Trilogy of Resistance
by Antonio Negri
Reviewed by Justin Maxwell
The three plays within Trilogy of Resistance are very much plays of the dialectic -- like Waiting for Godot but without the road. Or the tree. Or the radish. That is, they do almost nothing with the stage, and yet these director's theater-style scripts are goldmines of potentialty. In fact, in the director's Afterword, Barbara Nicolier talks about staging Antonio Negri's Swarm with only one actress in 2004, and then staging it with a cast of sixty-nine the following year. So, how does one stage a Socratic dialog about modern socialism? However they want. Unfortunately, Trilogy of Resistance is a book, not a performance.
The characters here often speak in political slogans (although they are good slogans), and with translator Timothy S. Murphy subtitling his introduction "Pedagogy of the Multitude," the reader is duly, if unintentionally, warned of what is to come. These plays are so steeped in political ideology that the usual translator's introduction becomes a scholarly primer on Negri's philosophical program, frequently referencing Deluze, Guattari, Brecht, and a handful of scholars. Of course, one can skip the introduction, as the plays' subtitles also set up the Brechtian "Lehrstucke or 'learning plays'" they are.
The body of the collection begins with Swarm: Didactics of the Militant, wherein a single, anonymous Man and a quasi-classical Chorus debate the nature of revolutionary violence. Interestingly, the dramatic structure comes not from a character changing over time but from the ideology growing into progressively more nuanced iterations. Ideology itself is the protagonist here. As the Chorus says, "The dialog with the past can and does recognize what is living." If only the dialog of the plays didn't feel so lifeless trying to do it. The script is very much the author's internal debate, with the Man acting as the younger, more-militant manifestation of Negri's ideology, while the Chorus plays counterpoint, interrogating that ideology.
In the next play, The Bent Man: Didactics of the Rebel, the collection shifts the discussion from the nature of militant action to militancy and passive resistance, and the fundamental exploitation of capitalism is conflated with the fundamental destruction of war. In this work, a different anonymous Man passively resists a draft into the Italian Fascist army by feigning a severe back injury. He resists in this fashion, with much suffering, until the Italian capitulation. But fast upon his freedom, he risks and loses his life in the act of killing a host of re-grouping Nazis. Here we hear a single protagonist whose notion of resistance changes over time. But this vision changes in a way that seems to have Negri saying that violent resistance can somehow be peaceful -- contrary to, let's say, Gandhi. As this play's Man says, in the midst of one of the many monologs these plays are made of, "Why can defending life be transformed into imposing war? There is no choice. The fascists are the ones who impose it on us." And without choice, no characters. Without characters, no real discussion. Without discussion, no real debate. Without debate, no real dialectic.
In the final play of the collection, Cithaeron: Didactics of Exodus, there is the first hint of thematically conscious staging with the overt use of technical design elements. Like much postmodern and contemporary theatre, this is a very inventive re-imagining of a Classical Greek work, in this case the Bacchae by Euripides. Starting the script with a strong, clear moment of meta-theater narrated by anonymous voices, makes clear that this play will also be a lecture, disguised as a dialog, hoping to be theatre. It's Negri's most overtly theatrical of the three shows in the collection, and the most emotional. By being so directly tied to an ancient text, it gives the struggles of the characters an eternal quality that matches nicely with the themes otherwise lectured to the audience in these plays. While this approach is well within the stylistic range of Brechtian epic theatre, we're pulled out of the emotional reaction that could have propelled the author's valuable ideas.
Negri is a powerful intellectual, but on the stage he is a shoemaker without a last. Others cover this same intellectual terrain in artistically more successful ways. After all, what value do staged lessons have in a world where the uneducated avoid both the artistic and the educational? Consequently, these scripts fall prey to the bourgeois impulses they seek to subvert. Over the course of three plays the characters progress away from being objects that overtly serve the dialectic, but they never get far enough away to serve the dialog. These are shows that turn theatrical space into the type of empty-vessel pedagogy that Negri's ideological ally Paulo Friere overthrows in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. As Freire says, in a slightly different context, "dialog is an existential necessity." These are oppressive scripts that want to free us, but can't unless the staging helps the script carry the labor of language.