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“We’re living in America according to the principles of Western society.” —Veronica, God of Carnage
I should be friends with Veronica Novak. She buys locally-grown kale (when it’s in season). She goes to First Thursdays at SAM. She is appalled by Seattle Police shootings and knew Darfur was genocide long before the term was used by UN officials. Like me, she believes in a society made better by civilized dialogue between equals, and for this quintessentially liberal belief, Yasmina Reza has trained her sights on Veronica, slowly transforming her from a civilized lover of social justice into a foul-mouthed drunk who hurls handbags across her living room.
But God of Carnage is not about the easy irony of adults regressing to childish behavior. It is a play that implodes the liberal world view which is, at its heart, a vision of social harmony and justice made real by the supposedly healing power of words. This is the Obama paradigm, a paradigm based that responds to Rodney King’s post-beating plea of 1991: “Can’t we all get along?” with a vibrant “Yes We Can.” So why would Reza implode such a noble ideal? Because, according to God of Carnage, that ideal is a mirage. Worse than a mirage, it is a stumbling block.
“The main thing is that the children speak to one another.” —Annette to Veronica
The key to God of Carnage is the opening conceit: an act of playground violence has been committed (little Benjamin literally beats the teeth out of little Henry Novak’s head with a stick), and the parents have decided to remedy the scenario with a mature discussion. The first component of the liberal stumbling block is a belief in a magical, transubstantiative quality of language. Michael and Veronica (victim Henry’s parents) invite Alan and Annette (Benjamin’s parents) to their home under the ethos that “an enemy is one whose story we have not heard,” to repeat the words of the oft-quoted peace activist Gene Knudson-Goffman. The idea is that once Michael and Veronica hear Benjamin’s story, they will see him not as the boy who disfigured their son but as a good child who made a mistake. It is hard to avoid the religious/magical implications of such a belief, and yet this is the ethos underlying the liberal concept of justice, typified by the famous peace processes of the 1990’s and early 2000’s: the 1995 South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the 1998 Good Friday Agreements in Belfast, and the 2001 Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación in Peru. These events consciously avoided Nuremberg-style justice, in which bad people were punished for doing bad things. Instead, the goal was unity. And it is this ethos that Veronica initially subscribes to, telling Annette, “If Benjamin is forced to meet Henry in a punitive context, I can’t see how the results would be very positive.”
“Fortunately, there is still such a thing as the art of coexistence, isn’t there?” —Veronica
This post-Nuremberg ethos operates under the notion that both sides of a conflict embody a blend of victim and aggressor. The goal of justice, then, is not to punish the aggressor (because there is no “pure” aggressor according to liberal justice) but to achieve an idyllic unity, where the traditional “aggressor” has the opportunity “to contribute to the creation of a new […] society,” to use the language of the South African TRC. This idyllic unity is the natural and necessary endpoint for human society. Thus, Rodney King’s plea has been embraced, buttressed, and exported as a mission statement of liberal justice: We can all get along and we will all get along. Decades before the King beating, W.H. Auden initially chose a similar imperative as the final line of his poem, September 1, 1939: “We must love one another or die.” If Henry and Benjamin are simply placed in a room together, they will, like the Black South Africans and the apartheid government, naturally become friends.
“I don’t see why we should give up the struggle just because it’s in our own backyard.” —Veronica
But why does this liberal justice fail in God of Carnage? In a word: Proximity. Veronica’s books about Sudan can be as idealistic or critical as need be because Sudan is far away. Alan is right to point out that “It makes no difference” what the topic of her book is. She is free to say “I’m very interested in that part of the world” because she has not had her family victimized by Janjaweed militiamen or the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement. But once the violence is in her backyard, her tune changes: “There are not wrongs on both sides! Don’t mix up the victims and the executioners!” She returns to Nuremberg justice, the “punitive context” she once disavowed. And this conversion is perhaps the most important movement in the play. Veronica’s early attempts “to rise above petty-mindedness” result in bickering and name-calling. “Courtesy is a waste of time,” she says. “It weakens you and undermines you.” She, like Auden, alters her stance. In 1955, Auden changed the last line of September 1, 1939 to “We must love one another and die” (emphasis mine) because he regarded the previous incarnation as a lie. (He is later quoted as telling critic Laurence Lerner: “Between you and me, I loathe that poem.”) Even Obama, who ran on an anti-war platform in 2008, said in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms…the instruments of war have a role to play in preserving peace.” Veronica is forced to alter her stance because rather than acknowledging and circumventing violence, she has maintained an obscene denial that violence is somehow at the root of law and social order. (Why do police carry handguns? To what extent are police shootings a necessary reminder that the law is backed by force?) This is why the violence erupts in Veronica’s living room. Violence occupies the role of the Freudian symptom—a repressed reality that will find a way to express itself until it is acknowledged. And so until Veronica admits her desire for Nuremberg justice, she will continue to find herself physically attacking her husband and hurling purses across her living room.
“What were we supposed to do? Sue you? Not speak to one another and try to slaughter each other with insurance claims?” —Veronica
According to Reza’s play, liberal justice rests on a tacit dance of social niceties. Only after Nuremberg justice has been established—once the verdict has been given by a court capable of enforcing the punishment—can the victim “be the bigger person” and say: “Oh, I don’t desire such punishment. Grant them pardon.” When there is an omission of Nuremberg justice, something goes terribly awry. This is what led to the complaint most commonly lodged against the South African TRC—while the international community heralded the Commission, Black South Africans were outraged that amnesty was granted to the apartheid government after a simple apology. Magic words were not enough for them. If there is no real threat of punishment, liberal justice perpetuates the discrepancy between “victims” and “executioners.” And so if Reza is right, Nuremberg justice must be offered before it can be turned down, and justice is contingent on the threat of violence. If she is wrong, words can heal. Swords may be beaten into Truth and Reconciliation halls. The fate of our cocktail conversation hangs in the balance.
Author Neil Ferron is a member of the Seattle Rep artistic department.
We’ve been getting a lot of e-mails asking about the music in God of Carnage. So Sound Designer Matt Starritt (of the previous blog post) was kind of enough to provide us with a list of what he chose for the show.
The French music is:
The intro and outro music is Big Guitars from Texas.
A couple of weeks ago I had breakfast with God of Carnage sound designer Matt Starritt (well, he had breakfast: eggs and potatoes) at People’s Republic of Koffee in Capitol Hill. Matt, at just 28, is one of the city’s hardest working sound designers, and certainly a regular here at the Rep. That wall-shaking train in Glengarry Glen Ross? All Matt. Violins (Opus), Christmas carols (The Seafarer), and the end of the world (boom)? Yep, yep, and yep.
God of Carnage is Matt’s eighth show here (and later this season he’ll come back for The K of D, an urban legend). Here’s our full conversation on God, making soup from sound, and why the heck you even need a sound designer.
Let’s start with your background. How did you get into sound design?
Matt Starritt: I did a little bit of sound and equipment set up in high school and had a really good time, but I didn’t even now what design was until I started designing for the U. [University of Washington]. I ended up getting a job with the shop as a carpenter and they found out I could run a sound board and they started putting me on the graduate shows as a designer before I even knew what that meant. I was doing 3-4 shows a quarter for them figuring it out as I went. It’s all been very hands on and by watching the other designers and figuring out their process and figuring out how that would relate to sound, or not sometimes. Then we started WET [Washington Ensemble Theatre] right after that, and I was the only sound designer anyone knew and they were like, “Come start a theatre company with us!”