I didn’t clap at all during the four standing ovations the actors of Belarus Free Theatre received after their premiere performance of Being Harold Pinter at the Goodman Theatre back in January. Instead, I stood paralyzed as I watched the humble cast bowing through their cascade of tears. My hands clasped together pushing up against my chest, as I desperately sought to swallow the festering nerves that brewed in my stomach. It was an experience my body had no autopilot for.
I feared people would soon exit the theatre and their shock would dissolve to only gratitude — gratitude based on a false assumption we live in a place where the horrors just presented do no still exist on some level. The cast, on the other hand, would be left with no such escape or delusion when they exit the theatre only to return to the realities and fears they just shared.
In trying to process my reaction, I discovered that I walked into the theatre (though aware of the grave nature of the performance), expecting to leave with a sense of hope. I recalled working on The Theatre School’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman; and though this play engaged similar issues of state censorship, torture, and politics, it ends on a note of triumph. Despite Katurian’s execution, his stories get saved. The dramatic conventions of the play allow Katurian, after being shot, to remove the bag that covers his bloodied head, and witness the final moments where Detective Ariel decides not to burn Katurian’s stories. In lieu of the play’s horrors that speak to the reality of Czechoslovakia’s treacherous political climate after the 1968 invasion that crushed the liberalizing Prague Spring, the audience is assured a happy ending. And while this moment is partially the culminating gesture of Katurian’s escapism, its presence and finality makes a claim of truth — setting the expectation that of justice or optimism will prevail.
It leaves the audience with an answer, not a question. In Pinter’s Nobel Prize lecture, which frames the scenes and stories within Being Harold Pinter, he states that truth in drama is and should be elusive, yet the search for it is compulsive. Theatre’s job, then, must be to feed this compulsion. If theatre preaches one truth or provides one answer, it is simply reduced to politics. So, while some news headlines have heralded Belarus Free Theatre’s work as ingenious political theatre, it actually resists Pinter’s definition of political. Being Harold Pinter barrages the audience with harrowing scenes of torture and violence that escalate from domestic violence to the greater universal violence that pollutes the psyche of an individual.
And thus, through Being Harold Pinter’s exploration of the dynamics of power (the impetus of politics), the beliefs to which we are so desperately tempted to cling begin to disappear. The truths we once knew: gone.
Appropriately, towards the end of Being Harold Pinter, the entire theatre is cast in darkness as the ensemble members share true accounts of the violence and abuse suffered by current citizens in Belarus. As Pinter states, we as human beings, must continually grapple in this dark striving to collide with the dispersed shards of truth — something that we can only do when we are stripped of all certainty, all hope, and left only with questions. In this way, maybe my initial disillusionment with the world around me after seeing Being Harold Pinter is the ideal response to theatre that intends to provoke a continued awakening to the world around us. Vaclav Havel, theatre artist and activist himself, aptly put, “Isn’t the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing absurdity.”
Clips of video from Being Harold Pinter
Pinter’s Speech link
News article on background story of Belarus Theater in Chicago