2012 is half over, and so far it looks like the apocalypse has been averted. In typical human fashion we have invited our destruction to sit with us at the table; and just at the last minute, just when it looked like destruction was going to have us for dinner, we trixy rabbits slip out of its noose and high tail it to the mountains, forests, and deserted places to do what bunnies and humans do — repopulate the earth.
Sovereign, the much anticipated third installment of Mac Rogers’s Honeycomb Trilogy is playing now at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City, but it’s no secret that this sci-fi tour de force is must-see theater. Since your intrepid reporter first covered Rogers’s Advance Man and Blast Radius, the buzz around town has been all about the Honeycomb Trilogy.
Sovereign picks up eight years after Blast Radius leaves off. The revolution is now a fait accompli: humankind has shaken off the yoke of our erstwhile interstellar insect overlords under the leadership of Veronica Cooke, a.k.a. Ronnie House 4 (Hannah Cheek), who is now the de facto sovereign of Coral Settlement, the farm collective where she and other oppressed humans were forced into agricultural serfdom by The Bugs.
The curtain rises on Ronnie sitting as judge and jury, ruling on the transgressions of her fellow survivors. Budeen (played with obtuse brilliance by C. L. Weatherstone) has broken the law by not giving his wife a proper burial. In fact he has used her corpse with the same Benthamite dispassion taught by The Bugs, as raw material for tools, insulation for his windows, and alligator feed. Ronnie’s Law states that all human bodies must be reported to the Settlement and given a human (i.e. ritual) burial, and Budeen has clearly broken the law. Zander (Matt Golden), a prosecutor for the settlement, argues for full punishment, and Tanya (Medina Senghore), his court appointed public defender, pleads for clemency, arguing that Budeen has followed the spirit of the law, honoring and remembering his wife by incorporating her in his everyday work. “This is good” Judge Ronnie says. “Why don’t you tell me what my own laws mean?”
Clearly Mr. Rogers seeks to use the epic trilogy form to answer the questions he posed in the previous two plays. As the title implies, Sovereign focuses on the legitimacy of power and the difficulty of maintaining humankind’s revolutionary spirit once the revolution is over, which, as Hannah Arendt argues in On Revolution, is the supremely difficult task of the lawgiver. In ancient times this person was semi-divine. Men (they were always men) like Moses, Hammurabi, Lycurgus, Solon, and Cyrus promulgated The Law from on high and led their people to the promised land. In modern times our American lawgivers — Jefferson, Madison, and Washington — have been mythologized and immortalized on our currency and the very landscape. For dyed-in-the-wool Tea Party patriots The Founders are very close to being gods.
But Ronnie is human, all-too-human, as her response to Tanya’s argument shows. Her retort resonates with Goneril’s line in Act V, scene iii of King Lear: “the laws are mine, not thine. Who can arraign me for it?” Who indeed? Every revolution that has descended into tyranny has failed because the revolutionaries start writing one set of laws for the plebes and one set for themselves as a bulwark to defend their newfound privileges. You don’t have to go all the way back to the French Reign of Terror to find proof of this, just look at Egypt this week. The men who established the rule of law I cited above, from Moses to Washington, all abjured their claim to power before the revolution had settled into complacency in order to prove that the power of the state — the power of judging life and death — was above any individual man or woman. If they didn’t give up their power the laws would be subject to corruption by human self-interest, passion, personal loves and hates — mere vengeance. This is the perilous situation Ronnie finds herself in when the guards bring in a much more dangerous criminal — her brother Abbie.
Mr. Rogers tells us in the program notes that he set the bar high for Sovereign and called on the greatest of the great dramatists, Sophocles and Euripides, for help. It is quite a daring claim, to put yourself in such august company! Obviously Ronnie, caught between upholding the law and her deep familial love for Abbie, is similar to Antigone, but if there is a natural analogy between Sovereign and ancient Greek drama it is to Aeschylus’s Oresteia. In both trilogies an original human failing — corruption that violates divine law — unleashes powerful, elemental passions that threaten to destroy us. In both trilogies the last play reestablishes our humanity — a complex phenomenon that is neither animal nor angel but something in between.
The first plays presented the central paradoxes of Benthamite liberalism: empathy for others is expressed as a scientific calculus that is emotionally and morally superior to human passions, centered as they are on animistic faiths, superstition, and the persistent human tendency to worship gods that look like ourselves. The Bugs embody this cold scientific rationalism. Ronnie, an old school conservative, rejects this psuedo-scientific liberalism on existential grounds: in order to create a level playing field for all some must be losers (in this case human beings must lose their technology and species superiority for the greater good of the planet), and no one recognizes “the greater good’ in their personal misery. Abbie, the only true believer is willing to sacrifice not only all humankind for the sake of his (and his father’s) principles but also himself. You could call those principles “environmentalism,” but they are in fact a hatred of carnal, human passions. By violating the animal side of their humanity Abbie and his ilk violate divine law.
In Sovereign Ronnie is in danger of going to the opposite extreme — denying rationality all together and creating a cult of personality, making herself a god for the plebes to worship so that they will never be tempted to think of themselves as angels of reason, hurting others with dispassionate tenderness or using felicific calculus to deprive another human being of their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In one of her arguments for the rule of law Tanya says “there are some things so horrible, that we won’t do them even in our own protection, because by doing them, we make ourselves unworthy to survive.” In Advance Man or Blast Radius this would be the kind of argument Captain Cooke or Abbie might use to justify enslaving humans, but here it is a call to remember that part of our humanity is our angelic reason that tells us that it is better not to live than to live continually compromised by mere necessity.
Only History knows whether Mac Rogers has achieved the level of Aeschylus or Shakespeare, but this is definitely the theater of Big Ideas. The only place one can find a similar level of innovation and profundity these days is on cable dramas like The Wire or The Sorpranos. Sci-fi in Mr. Rogers’s hands invigorates the stage and elevates it to where it used to be: the place where we go to learn about ourselves and experience catharsis in the company of others, which is the only antidote to the excesses of modernity. I hope his example inspires a thousand imitators to write stories for the stage that instruct and delight as much as the Honeycomb Trilogy does.