100: Why We Are Reviving The Atheist at BPT – Jan 19 – Feb 5, 2017
Notes On Why “The Atheist” Now 1.10.17
“So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.” Hunter S Thompson
1 – It would be foolish to think that objectivity is still a foundation on which our media is built. It is not. A newspaper, a TV channel, a radio station, and a website –whether blatantly obvious or mildly subtle – is ultimately linked to a political party and/or a specific political ideology. If you associate that ideology with a personal belief that mirrors and outlines your own ethical slant, it is likely you will buy that paper and find solace, faith, and a linked community upon which your safety and anger act as both offense and defense against those whose beliefs are often the exact opposite. And for those whose beliefs are the opposite, they will read and agree with the paper and TV channel that sings to their choir. It seems there is little room for compromise these days, particularly as the news is repeated in a cyclical stream leaving the viewer riddled with anxiety and fearful of the other side.
2 – When I was growing up, the headline on the front page was usually a clever, reductive and self-satisfied bon mot that explained a story in a word, like “Gotcha”, which is how the Sun newspaper in Britain announced the sinking of an Argentinian ship during the Falklands war. It is that bawdy, xenophobic, nationalistic attitude and irreverent language that gave voice to Augustine Early. It is a familiar voice again. Back then it was the men, Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell who published those papers. Today it is still men: Murdoch, Henry, Bezos, Karsh, Slim. (I would also count Peter Thiel in there too because he had the money to shut a down a media group because of a sex tape.)
3 – I agreed to a remounting of The Atheist as long as it starred a woman. Originally, it was written with a man in mind, but I wondered what difference, if any, would there be for an audience when a woman played the part? Would she be seen as more scrupulous than a man? Would she be judged differently from a man, even though the same words are being said? Do we measure our news by an alternative standard when a woman reports it to us? Casting Augustine Early as a woman immediately updated the play for me. I re-read it and realized that there was nothing in the play that said a woman should not play the role. And if someone thinks I am wrong – let it add to the conversation.
4- But let me tack the sails. When I was 22, I was a court reporter for a short time in Ireland. One day a friend of mine was up on a charge. He saw me with my notebook, short-handing the case. After, he came up to me and asked if I wouldn’t mind not writing about it. He didn’t want his name in the paper. I told him it was public information, and I had a duty to my newspaper. He became quite disgruntled. He asked me to do it as a favor for him. It is always very difficult when a friend begins pleading with you. I apologized but told him this is my occupation, if I did it now it would set a precedent for the future. My integrity, my youthful vigor, and my sense of professionalism wouldn’t allow it. I was beginning a career. I was going to follow the rules. We never talked after that day. And it was the day I realized the stakes in my life had increased exponentially. Afterwards, I wondered, naively, did some journalists change a word to affect a description, putting a particular slant on a story to suit some personal need? What if they simply ignored a story on the same basis or were told by their gods – the editors, to quash it? This was the event that sewed together the first inklings of an idea for The Atheist although I didn’t know that until 13 years later.
5 – As a playwright I have always felt like an outsider, a contrarian, and in so doing my job was to unmask the hypocrisy and bring ideas to the table that eventually direct us to a better path in life. It has never been anything less than that, albeit I often do it through the anti-hero. In this case, I thought of Hari Kunzru’s description of Hunter S Thompson as, “One who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him.”
6 – I didn’t write The Atheist with the intention of belittling the power and necessity of the media. I believe we need it more than ever, but that doesn’t mean that our perceptions of it shouldn’t be challenged. I wrote The Atheist because I wanted to tell a Faustian story. The garbage collector at the top of the show is Mephistopheles. It is a well-travelled narrative. It is a fun narrative. I love playing with the anti-hero. I love trying to make him or her despicable while holding the audience with their charm or arrogance. The distinct chemistry of the piece is built on two ideas in conflict with each other: Repulsion and Compulsion. You want to look away, but you can’t. And it is about Augustine trying to reconcile the fact she is losing her soul, while wallowing in the malignancy, and it is that majestic audacity that gives the story its power.
7 – The criticism heaped on The Atheist when it first appeared was that it couldn’t happen as it was told. There are too many in-house barriers, too much fact checking and overseeing of content for an Augustine Early to survive in a newsroom. But it is easy to name journalists who have bent those rules to the detriment of their paper’s reputation. And today, The Atheist may seem less of an exaggerated reality. In my view it is an 85-page self-contained story that attempts to capture the time we live in, a time when, in our desire to win, we have the ability to manipulate the story whatever the cost to suit our needs. It is there to reflect what we are capable of, and, without a strong moral compass, call attention to our inevitable destination. And it illustrates our perceptions of newspapers, local tv news, cable news, the internet news sites, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit and Google, particularly as the President has made the media his piñata.
8 – The Atheist is about surveillance and privacy too, which in the age of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden contemporizes the play. But it is a comic satire, and so the surveillance occurs in a bathroom, and privacy thereafter is peeled away in brash Machiavellian maneuvers. But the play needed a world to travel through, and I gave Augustine the world of newspapers. We consider it a dying institution now, but it is not, it is just trying to evolve. Like most institutions in the process of transformation, newspapers appeal to Darwin’s idea of being “better designed for an immediate, local environment”. In my opinion, this change has caused the newspaper institution to slip and falter. Inevitably, the inviolable rules upon which journalism was built have become watered down and re-sculpted to suit the needs of survival. The fragility of this situation has become untenable. At present, we are beginning to suspect that the former trust we had in our newspapers is breaking and that, in fact, it may have been broken for a long time. It could be argued that it truly broke with the United States’ invasion of Iraq. And now this nation, where 60 million citizens voted directly opposite to its other 60 million citizens, is divided not by ideas, but by anger. All we need is someone to be a conduit for that anger—someone like Alex Jones or for others, Van Jones. And as part of its evolution, the news media recognizes that this divide, this conflict, can make money. This conflict sells.
9 – And The Atheist is about words, the power of words and how we can begin again to rectify, specify, and measure our sense of duty to words. For instance: just because Bill O’Reilly calls his program a “no-spin zone” to protect his objectivity doesn’t mean it is a “no-spin zone.” Words matter, and if you believe any institution that emphatically states “there is no spin,” then you must question your trust of that institution. So who can we believe? “Fair and Balanced?” “All the News That’s Fit to Print?” What do these words mean now? Charles Sykes says in Politico, “The Media Outlets function best when the dial is set at outrage, and since they are too deeply invested to be outraged at any failures or reversals from Trump World, the anger will inevitably be focused on attacking the left and launching purges of the saboteurs and dissenters on the right.” And it can be said that this works in the reverse. In contrast we have Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times stating that, “I think that (Trump) challenged our language. He will have changed journalism, he really will have….We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, ‘This is just false.’ We struggle with that. I think Trump has ended that struggle.”
10 – And so the New York Times called Trump a liar, and Fox calls the New York Times a liar, and the President-elect calls CNN liars – they are all preaching to their own choirs, and we, the people, become culpable. Why? Because we want to maintain our own sense of injustice and anger. And does calling someone a liar mean the truth will win out or maintain the division? Either way we will be given some catchy phrase, some good reductive bon mots, from the tastemakers, to give a simple veneer to a complex issue; words that allow us to get onto the same page so we can stand around the water cooler in, yet again, another sudden understanding of our nation’s narrative: “Post-Truth” was created to explain the deeper problems, except there is no post-truth; there is only truth. Truth remains constant. The problem is when the truth is acknowledged it may give the opportunity for the most maladjusted candidate to win so in that case what does the truth serve? So it is what we want to believe that changes. Then we go from distrusting the news to distrusting our friends, family, colleagues, peers and associates because of what they believe. And that can lead to – what I feel in the air – contempt.
11 – The question is how do you respond and what will it take to find the language of compromise. My neo-liberal friends will insult the suggestion of compromise as easily as my neo-conservative friends. But as PEN America has stated “If our democracy is to endure and thrive, it is critical that we defend the vital role and the rights of a free press;” But it is not good enough to call for a free press. We must define it. Because a free press must separate itself from the influence of any administration, be it corporate or government and it must be a fierce watchdog for all. It is that kind of free press that will find the voices we trust, the thinkers we admire, hire the best investigative reporters, and finally recognize the original American oath, out of many, one.
Ronan L Noone – 1.10.17