The United States of Ambivalence: A Talk with Jason Grote
Pictured: Jeff Biehl, Melle Powers, Andres Munar, Reyna de Courcy, Tony Torn, and Elizabeth Rich
Jason Grote's new play CIVILIZATION (all You Can Eat) runs through Saturday June 25th at HERE Arts Center in Soho as part of the Clubbed Thumb Summerworks Festival.
Set partially at the specific moment when Sarah Palin was introduced to the American public, the play throws a wild mash up of characters and situations at the audience... an African American filmmaker directing a racist Twix commercial; a young woman considering a career in porn to save her waitress mother from foreclosure; a young stand up comic obsessed with erotic auto asphyxiation; a motivational speaker cratering during a public lecture on the business benefits of chaos theory; a failed actress who seeks a reality tv show to petition for a government sponsored "Ministry Of Love." Alongside these human narratives is the parallel story of Big Hog, a factory farm pig who escapes his pen to revenge himself against mankind.
In the current production, I have donned the curly tail of Big Hog. Building the character in rehearsal has been a truly interesting experience, and I wanted to ask Jason, whom I've known for over a decade, about the play and it's deeper currents.
Pictured: Tony Torn
TT: We first met through (anti-consumerism activist) Reverend Billy, didn't we?
JG: Yeah, it was at the end of the 90's. You were directing him and I was sort of a protege, I was helping him out with stuff. I remember that part of a flyer I wrote ended up in a Starbucks memo... [the infamous internal Starbucks memo, "What do you do if Reverend Billy is in your store."]
So I know, like Billy, you're interested in the way consumption happens in this culture. How do those concerns go into this play, Civilization?
In this play, as opposed to Bill's work, there is more ambivalence about consumption and consumerism. I think there is sort of evil pleasure involved...not always necessarily evil, but to just acknowledge the enjoyment. There is a Lacanian term "Joissance", which as I understand it (I can just barely understand Lacan), is the Father side of the Oedipus complex, the enjoyment of domination and the enjoyment of taking over and consumption. So a lot of it is almost in a De Sadeian way, the pleasures of that. But (it's about) the other side too, the hollowness of it. There is a line from the comedian Louis C.K. that Seth (Bockley), our Director, used in rehearsal: "Everything is amazing right now, and nobody's happy." So there's a pleasure, but it's sort of a cocaine pleasure. It's extreme and it's fleeting.
It's interesting to me that the character I play, Big Hog, seems to have the ability to enjoy his consumption in this ferocious animal way, while the human characters seem kind of stuck. They are not really experiencing this "joissance." You seem to be making a contrast between this animal ability to embrace this and the human ability not to be able to...how do you see that conflict in the play?
Big Hog's the only character who unambiguously gets what he wants. And then he kind of gets depressed about it. I think a lot of that is about the soft traps of consumerism, about the ways in which there are levels of social control in our society....and that's what a lot of those characters are in. And there are varying degrees, some are successful, some are not at all successful, but they are all sort of trapped either by what they want or what they have. Big Hog is a factory farm pig who wants to break free and be a feral hog. But he doesn't just want to stop there. He wants to become a human being. And that's his fatal flaw. It's his ambition that does him in. He wants to be on top of the food chain....
The anarchist scholar David Graeber wrote an article in Harpers about five years ago called "Army of Altruists" which posited this really radical notion that what people really aspire to is to be generous. And it's that urge that makes Big Hog human. The statistic that Graeber used is that when they polled young people who were in the army, the vast majority said that they were in the army because they wanted to do good. And he looked at this world where people need to be doing dozens of unpaid internships, for example, in order to work for a non profit, or to be in the arts, or to be in a profession that helps people...you kind of have to come from a position of privilege, or figure out some sort of angle. So for a lot of people the only way into that is to go to Wall Street and become rich and then you can afford to be a more generous person, or to do something like join the army. And so, in a way, that's what Big Hog is also an embodiment of....a large part of it is people are ambitious and megalomaniacal not only in the pursuit of personal wealth and material wealth, but also because it will help their ability to do good.
For a lot of these characters, the impulses for truth telling and generosity are really tied into narcissism and egomania. Which is also really a criticism of myself. Being a playwright and having been an activist... I feel I have a natural inclination to implicate myself in this. It's not enough for me to just say rapacious capitalism is bad, but to also say, what's my part in there? There is another character named Karen in the play who is somewhat analogous to Big Hog, who wants to get a reality show, but wants it as a platform for a lot of her new age self help stuff...
Pictured: Melissa Miller, Andres Munar, Melle Powers, and Jeff Biehl
She's the most idealistic seeming of all the characters, but in a way she's also sort of the most harshly handled... the gap between her real selfishness of motive and what she thinks those motives are, is so wide. It has a sharp satirical edge to it... How do you feel about the possibility of presenting idealism in a positive way? It's a tricky thing... Who's the so called positive character in this thing? If you say it's Big Hog, then you're embracing American all-for-me-ness and the gangster aesthetic....
I think it's tricky, you know the saying is give the devil the best lines, or Orson Wells, is it in The Third Man that he has the Cuckoo Clock monologue? That's really the intention there... I don't think anybody would read or see the play and have that kind of feeling that people sometimes get when they watch a movie like Scarface and they feel the glory... because I believe it's too steeped in ambivalence and the deep unhappiness of these characters... Everyone in the play, including Karen who is sort of delusional, is trying to do the right thing in one way or another, even to a degree Big Hog, and Big Hog is such an underdog.
If you are aware of the reality of factory farming, Big Hog starts out of someone who's justified in his rage against the system. But he almost becomes an embodiment of the system when he graduates to humanness.
And I think that that's part of the trick. How do you fight the empire without becoming the empire? But I always find that the most interesting idealistic characters are ones who are compromised one way or another. I think about Ken Loach movies, I think about Bertold Brecht in general... The best dramatic works about people trying to do good in the world are the most conflicted and ambivalent ones.
You place a lot of the events specifically in the week that Sarah Palin was announced as a vice presidential candidate in 2008. And you present your characters almost at a moment of innocence about who she is politically. Why was it important to keep it in this very specific time frame?
Plays especially, as opposed to films or novels, end up existing in kind of a vague present, because there is this fear that if you're too specific to the time period it will end up dating itself, but I just wanted to time stamp it. It's a period piece but from three years ago. Because I started it then, that's part of it. And I wanted to get at that specific moment. It was also sort of a culturally exciting moment. With Obama and Hillary, and then Obama winning the nomination, then McCain named Palin as his running mate. It seemed at least in this diversity way we had finally gotten to this point where we had changed a little bit. But also 2008 was the beginning of the economic free fall.
So even during this moment of hope, when Obama had not even been elected yet, before there was a chance for him to disappoint us ... we all knew that he was going to disappoint us, and we could already sense that one consequence of the recession would be just a further triumph of neoliberalism, that it would be socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor. You could already start to see the foreclosure crisis start to happen, and it felt like a natural disaster with no physical cause, suburbs imploding into decay. And I think we're still in that historical moment very much. But being in that moment when the backlash against Obama was just starting, and where Sarah Palin wasn't yet the liberal villain, I think gave (the play) the ability to open up a little bit, to not make it about either "Republicans are bad" which is kind of a boring, or "liberals are bad too."
I wanted something that was more of a broad critique even beyond our sort of cultural definers or who we perceive ourselves to be, the way we are hemmed in. In the end the play is really a critique of capitalism. That everyone in the play is trapped by capitalism, but Big Hog is the one whose pen is visible. He can chew through the bars, or come up with an escape plan, because he can see the bars. Which no one else in the play really can.
You've been a playwright and an activist for some years, you've been deeply involved in the micro scene of downtown theater and now you're beginning to write more for television. How much of Big Hog are you willing to take on yourself right now?
Well, in a way I'm very lucky. Another thing Graeber has in his article ... you know the old joke, that when you have kids you become a home owner (I'm not a home owner but I do have a kid), and it turns you into a Republican... What Graeber has to say about that is that when you have kids, your altruistic impulse gets shunted onto your own children. And that's the reason why so many Americans... a lot of it really is a no brainer.
I was working in academia for a while and then a Republican governor came into office in New Jersey and decided to eliminate my job. So, a lot of this is you do what you have to do to feed your family. And I think in general working in television is a lot less problematic (than academia). Especially on the creative side when you're so distant from the tops of these big media conglomerates.
The whole thing about Hollywood liberal elites is what you get is the same as with New York liberal elites or any kind of liberal elites anywhere. Someone like Obama, I really think that he is probably a genuine liberal, but the power structure is the power structure, and whether it's a liberal power structure or a conservative one, it has certain imperatives that are the same no matter what... This is the whole idea behind the Constitution, that power behaves in a certain way that is unrelated to individuals or ideology. So you have steps in place that have kind of worn thin.
That was a little bit on my mind when I was writing this play. There is a plot line in Civilization that revolves around a racist Twix commercial... (the actors) are dressed up as Washington and Jefferson, for no real reason, but I've kind of been interested in going back to the founding fathers, and how always there's been this tension between political freedom and capitalism. In our lefty mythology we sort of look at the pre-industrial age as a kind of garden of eden, and that the founding fathers were pure because they were small craftsmen and farmers and things like that and uncorrupted by industry, but to a certain degree that's wrong, the most obvious example being slavery. So the tension between this rights of man, political freedom stuff and all the ruthlessness and ambition has always been part of the American DNA.
Finally, can you say something about the line than opens the play? A character, Jade, says "We have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that we would have no difficulty exterminating each another to the last. We know this, and from it comes our current unrest, our unhappiness and our mood of anxiety."
I first read Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents around 2002, and kind of forgot about it, and the title of the play came after I had the first draft (the working title was All You Can Eat). Without really thinking of Freud, I came up with the title because I realized that the play was really about the civilizing process, and how that involves repression of certain impulses, and managing one's expectations and desires, but also the feeling that the USA is an imperial civilization in sharp decline, and what that means to the characters in this play.
Last summer at the Sundance Theater Lab, I remembered the Freud book and brought it to rehearsal with me, and came across the quote that I have Jade say -- it's sort of like a spoken epigram. The amazing thing about the book, and the quote, was that Freud wrote it before the atomic bomb but also during the rise of the Nazis. The tragic thing about that book is that, watching the rise of violent authoritarian movements around the world, Freud was compelled to recant somewhat. He had spent his life inveighing against repression, but at the end he saw it as useful and necessary -- a precondition for civilization.
All photos by Carl SkutschTweet