In conversation with Shipwreck, by Anne Washburn

Hi. I’m Maddy. I like theatre. I like writing about theatre. I like writing about theatre with other people. Since October 2018 I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with Rosemary Waugh about theatre in London, including Dance Nation, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, Hole and Hadestown. I’m hoping this conversation with theatre-maker Caridad Svich about Shipwreck will similarly be the first of many. Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the play and would like not to have it revealed to you, please don’t read further until after such time as you’re able to see it. I’m actually serious THIS IS FULL OF SPOILERS YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Dear Caridad

I promised I’d let you know what I thought about Shipwreck after hosting a Theatre Club about it (for anyone who doesn’t know, Theatre Club is like a book group but for theatre/performance); the trouble is, now I’ve had that discussion, my head is full of what other people thought. For instance, one person argued that it’s a right-wing play: in his view, Anne Washburn puts on stage a bunch of liberals so ineffectual and shallow they can’t even successfully organise a dinner party, let alone a credible opposition, interspersing their scenes with another character who talks so lovingly of his upbringing in a Republican, Christian household, that the whole thing plays out as an attack on the left. That wasn’t at all my experience of it and that he and I should have such polarised views really startled me.

Another person brilliantly described the play — at least, the white liberal angst sections of the play — as similar to a twitter feed: people saying things at each other but not necessarily engaging with each other. But she really disliked it for that, disliked especially the feeling that she wasn’t hearing anything new but instead was trapped in the same mundane arguments she goes to the theatre to get away from. Whereas I found their conversation gripping, not least because it’s one that I keep having elsewhere, with others but also inside my own head. I like to think that I go to the theatre to escape from myself, but it’s a fabrication I concoct to mask self-absorption: I’m constantly seeing myself mirrored on stage and hugely did so here, which is funny/unsettling given how unsympathetic Washburn’s characters are.

I feel like I’ve heaps to say but, as at Theatre Club, I want to find out what the ground is I’m standing on before going into details. I know you’ve only read the play, not seen it, but actually I don’t think Shipwreck gained so much from the physical production that couldn’t be gleaned from the page (ugh that’s dismissive: basically, this show was nothing like Mr Burns, with its copper flame colours and explosion of lametta and increasingly outlandish, ritualised performativity), so I’m really interested to know: what’s your initial feeling about the text?

Dear Maddy

Do we see ourselves in the theatre? And who is the we that is doing the seeing?

Huge question when it comes to Shipwreck, given its focus, at least for its first three acts and part of the last two, on upper middle class or well-off, certainly, white, Asian and Middle Eastern liberals (as the play’s current cast page calls for). This is a play that guts the failure of the liberal, monied left to imagine a truly better, more progressive future for the United States. But it’s had its premiere at the Almeida Theatre in London, and I think looking at a production made now for a specific theatre space and its specific theatre culture is crucial. Yes, as we said offline-ish, the play is intrinsically American (or USA-an; I have trouble with the word “American” as it often excludes Canada to the North, Central and South America in its evocative imaginary — and thus, the cultural-political construct of American-ness as a de-facto United States). But, in this production, is the “we” of the play the “we” of the Almeida audience? Upper-middle-class Islington theatregoers? If so, the reflecting mirror that Washburn casts with dark wit and measured anger is aimed at those that have plunked their good money for the kind of theatrical experience the Almeida is known for: ambitious with a classical root, intellectual, heady and able to capture a certain corner/niche of the zeitgeist.

So, it is a play about politics where we see the failure of democracy, at a certain power-elite level, in action, but also, refracted at the same time through the avowed dramaturgical lens of a black liberal character. Within it there are these scenes — with Trump and Comey, Trump and Bush — that function as the dream/nightmares of the characters that have gathered round the campfire: in Washburn’s Mr. Burns it was a figurative campfire, while here it is the fire inside a cabin in upstate New York, the kind that perhaps characters from Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Plays (a quartet of plays that are also “about” the “current” socio-political “moment,” and I place these words in quotes because what feels like the current moment is actually the result of a stream of history) would visit or at least would know friends that do.

I found myself reading Shipwreck partly through a meta-theatrical lens through some of Washburn’s other plays. Antlia Pneumatica, which premiered in 2016 at Playwrights Horizons in New York City, readily comes to mind. Antlia… is also structured as a reunion play: friends gather at a remote Texas ranch to mourn the loss of a friend. Through the minutiae of quotidian activities and drunken conversations, the friends and siblings that meet at the ranch are presented as figures grasping in the dark (the dark soul of the United States) for a way to move forward. Leaning on each other, sniping at each other, talking past and through each other, they are all alone, sputtering their jokes and memories and anecdotes in an effort to try to make sense of their disquieting, shallow lives. In Mr. Burns (2012), the lost souls at the end of the known world cling to the narrative(s) from pop culture that will (maybe) sustain them and outlive them. Among Washburn’s central questions as a playwright, she asks: which narratives make our lives and why? who gets to write them? and who inherits these narratives? and what do we do with the ones “we” (and again, the “we” is called into question) call history?

I think your remark that Shipwreck sometimes feels like a document of a live twitter feed haunted by eerie dreams of Trump and ghosted by a black figure whose story takes a backseat (or does it?) to what seems like the ostensible central one of the self-important, well-intentioned (beware of good intentions, as playwright Mac Wellman, one of Washburn’s mentors, would say), whining lot suffering at its centre is not wholly inaccurate. There is something “twitter-esque” about the feel of the play and the way the anecdotal, formal and casual linguistic registers operate. But Washburn does subtitle it a “history play about 2017”, and, similar to other plays of hers (am thinking of an early semi-verbatim piece called The Ladies from 2004 especially), she is doing the act of recording which is sometimes called writing. She is recording memory and recording history. She is spinning and selecting tracks that skip by the mark of two asterisks on the page — micro shifts in time — where there are gaps in the historical record or the groove of the vinyl, to extend the recording metaphor a tad here. Again, whose memories and whose histories are for the audience to consider. But Washburn is a hauntologist and an archivist (if you and I wish to think about Derrida and his concept of the archive at all), and I think, while the rage and contempt that the play displays are quantifiably acute, she is also playing a game of smoke and mirrors in the best sense. Her characters (and this includes Trump and Comey and Bush) are caught in reflecting mirrors that offer no sense of self/ves but simulacra of selves moving through paths of smoke. Where will those paths lead? The play ends with an image of ice. So, back to or forward to a new ice age? Extinction of the human and the rise of the post-human?

I was reminded while reading it of Wallace Shawn’s plays Grasses of a Thousand Colors (2008) and Evening at the Talk House (2015), both of which deal with modes of extinction and focus their ire on the failure of a liberal intelligentsia to actually DO anything beyond talk themselves to death. Grasses… poses a more outlandish fantastical theatrical proposition around what humans have done to destroy the planet, while Evening… is framed as a whodunit play in an old-fashioned sense until it slowly reveals its darker nature.

On a theatrical level, Washburn is choosing to give space to character constructs (I am using this term here rather than “characters”, because I think sometimes when discussion revolves around character it inevitably turns psychological, when actually I think Washburn is less interested in psychology and more interested in the concept of a character presenting a face to the audience, at least in this play) that represent figurative power in society, with the exception perhaps of Lawrence, and she is looking at how power is wielded and abused, even at a dinner party of sorts — where power is supremely ineffectual and misspent, ie eggs fall on the floor and nothing gets cooked properly and all the so-called smarts in the world cannot generate a culture of sustenance and true nourishment. It’s a play that is constantly looking at the shells of things — Trump’s surface shell is just icing on the cake, really — and I think that perhaps (and I am curious to see how it will play eventually when it receives its US premiere) it is a play that is easy to misread or misapprehend. In New York City, to be precise, and within the theatre culture here, there is what I would call a hunger for the play that will be the “play of the moment”. Shipwreck is set in the recent past and ironically I think Washburn is saying, at least partly, that the country is sunk and there may be no way to move past a late-capitalist culture that thrives on surface and cannot even know or face its own truths because if there’s one thing “Americans” are good at it’s forgetting. It is a play full of mourning (for what once might have been the promise of progressive humanist revolution) dipped in deceptively nightmarish wit. Cultural amnesia and a sense of stasis co-exist wherein citizens are like hamsters on a wheel, spinning and spinning without any way to move forward, caught in a loop (to use the recording metaphor again from earlier). Didn’t Dan Hutton post on Twitter yesterday that Mr. Burns is really the sequel to Shipwreck?

Anyway, am sure you are wondering what it may mean to represent stasis for three hours at the Almeida — albeit a very darkly funny, mordant and mournful one, and what narratives or non-narratives may indeed be useful now, if at all, to capture a certain aspect of Western capitalist culture? And what to make of what I take is (or are) indigenous-referenced artifacts in the scenic design of the Almeida production?

Dear Caridad

Ah, how slippery and fascinating: we have moved from the I of seeing myself in the (smoke and) mirrors of Shipwreck’s simulacra selves to the “we” of an Almeida audience. It’s a “we” I used to use quite blithely in theatre reviewing; what snapped me to attention, really, is Theatre Club, the range of opinions, but also backgrounds and life experiences that condition those opinions, of the people in the room. There is no “we”. And yet, in socio-political terms, there absolutely is: a hegemonic middle that is white.

You’ve mentioned that Washburn designates Shipwreck “a History play about 2017”. But we both know that History isn’t a set of isolated moments in a line — this after this after this, as Deborah Pearson puts it in her exquisite show History, History, History — or layered like geological sediment, but a morass, molten, past and present as intermingled as the molecules in the air we breathe. The fire that the white liberals gather around is in a house in the country built — Washburn is very specific on this — in 1776: the year a portion of North America issued its Declaration of Independence from the British monarchy. That independence gives British white people a kind of get-out clause when it comes to thinking about the dehumanisation of slavery: “we” were never as bad as “Americans”; “we” don’t have a racism problem like “America”. It’s a falsehood, one that debbie tucker green dismissed summarily in ear for eye. White people in the US and UK alike are yet to recognise, reckon with, atone for, the dehumanisation of slavery. White people never have to look at their child and think that once upon a time they would have been treated like an animal, or a commodity, or both, the way Mark, the black character in Shipwreck, describes looking at his daughter. The abomination Washburn is stunned by isn’t simply that Trump has been voted in: it’s that white people — liberals, lefties, Democrats, Tories, Republicans, it hardly matters the politics — have constructed white institutions that are historically, currently, structurally, institutionally, racist, so much so that it took decades for white liberals to accord even basic civil rights to black people, so much so that Black Lives Matter is necessary as an international movement now.

It was suggested to me during Theatre Club that a lot of what Shipwreck got me thinking about isn’t present in the play itself, it’s stuff I bring to it. Far from recognising their responsibility in the police and prison injustice that has occasioned Black Lives Matter, these characters, it was felt, nitpick uselessly over “politically correct” language: the moment one of the white liberals mentions “systemic racism”, their point is abandoned as everyone else starts arguing over whether “black people” is acceptable phraseology. But to me, that’s exactly how Washburn addresses the problem of whiteness: by noticing its failures, the stasis of its fragility. It’s not that this is a right-wing play: this is a play asking white people to hold themselves to account for their self-privileging actions, and inactions, past and present. It is, as you say, a play full of mourning for what once might have been the promise of progressive humanist revolution — but as such it’s asking itself to recognise how limited that promise was, who benefited from it, and who didn’t.

But, as you say, who is doing the asking? Is it Washburn? Or is it her black character, Mark? Almost on the final page of the play, Washburn reveals that all those white liberal characters are figments of Mark’s imagination, in a line so throwaway that most people who came to Theatre Club didn’t register it. It winded me, when Mark said “This is how I imagine them”: what does it mean for Washburn to use a black man as her mouthpiece in this way? I still don’t know how I feel about it. But it gives a delicious acid shiver to the moment when the word “privilege” is equated by one of those white liberals with speech that is “programmatic, and unthought, and on some level insincere”.

Someone at Theatre Club (the person I mentioned earlier who was irritated by the play) asked me what I thought of Washburn putting words of trauma into the mouth of a black male character: it makes her incredibly uncomfortable, this appropriation of experience, but I don’t think that troubled me so much, or at least, I don’t think anything much more strongly than that Washburn has effectively based this character on parts of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. What does itch at me, however, is another racial categorisation Washburn makes — at least in the printed text that I have — in relation to the character Yusuf. He’s the only person in the currently published character list, apart from Mark of course, not described as a white liberal: rather he is “middle eastern, or something”. (Or something! Anne, please.) He is also the only person from that group who intentionally votes for Trump. And that has been disturbing me immensely.

A reasonable explanation was offered in Theatre Club: those of us of immigrant background talked about the ways in which some members of our families, having adopted neo-liberalism and accessed wealth, are now yanking up the ladder behind them — for instance, in a UK context, by voting on an anti-immigration platform to leave the EU. But that is to ascribe character to Washburn’s constructs, and I think you’re on to something in separating the two. Yusuf also represents wealth, the ways in which the wealthy can act disregarding impact because their own lives are sufficiently cushioned to be unaffected. Today what I’m wondering, glibly I fear, is whether the point Washburn is making is that 9/11 made Trump inevitable: that the Middle Eastern strike against the country has defined US politics ever since. No doubt some of my confusion lies in a certain identification with Yusuf: at one point he says “maybe modern democracy is a failed experiment”, and I know I’ve found myself wondering the same. Friends of mine responded, in a splutter, with the same words that Yusuf follows up with: what’s the alternative, “oligarchy, authoritarianism”? I say no; Yusuf, it seems, says yes. Or does he? The murkiness of all this is part of what makes this play so appealing to me: Washburn doesn’t tell, she suggests, and leaves it to her audience to interpret best they can.

All of this might seem to be speaking at cross-purposes with you: you do say that Washburn’s focus is on “white, Asian and Middle Eastern liberals”, because that’s what it says in the cast list for the updated version of Shipwreck that you’ve read and shared with me. But that’s not how it appears at the Almeida. In the updated script, Washburn has kept the note about the Yusuf character being Middle Eastern, but changed his name to Luis — which, prejudice tells me, sounds far more Latino. She’s also designated another of that white liberal group Asian. Would this undermine what I’ve said about whiteness? I’m not sure.

But here I am writing about Shipwreck as text, as though I might as well have just read it too. That’s partly because it’s such a wordy play, austerely staged, mostly on a circle set within the audience, indeed with audience sitting around it along with the characters, rather like a very large dinner table, rather like a boardroom table. The only times it lets loose theatrically is in those dream sequences and in a video smorgasbord of garish Trump-Hollywood-Christian iconography-pop culture-high art collages. The second dream sequence has the Native American iconography and my husband rather cuttingly dismissed this as an unimaginative replay of the staging of Mr. Burns. I suppose I see it in terms of whiteness, too: the ways in which ritual and artefact have been stripped of meaning, of context, of spirituality, leaving only this hollow, this creeping of the ice.

Of course, now I’ve started dipping back into the script I keep finding dynamite lines I want to explode into a thousand fizzing stars with you, detonating every possible meaning. I’m also drawn back into the hilarious meta sequence in which the white liberals argue about what makes good political art. Myth and allusion or direct contemporary reference? Washburn has her cake and eats it with this play. It’s partly what made the Theatre Club participants who didn’t like it so irritated: they wanted it to be more like Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, a meticulously constructed, emotionally involved play that drew you into its characters’ lives, gifting insights into things they maybe didn’t know about themselves. Or else they wanted it to be like the film Get Out, another linear story, this time with a startling reversal, but one that is fully explained. I loved all three, and feel we need all kinds of narratives — the “well-made” and the fragmentary — to help us understand how the fuck we got to this disastrous place we’re in, but also help us live inside it. But why should we be trying to live here? What would it mean to stop seeing theatre, stop working, stop doing anything, but choose instead to strike, to refuse and resist?

Dear Maddy

Interesting indeed to hear about the changes to the script. Yes, the ‘middle eastern, or something’ description is off-putting at first glance, though I offer that perhaps Washburn is asking the reader and potential collaborator to consider how often the complexities of Middle Easterners are reduced to a generic “or something”? And yes, ‘Luis’ would, at least on the surface, signify or be read as a Latinx figure in terms of casting. At least for some. But it also throws Yusuf/Luis’ position somewhat out of different whack than if he were exclusively Middle Eastern, precisely, as you say, if Shipwreck is seen through the lens of the afterquake of 9/11.

History is not ever in a line — of course — and I think about the narrow lens of history presented in Shipwreck. I don’t mean this as a slap to the play. When you write, you have to focus and narrow or else you’d never write anything! But there is a deliberate intention on Washburn’s part to focus on mostly the centrist-left liberal wealthy intelligentsia — an easy target of satire, I would add — and thus, from within the realms of monied power. Mark is imagining the play — cast adrift, ashore maybe? (which shore, I wonder?) — from the centre of the conversation and its isolating lens on the languages of political correctness. This plays a bit like the obverse of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview (which will be at the Young Vic soon), although Drury destabilizes any notion of centredness and its illusion in that piece. It could be said that Washburn is writing about a specific black character imagining a specific set of white, Asian and Middle Eastern characters, and the play is a kind of mad fever dream of a pretend history or a figment of history that excludes other stories about 2017 from the United States and the rest of the world. It’s a dream/nightmare about a so-called ruling ‘elite’, that ‘owns’ the socio-political conversation, or should I say, collage of monologues that pass for conversation in 2017 refracted through a 2019 lens, at least now that it is on stage in 2019. As the play moves forward, the nightmare intensifies, and the ice is about to break and the whole lot of it will plunge into the deep waters.

I had this image while reading it that if perhaps someone else had directed it, at the end, the entire cast is submerged in a suspended cube, caught in a loop of gestures and unheard badinage, silo’ed truly in a shipwreck of their own making. In fact I thought throughout and days since reading it what would happen if the wordiness of the play — and Washburn is a sharp-witted wordsmith — were distorted in production? Again, thinking along the lines of the sonic/recording analogy I mentioned in my first message, what would happen if the actors started out speaking but then a lot of it were lip sync to a pre-recorded track of their voices and we were SEEING something else? Or if whole sections were voiceover, and the actors were in dioramas of 2017 life? So, it’s not a dinner party/roundtable set-up, as you articulate here from Rupert Goold’s staging, but something far more ferocious and more in the spirit of, say, Falk Richter’s Trust (which was at the Gate Theatre last season). And that then as Mark’s position in the play becomes clearer, it turns somehow into something quite quotidian for a moment, and yes, dinner party-esque, and then suspends into an icy vision.

Something in the play’s relentless emphasis on badinage and chatter — the simulacra of Twitter-verse — however astute, makes me question what IMAGES does Washburn wish for the audience to conjure? If theatre is a seeing place where the tension between hearing and seeing is metaphorically dealt, then if the chatter, to use this word for a moment, is displaced, what would these ineffectual political bodies do? Is their only agency linguistic? Does English (language), the language of commerce, truly rule the world? And do any of the bodies on stage have a sense of agency or efficacy? To my mind, even Mark is robbed of agency, even if the play is in his imagination. He cannot wrest the narrative of the ruling ‘elite’, of which he is ostensibly a part, from even his imaginative life. Is Mark so contaminated by the halls of ‘power’ (note that Mark also doubles as George Bush in the play, somewhat ironically) that he cannot imagine anything else? Is he so caught in the matrix of colonialism and attendant racism that he cannot even hear anything else, let alone see? A part of me kept waiting for a moment of magnificent rupture in the play — where the nesting doll structure of the linguistic games goes off track, against the groove, and becomes something else that counters it. Can Mark transcend historical oppression? Can theatre? And in this case, the Almeida specifically, I would add, by staging work that goes “against” oppressive modes rather than reiterating them?

The laser-sharp depth of Washburn’s provocations linger on the page. Her writing detonates the self-satisfied languor of the peevishly powerful stuck in the middle, circling through their guilt and shame and anger — the monied classes that put not only Trump in office but others as well. Where has democracy gone? I would hazard that although, yes, Washburn is pointed about the farmhouse being from 1776, and thus a physical emblem of the United States’ ‘founding’, the mostly unspoken narrative here is the one that the USA was founded on the blood of indigenous peoples. Until that reckoning occurs, this big, sprawling, mighty country is merely living in a centuries-old state of massive denial. History is not a line. The very sediment under our feet is wet with the aching mess of violence enacted in the spirit of righteous conquest. When I think of Shipwreck, my mind also turns elsewhere, perhaps to the kind of tale that Washburn only hints at thematically in her play: to Lucretia Martel’s film Zama, which is also a story of colonialism and its ravages. In Martel’s film, the liberal hero begins perhaps as a parody, unknowing to his mind, of the white savior, to find himself slowly re-colonized by the conflicting forces of the so-called “savages” in his midst, and then stripped and destroyed of any compass, moral or otherwise. Bloodied and adrift in an ocean, unmoored by time, the liberal do-gooder questions the meaning of civilization itself and how it has been constructed.

Dear Caridad

It’s funny: you say Latinx, and my internal critic immediately shouts at me for using the wrong word…

There is a rule within theatre criticism, oftentimes broken, that you should review the production in front of you, not the production you wish you’d seen. I love how you have the liberty — not having seen the Almeida staging — to imagine your own; dare I say that I’d have MUCH preferred the version you’ve dreamed up here. It also reminds me of something probably important: Rupert Goold is also among the centrist-left liberal wealthy intelligentsia, with much to transcend himself, given his record for saying classist things on twitter. Funnily enough, your image of the cube reminded me of debbie tucker green’s own production of ear for eye: her characters emerged from such a suspension and separation, to be swallowed up by it again; on its walls, white people recite American and British laws and conditions of slavery and segregation. A silo not of her characters’ making but forced on them.

Perhaps what’s fascinating about this group Washburn presents is that with each turn of the wheel something different about them is in focus: one moment race, one moment wealth/class, one moment politics/liberalism. You’re right: this is an easy group to satire. But what sticks with me is the spasm of sympathy that emerges in the long speech about Jim Jones, the cult leader who convinced hundreds of people to kill themselves in the late-1970s. A socialist, an integrationist, builder of what Washburn’s character describes as “the liberal dream” — and, in the event, no better than Trump, just as much a myth-builder, just as lethal. What Washburn is describing — or mourning, to use your word — is a loss of faith: in leaders and collectivism alike. Because death seems to be the result either way.

You mentioned earlier that the group are in stasis, but I’m inclined to remember that even inaction is an active choice, not doing is still a kind of doing. Mark is stuck, “in the house I can’t seem to find a way to leave” that is both the farmhouse he grew up in and the country that surrounds it, but he’s still dreaming, still able to tell stories. Is that enough to hope on? What does it mean for us — me and you, people who have dedicated ourselves to the telling of stories — if the answer is no?

Dear Maddy

I know we are already perhaps past the allotted time we have to continue this conversation, but I cannot leave us with your question hanging in the air, because it is one about which I have been doing much thinking of late.

What does action mean? How is it seen and performed? Thinking is a kind of action, after all. To be able to imagine not only a future but also a present that may arrive at some form of ‘commonism’ (to use Andy Smith’s term from the title of his piece with Amund Sjølie Sveen) is to live in active, actionable hope. Writing is an act of hope in and of itself: the page and stage’s subjects may be despairing sometimes, but the doing is not. The doing is about trying to or making yourself and others go against utter despair. Look, world, this has been made! And with this perhaps we can have a dialogue again about who is here and why and how we can pick up the pieces of the broken bits of our dissensual but shared lives/experience and think and walk toward a possible sense of progress.