FIND 17What’s Gone Wrong in America? A Conversation with Romeo Castellucci.
by Joseph Pearson
27 March 2017
Perhaps you are dismayed, and terrified, by the new American president, and dwell on the uncertainties ahead. How will European security fare between Putin and Trump? How will our warming planet survive? What challenges will Muslims face? What will the poor in America do, who lose their thin social net? Or perhaps (a more productive approach, rather than guessing what comes next) one should ask the historical question: how did American democracy get to this awful state?
Romeo Castellucci is one of Europe’s best-known directors, a firebrand who disrupts the audience and provokes uneasy reactions. In Castellucci’s production for FIND17, »Democracy in America«, he looks at the genealogy of American political life, by turning to the best-known early European commentator for guidance: Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). Indeed, Castellucci’s piece is named for de Tocqueville’s chief opus and is set loosely in the Frenchman’s period. Of the actual performance, Castellucci does not wish to give away too much. Those familiar with the director’s oeuvre will be unsurprised that there will be a narrative aspect, but also one that is abstract.
Speaking from his home in Emilia-Romagna, Castellucci contrasts what he argues are two distinct democratic models: the European, which looked to the Ancient Athenians as an influence, and the American in the age of de Tocqueville.
»In Europe, democracy grew out of the Athenian experience, that of Pericles, even though it never fully imitated it, and despite the fact that this was a society in which there were slaves, and where women were suppressed. The curious thing is that Greek democracy came about in a moment when aesthetics reached their apex. Democracy grew in a place and time when tragedy was the maximum expressive form, in a moment when the Parthenon was built, and there was a great weight put on the aesthetic, spiritual development through beauty. All this did not exist in America. There was only a pragmatism, and its naive aspect often stressed by de Tocqueville«.
Meanwhile American exceptionalism, he argues, has religious roots. Puritanism – and Calvinist notions of predestination and the Elect – can be used to explain some salient aspects of American life: its resistance to social assistance, the easy acceptance of accumulation in mass capitalism, a history of manifest destiny, or the exportation of a culturally-specific version of freedom. Castellucci explains: »Even today, America is the only Western society where the President needs to swear on the Bible. While in Europe, democracies liberated themselves from God, from the Church – we only need to think of the French Revolution – in America it was the opposite. Looking to the Old Testament, the Puritans applied the law of Moses to construct the new state. They were convinced that they were called on to create a new Israel. They felt legitimised in massacring the indigenous population because their God wished it. This conception can be called a jump into the darkness. This darkness – a heart of darkness – is still very characteristic of America today. I became very interested in the Puritans, and so my piece became about them«.
Our conversation returns to the question of tragedy, and Castellucci argues that Greek tragedy’s conflicts were a laboratory not only for elevating the spirit but also for exploring issues in political life.
»Greek tragedy is an expressive form created from politics and often resolves in a tribunal; we only need to think of the Oresteia. The scene of the Furies is a trial scene. Through these trials, human rights and duties are articulated; they become loftier, nobler. Tragedy is material from which civil rights are born. But they are born out of a conflictual context, in which people consider the possibility of evil. Tragedy is not only theatre, but it is also the location where the city unites, meets. The theory of man that tragedy invents is the basis of Greek democracy. American democracy, as described by de Tocqueville, does not have anything to do with this«.
I comment that what I find compelling about the relationship between Greek democracy and tragedy is the political warning that is imparted. Many of those staples of American political and economic life, exalted as positive ambitions in the Age of Trump – rampant individualism and consumption, overweening pride and power-seeking, embarrassing wealth – are the kind of foibles subject to reversals, and Nemesis, in Greek drama.
Castellucci replies, »The ›Theory of Man‹ suggested by tragedy is that it is dangerous to go too high; hubris is dangerous. In America, the difference is that the notion of predestination is very strong because it’s an act of God. There is the Man of Providence. There is a messianic aspect to the Presidential position. This is actually quite a primitive aspect of the society. Because individualism, fortune, money, and property are all exalted, and there is no room for charity«.
I reply, »Herodotus wrote, it’s the ›great buildings and tall trees that get struck by lightning‹. That ›lesson‹ seems to have been lost on American capitalism«.
»Yes, the understanding has been exactly the opposite«, replies Castellucci.
»How then does tragedy play in the Age of Trump? Does it function, but without the reversal, without the traditional consequences?«
»We are waiting now for the consequences. Perhaps, prophetically, the foundations for an American tragedy are already being laid. If we take into account the abyss of values, on which the society is based: this is material for tragedy«, he replies.
I then ask about cross-pollination. America has not been in a bubble and many ideas of American democracy emerged from the French Enlightenment. Today, many European populisms resemble their American cousins. American capitalism has spread across the globe.
Castellucci says: »We live today in an epoch where the differences across the Atlantic are perhaps more subtle ideologically. I do not want this to be a performance of condemnation. That’s too easy; it’s too easy to be correct«. To this, he adds that the »darkness«, which haunts American life – even, perhaps, in a Lacanian sense, as something terrifying behind the positive self-presentation of American democratic institutions – has nonetheless resulted in creative vigour.
»De Tocqueville – and here he was mistaken – thought that literature, philosophy, painting, art could never be born in America. Here he was wrong. Walt Whitman and Herman Melville soon proved that. They were artists who examined what American democracy rejected: the negative, dark part of it. The apparent absence of shadows in American democracy is the thing that is troubling. De Tocqueville managed to see, in a prophetic way, this heart of darkness, that has been essential to American democracy, and whose consequences we see today«.
Castellucci tells me, »I think art in America became incredibly profound, and certainly more potent than that in Europe, especially in the post-war period, the period in which Duchamp arrived in America. Who better than Andy Warhol to express the abyss that hides in the superficial? Or Mark Rothko, who using a very different language, expresses a common point? American art has become more important than European art because it is necessary, because it grapples with this heart of darkness. It responds to the brutality of the American conception of life. But also, I would say, more than anything else, it confronts the void that lies behind the superficially uncomplicated vision that American democracy expresses«.
Conversation in Italian, conversation edited and translations by Joseph Pearson
by Romeo Castellucci (Cesena)
freely inspired by the book by Alexis de Tocqueville
Premiered on 8 April 2017