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I originally wrote a first draft of this for the Porte Parole blog. Be sure to pay a visit for lots more stuff about documentary theatre and Sexy béton in particular.
For years before I enlisted in the Porte Parole cause, I had been fascinated by infrastructure problems and city planning, so the combination of political intrigue and real-life drama behind Sexy béton seemed to me like an inspired way to engage people in issues of immediate importance. As the project reaches, not an end, but rather an intermission, I’d like to think about what it all means (to me).
When the de la Concorde overpass collapsed, killing five people and injuring six others, it was widely acknowledged as a wake-up call (and not the first!) to attend to the sorry state of our roads and bridges. But sadly, most citizens quickly forgot about these issues and went on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Without Sexy béton, memories would have proved even shorter. Hardly anyone would be thinking about the families of the Laval area who received such shocking treatment at the hands of their government. As you’ll learn from Maria Mercadente in this short video, Sexy béton gave a voice to those who previously felt totally ignored.
Since reading this article in the revived Baffler Magazine online, it has occurred to me that Sexy béton also represents another kind of triumph, an artistic triumph that transcends the specific issues tackled. Like all good theatre shows (or novels or TV shows or films), Sexy béton is a narrative. And to me it’s important to point out what kind of narrative it is. Baffler writer Walter Benn Michaels declares “Writers of the world, experiment!” and this is exactly what Sexy béton has achieved, an experiment – I’d argue a successful one! – that presents an alternative way of conceptualizing the world artistically. Sexy béton is a grand narrative at a time when the very concept of a grand narrative is doubted or considered an impossible (even arrogant) undertaking.
The Baffler article merits a close reading. The basic thrust of its argument is this. Since Francis Fukuyama declared the “End of History” in his seminal 1989 essay, many novelists (novelists are the main focus of the Michaels article) appear to have done almost exactly what Fukuyama predicted they would do. Fukuyama wrote “In the post-historical period, there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”
Michaels argues that literary novelists have indeed increasingly become mere caretakers of the past. Oprah Book Club stars serve up horrors of history as a way of telling people of the present how much better life is today (i.e. Toni Morrison’s Beloved), while some authors have gone so far as to actually imagine horrors of history that never really happened: i.e. a fascist, Nazi-style take-over of America in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.
Why are novelists doing this kind of thing? Michaels argues that they have succumbed to liberal ideology. Ensure the freedom of markets and individuals and it naturally follows that we will all live in the best of all possible worlds. Since we are already apparently living in this near-utopia (or so we’re constantly told), authors have no great struggle to write about. But when they evoke memories of slavery or fascism, they’re not shirking their artistic duty, oh no! They are reminding us of our need to protect our world from whatever imperils it (i.e. George W. Bush, the arch-enemy of liberalism).
The problem with all this, of course, is that we are not living in best of all possible worlds.
Michaels goes on to cast serious doubt on the idea that authors should keep toiling away attempting to understand individuals as individuals (or in relation to their families). This is the most important part of his argument. To valorize free individuals fits perfectly with the agenda of those who also valorize free markets.
He offers an alternate understanding here:
“…we might better understand ourselves as creatures [ … ] entirely structured by ideology—than as the psychologically complex and morally autonomous individuals our literature exists to tell us we are. Or, to put the point more precisely, we might understand our attachment to our psychological complexity and moral autonomy as itself a kind of ideological commitment, our way of imagining our world as nothing but individuals and families, markets and identities.”
This paragraph merits attention since – to borrow from the current Commander-in-Chief of liberalism, Barack Obama – it takes some serious audacity to say it. Michaels is proposing – perhaps purely for the sake of fiction, but somehow I doubt it! – that we should stop thinking of an understanding of the individual as one of the best ways of understanding the world we live in.
In a nutshell, what I think he is saying, Get Over Yourself. Or rather, Get Over The Self.
The self is far less important than everybody would like to think.
What is important to Michaels is ideology, and what is missing in our current culture is the proper acknowledgement and understanding of how ideology shapes individuals. In novels, authors have mainly gotten things backwards during the last quarter-century.
While novelists have mostly failed to tackle serious contemporary issues (albeit with exceptions; Michaels admires Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho), you don’t need to look any further than Montreal to see where a narrative from a different discipline is achieving an artistic success.
Sexy béton has a cast of characters who are clearly individuals with complex feelings, motivations, and problems. But the play refuses to submit to the typical American dramatic model of the valorization of the individual. If this were a narrative like, say, Erin Brockovich, it would pit the “little guys”—the families—against the cruel machine of the government or corporation. But the play doesn’t do that. Not exactly.
Sexy béton embarks on the kind of project that most novelists – and playwrights – abandoned after the end of the 19th century. It attempts to contain in its narrative the constituent parts of a whole world; every stratum of society in Québec is represented, from the former premier of Québec right down to the poor labourer who worked on the de la Concorde overpass in 1969 and saw his first pay cheque bounce due to insufficient funds.
These characters are pitted against each other in a struggle… of course… and there are many of the hallmarks of a conventional narrative. There is the question of who is going to take responsibility for the 2006 tragedy in Laval; there is a lot of buck-passing and finger-pointing as well as genuine soul-searching about the possibility of fighting the government in a class action lawsuit. But the narrative does not unfold with individuals presented as heroes or villains. Individuals, in the course of the play, are presented instead as players in a system, a system so complex and corrupt that, at times, it seems beyond redemption.
The play has the audacity – there’s the word again! – to reflect the problems of an entire society, a society that Stephen Jarislowski says lacks the courage to launch another Quiet Revolution, a society in which, according to Julius Grey, “le petit ne compte pas,” a society in which, as France Leclair says,
« En fait nous autres est une gang de p’tits moutons là
Pis qu’on peut pas s’exprimer
On peut pas s’exprimer avec notre gouvernement. »
(All the people speaking here are characters in Sexy béton, but also, of course, living and breathing people alive today… That’s documentary theatre!)
Perhaps even more pertinent than the attempt to reflect the problems plaguing an entire society is the way in which that social portrait is painted. No character really makes sense outside of his or her relationship with somebody or something else. Louise Bedard’s struggle is more than just an inner struggle with injury and grief; it’s a struggle with an entity – the public auto insurance board (SAAQ) – which in turns represents all of us – we citizens. Our taxes and our consent to be governed signal a tacit approval for Bedard to be treated deplorably.
When a play indicts its audience that way, it demands a reaction or some form of new action – but toward what end? Changing our leaders? Changing the law? Changing our system?
Stay tuned, because Sexy béton is not truly over and the battle will go on. In the kind of narrative witnessed these past six months at the Segal Centre Studio, it is not possible to be an innocent bystander. A grand narrative implicates everybody who sees it. You’d have to look to TV’s The Wire to see another contemporary example of the same kind of thing.
However, unlike TV, the documentary theatre form that Porte Parole has promoted in Montreal resists commodification. It requires a certain form of public participation in order to exist at all. You can’t get the Sexy béton experience in a collector’s boxed set.
So see you at the theatre for the next Porte Parole show! Meanwhile my sincere congratulations to everyone who helped make the trilogy such a transformative event for so many people.