I have been reading a book on art and philosophy, which is rather thick (thanks, Bro for that Christmas present), The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, by Arthur C. Danto. In the first chapter, which took me a couple of weeks to wade through, Danto addresses the question of art imitating reality. He grapples with the idea, in theatre and film, that we as viewers accept atrocious actions by characters on stage or screen because we know that they are performing and not actually killing, maiming, raping, etc. some other character. These actions, which we would flee from in reality, are plot devices, character development, conflict dilemmas, etc. Watching Kenneth Lin’s play, Kleptocracy, at Arena Stage, I wanted to hide under my seat, for what I knew to be a play touched too closely to reality.
Kleptocracy dramatizes the years of transition of the Soviet Union into the present Russian government. The program notes state that it is a fictionalized account based on real people and events. The one character whom we can readily recognize, and pronounce his name, is Vladimir Putin (Christopher Geary).
The play opens with Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Max Woertendyke) purchasing shares of former Soviet Union companies on the street for cash. Under the advisement of US think-tanks and university departments, the Soviet Union began a program of privatization of the government-owned companies by issuing shares in companies to all Russian citizens. Most did not have use for owning shares in companies, nor understand this capitalist concept, so they sold them for cash, which they could use to purchase more immediate needs (e.g. food, personal supplies, household items). Those buying the shares then amassed the ownership of various companies. Khodorkovsky gained enough shares to take over ownership of the largest Russian oil-producing company. In the process, he would also control, or kill, anyone in his way. Later, he repented of his ruthless ascension to power, and reformed by funding various social goods, such as schools, infrastructure projects, museums, etc.
On a parallel track, a middle-level former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin, took a route to develop a political career. Presenting himself as opposition to the former Communist Party machine, he advances in elections until he is president/prime minster/president of Russia. He uses similar intimidation tactics, imprisonment, maiming, and death threats to silence, exile, or derail his opposition. Meanwhile, US government officials are trying to wedge various agreements between Khodorkovsky, US oil companies, and Putin behind the scenes. Do you see where this is leading?
As the play progresses, Khodorkovsky’s and Putin’s capitalist and political positions eventually collide. If I were better read on contemporary history, I would be able to discern what is factual and what is historic drama. What I found disconcerting was how reality was too close to the drama, and the drama horrifying.
Now, Shakespeare has much more gruesome torture and murder scenes in most of history plays. Chekov and Isben have plenty of scenes in which the wealthy degenerate into squandering their fortunes and the surfs are manipulated into social chaos. Why can I view one of these plays, sitting comfortably on the edge of my seat waiting to find out how Richard III, The Cherry Orchard, or Heda Gabler will end dreadfully on stage?
Danto would argue that my tolerance of those plays is in the distance that the events they are based on are from my world and experience.
I do not expect that I, or our leaders, might be locking folks up in The Tower. Those ideas are abstractions. But, a play about what has happened in my adult life, albeit on the other side of the globe or in some corporate office to which I would never be allowed to enter, suggests that I am a passive observer, or naively ignorant of what is occur today. Drama is too close to reality.
Reality = Drama = Reality is Lin’s point, I believe.
Are we passive observers, in the theatre or on the world stage? Can we act to influence that reality, and thereby become part of the drama? Return from intermission for act 2, if you dare.