The Time: The Entire History of the World
The Place: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on June 2, 2012
Time and date are a specific necessity for the recent guest appearance by the renowned Belgian theatre collective Ontroerend Goed’s magnificent piece A History of Everything. The play is not so much a straightforward piece of theatre, a la the grand production of William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens that one could observe downstairs, as it is an ensemble-generated study of what it is that makes up both humanity’s collective understanding of history and the grand conception of what goes into our actual history.
To say that the piece is a grand achievement, the marvelous result of nearly a dozen artists working together in perfect unison would be an understatement.
With this in mind, let us disregard the quality of the performance and how best to achieve this experience for one’s self. (For the record, when reading my essays, please note that I tend to follow the “Ain’t It Cool” school of reviews. Assigning something a star or letter grade cheapens the artistic effort put forth in my opinion, as I feel that to give my opinion regarding something’s esoteric value is somewhat pretentious on my part, and fails to regard your own opinions and thoughts regarding the piece. Think of these essays as study guides/discussion pieces/jumping off points for a further/broader understanding of the artistic output of the artists.)
The play starts with an artist’s reflection on the expanding universe. At some point, the universe will contract and time will repeat itself as everything returns to the Big Bang that started it all. Using this as its guide, seven actors deconstruct history, starting with today’s headlines. (The Cubs are still in last place, fear not.) The entire while, history is charted through the use of a large floor mat that utilizes varying landmarks as place markers for world events.
Among the more striking visual markers are placards bearing the word “WAR,” fixtures that dominate the early staging of the map, serving as a grim reminder of the current state of the world. (In case you didn’t know it, Africa is currently crawling with open warfare, most of it unrecognized by your typical hipster American.) Contrasting the war spreading across the Middle East and African continents we hear about all the time on CNN, are placards indicating Coca Cola, McDonalds, and Apple. Snippets of news are conveyed by the troupe, including announcements for the coming of the iPad, iPhone, and iPod. When compared with the news coming from other countries, our news and concerns feel incredibly petty and small. 
No theatre piece can be considered without taking into account the audience’s reaction. One of the beautiful things about theatre is that the audience is an active participant, whether they know it or not. A theatre’s fourth wall expands to the back of the room, and even such a small reaction as a chuckle at an awkward pause contribute to the energy of what the artist is putting forth. (We’ve all seen this at some point or another. Consider how a comedy plays when four people are laughing verses how it plays when four hundred people are laughing.)
Considering the factor of the audience, I noted that when conflicts involving Syria were announced, the crowd paid token attention to it, allowing the news to register. This makes sense; most of us are not directly invested in Syria. We have no troops on the ground, it is not our citizens that are being oppressed, and we have great matters at home to take care of. In contrast, during the moment when the actors stage the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th, the entire audience seized up. A palpable energy of shock and rapt attention spread across the theatre space, something that would be utterly impossible to notice. Again, this makes sense. Everyone of a certain age remembers exactly where they were when the news struck that America was under attack. Investment makes all the difference.
But consider that when 9/11 struck, our investment was one of shock. When Syria reports more violence against its citizens, we understand that it is a part of the world where unrest is common. These are people who don’t speak English, who are not as advanced as our first-world country, and who are trapped in their situation. It is not our place to step into their country and save them; we all remember the recent history of the Iraq War and our tragic financial disaster that comes from spending hundreds of billions of dollars to solve someone else’s problem.
That line of thinking is rendered moot when considering the rest of Ontroerend Goed’s work. As history progresses, we trace civilization back to its beginnings as the birth of a gatherer society. The collective puts forth the theory that everything started to go wrong with the beginning of slavery, described as one person deciding that, to deal with a surplus of food at the end of a workday, they said “You know what? I’ll think about that. You all get back to work.” Moving past humans living in caves, huddled over fire, we witness one cast member frantically trying to sketch out our common ancestors as two small creatures huddle inside a cave while dinosaurs and other animals rise and fall around them.
Our common ancestors are shared, and they are small and frenetic. We are all part of the same universe, and thus, directly invested in each other. The collective goes on to demonstrate the respective size of the universe, showing exactly how small and interconnected we are.
Other moments show how “The History of Everything” is a shared experience by all of us. Colonialism spreads across Africa, leaving lasting scars that are the source of the conflicts covering the country at the start of the show. World Wars II and I are shown to be rooted in the frantic expansion of the world during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even more damning is reminding the audience that the U.S. paid off many Middle Eastern countries which turned around and struck back at the global superpowers that patronizingly look down upon them.
The audience going silent for the 9/11 reenactment is to be expected. Laughter over inside jokes regarding Chicago is to be expected. However, genocide is genocide, and something that we are all a part of. Considering that there are over seven billion people in the world, rapidly approaching eight billion, the sudden removal of thousands and millions of people through genocide should be more of an impact moment than might otherwise be considered.
Our disconnect from each other makes it easy to disregard such tragedies, citing them as not our problem. It becomes easy to state that we are unable to help every problem in the world. What is also suggested is the increasing irrelevance of our place in the cosmos, as our world is reduced to a crumpled ball of foil, rapidly shrinking as the universe collapses inward on itself into a final, pure ball of light that explodes in a galaxy of stars and light.
We are all part of one world, and though we are different, at this stage in our history there is little that separates us from our worldwide brethren thanks to the technological developments of global society. Ontroerend Goed suggests that such a state is lamentable, but also inconsequential in the face of the inevitable trend of history as the world explodes inward on itself. There may be rewards to thinking through our actions, but as one cast member says “We’re all going to die one day.” Certainly tragic, yet also beautiful when one considers the aesthetic nature of the rebirth cycle of the cosmos.
Certainly something to think about, at the very least.
 Please note that I currently am employed in a non-artistic fashion by this theatre as well. I’m only writing about this piece because I felt so strongly moved by the stories and messages conveyed within. For the most part, I will leave critical reactions to CST in the hands of my colleagues. I do like having a job.
 See also Footnote 1.
 Also, as stated before, I really like having a job.
 While reading this essay, I would like you, dear reader, to consider this review as Part One of a Three Part series on First World vs. Third World conflicts in regards to popular culture. Part Two, probably coming within the week, will be a discussion on Thomas Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization.
 The same applies to cinema. Few people realize how hysterical Seven Samurai can be until it is viewed in a cinema hall with a hundred avid cinephiles.
 Unless you were the patron in Seat B7 who was asleep for much of the show. Shame on you, asshole. Shame on you.