Features Essays Published 16 November 2018

A Very Very Very Dark Matter, and the limits of satire

"This is a play about race matters by a writer for whom race matters not" - Desirée Baptiste's essay unpicks the racist and ableist themes of Martin McDonagh's play.
Desiree Baptiste

Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles (Marjory) and Jim Broadbent (Hans) in ‘A Very Very Very Dark Matter’ at Bridge Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Martin McDonagh loves midgets.

The word midget, I mean, used a lot. There are midgets flying all over the place in his first feature film In Bruges (2008). Lots of uses of the word, I mean, though there’s only one character of short stature, played by actor Jordan Prentice.

Midget isn’t a politically correct term for a person with dwarfism and McDonagh knows that. But you see, McDonagh, the writer, doesn’t do PC. I might be very PC in my real life, but I don’t believe that I need to be so on stage or screen,” he explained in an interview earlier this year.

And so, when an actor with dwarfism stars in one of McDonagh’s black comedies, with their dwarfism very much the emphasis (McDonagh has yet to cast an actor with dwarfism to play just a character), the word midget, when used to describe the character, is simply McDonagh creating an honest representation of what the character would endure if the scenario were real. So, it’s truthful, noble even, when McDonagh creates a situation in a film that results in the audience laughing at a person of short stature being called a midget, as in the acclaimed film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), where the character with dwarfism, played by Games of Thrones star Peter Dinklage, introduces himself as the “town midget” which makes it ok to laugh. At dwarfism. McDonagh has a ready answer when his noble realism is mistaken for ableism: “It’s much more interesting to try to capture how people in these situations actually do speak, without any kind of judgement or holding back.”

Martin McDonagh loves niggers.

The word nigger, used a lot, I mean. And when it’s used a lot, like in A Behanding in Spokane, his 2010 play which features one black character, the word is spewed from the mouth of a white racist, and so it is, of course, simply McDonagh creating a realistic representation of what a black man would endure in the racist scenario that he, the writer, created for this character, and which some, those in the audience who might be inclined to enjoy the spectacle of a black man being called a nigger repeatedly, enjoy. It’s truthful, noble even, and not at all what New Yorker theatre critic Hilton Als saw. A Behanding in Spokane was slammed by Als, in a 2010 review titled Underhanded, not so much for the proliferation of niggers (the word) but for the characterisation of the black male, Toby, as a “shucking, jiving” stereotype of black maleness, drawn by McDonagh to cartoon-esque proportions. McDonagh had a ready answer for the New Yorker critic’s failure to appreciate his noble realism. A noble answer: “If I worried for a second that I had any of those thoughts in me, then maybe I might get angry about a review like that.”

Martin McDonagh is clever.

As in the Caribbean proverb: monkey-know-which-tree-to-climb, he knows that some trees are too exposed, while shady trees provide a subtler route to the ableist-racist high altar.

Which might be why, despite McDonagh’s fondness for midgets and niggers, the lead female character in his new London play, showing at the Bridge Theatre, never gets called nigger-midget even though the epithet would be historically accurate and therefore noble. You see, Marjory is a captive Congolese pygmy in A Very Very Very Dark Matter, set in 19th century Europe. I can’t imagine why her cruel white master, Hans, whose savagery knows no bounds (he’s cut off her foot), would stop short at calling Marjory, a 19th century pygmy slave, nigger-midget or nigger-dwarf. Hans just calls Marjory, played by newcomer Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles, a black actor of petite stature, a black-midget (the narrator introduces her as a black-dwarf). Both references invite audience laughs, but I was aghast! Not one nigger flew across the room that night. What happened to capturing how people in these situations actually do speak….without holding back?

McDonagh would have an answer, something like, “I didn’t want the N-word to be the conversation about the play, distracting from what’s important, all those 2 and 3 star reviews (1 from the Sunday Times) and critics comments: “puerile” (Spectator), “inept” (Sunday Times), “a damp squib” (Variety).

But luckily, his noble realism didn’t vanish completely, it just hid in the play’s theme.

Phew! And so, while most writers would think twice about making comic use of the worst mass killing in human history, the late 19th century Horrors of the Congo which saw 10 million African deaths while the Congo was under the private rule of Belgium’s King Leopold II, not McDonagh. Thank god there’s nobility left in this art-ruining PC world world of ours!

Not that there’s some rule that says you can’t joke about a holocaust, don’t get me wrong. Joan Rivers famously did (on Heidi Klum: “the last time a German was so hot was when they were putting Jews into ovens”). Some found it in bad taste (Rivers, who was Jewish, refused to apologize) but the feeling of Jews who don’t mind comedy that touches on the Shoah is that the jokes can only come from within the tribe.  

Thankfully, McDonagh can’t read the mood of the room.

And so, blissfully un-self-aware and entitled, fresh from the phenomenal success of Three Billboards (which trivialized police brutality against blacks) McDonagh settled on the Congo as his next subject, proceeding to pen the story of a blissfully un-self-aware and entitled white male writer whose stories are propped up by…..the Congo.

Welcome to A Very Very Very Dark Matter, a black comedy about a black holocaust, and welcome to the baffling case of the baffled London critics who struggle to make sense of the play’s descent into banality (an “unexpected nadir in a glittering career” writes Alexander Larman) when they really ought to call a spade a spade. This is a play about race matters by a writer for whom race matters not.

Here’s the premise, and the site of its initial promise, a very funny conceit, the idea that Hans Christian Anderson (played by Jim Broadbent) was a dim-wit whose iconic stories were really written by a captive pygmy, Marjory (who insists on her African name, Mbute), locked in his Copenhagen attic (especially cruel as Hans Christian Anderson was a public objector of slavery). And to add to the joyous uproar, Charles Dickens too is exposed as a fraud whose books were written by a “pygmy lay-dee” (Marjory’s sister, Ogechi).

The premise works. Playful, frivolous, it overturns accepted reality, which is the joy of parody (to the ancients, parody captures the spirit of the original while up-ending it, audience laughter directed at an object of worship providing a kind of catharsis). Here, parody, rather cleverly, does something else too, overturning reality while allowing another reality in. The premise nods to the unacknowledged contributions of enslaved Africans to European greatness, to a people’s loss of names, the separation of families and the importance of stories in their survival. Marjory will, the narrator tells us, “write her way out of” despair. A toy spider (one of many puppets in Anna Fleischle’s spectacularly creepy stage set) evokes Anansi, the spirit of storytelling in the African diasporic tradition. Marjory’s muse? Early in the uninterrupted 90 minutes lay a glimpse of a gift, a critique of colonialism cocooned in the caustic, bitter-comic style loved by fans (myself included) of McDonagh’s early plays.

And then he drops the ball. A haphazard plot that requires epic levels of suspension of disbelief to follow, follows. Marjory has survived the Congo massacres (1885-1908) but has travelled back in time to fit into Hans Christian Anderson’s life and box (he died in 1875). Despite being locked up most of the time and disabled by the amputation, she plans to head back to the future to stop the Congo holocaust from happening. This plot (if it can be called that) never pans out. Instead, there are cheap racist jibes (gypos gets laughs, alongside that old favourite, the Chinese are savages slur), swearing children, and, well.…no critique of colonialism. Critics are baffled, missing the point. The ball was never picked up.

For McDonagh, whose plays are steeped in the murderous and the bloody, some revelling in the grotesquery of dismemberment (The Lieutenant of Inishmore, A Behanding in Spokane, The Beauty Queen of Leenane) the Congo’s violent history is catnip. To imagine, as the critics seemed to, that he might transform this material into art is to assume he respects it, which he doesn’t, as is revealed in the play’s heart of darkness, the segment where the colonial exploitation of Africa is confronted head on.

A Belgian missionary stands with a man whose hand was amputated during the Congo atrocities

Enter the red men, a pair of blood-soaked henchmen, ghosts, who reflect, in an aside, on the millions butchered in the Congo. This segment is vintage McDonagh, echoing The Lieutenant’s opening torture scene, a comingling of comic banter and brutality, the latter delivered here in the form of memory, as the red-men reflect, flippantly, on the dilemma they faced as foot-soldiers:

You see, it was obviously necessary to “lop a few hands off” the Africans, as an incentive for all of them to work harder, explains one red man, it “concentrated the mind.” But then, in hindsight, says the other, it was “possibly unsound reasoning” as it’s “harder to work the less hands you have” and in any case, they’d “usually die.”

The red-men represent the cruel coercive labour practices of Leopold II’s Force Publique as they extracted wild rubber (to service the late 19th century craze for bicycles) from its major source, the Congo interior. These killers are Belgian, in the play, but the officer core of the Force Publique, entirely European, was drawn from Scandinavia, Italy, Switzerland, and yes, the British Empire. Devastating history, and a largely buried one. And very callously treated here.

As satire, the scene fails, the device requiring exaggeration (to ridicule abuses with the intent to shame) while here, the shocking historical content is all 100% true. The 10 million murdered, the “buckets of f…ing hands all over the f…ing place” (baskets, in reality), true. The slaughter of pygmies “willy-nilly” as the red-men put it, true.

Picture of Congolese men holding amputated hands, photographed by Alice Seeley Harris in Baringa, May 1904. Image via Wikimedia Commons

How do you exaggerate a genocide?

Ok, tonally, I suppose, but wait! The callous indifference of the blood-soaked killers? True. The fact that Leopold II spoilt-brattishly wanted a colony because “everyone else in Europe had a colony?” True. His father Leopold I, uncle of Queen Victoria (she had loads of colonies) tried and failed more than 50 times. The onus was on junior.  

The we-were-just-morally-misguided-adventurers tone of the red-men, as an ironic dig at the attitude of colonial abusers? That fails, because it’s exactly how history and memory excuse Leopold II. “He was a man of vision” says Guido Gryseels, in the BBC4 documentary, Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death (2004), “you can strongly disagree with that vision but he did have a vision.” Gryseels was serving as the Director-General of Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa at the time of that interview, in which he also stated that King Leopold II: “certainly did not deliberately…sort of, murder…or whatever.” The BBC documentary was denounced in Belgium as an assault on the memory of King Leopold II, its claims that he was Europe’s Hitler-of-the-nineteenth-century “tendentious diatribe.”

Satire fails, as the scene is outdistanced by the reality. There’s no room to stretch the Congo holocaust, any part of it. And in any case, “as any close study of Horace or Juvenal or Swift and Pope reminds us,” says Linda M. Shires, Syracuse University Professor of English: “satire is only satire if it assumes a firm moral standard, a final referent,” which this scene fails to achieve, and here’s why.

Presumably the firm moral standard is Britain’s. This is a London play by a London writer (born and bred). Satire presumes a standard which the subject doesn’t reach, presumably the failed standard is Belgium where the genocide has never been acknowledged.

But this “moral” position fails, as Christopher Hart’s Sunday Times review of the play confirms. Hart took umbrage at the play’s use of the “frequently bandied about” figure of 10 million (recognized by scholars, since the groundbreaking work of renowned Africanist, Jan Vansina). “Maybe” 3 million writes Hart (no sources given). You see, says Hart, due to the lack of reliable documentation, who knows? (Vansina’s work accommodates oral history). And in any case, Hart continues, the Force Public was largely composed of African foot-soldiers though their actions, he concedes, met with “the barbarous approval of Belgian officers.”

Note the word “approval” and the ease with which African history is re-written by a British (un-accompanied by scholarship) “authority.” The Congo Free State, as Leopold II named his personal fiefdom (see why there’s no room for irony?) was a million square mile prison camp. Violent acts that Africans committed, on pain of death/torture, are transformed by Hart into self-directed acts of African origin of which Belgian jailors merely “approved.”

This Sunday Times critic’s revision of history, if published about the Shoah, would be flagged up immediately, for following the contours of Holocaust denial (not a binary yes or no position but one with degrees of negation), in its restricting of numbers and its neglecting to recognise oral sources as valid. As James Carroll wrote last year, in a New Yorker essay on anti-semitism, the “neglecting and the restricting are forms of Holocaust denial.” But with African history somehow there’s a free pass.

Satire fails because Britain has no moral position on the Congo horrors. No-one called out the Sunday Times, because its “moral position” on Congo’s holocaust, is the national one.

Which leaves just one moral island, lone justice-warrior Martin McDonagh. Satire stakes a claim, about who gets to say, self-righteously, what’s right. So, does McDonagh represent what’s right? Nope. The play’s juxtaposition of satire with its other forms of comedy: parody, fantasy and nonsense, reduces the satire, already teetering at the brink of collapse for the above reasons, to the in-signifi-cant. It’s signify-ing power, dissolves in the mix. The other comic forms are less tethered to a morality, to any standard of right vs wrong.

But the facts are true, in the red-men scene, so it isn’t wasted, right?

Where it fails as satire the scene works as documentary, yes? No. The idea that the audience is reminded of a history is “possibly unsound reasoning” as one can hardly remind an audience of something most don’t know about. Yes, they are told of a mass murder, but as Primo Levi wrote: “the very enormity of genocide nudges us toward incredulity, toward denial and refusal.” And finally, it fails as documentary, once again, because of the play’s wild juxtaposition of atrocity, parody and fantasy which makes it hard for those in the dark to know real from made-up. This is a play that speaks of 10 million murdered, and hands all over the f….ing place, but which also contains a haunted accordion, time-travellers and Marjory’s plan to return to the Congo by bus, creating a problem. Un-differentiation. The play threatens, thus, to make a nonsense of the horrors of the Congo, opening up, as it does, an avenue for doubt.

Certainly not the work of a writer who cares about this history.

Or cares whether the audience cares.

Here is what’s hideous about this.

The crime may have been enacted by a Belgian King, but the rest of the world excludes it from moral concern by forgetting it, with McDonagh contributing. In playing games with history and memory (“like a kid picking up dangerous objects and toying with them,” writes The Stage) he sees to it that the Congo holocaust, already lost down global memory’s rabbit hole, continues to struggle, like Alice, for recognition:

“You know very well you’re not real.”

“I am real,” said Alice, and began to cry.”

(Alice in Wonderland)

But the climb continues.

The racist-ableist acme is now within sight.

Enter Marjory. Or, should I say, exit Marjory, as it is only when actor Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles (a stunning debut) climbs out of the wooden box in which she is caged, that it becomes apparent that the actor is herself disabled, an amputee, the decision to cast her undoubtedly progressive in an industry that still struggles to give parts to disabled actors. Louise Dyson, managing director of visABLE, a UK talent agency for disabled actors, tells me: “One thing we really need in the industry is for the movers and shakers, the people who make decisions, to make such choices. It’s the only way things are going to change.”

And the fact that Marjory’s foot-less limb (a special prosthetic was created for Ackles, for the production) is so visible? So much of the time? Also good. The more visibility of disability, the less untypical and the more role-models for aspiring disabled actors, right?

But.

The limb is given tremendous visibility. Marjory’s skirt is high enough off the ground to ensure that that is the case, as she moves across the stage,(bending over at one point to pick up letters tossed aside by Hans) while the other women in the play have more typical Victorian-era skirts which sweep the floor. This couldn’t be helped, I was told by a member of the creative team, the skirt had to be taken up, during the technical rehearsals, for the actor’s safety.

But at one point Marjory climbs the lower rungs of a ladder (how safe is that?), a moment that was un-essential to the plot, the prosthetic exposed from the back to way above the “knee” and, a line is crossed. While visibility of disabled actors on stage and screen is crucial, and only to be achieved by giving disabled actors parts, that’s actually a different thing from extracting from a disabled actor forensic-level visibility of a bodily feature. We know that Marjory is an amputee. What happened to imagination is the soul of theatre?

Why couldn’t Ackles be given bloomers to wear, I wondered. Under her shortened skirt. With just the stump of the amputation visible and not the whole leg up to thigh level. Bloomers were Victorian-era garb and would have been a clever nod to the theme of Congo’s exploitation, they were the standard “bicycle dress” for women during the bicycle craze.

The spectacle.

Ackles is pure grace. She carries her body, like the character she so convincingly inhabits, with great elegance. But there is something grotesque at play, the fact that the excessive visibility of her limb was likely a writer/director choice, for the spectacle offered, providing a more charged optical experience for those in the audience the Daily Mail called “rubber-neckers,” those for whom disability concentrates the mind.

And with Ackers being black, all of this opens up an avenue, sadly, to a hideous history, of the untypical black body (black bodies were once seen as untypical by nature) as spectacle, subjected to a white gaze (the Bridge Theatre audience is almost 100% white) and in particular, of 19th century Europe’s fascination with exhibiting black women. I was about to dance with the writer/director’s vision, with the progressive casting. But then in came the ghosts, a galaxy of ghouls orbiting round Venus… Hottentot Venus.

How is it that McDonagh doesn’t know this history?

Maybe he forgot. Strange. McDonagh styles himself as an Irish writer and everyone knows the Irish never forget, the English can’t remember. I have yet to meet an Irish writer whose race memory isn’t tuned in to the 19th century caricatures of the Irish in British publications and on stage, representations of the race as sub-human and dangerous. I have yet to meet an Irish writer who’s forgotten that white skin was no defence to racial other-ing.

But I digress.

How progressive was the casting?

Ogechi, sister of Marjory is also an amputee in the play. Yet the actor is able-bodied. Was the team really determined to ensure greater visibility of disabled actors? According to Director Matthew Dunster, Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles, who is from the US, and who the Hollywood Reporter described as an actor “with dwarfism” (Ackles has made no statement referencing her petite stature) was chosen because he couldn’t find the right actress in the UK. Dunster told the Daily Mail, last June:

“We needed something very specific in terms of ethnicity and height.”

(we needed a black midget).

Strange, that there wasn’t a single short black actress (no professional experience required) in the whole of the United Kingdom. Strange too, that Ogechi is also a pygmy in the play, like Marjory, yet the actor who plays her, Kundai Kenyama, isn’t noticeably petite.

Why the need to be so literal, in casting only Marjory?

(we needed a black midget).

The spectacle.

McDonagh can do nothing else with black history and the black body but chose spectacle over substance, due to his own amputation, of hand from heart, where dark (skinned) matters are concerned, or as Irish journalist Una Mullally called it, in a tweet earlier this year: “McDonagh’s bullshit, nasty, weird attitude towards race in his work” (she didn’t forget).

Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail thinks the play “shows that you can murder dramatic reputations.” I doubt it. McDonagh is a gifted writer, he’ll bounce back. But A Very Very Very Dark Matter does show that you can kill your own art, and not in the Banksy-esque sense, shredding it only to usher into life another, arguably, greater work of art.

McDonagh sacrificed his at the racist-ableist high-altar.

Few artists would murder their own art for that. Few are that noble.

A Very Very Very Dark Matter is on at the Bridge Theatre until 6th January. Read Exeunt’s original review here

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Desiree Baptiste

Desirée Baptiste is a researcher and writer based in London.

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