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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Ongoing State of Siege

Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez
By Brian Scott Lipton

R-E-S-I-S-T. While a commonplace word, it has come back strongly into the American linguistic vogue this year—seen every day on badges, Twitter walls, and protest signs—as many believe that our recently-elected federal government is impinging on, or taking away, our long-held freedoms.

But, truth be told, this word has been uttered countless times throughout history, most notably during the 1930s and 1940s during the reigns of such dictators like Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler. Equally true, the question has remained on the minds of many in the four corners of the world if resistance can be anything more than a mere word in the wake of a truly fascistic regime.

Unsurprisingly, this conundrum fascinated the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus, who put the query front and center in his highly allegorical 1948 play State of Siege. BAM is co-producing acclaimed French director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s visually stunning and emotionally complex production of this little-seen work at the Howard Gilman Opera House, November 2—4. (Camus, for reasons of his own, set the scene in Cadiz, Spain, although the work is written in and performed in French.)

Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez
Never one to shy away from his own beliefs, Camus alienated the play’s original audience by calling the regime in question “The Plague,” but has the show’s plot differ from his 1947 novel of the same name. Yet as depicted here, “The Plague” is less a disease (though people do die of that dreaded illness when decreed) than an odious bureaucrat, one who confounds and confronts the townspeople with endless regulations—some depriving them of their livelihood, their ability to live with their families (the sexes are segregated), irrational laws, and, above all, their right to speak out against any form of injustice.

Along with “The Secretary,” his right-hand woman, he is the embodiment of every fear a citizen might have about losing their liberties—both without reason and essentially without warning. (The play begins with the appearance of a comet, which the town’s citizenry see as a portent, but have no clear idea of its exact meaning or what fate is to befall them.) Naturally, in the wake, man quickly turns against man, the oppressed becomes the oppressor, and hope gives way to despair.

Indeed, as Camus wrote in a preface to the published play. “I focused my play on what seems to me the only living religion in the century of tyrants and slaves—I mean liberty. My avowed aim was to divest the stage of psychological speculations in muffled voices so that it might ring with the loud shots that today enslave or liberate the masses of men.”

This is also what haunts Demarcy-Mota, who whetted his directorial appetite with Camus’ Caligula when he rounded up his high-schoolmates at the tender age of 17. Now the artistic director of Théâtre de la Ville-Paris, whose Six Characters in Search of an Author and Rhinoceros (Next Wave 2014 and Next Wave 2012, respectively) were box office hits, he felt compelled to return to Camus “to question the existential implications of freedom” in an age of the resurgence of the extreme right. Camus gave him “a passion for theater, love for words and thoughts.” He is a writer who symbolized “the defender of a life sharpened by revolts and rendered meaningful by it, but never became aggressive to others.” With his company, they tried to find contemporary resonance in this 70-year-old text.

And yet, though one would hardly classify Camus as an optimist, he does (at least briefly) deliver a beacon of hope—here in the form of the doctor Diego, who finds the one quality within himself (and every man) that can “defeat” the forces against him.

As he reminds us, both through deeds and words, “resist” is not just a slogan, it’s an action—something every citizen needs to remember in today’s turbulent times.

State of Siege comes to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House Nov 2—4.

Brian Scott Lipton is an arts writer in New York City. His work currently appears in IN New York and on numerous websites, and he is the former editor-in-chief of

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