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The Third World War Nobody Bothered to Declare: Autogeddon

Toronto theatre takes on automobiles

by Bahtman

Pandemic Theatre and Happy Trails Production present "Autogeddon"
Pandemic Theatre and Happy Trails Production present "Autogeddon"

As a visitor to the Toronto, I’ve been snaking my way through town with the new public bicycle program. Consequently, I’ve been learning first hand about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s war on bicycles.

Rather than addressing the ecological and social issues concerning auto-congestion, Ford removes bike lanes arguing, “roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks, not for people on bikes. My heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”

In light of Toronto’s cartoonishly evil-villain of a mayor and his anachronistic hatred of healthy transportation, Heathcote Williams’ 1991 neo-apocalyptic poem, Autogeddon, is breath of fresh air in a smoggy, auto-driven culture. It’s told from the viewpoint of an alien trying to make sense of human society by observing the practices and rituals that unite people and cars. Those familiar with the poem know it’s densely packed with a information on growing levels of planetary toxicity and auto-related deaths.

Pandemic Theatre and Happy Trails Production brought together directors Stephan Bush and Fiona Griffiths to deliver a thought-provoking performance of the poem, interrogating two simultaneous and contradictory logics of contemporary society.

One perspective is macroscopic, examining the society-level, lemming-like logic of humans. In it, we are racing towards the edge of an ecological and social cliff since the 1885 birth of the automobile. Happiness is conspicuous consumption:

Believe in Freedom. Believe in Honda. Car as Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted with you alone in mind… Experience more breathing space – Mercedes. Car as lebensraum. With 80% of air pollution coming from cars, the additional breathing space may be no wider than the walls of a coffin.”

The second logic is microscopic, examining the individual-level. This individual perspective overpasses the system-level almost immediately following a crash that jolts the auto-driver out of the macro-logic in the immediate aftermath of an auto-accident.

This level shows how in a flash, the macro-structures are obliterated by the cold and cruel lived experience of injury and death associated with toxicity and car violence. Performers effectively used simple props (black shawls, flashlights, a box, and a wheelchair) to disturbingly illustrate the desperation of death by automobile, whether it be through increased environmental toxicity and or through split-second crashes.

The performers’ movements at times resemble a collective car engine, with pistons methodically pumping to accelerate the scene. At other times, their bodies simulate the organized chaos of freeways, disturbingly stilled from time to time to deliver more devastating statistics about auto-related fatalities.

One scene in particular references humanity’s collective dependency on oil, presenting the black goo as religion. The scene as a visual spectacle, involving shadow-play from the flashlights that suggests a separation of the macro/micro logics discussed above. The shadows are like souls representing the micro-experience, frantically trying to communicate with their lemming-like mortal frames the need to resist the need for material accomplishments, symbolized through the pursuit of a toxic, auto-matic modernity.

The scene is somewhat problematic however, in that it was choreographed to the sound of Islamic prayers. In today’s anti-Islamic political culture, the overt foreground of the scene risks an Orientalist conflation of oil and Muslims. Though the performers did show that the “oil religion” was universal, by physically moving through prayer motions representative of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, this could be clearer so the audience avoids missing the core argument that oil is a global problem.

While the performance was true to the text and delivered in a way that made it possible to catch most of the nuances, it requires the very close attention of the theatre-goer. Mini-scenes are punctuated with “crashes” that contribute to the jarring experience, though at times the technique feels a little excessive.

In one of the most chilling scenes, the entire cast erupts into a haunting, ethereal Gregorian funeral chant to deliver comparative statistics regarding death rates of human catastrophes throughout modern time:

“Seventeen million dead, and counting… more than twice the number in the death camps… Eighteen times the count in Korea… Seventeen Vietnams… A hundred and thirty times the kill at Hiroshima…a humdrum holocaust. The third world war nobody bothered to declare.“

The production took at least one liberty with the original poem, incorporating a monologue regarding Canada’s ongoing occupation of indigenous Lubicon Cree territory and hypocritical human rights abuses concerning the Alberta Tar Sands. In it, we are chillingly reminded that, “upon completion, the tar sands will be larger than England.”

For those interested in ecology, urban life, cycling, or just plain breathing, the show will speak to you. For those who have sided with the cars in the third world war, it just might change your mind. Autogeddon runs nightly at 8 pm, at 9 Trinity Street.


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Bahtman (Ajay Parasram)
Coast Salish Territories
Member since February 2010

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