Now we’re all extras in a disaster movie, Robert Reid thinks through the dramaturgy of pandemic
It is too much. The writing, the thinking, the caring… it is too much. I cannot make, move, think under the weight of the everything. It is just too much.
Sociologist Erving Goffman used dramaturgy as a means to analyse social interactions between individuals and social institutions. His best known work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, describes how we curate our behaviour from moment to moment according to our situation and the people we are interacting with, balancing the behaviour that is expected of us with the behaviour we think will be to our best advantage. He uses the idea of “role” to describe that shifting behaviour, as though each of us is an actor who plays different parts from moment to moment. The stage on which we perform these roles, (the workplace, at home, a restaurant), Goffman calls our “frame” and the people we interact with, (our colleagues, housemates, dinner date) are our audience. The combination of frame and audience results in the selection of the role we will play.
Remember when we thought that 2016 was the worst year ever? So many celebrities popular with our aging generations died. David Bowie? Prince? George Michael…? No! This was also, of course, the year of Brexit and Trump.
It’s now barely four months since a third of the eastern seaboard of this country was on fire. Barely four months since I sat in our suburban flat with bags packed full of essentials and irreplaceables in case we had to go. Four months since New Zealand was scattered with the ash of our fires, since Victoria and New South Wales were blanketed in smoke and drenched by mud rains.
In December last year, while the fires were burning and the skies of Sydney were blood red, we started to hear the word “coronavirus”. Stories began emerging out of Wuhan in China of a disease that spreads fast and targets the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Between then and now there was the doomed reverse show trial of Trump’s impeachment, Brexit Two: The Brexiting and, closer to home, the sports rorts saga (these are the same people who are attempting to shuffle us through the distemper du jour).
Goffman makes the point that the frames in which our performances of self take place can be changed and layered so that the role being performed can be interpreted differently by the same audience. When the performer changes this frame around themselves, say by winking at the end of a deadpan joke, this keys the audience into the altered frame. Goffman describes this as changing footing and argues that often these changes are language based or, at the very least, signalled linguistically.
In January we started to hear about the suppression of media reporting about the disease in Wuhan, and the death of the young whistle-blower doctor, Li Wenliang, who had first attempted to warn authorities that the virus might be worse than we were being told. At the same time HBO was screening an excellent, if a bit wordy, dramatisation of the Chernobyl disaster. All the English accents never sat right with me, but I liked the atmosphere of the show.
Writing about Roland Emmerich’s 2009 film 2012, Axel Andersson notes that “the disaster film often strains the boundaries of the scientifically probable, even as it relies upon the popular conception of scientific knowledge…. In the genre’s revival in the 1990s, the scientist is usually represented as a heroic figure working to avert the disaster – an alien invasion or apocalyptic climate change – or to warn the population of the crisis in time. The scientific voice usually goes unheard or is considered hysterical until the disaster is actualised and the threat renders such voice the most rational.” 1
I’d been thinking about disasters for a while already at this point. I imagine a lot of you know (but for those who don’t) I’ve experienced chronic depression and anxiety since I was very young, a kind of PTSD from a traumatic upbringing, and it’s triggered by social and other high stress situations. It comes with insomnia, panic attacks, magical thinking, derealisations, depersonalisations and a proclivity for substance abuse as a terrible coping mechanism. All right, arguably it’s not a coping mechanism, it’s another symptom; but as John Lennon says, “whatever gets you through the night”.
What? Alan Rickman? Carrie Fischer? Gene Wilder? No!
I’d been thinking about the structure of disaster, mostly vivid climate change nightmares and intrusive thoughts, because when I’m down I’m drawn towards a loss of hope, a relentless pessimism that pervades the day like acrid fog, dense and heavy. Perhaps some of you will remember that before the lockdown several local universities had already begun a process of shedding their casual sessional tutors (which is how my wife and I were making a living before the great lockdown, shut down, shut in, have we settled on what we’re all calling this thing yet?) That meant one of us was out of work already, and the other suddenly had a lot less work and only promises to live on. That’s what happens when you spend your life savings on making art in this country, unless you’re independently wealthy: a cost cutting decision made by a bureaucrat somewhere can put you one rent check away from disaster.
There’s that word again.
I’ve been thinking about what happens to our footing when our frames are changed around us by circumstance. I’ve been thinking about the power of disaster to radically reframe the roles we are performing and that, when this happens, it can sever our relationship with our audience. I wonder how we are seen, how we see ourselves; and I wonder at the long-term effects of such sudden frame switching. I wonder what happens when the principles that govern social interaction are so comprehensively reorganised as to render the old roles meaningless for the audience.
I suspect, at both the individual and the global level, the effect is catastrophic.
We were lucky. After what felt like a torturous period of waiting – in reality only a few hard weeks in February – one of us did the heroic thing and found real work in a real job. The financial pressure started to lift.
In February horror stories about a modern day Ticonderoga began to emerge: a contemporary plague ship, the cruise liner Diamond Princess, docked off Yokohama with three thousand and seven hundred passengers quarantined onboard because of coronavirus. I remember thinking this would doubtless be a Movie of the Week in a year or two’s time. Another Miracle on the Hudson or Patriots Day or I, Tonya, ripped from the headlines for the sake of good drama.
What is good drama in this case?
In his 1989 paper “What is an epidemic?”, Charles Rosenberg describes the dramatic nature of epidemics, writing that “epidemics start at a moment in time, proceed on a stage limited in space and duration, follow a plot line of increasing and revelatory tension, move to a crisis of individual and collective character, then drift toward closure”. 2 It follows a classic movement of rising tension towards catharsis and then resolution that would be truncated in the theatre so as to wrap everything up neatly and head to the bar. A dramaturgical arc worthy of Aristotle.
In early March, just before teaching resumed, I was sent to cover the Adelaide Festival for Witness. I stood cynically at the back of the festival launch, secure in my relative anonymity, drinking free wine and eating excellent canapés in the park before seeing something dreadful done to Mozart. I remember watching the festival community brush shoulders, stand freely around tables, chatting and laughing and listening to festival directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy talk up the international acts being showcased this year.
All this, it turned out, was the overture.
In late February we begin to hear about the first outbreak outside of China and the cruise liners, beginning in Lombardy and eventually shutting down all of Italy. The governments of the world begin discussing their own responses to the potential threat of infection. There are several weeks of equivocation over whether this does or will qualify as a pandemic. Trump is telling America, and thereby the subjugated capitalist countries of the world like our own, that it’s nothing more than the ‘flu, that it will go away with the summer “like a miracle.” Boris Johnson is keen on doing nothing so as to increase Britain’s herd immunity. Scott Morrison is reassuring Australians that they’ll still be able to go out to see the cricket.
But dark whispers are spreading. Now about China, where the infections under lockdown number nearly 11,800 people at this point. Now about Italy, where the death toll is 1800 under lockdown by mid-March. Cities are closing, quarantining and curfewing their citizens to stop indiscriminate contact and community transmission. Videos circulate of Italians coming to their balconies and singing opera or playing impromptu concerti to lift their spirits. The videos are shared as evidence of the triumph of the human spirit, as an act of solidarity. They’re shared with passive aggressive side comments noting that “maybe the arts don’t seem so frivolous or irrelevant now”. I can’t help but hear the beautiful voices echoing through the abandoned piazzas and think of the aesthetics of the ‘80s and ‘90s disaster movie revival. A generation who grew up on The Quiet Earth and Twelve Monkeys must be having the same flashbacks I am. I keep expecting to see “We did it” stencilled over the walls everywhere as wild animals make their way into the abandoned cities.
On board the Grand Princess cruise ship, docked in California, three thousand five hundred passengers are disembarked after hot zoning it on board that floating petri dish for weeks, waiting for tests that never arrive. Community transmission is already happening in the US as the President moves from denial to closing the country’s borders, banning travel from China and Europe. Cases of infection in New York begin to rise. Another petri dish, 8.4 million people stacked on top of each other, each breathing the same air, walking the same streets.
In a 2016 blog post, Jessica Reinisch writes that “epidemic narratives can be as deceptive as seductive. The end of disease, may it be a goal, a wish, or a thing of the past, is often perceived in a particular and narrow sense. Endings often imply progress of some kind, while the stories of survivors overwrite the ones of failure, of anonymous loss. But endings are often messier than any international, national or local governing body would care to admit, and most diseases do not map onto neat narratives. Endings hardly mean that the story is finished.”3
Meanwhile, I’m trying to teach Greek Tragedy to second year drama students. This day, my last on campus, two weeks since we started to climb out of our own personal financial Götterdämmerung, there are huddled meetings around the corridors of the school. The full-time staff and administration are already wearing dark looks. There are meetings to plan how we’ll carry on teaching if the lockdown comes to Australia. For a week the shelves of supermarkets have been emptied, first by panic buying and then by profiteering (there is a special place in hell for you speculators and war profiteers, may you rot there with all your toilet paper). We’re pretty sure we can carry out the classes online. We’ve been hearing about this thing called Zoom.
By the end of that day’s class, the Course Coordinator drops by my last tutorial and gestures me over. The other tutor happens to be in the hall and he calls her over too. There have been developments, we need to have another quick meeting before we go home. Already I know what this is, I can feel the spike in my adrenaline that will lead to my anxiety overwhelming me and making me unable to teach if I don’t say something, so I ask what’s happening. The shutdown, it turns out, is moving faster than we expected. It’s happening in hours, not weeks or days. From the morning to the afternoon the university has gone from on campus to online, and the rest of the classes will be carried out from home.
I’m lucky at this point, I’ve still got a commitment to hours I’m contracted for and hopeful promises for the rest. Now might be a good time to join the union. My Facebook feed certainly is filled with messages from the NTEU strongly suggesting it is.
In the next few days at home we watch the American late night hosts encounter the same speed of shutdown. Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Seth Myers… (why aren’t there any women hosting late night, oh right, patriarchy)… each broadcast for a final time from their now nearly-empty studios. They all seem shell shocked and out of their depth without an audience. It takes them weeks to acclimatise to broadcasting the shows from home. We watch each day’s painfully awkward and public struggle towards skills that YouTubers have had for a decade.
Concerts and shows are cancelling and closing. The pillars of live entertainment in Australia fall like dominoes: the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, VIVID Sydney, Dark Mofo, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. At Witness we had been gearing up to cover the Melbourne Comedy Festival. Now the bright pink program released this year lingers like the ghost of the Comedy Festival that never was. Everybody takes to Twitter and Facebook to wring hands over the precarious nature of life in our industry, the sudden unemployment of almost every actor, dancer and musician, the failure of companies to support their artists, the failure of the government to offer the arts their support, the inevitable tetchy commentary demanding that people “remember you turned to the arts when you had to self-isolate the next time you want to call the arts are a waste of tax-payer money”. (To be fair, most people seem to have turned to an American reality tv show called Tiger King, so I’m not sure this quite makes the argument for funding independent art in Australia as strongly as we’d like.)
With all this in the background, it’s worth asking if this was really the best time for the Australia Council to release their disastrous decisions about which few scattered companies would receive quadrennial funding. Maybe that was a decision that could have been delayed one more round? No? Okay, well I’m sure the federal government has a plan for how to support culture and the arts…
How good is footy, by the way. How good is Hillsong.
As silence begins to fall on the streets around the world, pollution begins to disappear from the air in Delhi and the canals of Venice. The kids are calling the disease the Boomer Remover. Memes flutter angrily across our screens contrasting the world’s response to a disease that threatens old people with the climate change that threatens young people.
Here begins the long interval. A recession of the world as we shelter in place.
In the first days of the shutdown the supermarkets are charged with a brittle tension. We eye each other suspiciously from 1.5 meters away. We take what supplies have been left on the shelves just in case. We’re all doomsday preppers now, cans of beans and packets of pasta stacked high in our spare rooms. It’s revealing what products people won’t buy, even if they’re’ the last food in the shop. Rows of empty shelves are broken only by the untouched stacks of meat pie-flavoured Shapes or mystery flavour Pringles.
Days become weeks become a month. The feeling of time passing morphs and elongates. We settle into our new lives. From the vacant train station behind our flat I can hear the automated warning carried down to us on the wind. “Due to coronavirus, Stage Three lockdown conditions are in effect…”
When all the shows and festivals started cancelling there was a flurry of talk about artists taking to the internet to share their work. We were determined that the show must go on, even if it was from our lounge rooms, and there was much talk about streaming services and podcasts. A month later those discussions have flagged. Few shows have gone online and those that are were in many cases already made for broadcast by major international companies.
Watching Tamsin Greig in Twelfth Night with the 2017 National Theatre in London is all well and good, but the experience of these is much the same as the other end of the spectrum – which seems to be a lot of live streaming of bedtime stories for children being read by celebrities. It all feels like watching television. The sense of occasion is gone from these broadcasts. Colbert and the Jimmies don’t even bother to put on a suit anymore. The presence of being that comes from being present is lost to us in this moment. I also wonder if, like for me, it has all become too much for the artists who were supposed to be performing right now. I wonder if the burden of solving the problems of broadcast while retaining the complexities of liveness is an impossible task while we’re all simply waiting to see what comes next.
One of the other places I found empty shelves is the toy sections of second hand stores and op shops. Shelves are bare now where jigsaw puzzles and board games once crowded each other for space. One of the most popular board games of the last decade was Z-Man Games’ “Pandemic”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s been a recent surge in interest in both the game and what its creator, Matt Leacock, has to say about COVID-19. It’s worth quoting him at length as he describes the game and what he hopes it can teach us right now.
In the game, all players work together in an attempt to save humanity from four deadly diseases. Everyone takes turns moving around the world, treating infected populations to address short-term threats, in an effort to buy enough time to complete your ultimate long-term objective: the discovery of the needed cures. Each player adopts a different role, with unique skills. You might play a medic skilled at treating infections, a globe-trotting researcher who can share critical knowledge needed to develop cures, or even a dispatcher who can help the other experts move between cities. Players need to communicate their ideas clearly and effectively so that they are understood, acknowledged and challenged when necessary. They need to coordinate their plans to be most effective at slowing the spread of illness. More than anything, they need to cooperate: There’s no way any single player can win the game on their own…. We need to cooperate, look after our older neighbours and find ways to work from home wherever possible. And we need to coordinate and share ideas for keeping the kids entertained, for helping others obtain hard-to-get supplies and for supporting health care workers on the front lines. It’s going to take serious collective action and sacrifice to slow the spread of the virus. It’s heartening to see organizations, individuals and some government leaders step up. Yet it’s clear that … we’re not all working together. Hoarding and price gouging have no place in a crisis. Nor do the us-against-them strategies used by some of our leaders, blaming other countries and political parties, or mischaracterizing the dangers of the disease. 4
Right now I am tired. I am tired from not sleeping again (I got all of two weeks’ regular sleep before the old familiar symptoms flared up again). I am tired from editing videos which turns a one hour lecture on the Theatre of the Absurd into a four-hour-long process. I am tired of seeing commercials for products attempting to capitalise on the present circumstance (“Bored of the family cause you’re stuck at home, why not tune into ours instead?” “Looking for something to do while you can’t go outside, why not buy a pet?”) I am tired of being told by celebrities and politicians self isolating in the expensive homes they own in the nicest parts of town that we’re all in this together – we’re really not. I am tired of platitudes and I am tired of reading articles like this one, about how terrible this has all been for the arts or how we’ll have to build a whole new society once we come out on the other side. As if that’s ever going to happen.
(Do not buy a pet unless you plan to keep it after the lockdown has finished.)
The dramaturgy of the disease movie places the heroic individual at the centre of a search for a cure amidst widespread death and at terrible risk to their own life. A hero given the tools and intelligence to find resolution/redemption through science despite the fear and greed and ignorance of the responsible authorities.
Georges Fournier wrote in a 2019 paper that “the personalisation of issues associated with disaster movies requires transference and pathos, something which makes it difficult for viewers to grasp these very issues intellectually. Dissociating them from both their political and historical contexts to give them a personal dimension means reducing them to shocking images, images intended to impress. It means disguising reality and concealing responsibilities; it means turning the errors and shortcomings of policy makers into accidents, which were impossible for them to prevent, despite their supposed goodwill.”5
Our experience has not been that of the heroic scientist. We are not the protagonists of this disaster: we are the extras huddling around the television for updates, or falling sick and spreading the disease before going to hospital and dying. The cognitive dissonance of living through the aesthetics of the disaster movie but only at the fringes of the narrative makes this experience all the more unsettling and disempowering. As Goffman might have it, our frames have been switched on us. We have prepared a role for the pandemic that in practice is meaningless for our audiences. We are both performer and audience at once, especially now with the intense mirror of self-isolation imposed upon us, flickering in the corner of zoom meetings or echoing around the flat late at night when we can’t sleep.
This is why I haven’t written anything for Witness since the lockdown began. It’s too hard. It’s too big. Global tendencies towards authoritarianism are reasserting themselves with the threatened surveillance app, increased police powers, bans on migration and trade wars. The walls of the Fortress Nations have been going up all over the world for years and this will surely only hasten their construction. 2.7 million people have been diagnosed with the disease. One hundred and eighty eight thousand have died so far. An estimated 26 million are out of work.
All these numbers will keep going up for a while still to come and we haven’t even gone back in for the second act yet. An act that will doubtless reframe us once more, moving from the narrative of the disease to the dramaturgy of global financial collapse.
It has taken me three weeks to write even this much. In a little over a month, my teaching contract comes to its usual end. The prospect for the rest of the year is grim. I don’t know if I’m working from semester to semester anyway, sometimes not until a week or even days beforehand, because universities have for so long got away with acting as if “sessional” means the same thing as “disposable”. Still, usually I have promises and some hope. Now there are none of these things.
There is only the certainty that when the curtain goes up on act two, the world will not be the same one we remember, no matter how soon we recklessly rush back to our seats.
1 Axel Andersson, The Virtual of Disaster; Science politics and Tectonics in Roland Emmerich’s 2012, published in “Film on the Faultline”, Ed. Alan Wright, Intellect Books, 5 Jan 2015, Pg, 96
2 Charles E. Rosenberg “What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective.” Daedalus, vol. 118, no. 2, 1989, pp. 1–17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20025233. Accessed 23 Apr. 2020.
3 Jessica Reinisch, After the End of Disease: Rethinking the Epidemic Narrative, Published on 18 May 2016, http://www.bbk.ac.uk/reluctantinternationalists/blog/end-disease-rethinking-epidemic-narrative/
4 Matt Leacock, “No Single Player Can Win This Board Game. It’s Called Pandemic” Published March 25, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/25/opinion/pandemic-game-covid.html
5 Georges Fournier, The BBC and Disaster Films: From Education to Entertainment, Published 7.2.2019, https://journals.openedition.org/inmedia/1766#tocto1n3