Amir John and Lakshmi fight in "Before Your Very Eyes"

“Who are you going to believe? Me or you eyes?” —Groucho Marx

I jokingly asked myself on the way to see Before Your Very Eyes, a play about 9/11 at the Flamboyan Theatre, “Is it too soon? Is nine years long enough to get a grip on the real truth of 9/11?”

I thought I was being facetious, but the question goes to the heart of what Edward Elefterion, the writer/director of Before Your Very Eyes is aiming to do with his play. The question “what happened” is a question of perspective. Each one of us who were in the city on 9/11/2001 have a personal story about that day that we have shaped and polished over the years into an appropriate three minute downer that you tell people outside the City. “I did (or didn’t) see a building fall with my naked eyes”; “I knew (or didn’t) someone who worked there.” A lot of us have stories of friends who were supposed to be near the World Trade Center towers that day and for some reason weren’t; many of us saw figures covered in concrete dust streaming across the East River bridges into Brooklyn; some of us trapped outside the city had to watch our city cope with disaster from a distance.

After a while those stories become lived truths. Just like Richard Blumenthal probably thought he really had been to Vietnam, however, the stories we tell ourselves sometimes have only a vestigial relation to “the truth.” To use the language of academic literary criticism, stories are traces, not facts. Or to use another popular metaphor they are scars – distortions – that form over the “fact” of a wound to heal and hide it. This metaphor should be taken seriously. “Trauma studies” has been popular among literary academics for the last ten years, and its influence on the broader intellectual culture can be felt in Before Your Very Eyes.

Trauma studies posits as its major premise the human body as recording device. It is a materialist view of consciousness in which the mind, the place of evaluation and judgment, takes second place to the body-machine that records experience. In the first place is the body itself: memories are written onto our brains like charged particles are written onto the hard drive of a computer. In addition to these two, Before Your Very Eyes introduces a third element: the machines we have invented to enhance our perception of the material world, like cameras, which now ubiquitously record our every movement from an incomprehensible number of points of perspective.

The limitation of this metaphor and its underlying philosophy of knowing is its assumption that the mind cannot perceive a truth that is not material. There has to be a datum somewhere at the bottom of every thought; the mind is all induction and no deduction. But what if there were “immaterial” truths? What would they look like? It would be a truth that is right even if all the facts appear to point in opposite directions. Replacing the primacy of matter with primacy of mind, it would have to accept that there are no “facts” without interpretations. It would have to put stress on the probable rather than the factual. That is, we would have to accept that there is no missing datum “out there” in the material world, recorded digitally or in someone’s synapses, that is the key to understanding what “really happened.”

There is another problem with traumas: they properly only happen to individuals. In a group no two wounds are going to look exactly alike, just like no two people are going to experience a traumatic event the same way. That is why psychic trauma is necessarily atomistic: no greater, transcendent concept can be extrapolated from it. That’s why when you laugh the world laughs with you, and when you cry, you cry alone. Unfortunately “truth” as a concept is transcendent and requires transcendence. “Closure” is a social condition that satisfies all wounded parties (whether or not they are truly satisfied – and who is?), and in that sense it is “truth.” The characters in Before Your Very Eyes are seeking closure in the materialist world of trauma, and to no one’s surprise they don’t get it.

The plot and staging of Before Your Very Eyes is intentionally contingent, spare and frantic to evoke our collective reality after 9/11. Three couples – minus one partner – deal with the event and its aftermath in three iconic ways: Evonne, the 9/11 widow, goes through stages of grief and denial, eventually burying the pictures and VHS tapes of her lost Eric in the backyard. Amir, an American of South Asian heritage,  looks at the video footage of the planes flying into the towers and is convinced it was all an elaborate setup. He convinces his wife Lakshmi, and together they go on a quixotic crusade to get the truth out there. And most importantly there is John and Kate the all-American husband and wife. She writes childrens’ books and he worked security at WTC 7.

Kate and John

But was our collective reality after 9/11 tangential, spare, and frantic? Or is that the dramatic mode that makes the most sense at this remove in time? I remember standing on a rooftop near the Brooklyn Bridge watching emergency vehicles, lights flashing, race to Manhattan. I felt paradoxically as though things made sense for the first time. Though I had no idea who had really done it (did you believe the TV talking heads?); though when I saw a replay of the buildings imploding on TV I said to my friend it looked like they had been demolished on purpose; though I wasn’t allowed back into Manhattan to my apartment for two days; just being present at the event that defined the beginning of the 21st century made me feel whole, connected, and, perhaps perversely, calm. I didn’t need to know why. I seemed very satisfied with “is” in all its tragic horror.

In the almost ten years since that Tuesday politicians and artists have done a Herculean labor of “making sense” of the event. Stockhausen famously said “Well, what happened there is, of course—now all of you must adjust your brains—the biggest work of art there has ever been. The fact that spirits achieve with one act something which we in music could never dream of, that people practice ten years madly, fanatically for a concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos.” Bush and Cheney told us Sadam Hussein did it. Some folks were sure that Cheney himself had done it. Amiri Baraka said the Jews did it. 9/11 was the metaphysical conceit of the show 24 and every drama after it that fragments time and perspective to intensify your viewing experience to frantic, nail biting terror.

John and Kate talk metaphorically about infection. He doesn’t want to infect her with what he knows about the event. It drives them apart: their trauma atomizes them, makes them contingent to each other. His secret is big — so big he seeks out Amir, proprietor of internet conspiracy theories about the vent, to tell him his terrible truth. The traumatic violence that tore open their lives starts to invite a different kind of violence. Evonne sees Amir promoting his conspiracy theory on the street, and she beats his silly for desecrating the memory of her lost Eric. Then Lakshmi is attacked by faceless goons, and it tears her and Amir apart. The goons are after John to silence his secret, so he disappears to save Kate. It seems the wound of uncertainty opened by violence can only be closed by more violence.

Evonne teaching Amir a lesson about reality

At the end of the play John reveals his secret (I won’t spoil it for you), which should give the audience closure. Finally, here is the datum that makes sense of the whole mess. And yet I felt as though the immense truth of 9/11 is diffused by the very thing that should focus it. That truth cannot be contained in a single datum, a single fact that will make sense of a senseless world. Neither can it be constructed like a conspiracy in one of Don Delilo’s novels, where every character is lost in his specificity and never sees the big picture. In the same way, this play, which should be a tragedy, ends up being something less. The moment the audience is waiting for — its catharsis — feels like an anticlimax. John’s big secret, if true, would be damning, but it wouldn’t answer the transcendent question that exists outside the particularity of one person’s secret, truth, or wounds. The tragedy of 9/11 was a diabolical performance of one infinitely complex and overdetermined drama. It will take a play of Euripidean power to come close to deducing the one, unifying meaning it brought into our world. That job will be made easier with more historical perspective (nine years really is too soon), though I worry even Euripides might have trouble fitting it onto a stage.

That said, Before Your Very Eyes is a well made and thought provoking play, well performed by talented actors. It’s worth seeing with a friend, either a New Yorker or someone visiting from out of town. It will definitely get you to reconsider your three minute downer speech about where you were on that day.

Before Your Very Eyes

Flamboyan Theatre, Clemente Solo Velez Center at 107 Suffolk St.

From now until June 13th