"Korach” & the Anarchist Conscience by Jeff Grunthaner
“Korach” & the Anarchist Conscience In the context of “Korach,” performed by the Living Theater, anarchism is presented as a tragic struggle. The political sanctioning of individual freedom is doomed outright to fail again & again—except for the last battle, which will be final, decisive, & victorious. The play starts out by saying that anarchism has worked wherever it was genuinely implemented. The same thing, of course, could be said of socialism—& what is anarchism if not an alternative route for the realization of socialism? The play, however, does not explore the ramifications of socialist production, being instead the dramatization of a personage whom even Bakunin cites as the original fountainhead of anarchist thought. Yet, despite being the namesake of the play, Korach, as a character, has a decidedly minor role. In fact, throughout “Korach,” no one character can be said to usurp the play as its star—rather, the dramatic impetus lies in the gradual unfolding of a story that moves from the present into historic time, & back again into the context of the present. In a word then, “Korach” is a mythic take on the anarchist agenda, & as such has a dubious import relative to the cause of anarchism in the historical world we daily inhabit.
*How so? One need only distinguish between the /aesthetic/ & the /ethical/ to make apparent what I mean. In the realm of the /ethical/, the realm of moral norms, criteria of conduct, etc., intention is everything. We condemn a person less for his faults when we can be assured that his motives are “good,” regardless of their results. In the realm of the /aesthetic/, the situation is the exact opposite. When looking for aesthetic merit, it can only be distracting to think of what an artist “intended,” of what he or she “meant to say.” What’s essential is what’s on the page, what’s on the canvass, the resulting drama that unfolds before us—essential, that is, insofar as we’re concerned with works of art, & don’t take upon ourselves the attitude of the professional critic or biographer. Morality is a thing of intentions; aesthetics is a thing of results. Depending on which one is concerned with, the word “good” takes on a different shade of meaning, & for this reason is often ambiguous & hard to decipher.
Now, the onus of a theater company that makes it a point of being an anarchist ensemble lies in the responsibility it has to relate the aesthetic & the ethical, theater & politics, in such a way that the one does not “violate” the other. If the ethico-political is given too much weight, the audience feels drummed on by a message. If the aesthetic is left to its own course, we might have a kind of neo-Dadaism, the political message of which might be elliptical & obscure. Having dichotomized the matter thus, we now ask: To what extent does “Korach” bind these two opposing extremes? Does it indicate a middle-path sufficient to the realization of anarchy in daily life?
The only life we will ever know is in & of the world. Personally, after leaving the Living Theater, I enter into a place where none of what is told me in the Theater applies. Its message of anarchism—which is timely & deserves to be told time & again—tends to degenerate into a singsongy catchphrase, like the horrible musical fiascos in “Korach.” The bona fide meaning of anarchism, which I understand as atheistic, is muddled with words like “holy” & “congregation,” in such a way that one would think anarchism is a kind of church, not an atheistic philosophy that takes religion to task for justifying the exploitation of masses of people in the name of abstract & arbitrary authority. The message of anarchism, then, as the Living Theater presents it, is decidedly warped of its original integrity. It is a new mysticism, & as such can only lead to organized suppression if taken to its logical extreme. One need only cite a comparatively recent review in the /Village Voice/—the writer of which felt “patted, poked, danced about, and forced…” during a Living Theater performance—to see in a microcosmic way where such extremism can lead.
Insofar as anarchism is originally atheistic, the message of “Korach” is a debasement of anarchy’s original meaning. But does this say anything against the /aesthetics/ the Theater uses to drive its message home? Here, we have the distinction between form & content, the message (content) being in many ways irreducible to the dramatic spectacle (form) that serves as its vehicle, even being a corruption of the process that gives it life. I myself saw many rehearsals of “Korach,” & it was illuminating to watch the play develop from nothing into the form it has now taken. Essential to the creative process was a genuine participatory involvement on the part of all the cast members. Here, anarchism was genuinely realized, practically & without any mystical nonsense thrown into the bargain. The directors worked in concert with the cast, developing everything from dialogue, to/mise-en-scène/, to choreography. No authority was really apparent, other than the formally limiting constraints of time. The progressive shaping of the drama of “Korach” can only be praised & admired as the “institution” of anarchism in the lived world. As a result, “Korach” is truly a Living Theater production—something which owes credit to the entire cast as much as to Judith Malina & the other directors.
“The urge to destroy is also a creative urge” because only life can create, & there are institutions of inequality that prevent life from developing to its full expression. These institutions are largely religious—among which, the Hindu caste system can serve as an extreme & poignant example (cf. /Untouchable/, by Mulk Raj Anand). This being so, I find it both disappointing & confusing to be told that I am “holy,” that I’m affiliated with some “congregation,” every member of which is equal in the eyes of God. I react in this way only because the Living Theater is supposedly an anarchistic ensemble. Should a religious theater attempt to tell me the same thing, I wouldn’t even bother to listen, knowing full well that every word uttered would be a lie. Still, despite themselves perhaps, the anarchistic import of the Living Theater comes through—not in its message, to be sure, but in the very enactment of “Korach.” Anarchism is realized in the dramatic distribution of the cast members on stage, in the perspective audience members have of every performance, as well as in the dialogic process through which the play has come into being. In this way, anarchism becomes a silent endeavor: it appears, but it still lacks a language. It is possible that anarchism has to align itself with myth & mysticism until a corresponding language comes into being—but this is only speculation. Ultimately, the theatrical experience of “Korach” is marred by its religiosity, the beauty of the play being overshadowed by the very theme it sets out to portray.