By Dmitry Troyanovsky

Director Dmitry Troyanovsky stages productions, teaches, leads workshops, and develops new theatrical material at national and international institutions such as Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center (China), American Repertory Theatre, Opera Idaho, Bard Music Festival, Asolo Repertory Theatre, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Shanghai Theatre Academy, Moscow Art Theatre School, and 92 Street Y in New York. He is an MFA graduate of the American Repertory Theatre Institute for the Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University. Dmitry teaches in the Department of Theater Arts at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

As the US presidential election was unfolding like a horror show, I was directing a German play, Martyr, which tackled questions that are becoming more relevant and urgent by the day: What drives our fellow citizens toward intolerant religious or political identities? How can they support far right or populist movements?

Marius von Mayenburg’s Martyr is a brilliant social critique, delving into explosive territories: religion, self-radicalization, ideological extremism, colliding values of secular democracy and religious identity, and teenage sexuality. Benjamin, an ordinary middle class German teenager, unexpectedly embraces the most toxic form of Christian fundamentalism. His transformation has dire consequences for everyone in his orbit.

Directing Martyr served as an opportunity for me to contemplate the threats our society faces from real life Benjamins. Trump’s rise and ultimate victory paralleled our work on brutal scenes in which events spin out of control and logic cannot triumph. As a result, I have to conclude that today’s liberal democracies are unprepared to engage people like Benjamin in a productive dialogue or to resist the onslaught of those who are beyond reasonable intellectual exchange.

Those of us who embrace liberal values like to think of our democracy as stable, forever moving toward greater freedom and tolerance. Yet multiple religious and political ideologies around the globe, including the United States, harbor resentment or outright hatred for modern societies. Is it possible for these pernicious ideologies to prevail? Von Mayenburg’s play dramatizes how zealots, unchecked by spineless or complacent enablers, can bring the whole edifice tumbling down. In our current political circumstances, we are witnessing fringe ideologies hijacking political discourse and entrenching themselves in seats of power.

As theatre makers, when we investigate a text we end up learning not only about the play but also the real world around us. In the process of rehearsal we explore texts both intellectually and emotionally. We engage in dramaturgical research that places the text in historical, social, and cultural contexts. We also intuit the hidden motives and agendas of the characters. Interpreting Martyr underscored some points that I want to summarize here. These are not authoritative recommendations. Theatre artists cannot impose solutions or remedies. However, we can offer useful observations based on our artistic search.

We are not listening to each other as citizens. Benjamin’s fanaticism is never fully explained or rationalized by the playwright. In the course of the play, he becomes progressively extremist and violent. Early in the play when he mentions his newfound feeling for religion, his mother dismisses it out of hand. She treats it as an annoying joke — another nasty prank from a teenager with behavioral problems. Even the school’s religion teacher seems less interested in Benjamin’s motifs than in harnessing Benjamin’s zealotry for the purposes of promoting an under-attended bible camp. Nobody takes time to investigate why a formerly secular teenager turns to religion for answers. What spiritual or emotional needs is he trying to address? Is there some vacuum in his life? Is he searching for philosophical answers? For validation? Nobody seems to care. As a result, Benjamin’s position becomes more intractable and drives him further into fundamentalism.

Extremists have a near perfect sense for identifying potential converts. In the play, Benjamin zeroes in on an awkward classmate George. Georg has a disability that makes him a target of mockery and abuse both at home and in school. Although not underprivileged (Georg comes from a middle class household), he is a prime target for indoctrination. Benjamin masterfully plays on Georg’s insecurities and frustrations. As the play progresses, he manages to convince Georg that Jews are responsible for the demise of Western morality. Thus, an alienated young man buys into a marginal view of the world.

Essentially our society is not prepared to resist fanaticism. The events in the play (some of which are profoundly realistic, some more exaggerated) spiral out of control and lead to a total impasse. Once Benjamin sets on his destructive path, he is practically unstoppable. The supposedly responsible adults around him have no tools because none of them want to be accused of being hostile to his views or his religious freedom. In today’s world of fake news, post-fact and post-truth, we may find it especially difficult to stake our ground and fight for liberal convictions.

As I prepared to present Martyr, it became obvious that radicalism of all stripes has a very real chance of succeeding as a dominant ideology. In a complicated globalized world, some seek a return to old-fashioned certainties. Fundamentalism provides convenient and facile answers, especially to those with a real or imagined sense of victimhood. If our society does not find adequate ways to counter angry narratives of fringe groups, we may face a tragic decline of the democratic order.

Header image: Mike Lovett