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steirischer herbst

» Fr 13/10 & Sa 14/10 – Wörterbuch des Krieges

» 21/09 - 15/10/2006 – steirischer herbst 2006

"people are smarter than that"

Richard Maxwell writes dramas, stages plays, and loves America. When these three come together however, the latter might not be obvious. Because in Maxwell’s theater, notorious for minimal action und straight forward deadpan delivery, American everyday life is presented as an eventlessness just barely covered with banality, aggression and meandering stock phrases. His latest piece, “The End of Reality”, takes place in a security firm.
Christiane Kühl speaks with the New York playwright about fears, control, and the loss of the American spirit in the rampant delusions of security.

Richard Maxwell, you grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, where – as we know from the Coen brothers – the winters are brutal and senselessly bloody; you began your career in Chicago, a city notorious for its gangs, mafia, and criminal politicians; and today, you live in New York, the scene of one of the most horrific and highly publicized tragedies of the twenty-first century. What are you afraid of?
What am I afraid of? That’s a scary question. I’m afraid of the question “What are you afraid of?” Seriously. I’m afraid of being afraid. Of being seen as afraid. What do you think your President is afraid of? I suppose, like most of us, he is afraid of losing. But I don’t know what he is afraid of losing. – Wait a second though, I like the question “What are you afraid of?” ‘cause after you get over the initial shock, you feel like you can relax. It’s ok. Once you admit the fear, at least part of the fear disappears.

This strategy is apparently alien to the Bush administration and to most Americans. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, people immediately started proclaiming, “We’re not afraid!” and launched the “War on Terror”. Are Americans fearless by 0nature?
I don’t feel qualified to answer that. There is a European tendency to treat America as one. That makes me uncomfortable; I can’t represent the nation. But I guess by saying “There is one European tendency” I am making the same mistake. So, what was the question?

Let me put it the other way round: the great efforts undertaken by the government to protect America – from creating the Department of Homeland Security to the official, daily updated color-coded terror warning system – do they correspond to a real fear in the population? Or – as civil rights campaigners claim – do they serve as scare tactics to condition the nation?
It seems that that’s the Orwellian aspect of governing. It is probably true for any government, forget about America. As soon as you tell people at large that there is something to fear, they become afraid. And there is no shortage of ammunition in the current situation – this is probably why this government is so successful. That the threat is so vague, that there is nothing you can point to certainly helps with this kind of boogeymansyndrome; I always find the scariest movies are the ones that don´t show you the monster. – On the other hand, as to the color-code system: everyone I know – maybe even most people in the country – have forgotten about it completely. It kind of naturally became obsolete. People are smarter than that.

So, has 9/11 changed politics more than it has everyday life in the country?
The country has changed, totally. In a big city like New York, it becomes obvious. It could be partly a change of perception. Part of my impetus to write this play “The End of Reality” came out of my suddenly noticing all these security guards everywhere. In every kind of private and public situation, there is security. I am sure a lot of them were there before 9/11, but it feels like their number has doubled. Legislation has changed and insurance company policies have changed. In order to get insurance you need security now, whether you want it or not. It´s automatic. Everything is geared towards furthering a more secure environment.

Does the sight of omnipresent security personnel increase people’s sense of security? Or, on the contrary, does it highlight the danger?
Personally, it depresses me. It pushes me to a place of nostalgia, to remembering a time when all this supervision was not necessary; when you could walk into a federal building without screening. You know, my dad was a judge in Fargo. I could go visit him in the court house. Everybody knew him: he was a judge but also a father. And you see ... something about the human level of existence has been compromised. And I wonder where it is headed.

And yet control is not always enforced; people seem to have something in them that makes them very receptive to control. For one thing, probably, because it promises protection.
In a lot of situations, it is akin to love. Why would you want to be loved by somebody if you did not, on some kind of level, enjoy being controlled? How does love manifest itself? Even the acceptance of state control, I think, goes back to this parent-child structure: you want to be cared for and protected.

Can you enjoy being controlled?
Yes. I like the idea of being controlled. If I can determine when I am controlled and how – I like it.

When you’re in control over being controlled.
Exactly. I get into trouble all the time because I am rarely content with systems for long. I think I might have a criminal tendency. The way my mind works is that the minute I see a system, I work my way around it. Subvert it. Find a way to take advantage of it. I’ve been doing some research on American history lately, and I recognize the Americanism in that idea. When you think about how our country came to be, there is undeniably a huge part of our origin that is about defiance, about not fitting in ... This is what I like about my country, actually: this rugged individualism, this notion of doing things our own way. And one of my fears is that this spirit gets lost in the homogenization which seems to be rampant in the States now.

How are these changes reflected in the art world?
I don’t know the art world. I cannot answer that.

In “The End of Reality” – which tells the story of everyday life in a security firm – one impressive aspect is the absolute diffuse nature of the felt threat. These people are prepared to give everything, including their own lives, to defend ... although they have no clue what they are defending, nor against whom.
To research the piece, I actually applied for a job as a security guard and went through a job interview. You wouldn’t believe how little training is involved to put someone in a position with this responsibility. “You’re there in case trouble happens” – is so vague, so superficial. It is hard to imagine how these people could actually deal with a crisis. The system seems to be mostly based on commerce. What has been corrupted about our society has to do with the proliferation of commerce. Seemingly anybody can start up a security company and set up guards on the street. If you have the money to pay for a course and you show up, you get a certificate. You pay 300 dollars to a security placement company, and they’ll place you.

You pay for your job?
Yeah, it’s a big payola system. Everyone’s got a cut on it. And that takes it further and further from the idea “We need to secure this environment because we care about people.” To me that’s the discouraging part about this whole proliferation of security – it has taken us away from the human part of our existence.

Reality and people’s perception of it also seem to be uncoupled in “The End of Reality.” There are hardly any points of reference left. This non-specified threat that the security people are gearing up for is so overwhelming that they cannot even react to a simple thug who enters their company.
That’s a great term: “non-specified threat.” It’s new to the lexicon. But for me it has more to do with theater than anything else. A specific threat gets boring pretty fast. And that opens up a whole other question: when it comes to making art, to making theater, how do you create fear? How do you create something that is exciting? You surprise the audience. Surprising somebody is very close to scaring someone. That I find interesting. Why do we go see scary movies? Why do we celebrate fear?

What I am personally interested in is what comes after the end of reality? Fiction? Apathy? Nothing?
A kind of purgatory. Not deliberately biblical – but a kind of suspension.

Richard Maxwell, 38, is a writer, director, and songwriter. He began his acting career with the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, where he helped found the Cook County Theater Department. In 1996, he moved to New York, where he founded and became the artistic director of the New York City Players. Plays (selected): the OBIE award winning “House” (1998), “Boxing 2000”(2000), “Good Samaritans” (2004). At steirischer herbst, Maxwell will put on “The End of Reality” with the New York City Players.
Christiane Kühl lives in Berlin as a freelance writer and radio editor at radio eins/rbb.

Richard Maxwell and The N.Y.C. Players
The End Of Reality