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A Mirror of our own Anxiety: Civilization, Violence and Ethics in Martin Crimp's Cruel and Tender
1. Rewriting Sophocles through a fractured ethics
Martin Crimp's Cruel and Tender (2004) is a play of many fractures. Most obviously, perhaps, as a rewriting of Sophocles's The Trachiniae (430 BCE) it fractures the classical narrative of Heracles, his wife Deianeira, their son Hyllus and Heracles's prisoner of war Iole, by updating it to the early twenty-first-century context of the global 'war on terror' and by introducing a series of changes to both the characters and the narrative itself that have been often noted, not least by Crimp himself. Aleks Sierz usefully summarises the thrust of Crimp's play:
Instead of Deianeira and Heracles ... Crimp has Amelia and the General [who is] fighting the War on Terror ... Set in their temporary home close to an international airport, the play starts with Amelia talking to her chorus: a housekeeper, a physiotherapist and a beautician ... The General ... is now under investigation for war crimes. He sends home the only two survivors of a siege of an African city, which he has reduced to dust. One of them, Laela [Sophocles's Iole], is the daughter of an African leader. As Amelia soon discovers, she is the General's mistress--and he has destroyed a whole town to possess her. The tragedy unfolds when [Amelia] sends [the General] a ... potion concealed in a pillow. (Sierz 2005 no page number)
The potion is a chemical that wrecks the General's body from within. Amelia commits suicide, offstage, and the General is taken away by Jonathan, a government minister, to be judged for war crimes, also offstage.
John Ginman highlights two further key ruptures of Sophocles's narrative in Cruel and Tender. Firstly, in Crimp's play Amelia consciously sends the General the pillow into which she carefully inserts a glass tube containing the poisonous chemical, while Sophocles's Deianeira remains "the unwitting executor of the Gods' intentions" (Ginman 2004: 113). Secondly, both Crimp's text and Luc Bondy's premiere production for the Young Vic "focus[ed] tellingly on the role of the younger characters", not only James, the Hyllus figure, whom Ginman discusses at some length (2004: 116), but crucially, I suggest, Laela, transformed from Sophocles' non-speaking Iole into an increasingly articulate young woman whose relationship with Amelia is revealingly transmuted by Crimp too. (1) In 'Sophocles and the War against Terror', published three days after Bondy's production opened, Crimp himself shed light on what to him are two particularly significant emphases in Cruel and Tender vis-a-vis Sophocles's play. There is, to start with, the gender division "universally required", argues Crimp, "to prosecute war. The man is specially trained and specially dressed to legitimate killing ... while the woman stays rooted in and helps to define the civilian world". Further,
... Sophocles had the brilliant idea of writing a play in which this gender split is explicit: not only do male and female live in separate worlds, but husband and wife ... don't even meet ... he devotes the major part of the play ... to a woman who struggles to deal with the man's absence, violence and infidelity. (Crimp 2004b: 35)
To this extent, Cruel and Tender follows The Trachiniae; however, Crimp's play foregrounds the way in which "Amelia resists control, rejects the label 'victim'" (Crimp 2004b: 35). And secondly, writes Crimp, in Cruel and Tender Sophoclean 'exile' becomes "the classic non-place of the developed world ... a perpetually illuminated international airport ... close to the X-ray machines which allow us to examine the entrails of our luggage for favourable or unfavourable omens" (Crimp 2004b x3: 35).
These departures from Sophocles's play have been mostly addressed in the light of what Michael Billington described as the "rash of Greek drama" (2004b: 28) on the English stage around the time Cruel and Tender opened. It was mostly Euripides that was re-discovered--two productions of Iphigenia at Aulis (Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, February 2003, dir. Anna Mackmin; National Theatre, June-September 2004, dir. Katie Mitchell); one of Ion (Mercury Theatre, Colchester, June 2004, dir. David Hunt); another two of Hecuba (Donmar Warehouse, November 2004, dir. Jonathan Kent; Albery Theatre, RSC London season, March-May 2005, dir. Lawrence Boswell)--and the resonances of these Greek revivals with the contemporary context of the war in Iraq, terrorism and the 'war on terror' were highlighted by numerous commentators (Billington 2004a, 2004b; Clapp 2004; de Jongh 2004; Ginman 2004; Gross 2004; Jones 2004; Kingston 2004; Sierz 2006b: 63; Spencer 2004; Taylor 2004; Woddis 2004). While it would be futile to dispute the connection, I do propose to suggest that its significance in the case of Crimp's Cruel and Tender may be deepened by re-examining the play in the light of another kind of fracture-- the historical and ethical rupture represented by the Holocaust and the long shadow it casts over contemporary Western civilization.
2. The ethical challenge of 'liquid modernity'
As Nicolas Ridout points out in Theatre & Ethics--an important contribution to the move towards ethics that has recently taken place in theatre and drama studies, in consonance with the wider ethical turn that has gained ground in contemporary thought since the 1990s--the Nazi genocide has led "to a number of fundamental reassessments of European civilisation and culture" (2009: 49-50). Sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, drawing on previous work by Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and, above all, Emmanuel Levinas, has been highly articulate in this respect. His contribution, I suggest, seems especially pertinent in the context of the attempt to read Cruel and Tender as a play informed by a post-Holocaust sensibility. Needless to say, the relationship I draw between Bauman's work and Crimp's play is not one of cause and effect, or of that much-maligned term, influence, but rather one of conjunction. Although belonging to different generations, as early twenty-first-century Western citizens Bauman (b. 1925) and Crimp (b. 1956) form part of the same post-Holocaust, …