“Instant ardentes Tyrii: pars ducere muros / molirique arcem et manibus subsolvere saxa…” Aeneid I, 423-24
The toiling Tyrians on each other call
To ply their labor: some extend the wall;
Some build the citadel; the brawny throng
Or dig, or push unwieldly stones along. (Dryden)
In pre-modern times cities of any respectable size had walls. If you have ever been to York, Barcelona, Carcassonne, Istanbul, Rome, or Jerusalem, you have seen their skeletal remains, like the spines of long-dead dinosaurs bleaching in millennial sunlight. These days there isn’t much point in putting a wall around your city, what with transcontinental missiles, stealth bombers, drones and such. That doesn’t mean walls have gone out of style though. Bin Laden thought walls would protect him. Ditto for KimDotcom. Rich people from Johannesburg, South Africa to Briar Ridge, Indiana build neighborhoods with walls and walled estates within those neighborhoods. One is tempted to say with Frost, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out.” Is the disparity between rich and poor so great that it has to be protected and reinforced by a wall?
This certainly seems to be the case in Erin Browne’s new play Menders. The play is set sometime in the future when the United States is no more, but a few communities have survived to build protective walls. These walls serve the same purpose as pre-modern walls: they keep out the barbarians. Inside the walls two young people, Aimes and Corey, just graduated from the academy, are field training with Drew, a veteran who is about to retire. The Menders are the professional fence tending force that monitors and maintains the stone border between us and them. In the hierarchy of Browne’s futuristic American police state, they rank second only to Investigators and well above civilians. Corey is an idealistic, patriotic young woman who sees the Menders as a social ladder she will take pride in climbing. Aimes is her cousin. He is nervous and excitable. For him the Menders are a uniform he must put on because he fears what people might think if he doesn’t.
Walls are, of course, broadly resonant metaphors. They not only keep people out; they also keep people in. Storm tossed Aeneas begs, ““Grant us a true home, Apollo, grant a weary people walls, / And a race, and a city that will endure”; but Roger Waters and Ronald Reagan agreed that we must tear down The Wall. The need (or desire) for protection and insulation can lead to habits of mind that are normative, repressive, and, in the extreme, genocidal. It has been a commonplace of critical studies in the last thirty something years to link the conceptual binaries associated with walls — interior and exterior, center and margin, visible and invisible — with scientism and murderous rationalism, exemplified by Bentham’s panopticon. What cannot be controlled must be destroyed. Inside the walls is the area of control; outside is the area of ambiguity, irony, and confusion. But as Corey eventually learns, the walls in Menders are themselves ambiguous and porous.
Drew tells Aimes and Corey stories as they patrol the walls far from the observing eye of the authorities. He tells them about a man, Jeff, and the winged woman who falls from the sky into his corn field one afternoon. He tells them about Tam and Ash, two women who live in a city with underground railroads, whose love is also underground, but not too much. Drew is their mentor in observing how walls are made and breached, both physically and metaphorically. Corey is sure she got all the moral instruction she needs from patriotic songs, but after a week of training and Drew’s stories she starts to doubt the neat narratives that constitute her worldview. She fears but craves the complexity, allusiveness, and indeterminacy of Drew’s stories. Drew seems to be tearing down her mental wall brick by brick. In teaching her to interpret stories for herself, he invites sedition and moral relativism, with the predictable consequences.
As usual, the Flux Theater Ensemble does a wonderful job. I was particularly impressed by design touches like the badges on the Menders’ uniforms. The performance space — the old gym in Judson Memorial Church — is unforgiving. (It is, after all, a big, empty gym.) But the minimalist stage, props and blocking filled it with theater magic. The cast, led by Matt Archambault, Sol Marina Crespo, and Isaiah Tanenbaum turned in professional performances on opening night, and you can bet they will find new and penetrating interpretations of the play from performance to performance.
And Menders provides a lot for talented actors to work with. As August Schulenburg, the Flux Ensemble’s artistic director, says in his program note, “the poet and the dictator … best understand the power of stories: how they seep into your consciousness until you cannot quite be sure where you begin and they end.” These are topical times for a play about building and / or tearing down walls. As Aeneas and Dido knew, it is close to impossible to found something permanent like a city, a people, or a nation without building protective walls. Browne makes clear that the walls Corey and the country that claims her as a citizen need to maintain aren’t made of inert matter; they are made of stories — stories of patriotism, family, and morality.
Though we applaud Drew’s enchanting and poetic tales, full of ambiguities and ironies that the state wants to keep outside, there is an undercurrent of true subversion in his relationship to Corey and Aimes that touches on the audience’s unconscious taboos — the walls in our minds that, as enlightened, post-modern New Yorkers we like to think don’t exist. Corey and Aimes are presumably in their early 20s, but their intellectual development (perhaps the fault of a repressive state) is stunted at a child’s level. And Drew is more like a father than a teacher. When he subverts his own authority (for instance, he asks Corey and Aimes to call him Drew rather than “sir”), he opens the door to abuse that is the grist of many a Law and Order SVU episode. Browne, like a true poet, lets the ambiguity stand.