Damascus: Trouma

  • Verónica Rodríguez


The chapter applies the notion of trouma (combination of hole in French—trou—and trauma), borrowed from Jacques Lacan via Hal Foster’s The Return of the Real: Art and Theory at the End of the Century (1996) to the playwright/Paul, Zakaria, Elena and the stage direction “news images of the current situation” in order to examine how trous, connected to the traumatic under globalization, render time, location and characters collapse into a sense of holed world, of “here” in Damascus (Traverse, 2007). I use trouma because when one looks at trauma, the multifarious concept reveals a traversed dimension, because trauma is indeed defined by a holed experience or an experience that metaphorically tears a hole (or holes) and to call attention to the traumatic across art and life.

David Greig’s Damascus (Traverse, 2007), as well as The American Pilot (2005), emerges from a context where “Greig has become increasingly interested in the Middle East [and] the fraught relationship between the east and the west”, 1 but while The American Pilot foregrounds “American imperialism”, 2 Damascus situates the colonial in relation to Syria in a wider historical perspective by mentioning “Persia, Greece, the Ottoman Empire and France” 3 —Syria, where the play is set (the Tricycle production included a picture of Bashar al-Assad hanging in the hotel foyer), only became an independent modern state in 1946.

In Damascus, Scotsman Paul travels to Syria to sell English textbooks to the Syrian ministry of education, and he encounters a number of locals, the hotel receptionist (Zakaria), an educationalist (Muna) and a University Dean, Muna’s ex-lecturer and ex-lover (Wasim). Both the original production of Damascus at the Traverse (2007) and its revival at the Tricycle (2009) gave the play a mostly naturalistic treatment. And yet, Damascus is characterised by anti-naturalistic gestures and punctuated by several moments and strategies that tear holes in Damascus’s “well-made” fabric. Indeed, a fifth character, expat Elena, a “transsexual Ukrainian Christian Marxist cocktail pianist”, 4 is a character that disrupts the play’s “elegant naturalism”. 5

Although the exchanges between Wasim and Paul are mediated by Muna’s translations, which she sometimes purposefully edits, and Wasim exercises his power over Paul by means of his knowledge of French, a non-naturalistic linguistic strategy is present in Damascus—as was the case in The American Pilot—whereby fragments supposedly spoken in Arabic are rendered in English (French fragments are delivered in French).

Like the Farmer’s shed in The American Pilot, the foyer of the Syrian three-star hotel in Damascus constitutes yet another indoor, enclosed setting in Greig’s work, and even “Paul’s two excursions into the city of Damascus are […] mediated discursively”. 6 Needless to say, hotels are related to travel and encounter and are key non-places in a globalised world. Another powerful and resonant element that is instantly perceptible in Damascus is the presence of a plasma TV, which significantly keeps playing “news images of the current situation 7 on mute, a “situation” that is alluded to by characters throughout.

Upon Paul’s arrival, it is Saint Valentine’s Day and he wishes to sell his English textbooks in order to return home as soon as possible. These are products sold globally, which is emphasised by Wasim telling Muna that the following week another rep from Singapur is coming to visit them. Paul, however, is forced to stay; his flight has been cancelled as a result of a bomb warning at Beirut airport in neighbouring Lebanon, which evokes a context where “[t]errorist outrages have been recorded in Tunisia, Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Istanbul, Casablanca, Jakarta, Madrid, Sharm el Sheikh and London”, 8 among others. Paul ends up tuning into the oldest inhabited city, lying to his wife about Syrian weather conditions, wanting to sleep with Muna and going out with Zakaria, who, unable to cope with his life anymore, ends up committing suicide when insensitive Paul (e.g. he does not read a script Zakaria has written) is finally about to leave the hotel for the airport.

The chapter applies the notion of trouma, borrowed from Jacques Lacan via Hal Foster’s The Return of the Real : Art and Theory at the End of the Century (1996) to the playwright/Paul, Zakaria, Elena and the above stage direction in order to examine how they all relate to “the real” and how trous (French for “hole”), connected to the traumatic under globalization, render time, location and characters collapse into a sense of holed world, of “here”.

From Trauma to Trouma

While etymologically “the Greek trauma, or ‘wound,’ originally refer[s] to an injury inflicted on a body” (see traumatology departments in hospitals, for instance), “[i]n its later usage […], the term trauma is understood as a wound inflicted not upon the body but upon the mind”. 9 In this book, trauma involves the body-mind because they are interdependent.

In a non-exhaustive manner, to begin with, trauma can be related to a chain of events that affect society/ies individually and/or collectively, both in the historical moment they are unfolding and later in time. Trauma can also relate to a discrete event that affects individuals and/or communities alike again as an immediate result of the event itself and later in time. Besides, trauma can be connected to the effects of day-to-day abuse. Trauma can be felt by particular individuals and constituencies as a result of abuse perpetrated on specific groups of people. Trauma is also used to refer to a personal negative past experience that had a great impact on us, thus traumatising us. Trauma may also pass from generation to generation through our DNA, a perspective that playwrights such as Alice Birch are interested in, 10 in particular in her play Anatomy of a Suicide (2017).

Then there is the trauma of the image: whether we live in a war zone or not, trauma may affect us as mediated suffering. No matter the degree of penetration that suffering may have on us, trauma is “here”—indeed, “world traumas are perpetuated within and through us”. 11

There is also the trauma of living under a specific historical moment with specific demands on the individual (e.g. to be a “fit” consumer), which most of the time cannot fulfil or accomplish. This kind of trauma is not distributed or felt evenly but it affects most, if not all, globe dwellers. From the perspective of an advantaged individual, there is also the traumatic guilt of having to operate—live and work—in a world of uneven social development—see Damascus’s Paul.

Thus, it is not only that trauma is “never simply one’s own” and that we are “implicated in each other’s traumas” 12 but also that the categories private and public collapse in the face of trauma. 13 Like Catherine Malabou, I am interested in “la forme globalisée du trauma – résultats des guerres, des attentats terroristes, des abus sexuels, de tous les types d’oppression et d’esclavage” 14 in a context pervaded by “the tensions and traumas produced by globalization”. 15

By invoking, suggesting relations between and at times collapsing the categories of mind and body, individual and collective, past and present, chain of events and discrete occurrence, real violence and images of violence, trauma as lived and as guilt, (a) major traumatic event/s and (a) quotidian traumatic event/s, private and public, developed trauma and inbuilt trauma, etc., trauma could be fittingly redefined as trouma.

In this context, it is suggestive to think in terms of a “contemporary trauma culture” 16 or trauma ordinariness (phrase inspired by Laurent Berlant’s idea that trauma is “simply an event that has the capacity to induce trauma” in the context of the current “systemic crisis” or “crisis ordinariness”). 17 But how does this ordinary trauma translate in art?

In terms of function vis-à-vis trauma, art has been argued to have a witnessing dimension, for instance by Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman. One of this book’s concerns is not whether art can artfully show the trous and interpellate us as witnesses to suffering but commenting on the trous themselves in art and their relation to reality, on how traumas—and the fact that “[t]he real […] is troumatic” 18 according to Jacques Lacan—“affect [plays and] the aesthetics of the plays” 19 as a result of the interpenetration of art and world, both troué themselves and mutually piercing holes to one another. The troué (holed and traumatic) quality of the world has penetrated theatre leaving trous in the play as a form and trous in the forms of the play. I use the notion of trouma instead of trauma in relation to Greig’s work, and here in particular to Damascus, because the trauma evoked in the work is already intertwined with the real world in many ways.

I use “trouma” for the idea that traumatic experiences tear holes in our existence, that a traumatic experience troumatises (metaphorically pierces) “us”. I use “trouma” because when one looks at trauma, the multifarious concept reveals a traversed dimension. I also use “trouma” to call attention to the traumatic across art and life. These and other “layers” to the notion of trouma will appear in the discussion that follows.

Paul: “It’s Me When I First Went to Syria”

Greig’s strong ties with Middle Eastern theatre-makers started to take shape with his trip to Palestine in 2001 to devise a comedy with director Rufus Norris and the Al Kasaba Theatre in Ramallah. As he puts it,

[w]hile I was there, we also did workshops with writers in Palestine and then the British Council in Syria invited us [2004], in collaboration with the Royal Court, to do workshops with young Syrian writers, whom I worked with for over three years. Then April de Angelis and I did a week-long workshop in Syria with young writers from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco [2007], which culminated over a two-year period in all the plays being read in all different Arabic countries and five of them being given full-scale readings at the Royal Court in November 2008. 20

As Greig claims in the author’s note to the play, “Damascus came about as an unexpected by-product of the artistic exchange I have been privileged to have with young theatre makers in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Palestine, since 2000”. 21

Although the “events of this play are wholly [his] own invention”, 22 Greig unveils the autobiographical nature of Paul: “he’s a writer of English-language text-books and he gets stuck there. It’s me when I first went to Syria”. 23 Both Greig and Paul travel very frequently and sell “products” written by themselves in English in the UK globally (textbook/plays). The chapter is not interested in closely examining the connections between the playwright and Paul, but in how Greig’s handling of Paul reveals many trous between the autobiographical and the fictional and what this says about Greig’s engagement with reality.

Greig’s essay “Doing a Geographical” (2006) not only recounts some of his experiences in Syria, but also comments on the downsides to the Royal Court’s International Department, particularly the colonialist impulse involved in teaching and somehow imprinting British new writing methodologies on playwrights in “third-world” countries. Referring to his playwriting workshops, Greig states, “[f]or the playwright it is an interesting way to travel and for the British Council it’s a way to parlay the good name of British theatre into small amounts of desperately needed political capital in those many parts of the world where our name is mud, or worse”. 24 In Damascus, Paul brings the textbook and through it, his (Western) ideas and thoughts, much in the same way as Greig does via teaching playwriting.

In connection to the workshops Greig conducted in the Middle East, what he found most exceptionable was the fact that the work he developed with young writers was not easily given an afterlife on British stages. This lack of “[r]eciprocity” 25 has however been somewhat addressed in the last few years by means of several projects, perhaps the most notable of which was Told from the Inside: New Plays from Syria and Lebanon (Royal Court, 7–12 March 2016), which included dramatic readings of works-in-progress by Syrian Liwaa Yazji (Goats), Lebanese Maya Zbib (Ghalia’s Miles) and Syrian Ghiath Mhithawi (The Final Return). 26

Muna’s involvement and her insistence on the need to change some of the stories and drawings in the textbook might suggest a small measure of reciprocity in her and Paul’s temporary and precarious space of intercultural encounter. And yet, although the prefix “inter” suggests some kind of exchange—“[i]nterculturality signifies interaction between cultures” 27 or “interaction of two sides, each of which sustain[s] its cultural difference”, 28 and Greig sees Damascus as “a play about cultures interacting” 29 —the relationship between the cultures present in the play, like in Greig’s workshops, is asymmetrical from the start.

In my reading, this troumatic dimension—being involved in colonialist exercises and asymmetrical intercultural exchange in the senses described in this chapter—surfaces in Paul’s inability to smell (which Greig suffered from too), Paul’s repeated interjections (“Fuck. Piss. Cock”) 30 and in “his neurotic and insensitive tendencies”. 31 Those are read as disclosing both a vertical subject sealed off from the outside world (the world has stopped penetrating him through smell) and a sense of “guilt” 32 for “[the] many echoes of imperialism or ‘the white man’s burden’ in Western writers telling other people’s stories for them”. 33 In the specific case of Syria, the characters in Damascus spell out some of Britain’s, and generally the West’s, ignominious colonial history. Elena refers to Lebanon openly, where “[t]he French mandate locked the different confessional communities into an unstable relationship”. 34 Muna, on her part, recalls “Balfour – […] Sykes – […] Picot – […] Mossadeq – […] Suez – and always always support for Israel – […] Guantanamo – […] Iraq…”. 35

With Damascus in mind, Greig asks himself, “is theatre a good place to discuss the notion that we are all truly global and so on?”, 36 to which he answers, “I don’t know. On a purely practical level I’ve tried very hard and the work which has not always been my most successful has been the work I have tried to deal with what I perceived to be the realities of globalized life”. 37

Paul is not just a seller of textbooks; he has importantly written the stories in them and therefore has some responsibility for them, Muna thinks, 38 a responsibility that goes beyond the confines of the textbook. Their discussion shows that Damascus is not only “about a kind of multicultural Britain that is totally idealised by an educational textbook writer” 39 but also about a Syria that is idealised by Muna, 40 thus foregrounding their respective responsibilities in the transmission of ideas and narratives and the importance of an earnest dialogue.

Although Greig admits that “Damascus probably only has something like eight professional theatre productions a year and if one of those is a very expensive British-funded play, of course you’re going to approach it thinking: ‘You cheeky bastard, what are you doing writing about us?’”, 41 and that the play may to some extent be faulted with an Orientalist representation of Arab characters, he is adamant that what is happening in Syria—or anywhere else for that matter—are scenes from the world—his world, “our” world—that he is genuinely interested in, feels a responsibility for and therefore wants to write about, notwithstanding the risks involved. 42

Indeed, although Greig put a lot of effort into writing Arab characters for Damascus 43 despite Greig’s awareness of “the ethical minefield that [he] cross[es] in attempting it”, 44 Damascus has been charged in some quarters with Orientalism. 45 This came about as a by-product of the Middle Eastern tour of Damascus: when touring “Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Tunisia and the Palestinian territories”, 46 Damascus engendered indignation, particularly as regards the portrayal of a Muslim man committing suicide. Although during after-show discussions Greig would often be shouted at and insulted—“neo-orientalist” and “racist” 47 —young people would come to him afterwards to let him know that his depiction of a suicidal young man was on target. 48

Subsequently, the Arab Spring, which involved numerous cases of young Muslim men committing suicide—including a Syrian called Hasan Ali Akleh who set himself alight in protest against the Assad regime on 28 January 2011—reassured Greig that his play was not a ludicrous imaginative exercise but all too sadly a reality in several ways. For instance, in one of the touring versions, Greig and director Philip Howard had Zakaria “set fire to himself” 49 and the play includes, in a context of ongoing war in Syria (2011–), statements such as “[i]t’s a war zone”. 50

In terms of affect, Greig was struck by the emotional intensity generated by Damascus during its Middle Eastern tour. He notes that the fact that the play raised “very important debates […] in public […] created an electric atmosphere” and that “[i]t was as if the audience completed the play for me. All the gaps I felt in the UK were filled in the knowledge and the feelings the audience brought to it”. 51 The reactions caused and this filling-in of the holes by the spectator shows not only the porousness of theatre as a form but also the power of representation inside and outside the theatre, or, the power of representation “across”.

The experiences described above—the sense of colonial guilt, the difficulties and risks of writing Arab characters as “a British playwright writing about the Arab world”, 52 the accusations of Orientalism and the “bruising” 53 experience of the piece’s tour in the Middle East—unveil not only the trous between Greig and Paul but also a troumatic dimension to Damascus and its creative process. These phenomena show how trauma exceeds the work, trauma is present before its inception and during its aftermath, which blurs the edges of theatre and trauma, hence holed theatre’s trouma.

Zakaria: “To Break My Life, Only a Little”

Also illustrative of Damascus’s engagement with reality is the fact that Greig based Zakaria on a handsome man he met and spent some time with in Aleppo called Zacharias. 54 This chance “real” encounter in the citadel in Aleppo is a key component of Greig’s defence against the accusations of Orientalism and the suicide ending. 55 Indeed, Zakaria’s words in Damascus are borrowed verbatim from the real Zacharias, including the fact that he wants to end his life, 56 and so are Zakaria’s desires, experiences and feelings, like writing a script, wanting to visit a female friend in France and feeling dead inside. Writing Zakaria did not stop Zacharias from haunting Greig’s mind, for he says: “I would have liked Zacharias to have been able to attend my workshop. I would like to read Zacharias’ film script although I doubt I ever shall”. 57  Instead, Greig imagines what Zacharias’s script might have looked like through the fragments of Zakaria’s script in Damascus, which disclose an intimate connection between fragments of “the real” and fictional fragments, or the real irrupting in the fictional.

Zakaria’s every day, multi-layered humiliation, which involves a very particular sense of masculinity in crisis, operates at different and coexisting levels. In relation to his sense of masculinity in crisis, as a Muslim youth, Zakaria embodies the problematics of “being and becoming a man in the Middle East”. 58 According to Zygmunt Bauman, “being a Muslim means being a victim of multiple deprivation, as well as being cut off from (or barred from using) the public escape routes leading out of oppression”. 59 This is particularly the case with young Muslims:

They belong to a population officially classified as lagging behind the ‘advanced’, ‘developed’, ‘progressive’ rest of humanity; and they are locked in that unenviable plight through collusion between their own ruthless, high-handed governments and the governments of the ‘advanced’ part of the planet, ruthlessly turning them away from the promised and passionately coveted lands of happiness and dignity. 60

At present, this has to be thought in tandem with the idea of America in the following sense. Greig states that “[m]any of us are, in a cultural sense, American. […] This is particularly true in the Middle East, by the way. Which is why, of course, young men feel so particularly humiliated by American’s rejection of them”. 61 And indeed, Damascus highlights the traumatising, humiliating effects of American culture putting forward a kind of life that Middle Eastern young men may never “achieve”. Although Muna claims “[i]t is important for the Arab world that we have young people who are able to make their way in a globalised marketplace”, 62 she complains about rap lyrics in the textbook because they “concern things he [the singer] will achieve through his music. He will be famous. He will own a car, a big house. Also he will sleep with many women” 63 —experiences that will in all probability remain unavailable to the students using the textbook. Muna argues she does not want to make her students “feel any smaller than they already do”. 64

Illustrating the imprint of the ludicrously idealised masculinities that Muna so much detests, Zakaria wants to go out with American girls and send a film script to Hollywood. His truncated and inconclusive script reveals the fragmentary nature of trauma, Zakaria’s trouma, “that which cannot be narrated” 65 : “A man drives a car. In the sky there is an American. Two boys climb a tree to find America. A friend falls from a tree. He is dead”. 66 In any case, Zakaria’s life is never told in its entirety, because from the outset even Wasim—a fellow subject of globalization—dismisses it as fantasy. Zakaria gives his script to Paul, who fails to understand the young man’s desperation 67 and carelessly drops the script on the floor.

This double sense of masculinity in crisis is enhanced by a further layer of humiliation, the vast gap between the rich and the poor. As Joyce McMillan points out, Damascus portrays “a global village increasingly divided by extremes of wealth and poverty”. 68 In this sense, Zakaria’s trouma is related to “the despair and the humiliation of millions in the world beyond the West” 69 who lag behind in a globalised world. Indeed, “[t]hose of us already on the receiving end of negative globalization” 70 —that is, the globalization “of trade and capital, surveillance and information, coercion and weapons, crime and terrorism” 71 —“frantically seek escape and breathe vengeance”. 72

Ultimately, Zakaria’s compulsive repetition of “[w]elcome” 73 and “[y]ou are welcome” 74 —sometimes meaningfully misplaced to create trous in the already faulty communicative flow—might be motivated by his multivalent experiences of traumatic humiliation. Zakaria is denied a visa to see his female friend in Valence, France 75 —Lyon in Zacharias’s “real” story. Zakaria’s disappointment in love is again articulated before he commits suicide at the end of the play. As Greig remarks in an interview, “now it’s incredibly difficult for young Arabs to travel anywhere. Young people in the Arab world often have a sense of claustrophobia because they’re trapped in a national identity that doesn’t fit their experience”. 76 Indeed, Zakaria is obsessed that nothing happens in his life, which makes him feel dead inside. 77 Like Zacharias, Zakaria craves change—“I like to change my life. Only a little […] To break it up” 78 —but he cannot attain it in the present asymmetrical global era. Zakaria’s final trou—the bullet that takes away his life—has already been anticipated.

Elena and a Stage Direction: The Monological and Abstraction

Although Damascus appears to be a formally uncomplicated play and it was given “a very naturalistic production [both at the Traverse and at the Tricycle]”, 79 in fact it harbours a similar structural strategy to The American Pilot, namely the dialectical tension dialogue-monologue. Although as the play progresses the tidiness of the strategy starts to loosen, there are two central monological foci—Elena’s interventions and the largely invariable stage direction “[t]he television shows news images of the current situation”, 80 which surfaces in scenes One, Three, Five, Seven, Nine and Eleven in Act One and in scenes One, Three, Five and Seven in Act Two. While Elena always appears every two scenes in each act, the stage direction in question is dropped for the last scene in each act where Elena is present. That invites one to see a connection between Elena and the stage direction as instruments that confer structural solidity to the play. These dialectical elements—abstract components (such as Elena and the stage direction) in contrast to more naturalistic ones (such as the foyer and three-dimensional characterisation), monologue in contraposition to dialogue, the oscillation between sound and silence—permeate the play. Elena’s interventions and the stage direction are finely placed to arguably explore trauma by producing trous in the play’s texture.

Elena: “I Am Always Here”

Elena provides piano backing, engages in direct address with spectators, comments on the action and figures as all-seeing storyteller. Elena is Damascus’s diegetic narrator; she recounts instead of showing. Story finds the perfect ally in music: “what I like about putting music on a stage is that it changes the space into a space in which we are performers and you are an audience and we all know we’re here and we’re going to tell you a story”. 81 Indeed, Elena does not have any direct interaction with the rest of characters; she only indirectly relates to them through music, which she manipulates to make them feel happy or sad.

Elena’s seeming omniscience also fosters a sense of “aboveness”. Indeed, Elena may be understood as a framing device that controls the narrative: “the piano player makes everything happen”. 82 Elena’s abstract presence is simultaneously precise and indeterminate, even surreal. She is an “aerial character”, both because on one level she is the playwright’s persona and because she suggests a spiritual dimension—she is “a bit like […] God or something”, 83 as (perhaps playfully) suggested by her viewpoint from above, since she is placed “up on a slanting platform”. 84 She works as a dialectical tool not only by providing the counterpoint to the play’s stable “reality”, but also by continuously stepping out of it—she feeds the spectator with information through direct address—while simultaneously remaining inside—she is the hotel pianist. Again prompting a Brechtian staging, the spatial distribution of actors on stage matters, for Elena is situated “at the side of the stage”, 85 on the edge of the play’s “reality”.

Due to her quality as an aerial character and the information she uncovers, 86 Elena appears as an all-encompassing witness of all suffering, bleeding across space-time. And yet, she cannot do anything to prevent Zakaria’s suicide or terrorist attacks—she always plays the same songs. She can recount things repeatedly; she can aim at contributing to an alternative narrative of war; she can encourage the spectator to become a witness—at the start of the play, she helps herself and offers spectators a drink, a gesture that seeks to ease their way in and stimulate their engagement with the traumatic events that are about to unfold. Elena is “witness, chorus and conscience of a play” 87 and crucially seems to become a sort of bridge (or hole/trou) between the playwright, the characters, the spectator and perhaps the world—which ultimately, however, she cannot change. She illustrates that “[o]ur behaviour never takes place in a vacuum, and our actions always have consequences for people other than ourselves”. 88 Elena is simultaneously in the hotel foyer and yet everywhere, as noted. She is a sort of atemporal witness: she has seen everything and is always in this troumatised “here”.

The TV Shows News Images of the Current Situation”: Re-situations

Philip Tew argues for “a post-9/11 shift toward a wider ideological awareness, responding to the very sociopolitical uncertainties which appear to both permeate and transform the public as well as the aesthetic consciousness”. 89 Connecting trauma simultaneously to the public and the aesthetic is a very interesting notion to me because this is one of the ways in which I understand trouma and holed theatre. It is not just that trauma permeates the public sphere and aesthetic consciousness but also about the causal link between them.

In Damascus, the stage direction “[t]he television shows news images of the current situation 90 punctuates the play evenly—punctuating in itself is an exercise which involves piercing holes in the structure of a play. A powerful dialectic emerges out of the contrast between the static TV showing images of the current situation throughout and the movement related to the characters’ conducting their daily business. Another strong contrast is provided by the muteness of the images and the musical and conversational background in the hotel foyer.

The reviewers’ descriptions of the TV images are varied but similar: Lyn Gardner’s “endless images of bombed buildings and wailing women” 91 emphasises the damage inflicted on buildings and people; McMillan’s “images of conflict in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq” 92 fill in a specific localisation for the conflict; and Veronica Lee’s “constant TV images of the Middle East conflict” 93 opt for a generic Middle East. In Nadine Holdsworth’s words, the footage “included images from Iraq, Palestine and the release of Alan Johnston, the former BBC Gaza correspondent held hostage for 114 days”. 94 Having the images running unstoppably one lying on the top of the other strongly suggests their connection, their being part of the same single space.

According to Nicholas Ridout, although “[t]he global media separate our perception from our personal experience by constantly bombarding us with images […] [t]heatre reconnects perception and experience”. 95 As Ridout claims, “[s]uch a theatre might work by presenting precisely the same images as those circulating in the global media, but doing so in theatrical situations in which the audience is actively aware of its own participation in the event rather than a passive recipient of media saturation”. 96 According to Greig, “[n]ews allows you to look at events but with drama you are inside them”. 97 This is how the TV images in Damascus work, that is, “[t]he images of the global media are re-situated to awaken an active ethical response or sense of ‘response-ability’”. 98 As a result, the holed spectator is re-situated as part of the images’ holed landscape.

Hal Foster claims with regard to Andy Warhol’s Ambulance Disaster (1963)—part of Warhol’s disaster series—the following: “I noted that the tear in Ambulance Disaster is such a hole (trou) for me, though what loss is figured there I cannot say. Through these pokes or pops we seem almost to touch the real, which the repetition of the images at once distances and rushes toward us”. 99 The images of the current situation might tear a hole in the play connecting it to the real, having an ethico-political impact on holed spectators.

Perhaps one of the most crucial intended effects of the presence of TV images of the current situation is partly to revert the global spectator’s preconceived expectations about life in the Middle East: “instead of the war-torn picture we’re used to [and that Paul, in a way, expects to find but does not], the play offers an urbane comedy set in a city of cultural riches”, 100 where the images of conflict “are” in the background. At the same time, however, the trauma (ordinariness) suggested by the images of the current situation continually pierces through into the hotel foyer, thus hinting at a network of connections between events in the foyer, outside the foyer and the places where the images were taken. Such connections are intensified through the presence of Elena, who sees everything and is always “here”.

Conclusive Remarks: “Trouma” Binds Us Together

In Damascus, trouma binds together the playwright, the characters and their stories and the images of the current situation, thus highlighting the interconnectedness between those who are doing well under globalization and those who are lagging behind. As is the case in the other plays analysed so far, there is a final violent trou, this time produced by Zakaria’s bullet, which not only puts an end to his life, but also brings about the collapse of the very fabric of the play, that is, the dialectic interplay between Elena and the TV images—monological—and events in the play—dialogical. Nevertheless, through the character of Elena whose haunting presence connects the foyer, the TV images, the spectators and the world, Damascus seems to want to insist that we are “all objectively responsible (that is, responsible whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, and – an ethically crucial point – whether we intend it or not) for each other’s miseries”. 101

The spectator, whose life is full of dulling, repetitive routines, might herself be pierced by the unusual sense of repetition—in itself related to trauma—explored in Damascus, its presentation of broken characters (Paul, Zakaria) and its wounded formal strategies (Elena, stage direction). Although Damascus is “much more pinned to specific places and times than is usual” 102 in Greig’s work, the play’s exploration of trauma and unequally distributed opportunities under globalization give it a more universal resonance.

As Mark Luckhurst put it, “[t]rauma is a piercing or breach of a border that puts inside and outside into a strange communication”; “[trauma] violently opens passageways between systems that were once discrete, making unforeseen connections that distress or confound”. 103 Trouma puts the inside and outside of bodies in relation, it connects theatre and the world, the image and the real, the public and the private, the present and the past, the discrete and the mundane, the individual and the collective, the historical and the personal; it is that thing that simultaneously pierces us and binds us together.

Although Zakaria tells Paul, “I bring you my life”, 104 when he gives him the script, he subsequently finds it on the floor next to a sleeping Paul, who cannot seem to find a space for “Zakaria’s life” in his suitcase. The metaphor becomes real. Zakaria brings Paul his life, but Paul cannot see it. As Gardner puts it, “[l]ike Paul, our expectations are confounded, and in the play’s dying moments we are unavoidably implicated, as Paul’s easy platitudes, and his blundering relationship with Zakaria, lead to an unexpected act of violence”. 105 Paul’s surname, Hartstone, clearly alludes to his lack of empathy, his insensitive dealings with Zakaria and his aspiration to reach the American dream. But as Elena says, as if comforting Paul for the irreparable loss and the impossibility to fill in the absence or the hole left by Zakaria’s suicide, “[y]ou held his hand. / I know. / I was here. / I’m always here”. 106


  1. 1.

    Nadine Holdsworth, “David Greig,” in Modern British Playwriting: 20002009, ed. Dan Rebellato (London: Methuen), 170.

  2. 2.

    Ibid., 170.

  3. 3.

    Ibid., 184.

  4. 4.

    David Greig, Damascus (London: Faber, 2007), 116.

  5. 5.

    Neil Cooper, review of “Damascus,” by David Greig, Theatre Record 21, August 7, 2007, 1185.

  6. 6.

    Sandra Heinen, “The Staging of Intercultural Encounter in Damascus,” in Cosmotopia: Transnational Identities in David Greig’s Theatre, eds. Anja Müller and Clare Wallace (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2011), 181.

  7. 7.

    Damascus (David Greig), 7.

  8. 8.

    Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Fear (Cambridge and Malden: Polity, 2006), 102.

  9. 9.

    Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 3 (original emphasis).

  10. 10.

    See Alice Birch, “Q & A: Alice Birch Playwright,” Observer, June 4, 2017.

  11. 11.

    Patrick Duggan, Trauma-Tragedy: Symptoms of Contemporary Performance (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), 49.

  12. 12.

    Unclaimed Experience (Cathy Caruth), 24.

  13. 13.

    See Mark Seltzer, “Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere,” October 80 (1997): 4.

  14. 14.

    Catherine Malabou, Les nouveaux blessées: De Freud à la neurobiologie, penser les traumatismes contemporains (Paris: Bayard, 2007), 344.

  15. 15.

    Imre Szeman, “Globalization, Postmodernism, and (Autonomous) Criticism,” in Cultural Autonomy: Frictions and Connections, eds. Petra Rethmann, Imre Szeman and William D. Coleman (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010), 76.

  16. 16.

    Roger Luckhurst, The Trauma Question (New York and London: Routledge, 2008), 2.

  17. 17.

    Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 10.

  18. 18.

    Hal Foster, The Return of the Real : Art and Theory at the End of the Century (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1996), 136. I borrow the term “troumatic” from Lacan but do not go into explaining Lacan’s psychoanalytic understanding of it. If interested, please see The Return (Hal Foster), 136–7.

  19. 19.

    Christina Wald, Hysteria, Trauma and Melancholia: Performative Maladies in Contemporary Anglophone Drama (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 92.

  20. 20.

    Hilary Whitney, “The Art Desk Q & A: Playwright David Greig,” February 6, 2010, (accessed November 26, 2013; site now discontinued).

  21. 21.

    David Greig, “Author’s Note,” Damascus. By David Greig (London: Faber, 2007), 3.

  22. 22.

    Ibid., 3.

  23. 23.

    See “The Art Desk” (Hilary Whitney).

  24. 24.

    David Greig, “Doing a Geographical,” Contemporary Theatre Review Backpages 16, no. 1 (2006): 161.

  25. 25.

    Elaine Aston and Mark O’Thomas, Royal Court: International (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 36.

  26. 26.

    See ibid., 152–75.

  27. 27.

    Marilena Zaroulia, “Travelers in Globalisation: From Near to Elsewhere and Back,” in Staging Interculturality, eds. Werner Huber, Margarete Rubik and Julia Novak (Trier: Wissenchaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2010), 265.

  28. 28.

    Anja Müller and Clare Wallace, “Neutral Spaces & Transnational Encounters,” in Cosmotopia: Transnational Identities in David Greig’s Theatre, Anja Müller and Clare Wallace (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2011), 5.

  29. 29.

    Clare Wallace, “Writing and the Rule of Opposites,” in The Theatre of David Greig, ed. Clare Wallace (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 167.

  30. 30.

    Damascus (David Greig), 9.

  31. 31.

    Clare Wallace, The Theatre of David Greig (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 149.

  32. 32.

    Joyce McMillan, review of “Damascus,” by David Greig, Theatre Record 21, August 7, 2007, 1185; and see also Kate Bassett, review of “Damascus,” by David Greig, Theatre Record 21, August 12, 2007, 1186.

  33. 33.

    “Doing” (David Greig), 161.

  34. 34.

    Damascus (David Greig), 30.

  35. 35.

    Ibid., 50.

  36. 36.

    “Writing and” (Clare Wallace),167.

  37. 37.

    Ibid., 167.

  38. 38.

    In this connection, Muna asks him to rewrite some of the passages and his company to consider redrawing some of the images so that they may speak more directly to Syrian society.

  39. 39.

    Mark Fisher, “Interview: Mark Fisher and David Greig: Suspect Cultures and Home Truths,” in Cosmotopia: Transnational Identities in David Greig’s Theatre, eds. Anja Müller and Clare Wallace (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2011), 22.

  40. 40.

    See ibid., 22.

  41. 41.

    “The Art Desk” (Hilary Whitney).

  42. 42.

    See Verónica Rodríguez, “ Zāhir and Bātin : An Interview with David Greig,” in “David Greig: Dramaturgies of Encounter and Engagement,” ed. Jacqueline Bolton, special issue, Contemporary Theatre Review 26, no. 1 (2016): 91. The sway of “the real” would continue to be felt after the premiere of the play. See, for instance, Howard’s discussion of amendments to the text in the context of the Middle Eastern tour. See Philip Howard, “Philip Howard,” in The Theatre of David Greig, ed. Clare Wallace (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 216.

  43. 43.

    See “ Zāhir and Bātin ” (Verónica Rodríguez).

  44. 44.

    Maggie Inchley, Voice and New Writing 1997–2007: Articulating the Demos (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 76.

  45. 45.

    See Nadine Holdsworth, “Documents,” in Modern British Playwriting: 2000–2009, ed. Dan Rebellato (London: Methuen, 2013), 271; and “ Zāhir and Bātin ” (Verónica Rodríguez), 91.

  46. 46.

    “David Greig” (Nadine Holdsworth), 187.

  47. 47.

    “Documents” (Nadine Holdsworth), 274–5.

  48. 48.

    See “Documents” (Nadine Holdsworth), 271 and 275; “Writing and” (Clare Wallace), 170; and Clare Wallace, “Collaborating with Audiences: David Greig in Conversation with Clare Wallace,” in “Theatre and Spectatorship,” eds. Mireia Aragay and Enric Monforte, special issue, Journal of Contemporary Drama in English 4, no. 1 (2016): 245–6. For further discussion of the reception of the play in the Middle East, see “Philip Howard” (Philip Howard), 215–6.

  49. 49.

    “David Greig” (Nadine Holdsworth), 170.

  50. 50.

    Damascus (David Greig), 10.

  51. 51.

    “Documents” (Nadine Holdsworth), 274.

  52. 52.

    “Philip Howard” (Philip Howard), 216.

  53. 53.

    “David Greig” (Nadine Holdsworth), 170.

  54. 54.

    In addition, “the character of Muna was […] loosely based on Laila Hourani of the British Council” and “the piano player is real”, “she was there, in the hotel I stayed in, every day”. See “Philip Howard” (Philip Howard), 216 and “Documents” (Nadine Holdsworth), 272.

  55. 55.

    “Writing and” (Clare Wallace), 171.

  56. 56.

    See “Doing” (David Greig), 162–3; and see also “Documents” (Nadine Holdsworth), 272.

  57. 57.

    “Doing” (David Greig), 164.

  58. 58.

    Lahoucine Ouzgane, “Islamic Masculinities: An Introduction,” in Islamic Masculinities, ed. Lahoucine Ouzgane (London and New York: Zed Books, 2006), 1.

  59. 59.

    Liquid Fear (Zygmunt Bauman), 117.

  60. 60.

    Ibid., 117.

  61. 61.

    Caridad Svich, “Physical Poetry,” A Journal of Performance and Art PAJ 86 29, no. 2 (2007): 55.

  62. 62.

    Damascus (David Greig), 25.

  63. 63.

    Ibid., 44.

  64. 64.

    Ibid., 45.

  65. 65.

    Hysteria (Christina Wald), 96.

  66. 66.

    Damascus (David Greig), 87.

  67. 67.

    See Lyn Gardner, review of “Damascus,” by David Greig, Theatre Record 21, August 6, 2007, 1184.

  68. 68.

    Review of “Damascus” (Joyce McMillan), 1185.

  69. 69.

    Ibid., 1185.

  70. 70.

    Liquid Fear (Zygmunt Bauman), 98.

  71. 71.

    Ibid., 96.

  72. 72.

    Ibid., 98.

  73. 73.

    Damascus (David Greig), 10 et passim.

  74. 74.

    Ibid., 12 et passim.

  75. 75.

    Ibid., 37.

  76. 76.

    “Interview” (Mark Fisher), 31.

  77. 77.

    See Damascus (David Greig), 35.

  78. 78.

    Ibid., 33.

  79. 79.

    “Documents” (Nadine Holdsworth), 272.

  80. 80.

    Damascus (David Greig), 7 et passim.

  81. 81.

    “Documents” (Nadine Holdsworth), 269.

  82. 82.

    Ibid., 272.

  83. 83.

    Ibid., 272. References to the spiritual do not end there. Paul mentions spirituality several times in the play and his allusive name suggests “the Apostle Paul, who converted on the road to Damascus”. See Maria Elena Capitani, “Non-Places as Sites for Intercultural Clashes in Sarah Kane’s Blasted; and David Greig’s Damascus,” Transnational Subjects: Cultural and Literary Encounters, vol. 1, eds. R. Ciocca, A. Lamarra, and C. M. Laudando (Naples: Liguori, 2017), 176.

  84. 84.

    Caroline McGinn, review of “Damascus,” by David Greig, Theatre Record 29, no. 3, February 19, 2009, 126.

  85. 85.

    Douglas Maxwell, review of “Damascus,” by David Greig, Theatre Record 29, no. 3, February 11, 2009, 126.

  86. 86.

    See, for instance, Damascus (David Greig), 114–5.

  87. 87.

    Review of “Damascus” (Neil Cooper), 1185.

  88. 88.

    Nicholas Ridout, Theatre & Ethics (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 12.

  89. 89.

    Philip Tew, “The Post-Millenial, 9/11 and the Traumatological,” in The Contemporary British Novel, ed. Philip Tew (London and New York: Continuum, 2007), 193.

  90. 90.

    Damascus (David Greig), 7 et passim.

  91. 91.

    Review of “Damascus” (Lyn Gardner), 1184.

  92. 92.

    Review of “Damascus” (Joyce McMillan), 1185.

  93. 93.

    Veronica Lee, review of “Damascus,” by David Greig, Theatre Record 21, August 8, 2007, 1185.

  94. 94.

    “David Greig” (Nadine Holdsworth), 185.

  95. 95.

    Theatre & Ethics (Nicholas Ridout), 58.

  96. 96.

    Ibid., 58.

  97. 97.

    David Greig, “The Events – Q & A with Writer, David Greig”. BBC writers room blog, July 4, 2014, (accessed July 9, 2016).

  98. 98.

    Theatre & Ethics (Nicholas Ridout), 59.

  99. 99.

    The Return (Hal Foster), 136.

  100. 100.

    Mark Fisher, review of “Damascus,” by David Greig, Theatre Record 21, August 12, 2007, 1186.

  101. 101.

    Liquid Fear (Zygmunt Bauman), 99 (original emphasis).

  102. 102.

    Ian Shuttleworth, review of “Damascus,” by David Greig, Theatre Record 21, August 14, 2007, 1186.

  103. 103.

    The Trauma Question (Roger Luckhurst), 3.

  104. 104.

    Damascus (David Greig), 86.

  105. 105.

    Lyn Gardner, review of “Damascus,” by David Greig, Theatre Record 29, no. 3, February 11, 2009, 125.

  106. 106.

    Damascus (David Greig), 116.


Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Verónica Rodríguez
    • 1
  1. 1.Canterbury Christ Church UniversityCanterburyUK

Personalised recommendations