Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Election Day in America, and the whole world, it seems, is collectively holding its breath re the outcome. Most of the polls and pundits indicate that Obama's victory is all but assured, but we've heard similar prognostications regarding Gore and Kerry before. So I'm not counting any chickens just yet. Nor, to extend the hen metaphor, placing my fragile-like-an-eggshell hopes in the singular basket of Virginia, or Florida, or Ohio. It does seem strange to me, as a Canadian, that while most of the rest of the world overwhelmingly favours Obama, in the United States the possibility of his election still largely hinges on the votes of individuals in a few counties in select swing states. I mean, I've always thought that the electoral college system is outdated (especially in terms of current urban demographics in the US), but that's just whacked! Then, too, there is the fact that in Canada a government can be dissolved, an election called, a campaign run, and a new government formed all in little over a month's time. Whereas in the States this thing has been going on for upwards of two years, with voter fatigue only further compounded by the long lines and wait times when the polls finally do open. They do elections better in Iraq. Not that the last one here in Canada produced the results I was hoping for in my last post. Or, as my American colleagues like to chide me, that in the bland political landscape here we even have something resembling a two-party system...

Of course, US presidential elections are largely media spectacles, and so it is entirely appropriate that we will all be glued to our television screens from about 7 pm onwards this evening (4 pm here on the west coast), watching Anderson Cooper and his square-jawed and Madonna-miked colleague John King play with their "Magic Board," colouring this state red, that state blue. The global television audience is estimated to be in the billions, and that kind of temporary electronic public formation tells us something not just about the role of media (in bringing people together, in influencing opinion) but also about how the tradition of America-as-a-beacon is now much more about what the world expects of America rather than what America can presume to expect of the world. And it is a safe bet that chief among those expectations is that by the end of the evening that magic electoral map will be more blue than red.

Certainly the media coverage in Europe, from whence Richard and I have just returned, was unabashedly pro-Obama. When it wasn't focussing on the collapsing economy. Or the scandalous deaths of its own far-right politicians. I refer to the fact that our trip to Vienna coincided with the death of former Austrian Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider, who crashed his car while drunk and speeding along a stretch of highway in the southern province of Carinthia, where he was governor. Reports soon emerged that earlier that evening Haider was seen downing a fifth of straight vodka at a local gay bar in his hometown, and possibly visiting the backroom with a trick he picked up there. Whatever the exact details, it soon emerged that Haider had long been rumoured to be gay, rumours only further compounded by the emotional collapse of his former Freedom Party deputy, Stefan Petzner, on national television. Petzner said he was devastated by Haider's death, declaring that the two had a "special relationship," and referring to Haider as his Lebensmensch, which in German has the dual meaning of mentor or icon and intimate friend. All of this evoked shades of a previous trip to Europe (in 2002, and about which I have written in connection with a discussion of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul in a special issue of Theatre Journal), when the gay Dutch far-right leader Pim Fortuyn was assassinated. At any rate, to say the whole episode unleashed a torrent of schadenfreude among Haider's political enemies would be an understatement, as attested in this hilarious video posted to YouTube, in which Gloria Gaynor's "I Am What I Am" has never been used to greater effect.

Speaking of Freud, Vienna certainly gave me a greater appreciation of his theories. All those baroque buildings with those giant caryatids staring down at one. Franz-Joseph as the ultimate Oedipal patriarch. The city's multiple sackings by the Turks figuring a raced return of the repressed. No wonder psychoanalysis was born there. Ditto the Secession, whose 1908 group show, at which Klimt's The Kiss was first unveiled, was celebrated with a 100th anniversary retrospective at the Unters Belvedere. Several of the original rooms devoted to individual artists, architects, and designers in 1908 were recreated for the exhibition. For Richard and I the real discoveries here were not Klimt and Schiele, two of Vienna's favourite modernist sons, but the architect and designer Joseph Hoffman and the artistic polymath Kolomon Moser, who it seems could do almost anything--and beautifully.

We went to the opera, of course, though not one of the grand productions at the Statsoper, which looks like a rococo wedding cake. Instead we opted for two of Jean-Philippe Rameau's baroque chamber works--La Guirlande and Zephyre--which were being performed in repertory at the far more intimate KammerOper on Fleishmarkt (not too far from Rachel Whitread's Holocaust Memorial, with its library of books with their spines turned inward--visiting the memorial in situ, one discovers it's in a square that also features a statue to Gotthold Lessing, and so one can't help but interpret Whitread's work as in part a self-conscious comment on the limits of art). The young company, including a quartet of semi-naked dancers, performed the works with brio, but what was most fascinating for me, sitting in the front row, was to watch the orchestra. It's the first time I've been so close to musicians in the theatre, and I'm here to tell you that they get bored. If you're a timpanist or flautist or second violinist in a baroque orchestra with not a lot to do between the mostly harpsichord-and-cello-driven score, you spend a lot of time scanning the audience for friends, or watching the singers on stage, or wiping fluff off your black performance ensemble. It was fascinating to watch, and more than once I found my attention divided between what was happening on stage, and what was going on below it.

We also went to a dance performance at the Tanzquartier Wien. It was a trio of linked works called "Three Spells" co-choreographed by the Belgians Damian Jalet and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, danced by Jalet and Alexandra Gilbert, and featuring a haunting, original score by Christian Fennesz. A meditation on mutation, transformation, animal-human relationships, racial stereotypes, and of course desire, the three movements were muscular and intellectual all at once. A Samson and Delilahesque pas-de-deux in the third movement, "Aleko," based on a 1942 ballet of the same name for which Marc Chagall painted the backdrops, and featuring a reversely gendered cutting of hair, was particularly affecting. Here's a video excerpt of Jalet dancing the second movement, "Venari."

There were politics and performance in London, as well, the two coming together in very topically relevant ways in a new play by Christopher Shinn (of Dying City fame), Now or Later, at the Royal Court, and in a revival of Harley Granville Barker's Waste at the Almeida. I'll save detailed comments on both for a future post, as my somewhat counterintuitive dissatisfaction for the compact one-act structure of the former (despite a brilliant lead performance by the young Eddie Redmayne, who was also so compelling in the recent Tom Kalin film Savage Grace) and surprising seduction by the classic four-act structure of the latter (whose daring social commentary on back alley abortions and the sacrificial dealmaking politics of Whitehall didn't pass the Lord Chamberlain's censors when the play was first written, in 1907) leads me to think that I might want to launch into a larger digression about play structure more generally.

Of relevance to this particular post, however, is the fact that Shinn's play is in part about election night in America. And in Shinn's play, the right guy (though by no means a saint in his own son's eyes) wins.


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