I don’t know what zeitgeist seminar the Yale kids take when they’re gearing up for their final MFA composition, but it always amazes me when catchphrases sprout simultaneously in a delicious super-meme. It also makes slacker editorializing that much easier because I can hit a bunch of stuff at once. So as I watch Bush put his official armchair philosophy seal of approval on Intelligent Design and then watch The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow in its final weekend at Studio Theatre, I have to wonder which came first: the artifice or the idea? They seem inseparable, sure, but recognizing the difference helps cut through all the bullshit the radcons are using to justify their plug for I.D. in the public school system. And tracking which hip metaphysics the playwrights are using this week can help explain why their stories so often seem incomplete (or with Shanley’s Doubt, why they seem downright corrupt).
I’m getting into an area where I’m almost too exasperated to write. All these little jibes about the nature of theatre usually don‘t go farther than this trusty e-cabal on tundratastic. And the fate of theatre affects, first, those of us who make it. But the fate of an entire culture -- if a culture’s respect for reason and democracy is directly related to how that civilization survives and thrives -- is altogether too daunting to consider sometimes. Sorry. Oft have I shrugged! Oft, I say! As a guy thrown into the real world just as it was falling apart,* I find it hard to juggle the normal Act One of My Life bullshit with Act Two of the New American Century. But here’s another shout in the ether, for whatever it’s worth.
When certain members of the federal government shun public education with one hand, strip it of its funding with the other, and then marvel at why it doesn’t seem to work anymore … when they’ve spent five years wearing their scripture on their sleeve (from Operation Infinite Justice to the 10 Commandments displays in Texas) … when these same people now masquerade as scientists and offer an official-sounding theory that negates the very idea of science … I want to scream. Not write a blog entry. That the showdown over Intelligent Design has been cast as a policy issue -- with those same poor public schools as the battleground -- only makes me foiqjweofiaQHWEI9HFIASDFA even more. And then I read some pitch-perfect satire on the subject and feel better for about twelve minutes -- until I realize that basically every word in that spoof could have come out of the president's mouth.
The advocates of Intelligent Design have as the base of their argument the meager fact that evolution doesn’t seem to cover all the leaps and gaps in the grand history of biochemical life on earth. That evolution (with all its imperfections and missing links) still soundly refutes the idea that the earth is 6000 years old doesn’t seem to enter into it. They want to kick Darwin down to size by taking the reasonable doubt built into any scientific theory and prying it open wide enough to fit their god into the cosmos. At every turn, they present not proof for Intelligent Design, merely doubt for Evolution.
Veteran readers of this blog may have noticed that the words "proof" and "doubt" have figured significantly in our previous discussions about theatre, too! How about that?! We'll get back to that shortly, I promise.
At this point, most reasonable people offer a simple reiteration of the difference between a theory and a law. But the radcons don’t understand that they can’t take advantage of Evolution’s data gaps without affirming the existence of Evolution in the first place. Clearly natural selection takes place in the world. The question is whether it’s responsible for every last genetic innovation in existence. Either way, the absence of total continuity in one system does not equal the presence of evidence for any replacement system you care to dream up.
Astrophysicists go through this all the time with the Anthropic Principle -- which, if I'm getting it correctly, says that the universe was built the way it was so we could understand how it was built the way it was. Sounds circular to us mortals, and I think it is. But Stephen Hawking hopped on the Anthropic bandwagon a few years ago, for whatever that's worth to you. The A.P. makes a handy companion piece for I.D. since the one discusses cosmological design and the other discusses biochemical design. But there's no method for proving either of them.
It reminds me of Arlen Specter’s Magic Bullet Theory. In the end, the MBT isn’t laughable because it might have happened, but because its elaborate (and strictly probabilistic) grounding does not disprove more compelling conspiracy theories. In an effort to tidy up a national tragedy (i.e. to bring it back to the simple live-TV melodrama everyone saw in 1963) the Warren Commission hammered any contradictory evidence back to the three bullets. So weak was their case that one of the bullets had to be Magical. Sure, it counts as a theory. But as proof of a single shooter, it’s on weaker statistical ground than Evolution ever was. And you don’t see the right-wing bitching for higher standards on that one.
Imagine if the Administration applied its new-found scientific rigor to, say, a certain war in which the phrase “massive intelligence failure” was bandied about not once, but twice in the course of two years. 9/11 was a M.I.F. As was the build-up to Iraq. How is it that a President who can’t remember which of his children is diabetic is permitted even to speak of M.I.F.’s or, more audaciously, the concept of Intelligent Design?
Proof of Doubt
Meanwhile, in Theatreland …
We have assholes like John Patrick Shanley celebrating the idea of collective doubt as though it were actually a) revolutionary or b) useful. What infuriated me most about his play was learning that he and the director and the actor playing Father Flynn had a get-together to decide what the real verdict/backstory was! After eleven excruciating scenes that culminate with no conclusion, the writer, the director, and the actor actually know the answer! Isn't that great? They just don’t want to tell us because, hey, that’s life. Now think about this for a moment. Is this play demonstrating the reasonable doubt we all feel for authority structures, holy and otherwise? Or is it just the umpteenth subjectivist mindfuck tossed off by a lazy writer who believes that Descartes for Dummies is really thought-provoking stuff? And what kind of thoughts are being provoked? Any? Or are we merely … provoked?
Doubt falls short on all the juicy Monsterist screeds I’ve been yakking about for the last month, so I won’t go into that again. But there’s something worse going on here. For all practical reasons, Shanely and his premiere team supplant the corrupt patriarchy of the story with a more sinister and self-defeating aesthetic corruption. Obviously the creator, the director, and the poor actor need to know what the real Flynn storyline is if they’re going to flesh it out and ground the character on stage. But after we leave the theatre, we get nowhere because the playwright wants to withhold our capacity for judgment while reserving for himself the right to marvel at how the world is filled with such ethically gray situations.
Were Shanley to explore an area of genuine, universal ambiguity (by, say, ripping open some of those above-mentioned cracks in Evolution) he might be onto something. Perhaps something that directly relates to faith and collective insecurity. Instead, we have a rectory-bound whodunnit where the real answer is anyone’s guess because no one (including the playwright) is courageous enough to engage in a truly heroic fight for the truth. So we just shrug at the existing power structure -- shielded from consequence all the more by Shanley’s groundless decision to set his play in the 1960s** -- and go home arguing in the car about whether or not the priest molested the kid. As for the stern emperor penguin who fights the good fight … well … would it be a PLOT SPOILER for me to reveal here that after her defrocking crusade SHE HAS DOUBTS?!?!?!?! Shit! I never saw that coming! So where does that leave us? And why should we care when the artists involved have already made up their minds?
Shanley seems to believe he’s doing us a larger civic service. And one could easily conclude from his play's booming popularity that JPS has tapped into something provacative here. His preface to the reader’s edition waxes philosophical at every turn. The injustice of the 1960s Catholic clergy pecking order is offered as an analog to the present -- not just socially, but somehow epistemologically, too. For all the weaknesses and frustrations in his story … for all the unanswered questions … we’re told “Hey, man. Isn’t that just like life?” Not when someone knows the answers but purposely withholds them.
In countless interviews, Shanley bemoans the state of our national discourse. He talks about how cable news has degenerated into a contest of wills, where facts and rational argument rarely enter into our quest for truth. I agree. But then he writes a play purposely designed to send people home shrieking from the same sense of subjectivist entitlement! When asked why he’s written it that way, he switches from weak, uninformed sociological speculation to weak, uninformed philosophical speculation: he equates certainty with corruption and doubt with enlightenment.
Personally, I don't need to spend more time with intractable personailties or implacable situations. I need a way to get through them. Shouldn't art be a place where we actually have a shot at figuring things out? Where the fight we should have fought can be demonstrated for our study? Where the audience can put aside its collective doubt with that splendid "suspension of disbelief?" Doesn't the textbook term "suspension of disbelief" negate the whole circus of doubt that Shanley's so eager to conjure***? I'm not saying we should abandon critical thinking -- I'm saying that perpetual criticism (i.e. cynicism) is just as useless as blind certainty. But "blind" is the operative word. Not certainty. Doubt is where we start the search for knowledge. It's shouldn't be where we end up.
The final message? As near as I can tell? It doesn’t matter what side you’re on because you can never know anything for sure. So instead of investigating further, checking your premises, refining your method, or putting your name/life on the line, why don’t you just perpetually doubt everything because, damn it, if I had to find a crystalline infinitive to sum up human consciousness it’d be … “to doubt.” Never mind the fact that such glib reductionism is WAY more smarmy and closed-minded that any manifest religion out there. Apparently, the only way to avoid sending an innocent man to jail or to protect an at-risk child from pedophilia is to never get out of bed in the morning. Why bother? The weatherman said it’d be sunny today. But I have my doubts.
All sorts of people capitalize on collective uncertainty. And ya know what kids? Uncertainty exists. It’s there for you right around the corner whenever you care to look. The debate shouldn’t be about the primacy of doubt -- in art, science, OR religion. It should be about what we’re going to do about it. So we can all grow up, re-read our low-cal Kant book from freshman year, and move on … or we can choose to sink in frustration with those five weak senses that God or whomever gave us.
But we do NOT have to sit and listen to the perennial polemic about doubt versus certainty, especially when our moderators -- be they Bush or Shanley -- are the ones manufacturing the doubt in the first place.
It’s been a few days since I saw this in a packed-to-the-stone-rafters audience at Studio Theatre. I can’t think of anything new to say about it. Except that Jimmy Flannagan has perfected scene-stealing hilarity. This guy bounced from Gus in Arcadia to Man with Bags to Kimberly Akimbo to columbinus and now to one of the most sublime stoners I’ve ever seen in The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow. James, I don’t know if you’re reading, but damn: you rock. And thanks for the shout-out with "EXTREME!!" -- splendid ad-lib.
The rest of the play was cool. And I remember all the criticism about the unearned ending and an underwritten, needlessly evil mother character. I agree for the most part -- OCD Jenny’s final meltdown is catalyzed by a particularly nasty suck-it-up-and-deal stunt from her adopted mother. It’s a move that no real mother would ever pull, especially after living with an OCD kid for that long. That it sends Jenny round the bend also doesn’t make much sense. But the final image of God sobbing helplessly and fluttering her hands in the dark after she fearfully expels her greatest creation is an arresting moment in its own right. Maybe my viewing was too clouded by the catchphrase “Intelligent Design,” but I saw a digital deity rendered pathetic and lonely because she needs her creations to experience Creation.
Coming shortly ...