Archives of grief

01

“Our cancerous culture atrophies through the very real lack of a will to live: to idolise death is to reinforce that.” – Jon Savage

I’m reading about Ian Curtis and I’m thinking about death.

Last week, in a moment of impulsiveness – the kind that always seems to seize me in bookshops – I bought a biography of the Joy Division frontman written by his widow Deborah Curtis. My fascination with the band and its lead singer was reignited by the BBC’s excellent documentary, in which Curtis’s absence gaped like an open wound, and by seeking out Jon Savage’s review of Unknown Pleasures immediately afterwards. Like so much that was written about Joy Division during their short life, it now feels eerily prescient, its question “where will it end?” having been provided with its devastating answer.

As Savage wrote following Curtis’s death in 1980, “Death is romantic, exquisitely sad; it provides an easy package, an easy full-stop”. This is the narrative not just of the rock’n’roll mythology that Savage is critiquing in the aftermath of Curtis’s suicide, but of a whole culture that stretches from Thomas Chatterton in the eighteenth century to the so-called “27 club” in the twentieth and twenty-first. Why else, after all, would I be sitting here writing this? There’s a continuing, irresistible fascination that surrounds all these short-lived figures: Romantic poets Byron, Shelley and Keats, youth icon James Dean, too too many musicians. Their names – Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse – have become a roll-call of romance, fame and tragedy.

It’s dangerous, yet alluring. Unlike Curtis, who spoke from his teenage years onwards about dying young, I’m far too giddily in love with life to understand this impulse, but I’m captivated by it nonetheless. There’s a stubborn romantic streak in me which is apparently drawn to the morbid as much as the beautiful. Or maybe it’s just intensely human; a heightened instance of that odd, doubled attitude that we have as a species towards death. I’m reminded of the chilling yet matter-of-fact opening of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family, in which he writes about “the collective act of repression symbolised by the concealment of our dead” at the same time as death is everywhere in society, decorating newspapers and television screens. We’re fascinated by those who die young, perhaps, because they represent a confrontation with the reality that the rest of us simultaneously stare down and avert our eyes from.

Knausgaard continues: “If the phenomenon of death does not frighten us, why then this distaste for dead bodies? Either it must mean that there are two kinds of death or that there is a disparity between our conception of death and death as it actually turns out to be, which in effect boils down to the same thing: what is significant here is that our conception of death is so strongly rooted in our consciousness that we are not only shaken when we see that reality deviates from it, but we also try to conceal this with all the means at our disposal.”

The reality of death gets covered up by the myth. Premature death becomes cultural immortality.

This contradictory attitude towards life and death is right at the (still beating) heart of 27. I’ve seen and written about Peter McMaster’s show twice now and still it haunts me, the sudden memory of images from it catching me out and leaving me slightly breathless again. It’s full of astonishingly, agonisingly beautiful moments, as the bodies of McMaster and fellow performer Nick Anderson embrace and struggle and support one another. In this physicality, it feels at times as though the show is a demonstration of being alive, together with all the joy and pain that involves.

But it’s also about death. The title is a reference to the “27 club”, the show in part acting as a sort of homage to all those artists. Their music forms the soundtrack, from “Break on Through to the Other Side” to “Back to Black” to the heart-punching “Cry Baby”. And it’s about McMaster, also 27 and teetering between past and future. There’s lots about growing up, letting go, moving on, but also – as McMaster makes explicit early on – about wanting to die. It’s a show about wanting to die and it’s a show about wanting to live.

The signs of death litter the stage, which is carved out as a space of ritual and liberally scattered with ash. McMaster and Anderson begin the show in skeleton bodysuits, a gesture both macabre and playful, before later stripping to their bare skin. For all its fascination with the ceremonies and myths of dying, though, 27 can’t get away from life. In a generous (and often, let’s be honest, squirmingly hilarious) sequence, the two naked performers invite us to touch parts of their bodies, to feel their hearts pounding in their chests. It’s a moment that seems to say “look how alive we all are”. Look how alive we all are, together, in this space.

“I’m a strange new kind of inbetween thing aren’t I
not at home with the dead nor with the living” – Antigone

In tragedy, death is a certainty. Throughout Ivo van Hove’s new version of Antigone at the Barbican, though, it’s even more of a constant presence than usual, hanging like a shroud over everything else. Van Hove’s is a production – and a protagonist – half in love with death. In Anne Carson’s precise, poetic translation, Antigone is repeatedly a bride to her grave, wedded to her end even while still alive. Clothed head to toe in black, from the moment she steps on stage Juliette Binoche gives the impression of being not quite of this world, as though she is only passing through on her way to the other side.

At one point, a member of the chorus (who all double interestingly as other players in the action) lingers over the word “uncanny”, pronouncing each syllable with conspicuous care. And this Antigone is uncanny. It feels oddly suspended, hovering on a plane between life and death. Initially, what I take for its cool detachment and flat delivery is distancing and frustrating. Instead of visceral immediacy, van Hove gives us poise and elegiac calm. Even when the outbursts of passion do arrive, as they must, they feel oddly controlled, as if every last word and gesture were carefully measured.

It’s easy to see, then, why it reads as lacklustre, but it’s all too deliberate for that. For me, the distance and control speaks of a shadowy elsewhere, a place saturated with grief and already half swallowed up by death. The cut-out circle at the back of Jan Versweyweld’s sleek, spare design is sun and moon and a bright, gaping portal to the next world. The same sense of ritual that frames 27 pervades Antigone – most obviously when Antigone defiantly buries her brother Polyneikes, but elsewhere too. And in a piece of doubling that is surely not accidental, the dead come back as messengers for the living.

It takes its time, but I find this controlled, funereal approach gradually tightening its grasp, and by the end I’m scrunched forwards in my seat, utterly compelled. But what is it that’s engrossing me? The supposed romance of a woman consumed by grief and obsessed with death? The uncanniness of this meeting between life and death, both painted in beautiful if muted colours? The possibility of taking aesthetic pleasure from something so painful?

There’s something stultifying, if strangely compelling, about this romantic myth of early death. It speaks of a culture in which the only conceivable future is one of oblivion and individual fame, rather than one that people work together to construct.

At the end of Antigone, after the drama has reached its devastating climax, the chorus detach themselves from the tragedy, gradually becoming dispersed individuals. The portal between life and death is closed up and these figures resume the busy, self-contained activities of modern life, oblivious to the suffering of Patrick O’Kane’s Kreon as he writhes on the raised surface of the stage, while the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” plays hauntingly underneath it all (“I’m gonna try to nullify my life,” Lou Reed sings). It’s a snapshot of atomised 21st-century life: we consume, we forget, we move on. Death is just another form of entertainment.

There’s more ambivalence at work in 27. If Antigone is detached and distanced, McMaster’s show is thrillingly – sometimes claustrophobically – close. We are never allowed to forget that we are in the same space, participating in this strange ritual alongside one another, whereas there’s a sense of a huge gulf between us in the audience and the small figures on stage at the Barbican. 27 doesn’t deny the appeal of dying young or the fascination of all those idolised dead, but it’s wrestling with something that is in many ways harder than that “easy full-stop”: the challenge of living, of moving into the future together.

Writing in response to Unlimited Theatre’s Am I Dead Yet?, I suggested that “if we can get better at dying, maybe we can get better at living too”. Our view of death – the ways in which we confront and conceptualise our inevitable end – says a lot about the culture in which we do our living. Perhaps, in order to really move forward, we need to rethink both.

“Turning around to the next set of lives
Wondering what will come next.” – Joy Division, “Passover” 

Joy Division

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