Like a talisman, theater has that magical quality of transforming, in a mere gesture, families or friend groups into single representative images of entire civilizations, nations and colleges. Oedipus, for example, might sleep with Hamlet’s mother on stage. Hamlet’s mother might move on from the Lewinsky affair and run for president. Lewinsky might be forgotten, but the stain is not. See what I just did? The news, as the bastard child of theater and history, erases the chalk line separating mass politics from drama in a smudge of sensationalist propaganda. Google “Monica” and “stain” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
“Mad Forest” begins from exactly this supposition: that single families, anecdotes and symbols can act as windows into the soul of Romania during 1989’s civil strife, like the American mass-media, beginning from a standpoint in 1998, and supposing a single stain can act as a window into a presidency. They draw their magical power from precisely what isn’t being said.
The dinner table, at whose side the characters of these families eat, argue, drink and survive, is magical. From the beginning to the end of the play, the fathers, the mothers, the rowdy, revolutionary sons and the practical, Americanized daughters of Romania all seem to pull out their chairs, as representative images for their audiences, their intimate guests and their critical gazes, to sit upon. One might even fall in love with these images, as one falls in love with the simple predictability of CNN or Fox News.
The families in the revolution are the axes around which the planet of “Mad Forest” spins and collides with Swarthmore. Nothing brings a nation or a family closer together than the specter of death and disaster, or that of joblessness. And the disaster, in all its intimate invasions of privacy, evokes sentiments similar to those that an unemployed Swarthmore senior might feel during a Career Services-sponsored presentation by an obscenely wealthy tech company. The corporate tech-family that the unemployed student sees on the screen, inhabiting uber-modern offices, embracing one another and smiling in the frame of the PowerPoint, all wearing the same company logos on their shirts, like a revolutionary cult, disarms him. Most students can’t afford the emotional capacity needed in order to defend themselves and their identities of choice from the opportunity of “mattering,” of becoming a part of the tech-family and from doing exactly the type of things “that matter,” as Google put it during a presentation to non-technical majors. It’s so magically, spiritually violent and like love: seductive.
But this “symbolic” violence, like that intimate betrayal of an idea or of a lying child, portrayed on a stage, is the type of violence that’s specific to a chalk piece, not to a knife, or a nuclear bomb, necessarily. This violence is the stuff that dreams are made of, dependent upon a suspension of disbelief. Only thinking makes it so.
In “Mad Forest,” however, the talisman is uniquely symbolic. Instead of simulating the violence of a revolution with poison and swords, this talisman simulates the very real politics of 1989 Romania at, of all places, the dinner table. The very real oppression repeatedly invades the privacy of the home in uncomfortable dinner topics, drinking bouts and love affairs; the very real history and the very real thousands of deaths in the street battles of Timișoara and Bucharest are alluded to in confessions given by actors standing up from creaky wooden chairs; the murders are narrated and represented to the audience with emotions and street-level exchanges that seem more real than the events must have originally to Americans, in their distant, artificial “breaking news” realities in 1989. These emotions emerge fully unclothed in all their anxious fury at the end of the play during a wedding, when the family collectively drinks itself into oblivion. Nothing it seems is ever left completely closed, settled, or internalized.
In an age where politics’ monopoly on the legitimate use of information has been subsumed by segmented search engine preferences and by the customization of news preferences to cater to what people want to see and hear, rather than what is, Romania in 1989 is as unimaginable to internet-users today as a return to their disconnected childhoods. The audience didn’t have Google. Neither did Romania. But somehow there were the links, the information and the values needed in order to empower it, empowered in ways the links, information and values, today, leave users forgetful, dependent and powerless.
When I wrote this article, I didn’t think it possible to transgress the boundaries drawn on the chalkboard floors of “Mad Forest,” first between audience and play and, second, between symbolic and real violence. In desperation, I internalized the violent temporality of the chalk lines before they could be wiped away by the tech staff during the two-and-a-half hour-long play’s intermission. I projected the banality of my own personal revolution onto the stage. I longed to be as authentic as the sound of chalk tracing the timeline of the revolution, drawing out a geography of values, streets, tanks and the people using and being used by them.
“Mad Forest” is full of doubts; partially because it’s a fictional play, in an admittedly non-fictional setting, a scattered discontinuous narrative comprised of vignettes, allegories and the politically charged identities which give them meaning; and yet, despite the mere facts of these limitations, “Mad Forest” represents reality better than any history textbook’s statistics. “Mad Forest” is tragic, in all its fluctuating relevance and in the miscalculated embouchures of its actors’ many butchered Romanian accents, like how an impressionist painter’s brush represents the illusory nature of the frame.
No one in the play is guilty of murder, at least for all we know; and yet everyone, including the audience, begins, at one point or another, to unconsciously feel, if not act, just like the actors, as though they were guilty of covering up the blood on the streets with fresh asphalt, guilty of the shots being fired from all directions and guilty of the tanks driving into the crowd. It’s as though all mankind takes on the guilt for the failure and violence of any one man; and that all the world’s nations were guilty for the failures and violence of any one nation. This sentiment is magical, even if it’s a fictitious.
“I had to think of the children,” said one of the Romanians, standing contemplatively before his weak, wooden chair, looking not so much into the eyes of the audience as through them, describing the street battles in retrospect, and the reason he didn’t attend to the barricades. Magic today is as melancholic as admitting the fact that you and your writing are responsible for others’ well-being when a revolution is taking place.
“What times are these,” wrote Bertolt Brecht, “when a dialogue about a tree is almost a crime!”
The tree erected over the stage in the final third of the play doesn’t speak, but it serves as a foil to the violent human drama. It doesn’t have any leaves. There something in the tree that is futile, useless and frivolous. Its autonomous unity makes us pause. For while people in society are objects of use, like the wooden chairs, there’s something within the tree as there is in art: something that cannot be utilized. And while new tyrants and coercive regimes might make careers out of revolutions; and brilliant students might make careers out of “doing things that matter” at Google, the image of authenticity, like the tree, will leave an imprint of who we were, what we did and the immaterial worlds we lost access to, like magic.