Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The Notebook and the Gun: Performative Witnessing in Goodness

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The Notebook and the Gun: Performative Witnessing in Goodness

Article excerpt

HOW DOES IT FEEL?" "HOW DOES IT FEEL?" (n). In an early scene of the play Goodness by Canadian playwright Michael Redhill (1), one character asks, "How does it feel?," to which another replies with the same question with a different intonation, "How does it feel?" In repetition, the question turns the object of interrogation from a direct experience "How does it feel?" to a metaexperience of the experience: "What does feeling feel like?" and "What does it feel like to be asked the question how does it feel?" The main action of the play revolves around an encounter between a genocide survivor who tells her story and the initially reluctant listener who becomes a witness to that story. In that light, this question "How does it feel?" characterizes the play's central attitude toward storytelling and listening, an attitude which privileges affect over knowledge and which employs a marked theatricality to translate that affective power of response-ability generated by a survivor-storyteller into an engaged moral responsibility for that story taken up by a listening witness. As Kelly Oliver writes, "Just as the various parts of the body cannot function without the circulation of blood and oxygen, the psyche cannot function without the circulation of affective energy ... We have an ethical and social responsibility to be vigilant in our attempts to open up the circulation and flow of affective energy in all of our relationships" (20). In this paper, I will demonstrate the way in which Goodness models the circulation of affect through dramatic creation. The play advocates for an active and ethically responsible audience witness--what I am calling a performative witness--generating a hopeful witnessing strategy arising directly out of the play's looped metatheatrical structure of stories within stories.

When dealing with retelling significant traumatic events through drama, one approach is to adopt a style of documentary realism in the conviction that a strongly mimetic technique has the strongest claim to communicating truth. Te more the presentation can deliver details, both factual and emotional, pertaining to the original event, the more convincing and moving it will be. Communicating the truth of an experience through an imitative imaginative re-enactment, however, can have a peculiar disconcerting effect. Julie Salverson, who writes extensively on the witnessing of trauma through drama and storytelling, recounts her audiencing experience to one such retelling of a traumatic past: "What disturbed me was a sense that [the performers] were not present in the performance, were not noticing themselves in the picture, and consequently, that we as audience members were neither asked nor able to implicate ourselves. Audience and actors together were looking out at some exoticized and deliberately tragic other" ("Change" 122). Salverson argues that this emotionally submerged attitude and passive or effaced sense of self, which she names an "erotics of injury" ("Change" 119), comes out of a naturalistic performance style and circumvents real engagement with the story at hand. Placing an emphasis on the obligation of the audience to become responsible witnesses to trauma, Salverson challenges us to find alternative performance modes and alternative dramatic styles and forms which promote active engagement for both performers and audience.

Considering the aesthetic component of art in relation to its content, Theodor Adorno famously condemned the writing of poetry in the aftermath of the Holocaust as "barbaric" insofar as works of art generate aesthetic pleasure, and in this way such works antithetically offer pain and horror clothed in beauty (Adorno 125-27). To see healing rather than horror in such art works, we might reread that word "barbaric." When we say something is barbaric, it is savage, cruel, or inhuman. However, this denotation of savagery comes out of a prior meaning: from the Greek word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (barbaros) probably a reference to the stammering "barbar" speech of foreigners, thus Barbarians (OED). …

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