So you’re Hannah Gadsby. You’re a well-known Australian comedian with a ten-year track record, and then you do a show in which you publicly give up comedy. The piece zeroes in on the inescapable violence contained within comedy—mirrored by the unavoidable violence against women contained within the canon of Western art and, you know, the world—and your refusal to be complicit with that ritual any longer. You’re the voice shouting that the emperor has no fucking clothes–and for once, people listen.
You hit square on the global nerve exposed by Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK and a tidal wave of other revelations and allegations about powerful men that are suddenly not whispered, but shouted. Your performance at the Sydney Opera House gets taped for Netflix. In a world of niche marketing, you may not be the artist everyone has heard of, but you’re certainly the artist the critics and the “cultural elite” are talking about, and not in a flavor-of-the-month way but in a way that feels like everyone who writes about you is experiencing a giant, cathartic exhale of a breath they didn’t know they were holding. You get a book deal, two Emmy nominations.
You were already successful, but now, as Gadsby says in her new show, Douglas, you’ve got “people”; you’ve got people to make your life better: to fill out the forms your neurobiology absolutely cannot process; to tailor your clothes so you feel like you’re properly dressed for the first time. You’ve got power now. Whatever you do next, Netflix already wants it. So what do you do with that platform? What do you do when you tried to blow up your chosen art form by telling uncomfortable truths about power–and wound up with more power than you’ve ever had? What story do you tell?
Gadsby knows she’s lost the element of surprise that she might have had when she arrived in the United States with Nanette, and because she’s the kind of performer who’d rather set you up to admire the craft of her execution than have you come in with high expectations and be disappointed, she leans way in to warding off anticlimax. She tells you exactly how her life has changed, in good ways and discomfiting ones. She lays out the parameters of the evening in almost excruciating detail, giving a literal table of contents to the piece—an a priori structure that allows her to show off her very gift for structure. (And Douglas does revel in its own construction, showing off its control in a way that both is and is not an exemplar of the kind of cultural confidence Gadsby will poke fun at.) Douglas is rife with callbacks, ranging from the erudite to the downright esoteric–one could usefully have reference notes to certain sections–to the utterly ridiculous, and most of that work is set up in this preface. (The show, if you’re wondering, is named after one of Gadsby’s dogs. The other dog is Jasper.)
Gadsby’s work is more precise and more intricate than what you would normally consider standup–and even more than many solo shows–and Douglas weaves in a lot of elements while still following a thematic pathway. If the thread through Nanette was the violence and misogyny of heteronormativity, the thread through Douglas is perhaps even broader and filled with even more potential for rage—the violence and misogyny of the English language itself, of the very concept of naming and of how the world defined by those names isn’t the same as the reality they depict. In a refrain that recurs throughout the show, she says “We are not preparing our boys to live in the real world.” In saying so, she’s staking claim to a “reality” outside of our culture. It’s a stunning assertion of power–reclaiming the very lens through which we view reality. Sadly, though, the observations of the rest of the piece make it less clear that that “real world” exists in any meaningful way. Gadsby–who has both the experience of marginalization and hate and the experience of success and power–is now able to claim the privilege both to live by her own rules and to explicitly negotiate with the haters. For the rest of us? It’s a tantalizing prospect, but I’m not sure how we all get there.
Another throughline here is autism—Gadsby’s own diagnosis and then the reactions of a world that, with neurobiology as with gender, often insists on contradicting her own lived reality. It’s the same thing, in many ways; the same insistence on the authority of a name given by someone other than the person named by it. (In one of the show’s sharpest, rawest moments, she describes a moment of such violence coming from a romantic partner, a woman; for all the shots the show takes at straight white men—and it takes plenty—it’s a culture she’s indicting.)
I keep saying “like Nanette,” which is unfair—Douglas is a show of its own—but also inescapable; the show can’t help but tread much of the same ground, down to the use of examples from the canon of European visual art. (Gadsby studied art history; her riff on the depictions of St. Bernard and the lactating Virgin Mary, to name just one, opens a whole world of weird.) That ground, after all, is our entire culture, and it provides an ongoing wealth of opportunity. Gadsby finds some delightfully weird byways from which to launch metaphors. (Let’s talk about the pouch of Douglas, shall we?) She’s refining her occupancy of a particular space, a particular sort of relationship to an audience, and an audience (because she’s set us up to do so) with the right sort of expectations.
Which means she also has to work from expectations of who the audience is, and she’s mostly right. That’s a privilege any performer’s success will earn her: addressing an audience who’s already prepared to like her. Here, though, that also runs a risk. Because if you’re trying to use your work to crack open presuppositions, or to negotiate with–to vaccinate against, to take another of the show’s recurring metaphors–violence and hate, once you’re talking to an audience who’s already had those presuppositions cracked, quite possibly by your previous work, you have to find new things, new ways, to break stuff up. But yet, she’s up against (as, again, she explicitly acknowledges) the fact that you can’t open closed minds from the outside, so if you’re not talking to the minds already willing to be opened, who are you talking to? (Taking an informal poll of my own colleagues and friends who don’t work in theater, for example, despite the to-me omnipresence of Nanette last year, I was surprised how many of them hadn’t heard of it. Which makes them unlikely to be in this audience.)
Because Gadsby so carefully manages expectations, Douglas has fewer gut punches than Nanette; it’s just as righteously angry but it doesn’t hit quite as hard. And like every other element in the show, it’s a carefully thought out risk, playing to her own sensibilities, her own distaste for surprise. Douglas lays out the ways in which men claim naming rights, storytelling rights, even of narratives and people and worlds that don’t belong to them: “My name is on this story here.” And by centering her own methodology, she’s reclaiming her own story, in a deft reversal—but also curating audience reactions to that story. It’s smart—if knowing what to expect is going to make this show less, by god she’s going to do it for you.
As part of the bigger project that (I think) Gadsby will continue to construct, Douglas holds its own as chapter 2. As a singular piece, it’s got a touch of “second-book” syndrome: in trying to keep the things that made a previous work a bestseller, an artist sometimes gets trapped between ambition and an attempt to satisfy the audience who found such value in the first book. It also always terrifies me a little when confrontational art finds conventional success: is that success a brilliant triumph of comic irony, or the most devastating proof that the maw of cultural capitalism will recapture everything valuable in the end? (An argument in favor of the latter: the very frequent references to Douglas merch.) I hope that’s a needle that Hannah Gadsby continues to thread, because there’s a whole lot more naked emperors for her to tackle.