In Homo Sacer (1998), the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben explores the nature of sovereign power and production of bare life, describing homo sacer as someone whose ‘entire existence is reduced to a bare life stripped of every right by virtue of the fact that anyone can kill him without committing homicide’ (Agamben 1998: 183).
The state sanctioned policy towards disabled people in this country at this time is made manifest in various ways. Changing the benefits system so that people die through administrative delay is one such particularly passive aggressive manifestation. Connor Sparrowhawk and other young people who die “in care”, owing to its opposite, are perhaps an even more stark illustration.
Now let us turn to the family which has an autistic young person, perhaps non-verbal, perhaps with so-called “challenging behaviours”, perhaps capable of physical violence. How are we who may not have experience of such a family to enter into such a world?
Let us also bear in mind the truism that when you meet one autistic person… you have met one autistic person. Autistic people are like non-autistic people. They come in many many different shapes, sizes, packages… Yet we are not (yet) at a place in society where neurodivergence is widely recognised, let alone understood and embraced.
Part of the context of entry into that family’s world is to know that while the destruction of any so-called normality which may occur as a result of said young person’s “challenging behaviour”, including the break-up of that family, mental illness among that family, physical and psychological damage incurred within that family – that if a point is reached where that family’s autistic young person is put into an institution: they enter into a different political realm. Released from the de facto protection of the family, they become – in effect – homo sacer: “reduced to a bare life stripped of every right by virtue of the fact that anyone can kill him without committing homicide’”
In this context the dramaturgical choice as to whether to represent such a character onstage in the form of a puppet (as opposed to a live actor) unsurprisingly invites questions which might not arise in many other contexts.
“Come and see the show and judge for yourselves” is the classic civil liberties defence, and not, in essence, without merit. But it also colludes with the classic businessman’s defence, where all publicity is good publicity, so long as we can avoid either being shut down or having to pull the show – and still sell tickets. Murky waters.
So what are the questions that we might ask, once any outrage has had the edge taken off it?
Do the people making the show understand what is at stake, not just in the world of the play, as Joseph Campbell might ask in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, for their puppet-character, but in the relationship of the world of the play to the world-outside-the-theatre?
If they do understand that what is at stake is essentially the risk of homo sacer – one not limited to disabled people in these crypto-fascist times, but clearly very present – how are they demonstrating that understanding through their dramaturgical choice?
Indeed is this in fact the dramaturgical choice par excellence – for what better way to dramatize the state of exceptionalism which Agemben characterises that is homo sacer, than uniquely removing all agency from a character by literally rendering him non-human – in puppet form?
Because theatre is a place where the literal and the metaphorical collide.
Because theatre is a place where we go to speak to the dead.
Because it is safe to do so.
Returning to Aristotle: is it a politics that is lacking, or merely the poetics to articulate it?
I don’t know. I haven’t seen the show.
The theatre makers know. Or if they don’t, then to quote the conclusion of Gary Younge writing in The Guardian about Liam Neeson. “What the fuck are you doing?”
Cui bono? (as Agemben might ask)
PS If you haven’t seen Hijinx’s brilliant Meet Fred, travel far and wide to do so. It has a puppet as its central character. Those theatre makers know.