The American Voice: The Maps We Live On
More and more, I have less time in the morning to take in the news before heading to work, which leads me to websites like reddit.com (“The Front Page of the Internet”), a thorough round-up from sources scattered all over the world. This morning brought me to The Guardian, the Hindustan Times, New Zealand Herald, Democracy Now, and Slashdot all in the course of about twenty minutes, at which point I snuck a peek at Facebook to see photos someone posted of me in summer camp about 23 years ago. This is the way our daily narratives are formed, not linearly but through networks and associations. My intake of the world while casually eating breakfast cereal and calibrating my day didn’t follow a straight line (a copy of the Times) so much as a multi-dimensional map that whisked me all over the globe and back-and-forth through decades.
And now I’m at work, sitting cross-legged in my cubicle chair, thinking about writing about Madeleine George’s plays. I could talk about the intense curiosity that so evidently drives her to write; or her unrelenting inspection of our flaws and the zeitgeist that nurtures them; or the precision with which she articulates these. I could also talk about her characters, each a particular genius, whether academic, mystic, armchair philosopher or city auditor; or how she allows us to see past their sharp critical faculties into the human wounds that propel them. I could also focus on the sheer pleasure of her line-to-line writing, her gymnastic wit and how she manages to turn even the most blustery rant into an astonished revelation when least expected. But all of this is readily apparent within moments of encountering her work. And, really, an account of Madeleine’s writing that’s actually insightful should behave like her plays themselves, searching beyond their conspicuous traits for the patterns underneath. Because, like a sort of present-era Shaw, when she chases an idea, she chases it down to its naked, nervy essence; she looks for the DNA.
In his 2001 essay “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” futurist (and terrifying genius) Raymond Kurzweil wrote that “an analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense ‘intuitive linear’ view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate).” It’s an overwhelming notion that rings dizzyingly true when one thinks of the difference between a single day today and one a decade ago, when we were centuries younger; before the relative simplicity of landlines, single email accounts, DVDs and newspapers splintered into the options at our fingertips today: smartphones, Facebook, YouTube and the blogosphere. If Kurzweil is right, it’s hard not to be cowed by how our perception of time and the way we process information is changing.
In a recent email, Madeleine described The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence as part of her “ongoing project of trying to write [her] way to an ethical existence.” Each play she’s written to date is in pursuit of understanding how we might move through the world better, of seeing past intelligence and posturing to the human vulnerability that compromises integrity. Her body of work is populated by brilliant, headstrong characters who, despite their wit and facility with language, are emotionally lost and fighting to make sense of the world in the present tense. But the present tense is rapidly changing, and the way we tell stories necessarily changes with it. Until fairly recently, narratives built on linear causality seemed to mirror the shape of our lives as we perceived them unfolding in front of us: the hands of the clock move forward through the day as it progresses into night, and we get older. But technology has changed the way we perceive time moving (the subject of Douglas Rushkoff’s terrific book Present Shock), and, as Aristotelian story mechanics gradually become a less useful way to navigate the world, stories begin to resemble the behavior of technology, finding narrative and meaning in the search for connections, associations and patterns. It’s a compression of space and time, where everything is related to everything else and time becomes a constant present.
A look at Madeleine’s plays to date reveals a dramaturgy that’s built like the new map we live on: she finds unexpected connections, following a network that takes us freely through time and space and a through-line that’s associative rather than linear. In The Zero Hour (2002), Rebecca, a closeted lesbian, is hired to write an educational textbook about the Holocaust. As her sexual identity becomes increasingly hard to compartmentalize, her daily commute on the 7 train is invaded by unwelcome guests: World War II era Nazis who hold an all-too-clear mirror up to her life. Precious Little (2009) focuses on Brodie, a brilliant, sharp-tongued linguist whose life is upturned when she’s told her unborn child may have a birth defect. Whisking us from Brodie’s lab, where she attempts to record a dying ancient language, to the local zoo, where she grows obsessed with the elegance of an ape that's newly installed there, this play intertwines three narratives that show scientific methodology dumbfounded in the presence of actual science and its imprecision. In Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England (2011), subtitled “an academic sex comedy,” the story of an untenable love triangle is mirrored by the impending closure of a once-vital natural history museum; as the museum’s history comes to life, it echoes these failing relationships to create a portrait of extinction, of the difficult passage from one era into the next. The Watson Intelligence speaks to our creation of and dependence upon the machines we make, spinning us between four plots that span more than a century, hop continents and alternate between historical truth and fiction, all compressed onto one map. It strikes me as a confluence of content and the form that holds it. Questioning our relationship to technology, the play itself seems constructed to reflect this relationship and its effect on us.
“Within a few decades,” Raymond Kurzweil continues, “machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to the Singularity – technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.” This is the terrain of Madeleine’s new play, not only its subject but also the ground on which it’s built. But “intelligence” is the capacity to understand, not understanding itself. Madeleine’s plays show highly intelligent characters, both humans and machines, working to fit the pieces of a puzzle together. But intelligence alone, whether organic or artifical, doesn’t enrich our sense of empathy, our grasp of human emotions or our connection to the world. Among the many things that kill me about Watson every time I read it is the simple fact that it takes the form of a play. An ardent cry for real communication in an increasingly mechanized world, it’s hard not to read it as a sort of love letter to the theater – a medium whose very nature trades on this.
Director of New Play Development