What makes a story valuable?
What makes a story true?
What makes a story theatrical?
Rabih Mroué’s latest piece at On the Boards brings all three of these questions to the fore. Mr. Mroué’s work has always dealt with the slippery notion of identity. Even the titles of his work will tell you so: Who’s Afraid of Representation?, The Inhabitants of Images, Looking for a Missing Employee…and so on. In Riding on a Cloud the type of inquiry remains the same. Here, however, he has turned away from the question of political identity that infuses The Pixelated Revolution toward the question of personal identity.
The inquiry is far from new. It is the heart of Jim McBride’s 1973 docu-mock David Holzman’s Diary. In that film, David’s friend Pepe schools him:
What you want to do is think about your life, find out the truth.… You don’t understand the basic principle. As soon as you start filming something, whatever happens in front of the camera is not reality anymore. It becomes part of something else. It becomes a movie. You start becoming very self-conscious about everything you do. Should I put my hand here, should I put my hand here? Should I place myself in this part of the frame, should I place myself in this side of the frame? And your decisions stop being moral decisions and start being aesthetical decisions. And your whole life stops being your life and starts being a work of art.
Mr. Mroué understands this. He has said himself:
Someone might say that Yasser was not playing a role or acting as a figure but he was performing as himself. It might appear like he is not playing a role, but in fact he was. He was actually playing two roles; himself (let’s call it “real” Yasser), and another one that I invented for him (let’s call it fictional Yasser). Even if the differences between the two characters are minimal in comparison to Yasser in life, still both of them are not really Yasser. The question of how we can represent a character on stage is one of my concerns as a theatre-maker.
In short, what is true of cinema is true of theater–and indeed any other art in which a human hand or human mind is responsible: the creative intelligence selects, frames, composes, distorts.
And so when Mr. Mroué’s “Yasser” begins to tell his deeply personal story about being shot in the head on the day of his father’s assassination, several questions come to the fore that audiences simply assume have already been answered, but have not. Is this story even real? It seems so coincidental. I mean, really, he gets shot in the head and lives? And his father gets assassinated? And this happens on the same day? What are the odds? Even if it is real, is it real for Yasser, or is he telling someone else’s story–the director’s or playwright’s or another person entirely? And is it essential for the audience that the story be true at all? Is its verisimilitude enough? And what is the basis for an American audience’s judgment of verisimilitude, and is it different from a Lebanese audience’s and why and how and–and–and–
The difference between Mr. Mroué’s approach and that of post-modernist American theater is that he calls attention to the fluidity of fiction and fact as a matter of course, rather than a rationale for cynicism. Where the American theater treats the subject of representation at all, it tends to be shrill, like the cry of a child who has just found out that adults are not infallible and justice is not a given. American theater’s arguments over identity politics and “representation” are politicized before they are dramatized. Much of this stems from a tradition of credulity–that everything on stage forms a kind of reality, and so it is vital to argue about who controls the reality. Mr. Mroué’s work does not share such credulity. It aims at every turn to remind the audience the fiction and reality are inseparable, so that the real question is which fictions and which realities one will choose.
In Riding on a Cloud the fiction/reality combines documents, written text and sound clips with Yasser’s own vocal narration. This fractional approach forces the audience to consider the artificiality of the story yet at the same time increases the emotional intensity of the storytelling. It is the lesson from Brecht’s V-Effekt: distance does not eliminate emotion, it simply allows the audience to accept or reject emotion on its own terms.
Here the emotion is intense because, I think, it has been lived. The performer/narrator calls no attention to it.
As the play draws to its close, and Yasser’s altogether extraordinary story is winding down, there is a plain-text argument on the screen behind the performer. In it Rabih (whoever he is) and Yasser (whoever he is) are discussing Rabih’s idea to make a play from Yasser’s life story. Yasser replies that it is uninteresting. Rabih agrees. After hearing the story of someone shot through the head, losing his language and body functions, the audience hears that both of its creators think the story is unexceptional and dull. It isn’t, yet one must take it all at face value: this is a boring, uninteresting story. Yet they act as if it has value. Not just the value of a mere sob story told to manipulate audience emotions or offer a bourgeois catharsis: this story, like all stories, offers the audience a gateway into a world in which one thinks actively about storytelling, its value, its purpose, and all its many facets.
As the play closes, the director himself sits down with his brother Yasser and begins to sing and play the guitar together. Truly together: Yasser strums and Rabih plays the fretboard, each with his opposite hand–a powerful image of togetherness and collaboration in this great world of fiction/reality.