Discussion led by Joe Shay, Ph.D. Now, that was a thump-gun!
First, I want to ask for another round of applause for our absolutely terrific actors who have poured so much energy and emotion and soul into this production.
My hope today is to engage with you in a discussion about the meaning of this profound play particularly as we experience its meaning on November 10, 2018.
Is this a play about couples in crisis? Is this a play about group dynamics? Is this a play about human nature? Is this a play about what just happened on November 6th?
After I make some general remarks, I will turn to you—and the actors—to hear your reactions and ideas.
Let’s begin with the title, God of Carnage. This is a pretty provocative title. Doesn't it connote even before the first words are spoken: buckle your seatbelt. What is carnage? One definition is that carnage is the violent slaughter of a large number of people (or that it is the flesh of slain animals or humans). This is a serious title and it can’t simply be about the death of children in Darfur. Alan says,
You see, Veronica, I believe in the god of carnage. He has ruled, uninterruptedly, since the dawn of time.
What has ruled uninterruptedly? What this play suggests is that it is our animal nature that has ruled.
The play seems to be about the danger of regression to our animal natures. As Annette says,
How many parents standing up for their children become infantile themselves?
She later adds:
We’re on a slippery slope.
And we, the audience certainly experience that.
Veronica doesn’t want to believe it, however, and she says,
Fortunately, there is still such a thing as the art of co-existence, isn't there?
Later, as a kind of last gasp to avoid the slope and to protect humanity, Veronica, declares “we’re living in America according to the principles of Western society,” and as she puts it:
I’m standing up for civilization.
Many years ago Mahatma Gandhi was asked the question, “what do you think of Western civilization?” and his answer is said to have been:
“I think it would be a good idea.”
Michelle Obama implored us that when they go low, we go high. But how hard is that to do.
Michael, in the play, may be speaking for all of us, for all of humanity, when he says:
We all mean well. All four of us, I'm sure. Why let these minor irritants, these pointless aggravations push us over the edge?
Push us over the edge. I’ll return to this idea of the edge shortly.
So, who is the God of Carnage?
Is this play describing us, each of us, cautioning us that we, peace-loving, tolerant, empathic, mindful creatures, are one small event away from a major regression to becoming barbarians? To engaging in carnage. To fomenting carnage.
This may be a frightening idea but it is not new.
Are we barbarians?
Gustav LeBon wrote a book in 1895 entitled, The Crowd. A Study of the Popular Mind, in which he wrote, “once individuals become part of a crowd, a type of hypnotic power engulfs them and causes their behavior to change. Individuals lose their sense of responsibility and a group mind assumes control.” He added, perhaps anticipating this very play, “By the mere fact that he forms part of an organized group, man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd; he is a barbarian.”
Freud (1921) later underlined this when he said, “A group is impulsive, changeable and irritable. It is led almost exclusively by the unconscious.”
Then, we have the popular culture understanding of this idea. Do you remember the movie, 12 Angry Men. If I asked you what it was about, you might well tell me it’s about one fair-minded, non-bigoted, tolerant man, played by Henry Fonda, who believes in justice and persuades 11 angry men to vote not guilty in a murder trial. But the movie is not titled, 11 Angry Men and Henry Fonda! It’s titled 12 Angry Men. The movie seems to say what Le Bon said and what Freud said and Carnage says and what Gandhi said. Not so fast. We need to be very careful here because perhaps we are all, at some base level, angry people.
All of us. During the wonderful reading of the play, I’m sure you noticed that you were laughing and perhaps wondering, should I be laughing here? Why were we laughing? What are we laughing at?
Michael says to his wife:
You organized this little shindig, I just let myself be recruited . Have we all been recruited?
Yes, these 4 characters are recognizable but they are not us, right? Not us because we would not regress to such behavior.
On the flyer that many of you saw, one of the descriptions was, the play “delivers the cathartic release of watching other people’s marriages go boom.”
Is it other marriages, though? Is it other people?
Remember, we have the research examples of the Stanley Milgram study in which we were giving electric shocks to others because we were told to; and the Phil Zimbardo study in which we became sadistic prison guards because we were told to; and current events about which we can get very angry. And I mean very angry. In my office, I have had people who have rarely uttered a word of profound aggression toward other human beings who have mentioned assassination as a possible vehicle of change.
And I have not been horrified by this.
Do you remember the Pogo comment: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
What I am is a fucking Neanderthal. And, Alan reverberates,
Aren’t we all? Is that what this play is about?
Moreover, this is such a wonderful play because it illuminates underlying notions about couples and about groups. Let me say a few words about this.
What is Illuminated about couples Is Michael correct when he says, marriage is the most terrible ordeal God can inflict on you? Do either of these couples need couples therapy or were they fine until this exchange in the play? This is a complicated question but let’s focus on just one aspect of the couples interactions.
The researcher and therapist John Gottman has named a number of relationship patterns that suggest real relationship trouble. He named them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They are: Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and Contempt (attacking the other’s sense of self with an intent to insult or abuse).
We can see all of these in this play but let me highlight examples of on the horseman most predictive of divorce which is Contempt.
Annette calls Alan a coward when he wants to leave. Michael says mockingly to Veronica, after he proudly calls himself a “fucking Neanderthal,” “you’re a fully evolved woman, you’re stain resistant” and later accuses her of shoving ideas down their throats. Veronica yells at Michael, “you’re a liar, you’re a liar. He’s a liar.” And she and Annette mock him for being squeamish about touching a hamster. She later suggests he can’t “work up any enthusiasm” and Annette too says her husband can’t “work up any interest” in local events. Calling your partner impotent in a group can qualify as contempt, don't you think?
Who are these people? Didn’t you like them better at the start of the play? I’ll return to who they are momentarily.
What is illuminated about groups
Certainly we can view these 4 people as members of a group. And groups as many of you know have group processes. Let me underline a few of these processes.
As with many groups, there is a calm start. But in this group, within a half hour things change dramatically. Here’s a “nutshell” description by one reviewer: Carnage is
30 thrilling minutes of hurricane warnings, followed by a nasty cloudburst that just won't end. This is the runaway train phenomenon known to every group therapist. Norms can get overthrown, people can feel hurt and then go on the attack, and then, the contagion process takes hold and the cloudburst comes.
And we certainly see how each character begins by playing a particular role, whether Darjeeling, the evolved one, Woof Woof, the polite one, Michael, the peace-maker, and Alan, the self-involved one. But as the play progresses, the roles change dramatically as you have seen, and isn't this what occurs in the groups we lead. (For those of you who loves movies, the movie Breakfast Club demonstrates this changing of roles brilliantly as a group process unfolds.)
We also see group dynamics such as scapegoating whether it is the son Benjamin who is the scapegoat, initially carrying all the infantile aggression; or big pharma; or overtly mean-spirited lawyers such as Alan who is quickly unlikable but by the time his wife tosses his cell phone into a vase of water, we’re aware that he’s not the only one in this crowd who is unlikable.
Finally, I’m sure you observed the typical group process of shifting alliances. The couples initially allied as separate couples but over time, the men bond around the Spartacus and Neanderthal theme and the women bond around the horrible men they are married to. In any group, over time, the alliances of members take different forms.
What about November 6th?
Now, this play was first performed in 2008 so it was not written for 2018. Do the themes hold up?
Remember how the play begins with the discussion about whether Benjamin, age 11 was “armed with a stick.” It’s 2018, not 2008. How amazing that just 10 days ago in our political discourse coming from the highest level there was a discussion about whether being armed with a stick or a rock was equivalent to being armed with a rifle. Is this chaos? It is certainly not majesty.
As Annette says, and doesn’t this fit in 2018:
An insult is also a kind of assault. Enemies can be seen everywhere.
Did you see yourself wince when Michael talked about “Sudanese epithet” and Annette called Henry a “sniveling little epithet.” We don’t want to identify with these people. I am even avoiding using the language of the play.
But it may be more complicated than that.
The most recent Time magazine cover either proclaimed or implored “Beyond Hate.”
None of us like to think of ourselves in a negative light. We like to think of ourselves as generous beings. That’s why the stories about Kitty Genovese, the woman murdered in New York in 1964 as many good people stood by, and the studies by Milgram and Zimbardo are so disquieting to us.
Remember when Annette says about Veronica and Michael,
“these people are monsters.”
Who are the monsters in this foursome? Any of them? All of them. Can we reasonably polarize the couples in this way?
As the play progresses, we get to see ugliness from each character despite Veronica’s plea that we recognize sides:
There are not wrongs on both sides! Don't mix up the victims and the executioners!
Do you recognize this idea from our current political discourse?
None of us wants to be the executioner. But if we are honest about ourselves, and this play invites us to be honest, we carry aggression. We carry savagery. We get pushed to the edge, even though we don’t want to
Earlier, I mentioned Michael’s lament, “why let pointless aggravations push us over the edge.”
Let me conclude by exploring
The meaning of the edge.
Michael expresses a cynical view about this when he says:
MICHAEL. Children consume our lives and then destroy them. Children drag us towards disaster; it's unavoidable. When you see those laughing couples casting off into the sea of matrimony, you say to yourself, they have no idea, poor things, they just have no idea, they're happy. No one tells you anything when you start out.
Is there no hope for us? In the spirit of a play reading, I will finish by reading a poem about this very idea of living at the edge. It is on its face about marriage but in the context of my remarks, it is about humanity.
Habitation (1987) Margaret Atwood
Marriage is not a house or even a tent
it is before that, and colder:
the edge of the forest, the edge of the desert the unpainted stairs at the back where we squat outside, eating popcorn
the edge of the receding glacier
where painfully and with wonder at having survived even this far