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Toni Morrison’s Desdemona invites us to listen not just hear

Desdemona is one of several productions at this year’s Melbourne Festival that invites its audiences to listen to tragedy and its reverberations. Mark Allan/Melbourne Festival

Toni Morrison’s Desdemona invites us to listen not just hear

In Desdemona, Toni Morrison’s response to Shakespeare’s Othello, which opens today at the Melbourne Festival, we are invited to do something – something it seems we are being invited to do as audiences of tragedy ever more: to listen.

Last year in London, I was bowled over by Euripides’ Medea, adapted for the National Theatre by Ben Powers. It opens with the Nurse, caregiver to Medea’s two sons, anticipating their murder by their mother.

At the close of the play, after the deed is done, the Nurse turns back to the audience, to say:

I ask you again
You who watch.
How can there ever be any ending than this?
First silence.
Then darkness.

That warm July week, the brutal inevitability of the infanticide was all the more troubling for “we who watch”. Child death was in the headlines. After three Israeli teenagers had been kidnapped and killed by members of Hamas, the Israeli Defence Force launched an operation whose high child casualty rate drew outrage.

Meanwhile, reports on the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine focused in particular on the fact that almost a third of the 283 passengers were under 18. Were we, I wondered as I laboured under the weight of the Nurse’s hex, becoming a species that had turned on its own children?

Some 15 months later, those events were superseded by others. Most recently, the so-called “refugee crisis” has thrown up countless images of displaced individuals of all ages. Then pictures of a three-year old face-down in the surf on a Turkish beach prompted a concerted political response, and made of little Alan Kurdi a perverse sort of sacrificial necessity.

The Nurse’s rebuke to “you who watch” in Medea is a standing one. In art, tragedy reflects an enduring, inescapable fascination with our own mortality. In the media, it tags event after event in a seemingly endless parade of wretched suffering. Tragedy can be overwhelmingly powerful, or it can turn us into helpless onlookers. Neither reaction is sufficient – but what comes next?

In Desdemona, another nurse character offers to split the difference between the double-whammy of silence and darkness to which Medea’s nurse condemns her audience.

Desdemona. Mark Allan/Melbourne Festival

Played by Malian singer Rokia Traoré (pictured above), Barbara, the lovelorn maid to Desdemona’s mother who is referred to in Othello, is here reconceived as Barbary, erstwhile nursemaid to Desdemona. In the afterlife, their ghosts tell and sing Morrison’s revisionist stories of the past.

Many of those stories are traumatic, including those of Othello’s experiences as a child soldier, and of the rapes he subsequently committed. But, the performance suggests, while we may find ourselves staring time after time into the abyss, we need not do so in silence.

Desdemona shifts the emphasis of Othello from hubris to history and from looking to listening. A personal stake in history arises, it suggests, from the intimacies of tragic knowledge, which enter the body as stealthily as sound.

Listening? It seems an ineffably fragile thing – precious, even – in the face of the urgent, attention-grabbing challenges of our age. But to cultivate a capacity for listening may, at the very least, complement impulsive sympathy and the well-meaning but often short-lived desire for remedial action.

It is perhaps no coincidence in contemporary culture that “I hear you” is shorthand for “I know what you are saying, but I am not going to alter my position”.

What does it mean to listen, rather than hear?

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer described interpretation as a process of “uninterrupted listening”, requiring attention precisely to what we do not anticipate. He wrote in Truth and Method (1960):

A person who is trying to understand a text has to keep something at a distance – namely everything that suggests itself, on the basis of his own prejudices, as the meaning expected – as soon as it is rejected by the sense of the text itself.

As Gadamer’s emphasis on sustained attention highlights, listening takes time in a way that the visual apprehension of a scene or situation appears not to. Listening as uninterruptedly as possible in our noisy world may better attune us to the ground bass of those tragic events that unfold without fanfare, but instead slowly, persistently, and to devastating effect.

Desdemona. Mark Allan/Melbourne Festival.

It is unsurprising that therapists concerned with the ways transgenerational trauma causes past catastrophes to reverberate through the behaviours of young people advocate “deep listening”: a mode of respectful, non-judgemental attention that can serve to manage group discussions about sensitive topics.

By contrast, one of the most perplexing things about climate change is how much of modern life continues to function at odds with what we are constantly being told about the environmental transformations already underway.

At this point, the transition from such weighty topics to considerations of art easily founders over questions of efficacy – or lack thereof. That said, it is striking to note that Desdemona is far from alone among this year’s Melbourne Festival offerings in inviting audiences to listen to tragedy and its reverberations.

The Rabbits, based on Shaun Tan’s children’s book about the colonisation of Australia, Fly Away Peter, a staging of David Malouf’s First World War novel, and The Experiment, a multi-media interpretation of a monodrama by Mark Ravenhill about the ethics of experiments on children, are all works that have met the challenges of adaptation by turning to musical performance of one form or another.

Given their diversity, one would be hard-pressed to identify a single reason or effect. But the contribution that music can make to the staged recovery of what has been silenced or rendered inarticulate must play a role here.

Taken together, along with Desdemona, we can at least say that Melbourne audiences are this year being invited to participate in a certain kind of attention training. The act of spectating – often characterised as a passive activity – is here reformulated as an opportunity to fall quiet, the better, as the sociologist Les Back wrote in Deep Listening: Researching Music and the Cartographies of Sound (2014), to “think with our ears”.

To what end, though? That the act of listening may itself be a reparative activity: a re-balancing of the sensorium away from visual immediacy, and a qualified challenge to the desire for over-hasty interruption or intervention. The larger trajectory must also encompass what Gerard Goggin, writing with reference to disability, calls “varieties of listening”, including embodied modes of reception that do not privilege sound.

I have always admired “good listeners”. Lacking the patience or humility, I am all too ready to interject. But on Sunday, I will be keen to hear what panellists Genevieve Grieves, Peter Sellars, Marcia Langton and Mary Luckhurst have to say about questions such as: What comes after tragedy? What social actions and creative responses do such events demand of us? How do we live with death, and not just live but flourish and thrive?

Addressing such questions reminds us that listening can be a valuable precursor to being listened to.

At the beginning of Powers’ Medea, the Nurse says:

Listen.
There’s a story that has to be told.

And so unfolds the tragedy. Is it possible to change the script? Only if first we listen and then, having done so, newly appreciating the responsibilities of speech and the affective capacities of sound, we take the Nurse’s position, now unburdened by fatalism.

Listen. There’s a story that has to be told.


Desdemona is at Melbourne Festival from October 16-19, details here. Paul Rae will chair After Tragedy, Listening: A roundtable response to Toni Morrison’s Desdemona on October 18, details here. The production plays in Sydney as part of Sydney Festival from October 23-25, details here.