Caryl Churchill’s Far Away at New York Theatre Workshop is a major event that, at a little over 50 minutes in length, proves to be of monumental significance. Ms. Churchill (of Top Girls , Cloud Nine and Mad Forest , among many scintillating plays) is, without question, the leading dramatist in England, and the only predictable thing about her fine, original mind is that it can’t be predicted at all. In its extraordinary menace and intelligence, its barbaric moral seriousness and apparent apocalyptic frivolity, Far Away is a fantastic play that plunges us into universal chaos.
The chaos isn’t too far away, Ms. Churchill is telling us-it’s outside the door, or frighteningly close, and mad. Her play was written before 9/11, and in that sense its timeliness is as much an act of uncanny clairvoyancy as Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul . Its surreal economy is the othersideofMr. Kushner’s epic narrative, and the three miniature scenes are boiled down to an essence, the marrow of bones, as if no further moral debate were left, or even possible, in a world that has lost its mind.
Ms. Churchill’s acceptance-or so it seems-ofthe grotesque picture she creates is one of the most remarkable things about the play. This is the way the world will end-not with a bang, but acquiescence. It’s almost matter-of-fact. She presents each scene objectively and unemotionally in just 19 pages of dialogue. Yet she can tap into our fears and make them frighteningly prescient. She possesses a quirky absurdist sensibility that might be modish in lesser hands. Yet there’s a form of devious magic at work-and at play-here that pulls us into her unique theatrical imagination.
As we enter the theater, we’re greeted by director Stephen Daldry’s painted stage curtain of a fairy-tale country cottage out of a children’s picture book: a bucolic idyll, a mythic haven from the real world, a joke. In local terms, this would be England’s green and pleasant land. We even hear birdsong and a babbling brook. Look what happens when the curtain rises: We might say it’s little more than a yarn or horror story, were it not so awesomely real and believable.
We’re in a country cottage at night. A young girl named Joan enters to tell her aunt, Harper, that she can’t sleep. (The roles are brilliantly-and unsentimentally-played by Frances McDormand and Alexa Eisenstein.) The clear, spare dialogue between them appears innocuous enough at first. “Do you want a drink?” “I miss the cat, I think.” “You’re overtired. Go to bed. I’m going to bed myself …. ” And so on, until the girl says she went outside because she heard a sound that was like a person screaming.
Her aunt explains it must have been an owl. The girl says she hid in a tree and saw her uncle in the dark. “Yes, I expect you did. He likes a breath of fresh air. He wasn’t screaming I hope?”
He wasn’t. “He was pushing someone,” the child says. ” He was bundling someone into a shed.” It must have been a sack. “It could have been a young man,” the girl adds. It could have been a little party with friends, explains the aunt. “Well, I have to tell you, when you’ve been married as long as I have …. ” Which leads to this heart-stopping question from the child: “If it’s a party, why was there so much blood?”
The child is being lied to, of course. Children are being butchered in the shed. But there’s a doubt planted, as all sincere lies sow seeds of doubt. The child has stumbled on a secret. The uncle is saving the children, and that’s the truth. He was helping them escape. He and the aunt and now the child are part of a big movement to make things better. “You can be proud of that,” the aunt tells her. “You can look at the stars and think here we are in our little bit of space, and I’m on the side of the people who are putting things right, and your soul will expand right into the sky.”
“Can’t I help?” the innocent child asks.
The second scene takes place several years later at a hatmaker’s. Joan, now an adult, is in her first week of making extraordinary, silly hats in some kind of factory. Perhaps all hats are intrinsically silly, but these are ridiculous. In all other aspects, she’s normal, and lovely. A fellow worker of more experience named Todd makes equally absurd hats by her side. They work diligently together, but Todd wants to improve their pay. He has principles.
The two of them are warily, mutually attracted. Again, each role is played with uncluttered naturalness by the excellent Marin Ireland and Chris Messina. And the scene, like the first, appears to be quite mundane until the stunning coup de théâter that suddenly interrupts it and astonishes us.
Without warning, a procession of ragged prisoners in chains is seen, each wearing a hat, on their way to be executed. And each hat is bigger and more preposterous than the next. Ms. Churchill has written of the parade in her script: “5 is too few and 20 is better than 10. 100?” Mr. Daldry-a showman director-keeps the grisly procession going, taking his time like a film image on a loop, as 50 or so extras shuffle bizarrely in chains down the steps in their degrading fashion show.
A fanfare-the executioner’s song-blasts from speakers. Judges seated at a table choose the best hat, which then goes in a museum. The winner is Joan, and she a novice milliner in her first week of work, too. The fate of the prisoners is no concern of hers or Todd’s. The rest of the hats are always burned with the bodies, Joan says sadly after the parade is over.
“No, I think that’s the joy of it,” Todd replies. “The hats are ephemeral. It’s like a metaphor for something or other.”
“Well, life,” says Joan.
And that-I’ll whisper it-is the only loose writing by the understated Ms. Churchill, even if meant ironically. The nightmare image of the chain gang parading half-dead and humiliated in their ridiculous hats is hellishly obscene (and speaks whimsically for itself). A nice hat makes you smile and a silly hat is fun, like an empty gesture, a carefree Easter bonnet, a frivolous memory, a decorative symbol. Like, well, life. And weren’t we instructed to go shopping after 9/11, when human birds flew in flames from the clouds?
Peter Brook directed a French production in Paris of Far Away , and after the opening, he excitedly told the English critic, Paul Taylor, that he’d just learned from a friend that during the Inquisition, absurd hats were put on the heads of the accused to ridicule them before they were burned at the stake.
Ms. Churchill’s knowing-or instinctive-link with horrific history has produced an indelible stage image of such uncompromising absurdity that it banishes laughter. The scene also contains the possibilities of love between Todd and Joan, who saw the bloody children butchered when she was a child. But there will be no salvation.
The last scene takes place several years later at Harper’s cottage, now a ruin, possibly a refuge. The world is at war, and with it all the elements have taken sides in mad alliances. Butterflies kill; wasps smother screaming horses; the cats have sided with the French. Cats kill babies in China, crocodiles take children out of their beds, mallards rape “and they’re on the side of the elephants and Koreans. But crocodiles are always in the wrong.”
Ms. Churchill’s dark humor tops even Beckett’s:
“No, the Latvian dentists have been doing good work in Cuba,” argues Todd. “They’ve a house outside Havana.”
“But Latvia has been sending pigs to Sweden,” Harper says urgently. “The dentists are linked to international dentistry and that’s where their loyalty lies, with dentists in Dar Es Salaam.”
“We don’t argue about Dar Es-Salaam,” Todd answers firmly. There was a massacre there.
Todd-the hatmaker-is on leave. Again, with such numbing lack of concern it’s mind-blowing, he says that he’s killed children in Ethiopia, gassed others, torn starlings apart with his bare bloody hands. It gives him a rush. “It was better than sex. So don’t suggest I’m not reliable.”
“I’m not saying you can’t kill,” says Harper.
Joan has fled for a day to be with Todd, the husband she loves. She killed a child on the way. It’s normal. It’s as if everything and everyone has been recruited for death or deathly survival. She saw piles of bodies on the way “killed by heroin, petrol, chain saws, hairspray, bleach, foxgloves …. ” The weather frightens her the most-how she fears what will happen when she steps in the river and whether she’ll swim or drown.
And among all these terrible, matter-of-fact visions, she asks, “Who’s going to mobilise darkness and silence? That’s what I wondered in the night.” And I would say that no more chilling line was ever written.
“Who’s going to mobilize darkness and silence?”
The staggering play quickly ends in mid-flow, and no answer is offered.