguments, has a positively charming character, and holds all the knowledge, not only about his own culture but also about Ellie’s.
This is brilliant work. Mr. Rebellato’s handling of a seemingly quite ordinary premise puts the humanity back into an issue that standard reportage seeks to deny. Compared with the political dogma of “positive signs of progress” in the so-called Arab world, this trilogy of plays are a firm reminder that eliminating the human element from all of these political discussions, and indeed from our news itself, is not progress at all. The final play, Somewhere, only resolves when the two characters can finally see each other’s human motivations instead of viewing each other as stereotypes. In this way, the play reminds listeners of the purpose of art: not to bring us the news but to make palpable the poetry that the newspapers and television ignore.
Negative Signs of Progress is not a mere “human interest story” that falls easily into the clichés of the worse dramas on Woman’s Hour on Radio Four. Audiences do not need more simplification of issues in the world, they need easier access to those issues–and better guides. Mr. Rebellato is a fine guide. He retains complexity and respect for his audience while never condescending to them. His work is a hopeful example for future topical dramas which I pray the BBC and others heed.