Home Art Watch, Don’t Think: The Case of “Top Secret” in Beijing

Watch, Don’t Think: The Case of “Top Secret” in Beijing

There is a profound distinction to be made between seeing and thinking, between witnessing something and unpacking it intellectually.  Wrapped up in these concerns, in a complex way, is the powerful tool of public discussion.   Almost nothing yields information like working through an idea orally.  Nothing beats articulation for teaching the speaker what he is talking about.

 The connection between public discourse and personal understanding is precisely the issue in the recent halting of a post-performance discussion of “Top Secret: Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” a play about the struggle by The Washington Post and The New York Times to publish records pertaining to the United States’s involvement in the  Vietnam War.  The play, according to Andrew Jacobs, ends on a profoundly pro-media note, and conspicuously presents the argument that a robust media structure is necessary to keep any sort of government in check.[i]  Obviously, it’s difficult to think about the play’s organizing principle (as a pro-media play) and not reflect on the environment surrounding the stage.  What is to be said about performing this play in China?  How does the context of a performance change its reception, or, to go even further, its meaning?

 What is so strange about “Top Secret” in China is that, even though officials allowed the play to be performed, they decided to cancel the post-performance discussion of the play’s contents.  As Jacobs reports:

 As far as dramatic timing goes, the text message from the powers that be announcing the sudden cancellation of a post-performance discussion of ‘Top Secret: Battle for the Pentagon Papers’ was, well, perfectly timed.

 First, let’s harp on this for a second.  The official in charge of monitoring dramatic productions (and sifting through them for potentially subversive messages) sent a text message to the play’s producer in order to cancel the discussion.  Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I do not consider text messages as suitable for conveying any sort of serious information.  Partially, this is because I have ignored many messages, only to claim later that I never received them.  It’s pretty easy actually.  Or, and I have done this as well, it’s rather simple to ignore a text message for a while, and then respond much much later― with anywhere from 1 hour to 2 weeks being an appropriate window.   So why not just read the message’s contents, bracket them for the moment, and go on with the production?  Perhaps this question borders on flippancy.

 The second point I want to make about this cancellation is something I mentioned earlier: officials allowed the play to be performed, and only wanted to prevent the general discussion that was meant to succeed it.  This seems to push the distinction between viewing and (social) thought to an extreme.  By somehow avoiding public discussion, this decision seems to suggest, the government could put a stop to any sort of ethos fermenting around the film.  Because people experienced the play separately (in their own heads) and now are left to analyze it separately, they are not given the opportunity to relate to others through the film.  This is, to be sure, a tactic that hinges on the metaphorical isolation of the individual.

In a way, this is perfectly intuitive. After all, the power of public discourse has been recognized by governmental officials for quite some time, and has also been analyzed meticulously by theorists like Jurgen Habermas― who have come to understand rational discourse as empowering, though who is empowered through discussion has been the cause of considerable debate.  In another way, I do think that the Chinese officials allowed “Top Secret” to be performed is somewhat anomalous, and seemingly counterintuitive.  One of the reasons I have chosen to write an article on this particular (and fascinating) topic, is that I find it perplexing.  I think I have a pretty good idea about what a government can gain from putting an end to the discussion.  What I do not quite understand― and I will appeal to you here― is what a government stands to gain from the allowance of the performance without the post-performance discussion.  Maybe you will have a better answer…

[i]Andrew Jacobs, “Chinese Allow Play on Pentagon Papers, but not a talk about it.”  <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/03/theater/play-on-pentagon-papers-goes-on-in-beijing-but-not-a-talk.html?ref=arts>