A Theatrum Mundi at the Armory

Noah Kim


A Room in India
Performed by the Théâtre du Soleil, directed by Ariane Mnouchkine
Park Avenue Armory, from December 5 to December 20, 2017


DON DELILLO, THE CLOSEST THING America has to the Oracle of Delphi, was writing about the impotence of the artist in an age of terrorism even before 9/11. “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture,” says one of the protagonists of Mao II (published, amazingly, in 1991). “Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.” In other words, terrorists have used shock to appropriate the narrative quality of life itself.

Elsewhere, DeLillo has posited the Kennedy assassination as a harbinger of later massacres, using it to model a general formula of the contemporary terror event: A seemingly arbitrary act of violence committed by a nobody is blown out of proportion by obsessive media coverage. Images of the violence are broadcasted on television in never-ending loops. The endless replication of the event turns the act itself into a fiction and the perpetrator into an icon. In conclusion, “It is the individual himself, floating on random streams of disaffection, who tends to set the terms of the absurd.”

It’s probably not saying much to propose that the terrorist will be one of the enduring archetypes of our current moment. Few figures have so definitively altered the topography of the cultural and political landscape. Advances in technology have democratized the capacity to commit unspeakable violence, allowing even unaffiliated individuals to wreak havoc on their surroundings. DeLillo believes that artists serve a critical social function by affecting change in the collective consciousness. He draws from and builds upon politically engaged art such as Epic Theater and Surrealism, in the process becoming what James Wood (rather derisively) once deemed a “Frankfurt School entertainer.” But now at a time when both the media and the public are drunk on panic, terrorists have co-opted the ability of the socially-engaged artist to disrupt and disturb. Destructive, rather than creative, individuals are now exploding our moral fictions. What are artists to do when their power to make raids on human consciousness has been commandeered by the most alienated and disaffected members of society?

This question lies at the heart of Ariane Mnouchkine’s epic, unhinged, four-hour drama “A Room in India,” which seeks to dissect the role of art in an era defined by feelings of dread and unreality. Despite its numerous flaws, the play is a spectacular feat of technical ingenuity, creative passion, and moral investigation.

In The New Yorker, Cynthia Zarin has called the 78-year-old Mnouchkine “the reigning matriarch of European theater.” The director has spent her long and celebrated career seeking to reconcile politics and subjectivity, using art as a vehicle to interrogate the nature of the contemporary political experience. Her company, the Théâtre du Soleil rehearses at La Cartoucherie, a former munitions factory on the outskirts of Paris. Founded in 1964, the Théâtre still pays all of its members, including Mnouchkine, the same salary. Over the decades, it has become famous for pioneering a collaborative rehearsal process that combines the spontaneity of improvisation with the intentionality of exhaustive research. Welcoming and heterogeneous (26 different nationalities are represented across its 100 members, it has been lauded throughout the world for creating grand productions that nevertheless retain a sense of intimacy and communal spirit.

In a way, the play enacts its own creative process. As 2015 drew to a close, the Théâtre du Soleil was in Pondicherry to research the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, which they hoped to use as material for a new show. Their investigation was thrown off course when 130 people were killed in a series of coordinated terror attacks on Paris, culminating with the massacre at the Bataclan Theatre. The play that eventually came into being uneasily melds the heroic narratives of the epic with the emotions of helplessness, rage, and confusion surrounding the attacks.

“A Room in India” orients around an absurdly dysfunctional theater group (a self-parody on the part of the Théâtre du Soleil) stranded in India. The play’s action begins with Cornélia (Hélène Cinque), the hapless assistant director, receiving a visit from one Lieutenant Ganesh-Ganesh (Omid Rawendah). The lieutenant explains that Lear, the company’s volatile Japanese director, has just been arrested for public indecency, having climbed stark naked up a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, screaming the phrase “Antonin Artaud, help me!” To make matters even worse, an unnamed terrorist attack rocks the company’s native country of France, and a sinister government official named Inspector Dallègre (Duccio Bellugi-Vannuccini) arrives intent on shutting off their grant money funding.

It’s now up to Cornélia to corral the discouraged and disputatious company members and come up with an idea for a new play. The inexperienced assistant director is clearly out of her depth (“You! The fifth wheel!” one company member exclaims. “You who have never directed the smallest of scenes!”). Exhausted and hopeless, Cornélia seeks refuge in sleep, only to be tormented by what is either a series of dreams or a single extended reverie. Surreal vignettes, which range in tone from horrifying to hysterical, spring to life: The company’s gracious host Madam Sita Murti (Nirupama Nityanandan) faces off against a mafioso (Duccio Bellugi-Vannuccini) from the BJP, the Hindu Right party currently in power in India; a group of incompetent, ISIL-affiliated creatives attempt to put together a propaganda film announcing the imminent execution of all infidels; a pair of monkeys (Seear Kohi and Arman Saribekyan) creep into the room and begin to play with machine guns leftover from other skits; in a sequence performed in nightmarish slow motion, several of the company members weave a garment, eventually revealed to be an explosive vest to be worn on a suicide mission, for a small child; the Mahatma—Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Samir Abdul Jabbar Saed)—also makes an inexplicable cameo.

One-by-one, the actors of the company intrude on Cornélia’s sleep to suggest an important new topic for the play. One suggests that they touch on “What’s happening in Syria.” Another brings up the possibility of imminent water shortages resulting from environmental degradation. Still another proposes an epic drama about the European migrant crisis. “I think there are too many subjects,” gibbers a histrionic actress named Clara (Dominique Jambert), while Cornélia herself laments, “I want to be a geopolitical theatrical woman, but I’m not!”

Its structural chaos notwithstanding, the play stays rooted in the titular room in India—a moist, spacious guesthouse with vines twisting up columns and multiple ceiling fans. Cornélia herself never changes out of her nightgown as a steady stream of visitors file in and out of the room to raise, discuss, and dismiss contemporary issues. Characters enter the stage through every conceivable aperture—windows, doors, secret panels in the floor and ceiling.

Over the course of the play, the Théâtre du Soleil recreates two episodes of the Mahabharata in the Terukkuttu form, a ritualistic style of Tamil street drama and the oldest theatrical tradition still in existence. According to the program, the company-members were trained by a “master and guardian” of the Terukkuttu, and the reenactments allow them to put their virtuosity on full display as they engage in soaring, elaborately costumed acts of song, dance, and speech. The two stories staged are the Rape of Draupadi and the Death of Karna, both of which showcase resourceful women challenging brutal men in a militaristic, patriarchal culture. But not even the Mahabharata can provide solutions to the seemingly innumerable dilemmas raised throughout the play: Every performance is abbreviated by the ringing of a phone that wakes Cornélia just before some sort of conclusion is reached.

The play juxtaposes the Terukkuttu with a wide variety of dramatic modes. Seietsu Onochi and Man-Waï Fok act out excerpts from Act I, Scene i of King Lear in the Kabuki tradition (note that the name Cornélia is only slightly different from Cordelia). Shakespeare and his page offer encouragement to Cornélia after being blown into the room by a tempest. YouTube videos, social realism, surrealism and puppet theater are all briefly alluded to. Chekhov arrives to give Cornélia a physical, accompanied by three nurses named Olga, Masha, and Irina.

A four-hour play about a director trying to come up with an idea for a play might be the very definition of self-indulgence. But Mnouchkine’s drama circumvents the central problem of the avant-garde in that it is—thank God—entertaining. Most of Cornélia’s dreams are funny, and a few are hilarious. Bureaucrats from Saudi Arabia (ranked 141st in gender parity by the Global Gender Gap Report) videoconference with officials from Iceland (ranked 1st), hoping to get some advice on how to “do better” on women’s rights. The Saudis’ curiosity quickly turns to horror when their three interlocutors reveal themselves to be a lesbian, a gay man, and a woman with a stay-at-home husband, respectively. In a skit that seems more indebted to the Three Stooges than anything else, a group of bumbling Taliban members continually dial the wrong number on a cell phone bomb—“Make fun of the villains!” Cornélia exclaims, upon awakening, only to become wracked with doubt as to whether such satire is appropriate or effective. Despite its anarchic, playful ethos and a hefty dose of scatological humor (one recurring joke concerns Cornélia constantly running off to the bathroom to shit), the play never underplays the gravity of the events that it depicts. In a sobering moment that cleaves through all the accumulated irreverence, a video recording of a bloodied, dusty Syrian toddler—Omran Daqneesh, whose image went viral a year ago—is projected onto a screen. The predominant emotion in the audience is shame at ever having laughed.

Despite its multicultural emphasis and genuine effort to accommodate diverse perspectives, “A Room in India” doesn’t attempt to personalize or individuate its villains. Though not necessarily detrimental to the success of the broader piece, this is something of a missed opportunity. It could be argued that art is actually more equipped to tackle the topic of terrorism than its academic or journalistic counterparts. Political and sociological analysis often renders the motives of terrorism sensationally baffling (“at the end of the day, nobody will ever know what led this promising young student to detonate the bomb”) or reductively simplistic (it was because of Israeli aggression, American occupation, peer pressure, etc.). An empathetic artistic work might be the very thing that enables us to unpack the complex interaction between geopolitical disenfranchisement, ideological indoctrination, and individual psychology that would motivate an otherwise well-functioning person to slaughter a roomful of innocents. To embark on such a project, an artist would have to be responsible, knowledgeable, and compassionate (and most certainly not named John Updike). Alas, “A Room in India” is much more in line with the current trend of analysis, which is more concerned with the effect of the terrorist on Western psychology than the psychology of the terrorist himself.

This is understandable, given the context in which the play was generated. But one unfortunate side effect of foregrounding the French theater company as opposed to India is that some of the Muslim and Hindu characters are given short shrift. On occasion, their characterization can verge uncomfortably on ethnic caricature. It is of course a time-honored tradition for white artists to turn people from other countries into a supporting cast whose sole function is to facilitate a tourist’s revelation. (Sofia Coppola has built an entire career off this from Lost in Translation onward). But Mnouchkine and the Théâtre du Soleil redeem themselves by using the play as a platform to critique their own ignorance. A gruesome scene of torture takes a comic turn when it is revealed that the blood-soaked prisoner is actually an actor, rehearsing a scene in which somebody is being tortured. He begins to point out the inadequacy of his own representation, berating his fellow actors, who are playing terrorists, “Let’s admit we know nothing about the Middle East!”

There is substance to the company’s meta-theatricality beyond that of faddish postmodernism. One of the most interesting elements of “A Room in India” is that it is unclear exactly how much of it takes place within Cornélia’s head. Mnouchkine and her company blend dream and reality without clarifying which is which, thereby demonstrating that such a distinction barely matters in art. By obscuring the exact nature of events onstage, foregoing explanation and commentary, pointing out the inherent artificiality of their medium, and rooting most (perhaps all) of the drama within a character’s mind, Mnouchkine and her company bring a modernist sensibility to irrefutably political themes. This is a quietly subversive act in itself, largely because modernist introspection tends to be apolitical. Art that seeks to represent the privacies of thought cannot, by definition, engage with politics, since politics are interactive. Modernism cannot, by this definition, inspire people to action and social realism cannot inspire them to contemplation. Or so goes the binary. But this perspective presupposes that the subjective realm is impermeable to the forces acting on it from without. It reduces politics to an action as simple as pulling the lever of a voting booth. Mnouchkine understands that a play about the experience of living in a chaotic, modern world would somehow have to replicate that world’s sense of constant emergency, confusion, and artificiality to be authentic.

It’s genuinely exciting to watch a group of artists explode convention and refuse to work within the limited frameworks allotted to them by the wider culture. Mnouchkine and her company are wary of didacticism, using art to do what it does best: replicate the experiential quality of life as it is lived. More than almost any other modern play I’ve seen, “A Room in India” captures the feeling of living in a state of global panic, the struggle of inhabiting a world that seems to be spiraling toward disaster. At times, the play’s uncompromising depictions of injustice evoke in the spectator the exhaustion illustrated in the apocryphal story about John D. Rockefeller, who supposedly had his daily edition of The New York Times doctored to contain only good news. With so much suffering, so many horrific occurrences in the world, how do people decide where to direct their attention, much less their sympathy?

In the end, the play foregoes a definitive answer to the role of art in a world destabilized by terrorism. Mnouchkine never indulges easy fantasies about the healing potential of creativity. Scenes unabashed in their sincerity and hopefulness exist awkwardly alongside others that seem designed to quash the illusion that art has any meaningful power to console. The final scene of the play references the film “The Great Dictator,” which famously concludes with Charlie Chaplin, dressed as Adolf Hitler, delivering an anti-fascist paean to brotherhood and goodwill. “A Room in India” swaps out Chaplin’s Hitler surrogate with a menacing Ayatollah, who takes the stage flanked by armed guards only to deliver a message of democracy and hope. With so many instances of Islamist terrorism peppering the play, the optimistic rhetoric is a beam of light punctuating a sense of encroaching darkness, especially coming from such an unexpected source. However, just as the Ayatollah’s speech reaches its emotional peak, his guards turn on him, and he is cut down by a burst of gunfire.

But Cornélia refuses to let bigotry have the last word, protesting with a newfound sense of determination that “It does not end like that!” Together, the theater-members carry the wounded Ayatollah back to the podium, shoring him up as he finishes his speech. So, the artist is a support mechanism working alongside politicians and civilians, giving voice to those who were silenced mid-sentence. The ultimate message of the play resembles that of Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on the Concept of History,” when he wrote that it is the duty of artists, philosophers, and historians to dissociate themselves from narratives of power and disinter the “anonymous toil” of the defeated, people like the Ayatollah. Artists must memorialize those who the powerful attempted to obliterate from the historical narrative. In so doing, they defend the nature of reality from those who would seek to pervert it. By documenting the world as it is, an unfathomably complex and constantly evolving network, artists render it less likely to being boxed in by categorization and authoritarianism.

This is, needless to say, a rather sobering conclusion. Mnouchkine seems to agree with DeLillo that art has capitulated its ability to shape the cultural conversation. The utopian aspirations of serious social art to change the world for the better have been swapped out for the more modest but equally important goal of giving voice to the voiceless. Art must be more cautious, plodding, and self-questioning than it was in the past in order to posit a necessary alternative to terroristic disruption. Maybe, it can longer inspire unbelievers to revolution, but it can still chronicle the struggles of those who were never given their due.

All this is coupled with the fact that in the world of the play the dramatic medium itself seems to be under assault from nefarious forces. During one of Cornélia’s nightmares, a group of builders arrives to demolish her theater, a threat to which she responds with helpless hysteria. In a ridiculous subplot, a nervous, self-pitying arts administrator from the Alliance Française (Sylvain Jailloux) faces off against Inspector Dallègre, who accuses the company of using government money to make “pornography” (the Mahabharata contains some highly stylized sexuality). Nevertheless, economic hardship and state censorship are only two among many forces attempting to impede the production of serious art. The primary obstruction is an internal one that lies within the artist herself. The central problem that both Cornélia and Mnouchkine face is that they are unwilling to settle for anything less than a drama that will reflect the entire world. “Everything is in the Mahabharata. And they say what is not doesn’t exist,” says one of the play’s characters. This could also serve as a reflexive description of “A Room in India,” which models its source material by attempting to contain everything.

Many contemporary artists deal with the enormousness of the world by confining themselves to a particular locality. Rightly worried about biting off more than they can chew, they recreate small slices of personal reality rather than attempt to deal with vast, interconnected dramas playing out on the international level. Annie Baker spent much of her early career writing about the same small town in Vermont. Alice Munro generally restricts herself to the life of girls and women in the province of Ontario. Philip Roth developed an even narrower focus, writing exclusively about his penis and the many problems it caused when left to its own devices. While justified and unsurprising, the pressure to localize one’s art limits its ability to generate a seismic shift in society. Modesty curbs the imaginative potential of any medium. When unbounded, theater has the potential to give us a privileged look into social totalities that can, in our own lives, only be sensed. It allows us to grasp a whole that would be otherwise incomprehensible in everyday life.

Despite its ample self-critique, “A Room in India” could only have been made by a group of artists in full command of their craft and a director with massive self-confidence and generosity of spirit. The only analogues I can think of are the 60s films of Jean-Luc Godard (“La Chinoise,” “Weekend,” and “Masculin, Féminin”), the late films of Edward Yang (“A Brighter Summer Day,” “Mahjong,” and “A Confucian Confusion”), and the thicker novels of Don DeLillo (“Underworld” and “Mao II”). All of these works share the play’s mosaic structure, irony, and political urgency. They seek to crystallize a moment in time and, in doing so, serve as alarm bells in the night of globalized terror. In an era of moderated, diffident theater, it’s rare that a group of artists would possess both the foolhardy ambition to generate a microcosm of the world entire and the skill to bring it to life. Such creative endeavors, when accomplished with such passion and skill, deserve to be praised and discussed. Though I doubt that Mnouchkine would be happy with either label, this is the sort of play that might be deemed a swan song or a magnum opus.