Angelika Betzold writes on… “The Death of the King”

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“In the beginning there was no Beginning

And in the end, no End …” (Christopher Logue)


It seems to be a prevalent view that theatre is political when a play treats current political problems or when an old play is set in the tedium of, let’s say, a local convenience store.

In his play, “The Death of the King”, Bahram Beyza’ie has done neither; the story is set in a mill in the city of Merv in 651 CE and draws on a historical event: The assassination of King Yazdgird III supposedly committed by the miller. And yet, it seems to be an absolute contemporary play and current political reflection. But maybe it is more accurate to say that it is a timeless play and therefore inhabited by a political urgency of a very different kind.

In order to explain this statement and why I regard it as important, I want to turn away from Beyza’ie’s play for a moment.

When asked about the specific setting of one of his short stories, Jorge Luis Borges once replied that it is not advisable to reveal a specific place or say that a story takes place in the present. Instead he thought that, in order to keep the freedom of imagination, a certain distance in time and space is necessary.

It seems to me that with his remark, Borges asked simultaneously for something else: namely for an active reader whom he – who regarded himself, first and foremost as a reader – may have simply assumed as a given. But I think it is worth mentioning more explicitly that such literature needs a reader who dares to follow the imagination and who takes it over like a baton in order to bring it back to his or her lived reality. Of course, this may only be true as long as one assumes, as I do, that literature must have an impact on live.

By that I don’t mean to say that one has to translate Beyza’ie’s play into a political discourse of current societal reality. Quite the contrary: one has to carry it over into this reality undazzled, without flattening the otherness of its imaginative quality.

And so, after having read “The Death of the King” twice, I meant to start this commentary by bringing Beyza’ie’s play back to the part of our reality that is in so much need of confrontation, challenge, and denouncement by the “otherness” of the imagination that can be found in this play. In order to do so I meant to name only some recent events to exemplify the horrific times in which we live, to look at where we have arrived in history, almost 1400 years after the event that has sparked the play, and how the progress of time has, against the ill-founded hope of some dreamers, not left behind any of the violence, brute force and cruelty one finds displayed by the powerful in Beyza’ie’s play. It would have been the right spot for such words.

Then, I read the play a third time. This time I was simply captured by its beauty and wit. And although I still want to write about theatre and politics, still think we live in monstrous times, and am still convinced that one has to speak out against the barbarity we continue to create every day, I don’t want to start with such dark outlooks anymore.

Instead, I want to begin with Ctesibius of Alexandria.

Ctesibius was a barber and an inventor in 2nd century BC who is said to have perfected the so-called clepsydra. The word “clepsydra” is of Greek origin and means “water thief”. It names a clock that uses the flow of water to measure time accurately. Now, Ctesibius invented a method to make the flow of water in the clepsydra continuous and endless so that the chronometer never had to be refilled. Somewhere, I don’t remember where, I came across a description of his water clock, in which it was mentioned that the flow of water also moved all kinds of chimes, puppets and singing clay birds. To incorporate these objects in his instrument looked like cockiness; an excess of ornament to a scientific machinery dedicated to the economy of precision. However, on second thought, Ctesibius’ decision seems to me rather ingenious, because it made it possible not only to measure time but also to capture two different time experiences: the experience of time as continuum and that of time as disruption and suspense.

On the one hand we experience time as continuous flow; just as the water is “stolen” by the water thief, time is stolen from us, used up until there is no more for us while, at the same time, it continues to flow. And on the other hand, just as strongly, we experience time as suspense and disruption; for instance in moments of danger we may feel that time stops and it seems that almost an eternity is given to come up with proper actions. Time also stops in love or during a good conversation with a dear friend. These disruptions of time are great revolts against the abysmal continuum. And it seems to me that the chatter of Ctesibius’s clay birds, the gestures of his puppets and tingling of his bells are expressions of this revolt. Thus the clepsydra may not be unlike the tale of Scheherazade, who prolonged her life by introducing moments of suspense with (and within) her stories which resisted the continuous passing of time.

Though I don’t want to compare the story of Bahram Beyza’ie’s “Death of the King” to the tale of Scheherazade, it does follow a similar poetic movement in which, like in Ctesibius’ clepsydra, both time experiences coexist, the time as it flows by and the time as caesura and disruption.

In the play, certain events belong to time experienced as linear and continuous. To give an immediate event that unfolds in front of our eyes as an example: during the interrogation of the miller’s family wood is searched in the mill to build the gallows for the execution of the anticipated death sentence. Barn wood that can bear the weight of a man and two women is found, and the gallows are erected. But the play also captures the continuous time on a larger scheme that includes past, present and future: the reign of the king for whom the miller had produced flour and in whose war the miller’s son had died. The time of the king’s flight from the invaders (or his own men) until the moment he meets his death in the miller’s house, and then the prospective time in which a new regime will be in power.

In this time movement the miller is milling the corn, producing food that will not satisfy the needs of his family because it is claimed by one ruler or, we can assume, another. The families poverty and powerlessness is continuous and this not only concerning the present. In fact, their lives and dignity are threatened beyond death in both directions, affecting the families past and future at the same time. So the Chief Commander threatens:

“A notice of your godless crime will be hung on every farmer’s gate across the land. Thus will the name of the Miller remain defiled until the end of time.”

Now, in the framework of this time movement the miller is merely concerned with survival and so the only objections he can bring forth are such of the bare life: survival, bread, health; while one would hope that these are the most potent of objections, sadly they are not. Even the claims concerning the bare life belong to the loot of the victorious. And yes, regimes and rulers change but the miller will unlikely be on the victorious side ever: he was born powerless, is run over in his own home, most likely he will die powerless. In the end he won’t even be the master of his own memory because the vanquishers will tell his story if it is told at all. In the event that it is told it would go like this:

“The beggar is rival to the king.”

The miller killed the king “for sake of his gold and armour.”

Entirely different from these events are the stories told and staged by the miller’s family. And whilst they tell their stories, time is suspended. This time experience, too, is concerned with past, present and future. However, instead of being expressed in their inevitability they are made visible in their potentiality; the stories told in the mill contain different perspectives on the past and presence and therefore different promises for the future; instead of claiming one truth they present versions of the truth.

It seems to me that two things in the play were necessary to give way to this time experience. First a moment was needed in which order is shaken and fragile, i.e. the moment in which the old regime along with its established terms, the white flag, has not completely collapsed while the new regime, the black flag, has not yet become manifest and has not yet established new terms. Second, someone was needed to understand the significance of this moment and to use it to “misbehave”.

Here, in all the male razzmatazz, it is a woman who initiates the disruption with unexpected boldness:

“Shameless man! Is this an execution or a robbery?” the miller’s wife snaps at the private who searches the mill for wood and rope to build the gallows.

The humor and audaciousness of her words produce the moment of hesitation that is needed to breach the hopelessness and inevitability of continuous time. Reading these words felt like watching a tightrope walker as she takes her first step onto the rope.

Humour plays an important double role in the matter: not only does it produce a caesura it also introduces a language different from the language of the potentates and their willing executioners; suddenly the voice of someone is heard who doesn’t play by the rules. This voice initiates the caesura which throughout the play is sustained partly by means of the ironic comments the two female characters repeatedly spice their parts with.

From this moment forth, in which time changes from continuity to suspense, storytelling becomes a weapon in the revolt of the powerless against the powerful.

There is a lot to be said about this function, which brings to light the otherwise invisible and gives a voice to the silenced. But there is even more: Storytelling is not only a weapon. In “The Death of the King” it becomes an actor, too. Look, what happens in the play; while the family develops their stories the powerful intruders forget what they should be doing: in order to pursue their goal and to escape the approaching enemy, they should move ahead: Do away with the miller and his family, take the king’s possessions and flee. But they don’t do any of it.

Every single James Bond villain is defeated by exactly this: it is not the secret agent’s dexterity with the weapon and not his detective skills. It is the simple question to the villain: How did you do this? How did you build your evil empire? The villain cannot abstain from telling the story. And by telling the story he loses. Of course, the case is different here but the comparison shows that on a certain level it may not even make a great difference whose story is being told and by whom; important is, in fact, that time freezes while the story is told. And because time is not limited by human logic, it freezes and, at the same time, still passes whilst the stories are told. Villains and the victims listen to the chatter of clay birds, the ringing of bells and squeaking of the puppets’ artificial limbs. They listen while the water flows through Ctesibius’ water thief and when the stories end and the caesura is cancelled the powerful will have lost time while the powerless will have gained time.

It is true, Beyza’ie’s play speaks of oppression and powerlessness; the same oppression and powerlessness that still can be found today. But this is not what renders his play political. Would the play just represent oppression and powerlessness the audience would simply find itself in content agreement for the time of the performance and maybe the hour in a bar after: Yes, oppression and powerlessness are terrible things! Such a play would have no effect and leave no trace.

Instead, Beyza’ie’s play is political because it uses the means of caesura to make different voices heard, to create an ambiguous space; ambiguous because it doesn’t take sides, because in it we hear all kinds of stories and voices. We, who listen can’t sit back and nod, instead we have to take these voices in and keep listening to them actively and maintain the space created by the telling of stories. Only in such a space can imagination be free and radically question our preconceptions and sharpen our attentiveness. In such a space the reality is rendered impossible which is what German playwright, Heiner Müller, saw as the task of art. And, I may add, it is there where art is genuinely political.

And maybe this is where the miller’s family succeeded if only for a moment:

“Yes, now the real judges are here. You and your white flag gave us this sentence. Let’s wait for the verdict of this black one”

Says the miller’s wife combining her victorious feelings with a scepticism that keeps her attentive. And because she is attentive and artful she may succeed again ….

“They enter. They attend. They bow.” (Christopher Logue)


Angelika Betzold, February 2016