Why is it that we feel so bad about the things we’ll miss out on after we die, but never regret all the things we missed before we were born? Is it because we’ve now caught up with the plot, got involved in the story, and want to know how everything will turn out? Are story and plot, then, other names for life itself?
That was the conceit — diabolically literalized — behind that most famous of “publish or perish” sagas, The Thousand and One Arabian Nights. A failure of Scheherazade’s narrative invention would end more than her story: it would finish her life.
Forced Entertainment’s version, tantalizingly titled And on the Thousandth Night…, both raises the stakes and lowers them. No one’s going to die, that edge is off, but this is theater — with living, breathing, talking people who ply the trade of story-telling with what the director, Tim Etchells, calls “a cut-throat playfulness.” Specifically, they can’t and won’t let any story finish, though they’re free to wield their word-scalpel — “stop!” — as and when they please: withholding it, if they wish, from stalled tales in desperate need of closure, or abruptly slicing it into a juicily ripening piece of narrative fruit.
The tellers are pretend kings and queens, the listeners are just us. Crowned and robed though they are, they’re in for the duration (though they’re permitted short breaks, even naps). We, the untitled, can leave whenever we want. Of course that’s how it always is in the theatre, but here — when the duration stretches hours beyond the span we’re used to, that little drama of freedom and necessity morphs into other things, including the ontological plunge with which I began here: are plot and story the doubles of life? Is theatre? (Was Artaud right?) As the stories go on (and on and on), they spawn sporadic speculations about what kind of experience we audience members are having, and what it might imply: does our listening make us necessary? Powerful? Responsible?
Certainly, listening in this way underlines our co-presence with the actors. As the royals recount and regale, we listen and breathe. We’re absorbed, amused, bemused, bewildered, bored, a thousand and one other things. But always, also, we’re breathing, living. The longer we’re there, the more the modes of our presence rise up to present themselves to our consciousness. Breathing and living — and thinking, feeling, day-dreaming, mind-wandering, foot-cramping, stomach-growling, dozing, itching, sweating — gradually reveal an organicism with dying: the stories and the “stops” two sides of a coin. (We can turn off our “WeCroak” app, no need now to be Dharma-reminded of the great nothingness within which we’re strutting and fretting.)
In And on the Thousandth Night…, Forced Entertainment’s wonderfully oxymoronic company name becomes a new kind of invitation to the audience. When you’re in the hands of a group of performers who’ve spent three decades exploring the riskier edges of improvisation and durational performance and devised theater, being entertained becomes a compelling calling, even a philosophical prospect. The company’s interest in creating and inhabiting fragile states of being — their cultivation of vulnerability and precarity, their openness to chaos and disorder — have made them the ironic kings of an aesthetic of powerlessness, accidental masters of failure. The spectator they invite is more like Jacques Rancière’s emancipated spectator than to modernism’s alienated onlookers. This is the spectator as collaborator and translator, actively engaged in the theater’s project of reanimating fragments of social interaction action into complex accounts of living, together.
Una Chaudhuri is Collegiate Professor and Professor of English, Drama, and Environmental Studies, and Director of the Center for Experimental Humanities at NYU. Her most recent book is “The Stage Lives of Animals: Zooësis and Performance,” and she is a founding member of CLIMATE LENS.