In theory, a new play on words

June 7, 2002

'Theory' is not an obvious candidate for theatrical treatment, but playwright Steve Waters argues that the philosophical musings of Bachelard and Barthes are the stuff of everyday life.

Accounts of academic life in the theatre are relatively rare, in marked contrast to the novel. Perhaps this is unsurprising - as a private form the novel is better placed to examine the relationship between knowledge and experience; for the theatre, such concerns are often deemed too difficult for the general audience or too internal for a medium that thrives on action.

When playwrights have taken on the academy, the key concern has been political correctness, with universities revealed as hotbeds of social and sexual struggle rather than oases of calm. I have long sought a way to present the contradictions of such experiences in dramatic form. My play, After the Gods , attempts to make sense of the relationship between ideas and the lives that produce them, the allure of theory and its value in action, and the strange sociology of the contemporary academy.

The hermetic universe of higher education is often symptomatic of a wider world increasingly saturated in representations, where the "real" is becoming harder to locate. When my apostate academic Stephen Fulton complains that literary criticism is an affair of "commentaries on commentaries on commentaries", he describes a more generalised problem. The postmodernism that exercises my characters is no mere debate, it is part of the landscape that we all inhabit, albeit in the valleys and foothills. My characters merely live nearer to the mountains.

Indeed, despite its separate status, the very fabric of academic life offers a distorted mirror-image of the transformations we all face. For those who have moved on to jobs in corporations or hard-pressed services their alma mater lingers in the memory as a place of cushy numbers, unassailable contracts and minimal management. But closer observation reveals that the frenetic pulse of modern work beats there too, evident in the pauperisation of academic posts, the focus on outputs, the growth of league tables and star systems, the flow-throughs of increasing masses of students with decreasing motivation.

What is fascinating for the dramatist is the corresponding personal politics that accompany such changes, the hardening of the feudal relationships that underpin scholarly advancement and the blurring of boundaries between person and performance.

Beyond this anthropological framework, the play examines the ideas in circulation, ideas that spill beyond erudite papers and into our daily lives, ideas summed up in the blunt portmanteau term "theory". When I was an undergraduate in the 1980s, "theory" offered the promise of a sort of contraband knowledge, a distant horizon of continental stars who could turn my provincial soul inside out. I learnt that the self I was jealously trying to maintain intact was an arbitrary construct with no real centre. Suddenly I discovered I was white and, worse, male. At outlaw seminars with underground academics we were informed that the canon was a conspiracy, the symptom of a historical pathology. And then there was the new lexicon, the code words: metatext, signifier, difference, aporia, metonymy, chronotype. And the names: Bachelard, Bakthin, Barthes, Bataille, Baudrillard (and this was only the B's). For a while I kept up, but I remember sitting in a seminar hearing some sour sharp guy outline the shortcomings of one theory versus another and I realised that I just did not want to think that deeply about anything. I wanted to step back from the mountain.

Years later I found myself creating a series of characters who negotiate careers and sexual and social lives bereft of the comforts of ignorance. The pivotal figure is a philosopher called Michel Beaudricourt, modelled on exemplary thinkers such as Barthes, Foucault and, most closely of all, Louis Althusser, who infamously killed his wife in highly ambiguous circumstances.

Notorious for bringing the chilly insights of structuralism to bear on the ideas of Marx, Althusser was one of the more charmless figures in theory's pantheon. His account of our lives as a series of oppressions in what he called "ideological state apparatuses" and we call schools, churches and the local Scout group, proved irresistible in its rigour. At the back of his analyses lay an assumption he shared with his fellow theorists, namely that our subjectivities and capacity for independent action are utterly compromised by the language and forms we inhabit.

All this would be academic if it was not for the grim trajectory of Althusser's career - periodic spells in sanatoria, manic depression and a trickle of publications. But it is the impact of all this on his marriage that ensured his centrality in the play. The true cause of his wife's death - a neck massage turned murderous or an assisted suicide? - never came to light in court. All we have to go on is Althusser's bleak confession, The Future Lasts a Long Time , where the gravity of his crime defies analysis, revealing the shortcomings of the concepts he spent his life refining.

Althusser's predicament prompts a wider question: when traditional moral frameworks are dismantled, how do we live with and account for our inevitable fallibilities? And his story throws into relief the ethical dimension of the wider conclusions theory seems to necessitate. If language is fascist, as Barthes once commented, how do we live under its tyranny? If there is no outside text and all experience is already written and mediated, as Derrida seemed to imply, how do we forge authentic relationships? If all acts of speech are moves in an infinite chess-game of power, as Foucault's work suggests, how then are we supposed to love?

The necessary yet claustrophobic insights of theory that get under the skin are thoughts that cannot be unthought. After the Gods is an attempt to imagine how those who disentangle such knotty questions for a living cope with a more immediate moral challenge.

Theory has leaked into the water-table, its flavour evident in the reductive simplicities of the political-correctness debate, the semiotic sensitivities of our government or the preciousness of our identity-obsessed media. Indeed, wherever we take signs for substance, wherever irony interrupts our intuitive responses, wherever our language is more a mirror than a window, we bear witness to the concerns of a handful of French academics. Perhaps we are all theorists now.

Steve Waters is a playwright and director of studies in drama at Homerton College, Cambridge. After the Gods runs from June 12-July 6 at Hampstead Theatre, London.

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