The Ethics of Staging the Truth of the Dead

“Whether or not theatre of the real has a singular ability to change reality outside the theatre, it does contribute to formulating what we understand as reality.” (Martin, Theatre of the Real)

In Syria, many of the dead a buried in the gardens of family, friends or compassionate strangers. Tania El Khoury’s Gardens Speak stages a simulacrum of a burial garden. A guide leads no more than ten people down a cold and dark hallway into a room with benches, where you are asked to remove your shoes and socks and to cover your clothes with clear plastic rain jackets. Each person is handed a flashlight and a piece of paper with a name written in Arabicon one side and instructions on the other. As the group enters into the next room, everyone takes a seat at the perimeter of the room where there are two facing benches, and a dirt garden and ten gravestones between them. A sound rings, and each person finds the gravestone that matches the name on their paper. Digging through the dirt at the foot gravestone where there are some revealing facts about the person “buried” there. As instructed, each person lies down in the dirt to hear a portion of the dead person’s life in thefirst person as if the dead were recounting their own lives and eventual deaths. We are informed that these oral narratives were created by accounts of surviving friends and family.

Gardens Speak raises this question. As the narratives are not created by the “martyrs” themselves, but recreated by their friends and families how should we understand them? This question is complicated by the narration. Performed in the voice of the dead, do these stories make us empathize with any political action? I would like to contrast this with another play that addresses the nature of telling the stories of the dead as truth.

My Name Is Rachel Corrie is a play based the life ofthe college student, Rachel Corrie, who was run over by an IDF bulldozer in Palestine when she was 23. Using text from her diaries and emails, co-editors Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner pieced together a narrative that purports to represent Corrie’s “truth.”

“Rickman and Viner function as author surrogates as they made all the decisions having to do with the selection, assemblage, and sequencing of Corrie’s writing as provided by Corrie’s family. They give the impression that the meaning they construct is what Corrie intended. Whether or not this is so is something we cannot determine.”
(Martin, Theatre of the Real, emphasis added)

In both cases, culturally foreign suedo-authors help the dead tell their stories in the first person.   El Khoury is London and Beirut-based artist who uses first hand accounts from the families of the dead to portray the political situation in Syria.  Rachel Corrie is an American telling a political story about Palestine, and both of the editors of the play are English multiplying the cultural distance between story and event. 

Like Rickman and Viner, El Khoury has constructed meaning from the dead. She has created an installation from the stories of “martyrs” for theatrical effect, editing content and staging how their reception. While My Name Is Rachel Corrie claims to be verbatim theatre, using Corrie’s own words to tell her own story, the editing by Rickman and Viner is an intervention in the shaping of the narrative so that they too are speaking for the dead. The words might be Corrie’s words, but the meaning was crafted without her consent or input.

Truth in Performance

Truth in Performance

Why I Changed My Mind About Gardens Speak

Why I Changed My Mind About Gardens Speak