Compassion-capitalists and cynical humanism: a new play unmasks compassion as a feeling in danger of ending at the Mediterranean Sea

Their names are programmatic: ‘Convoy of Hope’, ‘Heal Africa’, or, as in this play, ‘Teachers in Conflict’. Ursina Lardi plays one of the latter in Milo Rau’s new play Compassion. The History of the machine Gun (Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs in the original) that had its premiere in Berlin this January. Those who have a real interest in the history of the machine gun will be disappointed – even if the dictum that at the end of each massacre what counts is who has the machine gun points to its relevance. But the play is really a theatrical essay about compassion, about what evil we may cause if we try to do the right (or wrong) thing – and Lardi, in essence, plays an Oedipus-like figure: she is out to help but at the end is forced to denigrate a massacre victim.

The play is a superbly acted and highly topical reflection on the various dynamics of compassion, the compassion that is a core feature of being human as well as the compassion that comes out of youthful enthusiasm combined with the fact that a stint as aid worker makes a good addition to every CV (or at least CVs of ‘white’, ‘Western’, concerned citizens). On the one hand Lardi reflects on the time her (fictional) self spent with ‘Teachers in Conflict’ in pre-and post genocide Rwanda and Congo, conducting workshops, singing, dancing and praying sessions in order to try and prevent in vain new massacres between Hutu and Tutsi. But her reflections start with something more topical: a picture of Aylan, the dead Kurdish toddler on a Turkish beach whose picture for a little while looked like re-shaping the discourse on the refugee crises. Of late, in particular after various ‘sexmob’ attacks mainly in Germany but also in other places, the type of compassion that this picture might have evoked has been satirically questioned by no other publication than Charlie Hebdo, who in a recent cartoon asked: ‘What would little Aylan have grown up to be? A groper in Germany’. Satire is of course always in the eye of the beholder and one may condemn this particular piece as tasteless, but the fact that Queen Rania of Jordan felt compelled to first respond on twitter by stating that ‘Aylan could’ve been a doctor, a teacher, a loving parent’ and then commissioned a cartoon with that message brings us to one core message of the play: a critique of an understanding of compassion as based on individual choice and emotion that loses sight of the broader exploitative context of late capitalism that causes exploitation, displacement and war.

As preparation for the play, Rau and Lardi actually travelled first to Turkey from where Aylan’s parents took that fateful boat, then along the ‘Balkan’ refugee route as well as to what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo – they spoke with refugees, NGO personal and UN troops, and what has emerged is a truly clever and multi-dimensional reflection on the different patterns of compassion as ultimately an important driver and enforcer of global inequalities and exploitation. Whenever the monologue that Lardi presents on stage is in danger of becoming too simple and neat a critique, she takes a step back and the complexity of how it might be possible (or not) to act in an ethical manner in relation to today’s crises is being revealed. Theatre as a critical art-form in itself is not immune from this critique.

But Lardi is not alone on her stage. At the beginning and end of the play the audience is introduced to Consolate Sipérius, a Belgian actress who was born in Burundi. She at first seems to have the part reserved for ‘African’ actresses: She tells the audience how her family was killed in a genocide in Burundi when she was four years of age, how she was adopted by a Belgian family who chose her ‘like from an IKEA catalogue of orphaned children’, she recounts the well-meaning but ultimately hurtful expressions of compassion throughout her childhood in a small Belgian village – hers is the role of survivor and witness to the barbarity of genocide in Africa. But then we learn in fact she is a well-known actress in Belgium who has played many of the big roles in classical theatre: Antigone, but also Shakespeare’s Julia. She also tells the audience that the director asked her to point a machine gun at them – in particular as she confesses she quite likes the revenge phantasies that characterise some of the films of Quentin Tarantino. But she declines to pick up the machine gun, as this would be too simplistic an act of revenge or compensation for past sufferings. In general, the play shows – apart from the initial photograph of Aylan – nothing of the horrors of genocide, refugee camps or other forms of destitution – those only become evoked and alive in the spoken words of two fantastic actresses. As such, Compassion. The History of the machine Gun is also an antidote against the aesthetics of daily media coverage, against the visual dramatization that needs ever-new extremes in order to arouse compassion and charitable donations.

The play also reminds us of a text of Oscar Wilde, The soul of man under socialism, excerpts of which are reproduced in the theatre programme, who said that compassion is a prime instinct of being human. But one should also be aware, he continues, that compassion does not really diminish the amount of suffering in the world – it might help cope with suffering better but the suffering itself remains. To eliminate suffering, other types of action are needed. Put into the words of Milo Rau, the people who are displaced in Central Africa in the name of Western businesses and their profits might be helped to some extent by the NGOs who provide health care and other services – while at the same time serving as advertisements for more donations to those NGOs. This cycle does little, however, to engage with the root cause of their suffering.

At a time of increasing outsourcing of the compassion industry to the type of philanthropic donors who meet at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in this ironically supported by the marketized philanthropy of organisations like Oxfam, and when the solution to the refugee and migrant crisis is seen in individual acts of compassion towards deserving refugees and an increasingly hostile attitude against others, this is an important and highly relevant act of artistic performance. If nothing else, it uses the medium of theatre to good effect in order to let the audience reflect that those who drown in the Mediterranean sea are only the latest visible symptom of a global system that in fact transforms large sections of the globe into refugee camps. And that we all have a stake in the continuation of that system – some bigger, some smaller.

Milo Rau is founder of the theatre and film production company International Institute of Political Murder, for more information see:

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