Extinction of the Learned Response – Emme Hoy brings Derrida and H.G. Wells together at last. (Theatre Review)

Extinction of the Learned Response

Glitterbomb and Belvoir 25a

7 – 25 May. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Jasmin Simmons

For Freud, an irreconcilable rift between humans and animals stemmed from something he termed ‘primal parricide’ in Totem and Taboo. This notion further explored through Derrida’s theories around carnophallogocentrism becomes a source of contemplation for Emme Hoy in her play Extinction of the Learned Response. For Derrida, an abysmal rupture has occurred between the creatures who call themselves humans and the creatures humans designate as animals. This abysmal rupture can only be articulated from what remains a human vantage point, therefore any attempt to approach this history critically with an eye toward a deconstruction of the rupture itself, becomes a challenging task. One encounters a certain ever-present circularity. The history we would deconstruct constitutes us, and in undermining it we undermine the basis we have for approaching it as a history in the first place. Origin histories, crucial to any examination of this subject, are found central to countless religions and mythological traditions as well as modern paleoanthropology. For Emme Hoy science fiction and H.G Wells form the vehicle structure through which she analyses and approaches the subject matter of Extinction of the Learned Response. However, she has reflected on a circular process in the writing of Extinction of the Learned Response that occurs as creative evolution but finds itself naturally arriving ‘back’ at her original idea. This circuitry mirrors the circuity Derrida sees in our efforts to examine the subject matter. It therefore makes sense that it occurs in the creative process and the witness process of engaging with the play itself.

To accommodate this notion, Emme Hoy engages us with a linear narrative that holds itself lightly, leaving it to the witness to engage with their perception of the carnivorous virility on display. For Freud the first act of differentiation between that which calls itself human and that which the human calls animal occurs when sons stand on their back feet and choose to eat the symbolic father. Derrida (and through him Emme Hoy) extends this symbolic action to include phallocentric authority that imbues all logos. For Derrida the human subject does not just want to master and possess nature actively. In our cultures, the human animal accepts sacrifice and eats flesh. We are all – vegetarians as well – carnivores in the symbolic sense. Carnophallogocentrism connects phallocentric authority with the ingestion of animal flesh, whether literal or symbolic. Following on from this symbolic reference, the domination of woman implies the domination of animality within a schema of subjectivity that is preferentially both human and male by default. Inside Extinction of The Learned Response, when Duncan (Tel Benjamin) insists Rachel (Sarah Meacham) and Wells (Eddie Orton) eat the bacon, he is gifting them human-ness. However, with this ‘gift’ comes debilitating phallocentricism inherent in what it is to be the animal that calls itself human. And so, as the creatures being formed by the humans become human in their own right, they adopt characteristics such as masculine rage and feminine sexuality. In a chilling scene, Duncan openly instructs misogynistic behavior by setting the two creatures ‘studying’ to be human in a kind of peer review that inevitably falls with a male archetype judging a female archetype.

For this reason, Emme Hoy sets the ‘becoming human’ alongside the ‘being human’ as a kind of slow reveal. We see Duncan with more judgement as Rachel and Wells start to become human. To be human is to exist inside an essential exclusion of a certain connected set of others (animals, women, children, minority groups) to ensure subjectivity. However, essential to this complexity is the injestive dimension. This involves interiorization and a certain ‘partaking’ of animals and of other human beings. Inside The Extinction of the Learned Response, a battle between scientists ensues when this exclusion of animal others and the propagation of literal and symbolic violence and the establishing of a network of dominance becomes evidently a constitutive element in the formation of human civilisation.

The Extinction of the Learned Response is, then an enormously complex work given a lighter treatment by evoking the H.G. Wells The Island of Doctor Moreau. After having travelled through many evocations and versions Emme Hoy arrives ‘back’ at where she began, with a fascination for this sci-fi classic and H.G. Well’s strange kind of Frankenstein story. Having passed through multiple reviews and arriving at veneration, Glitterbomb and Belvoir bring this very interesting play to the 25a 2019 program.

With great courage and optimism, Extinction of the learned Response is directed by Carissa Licciardello who dives right in and places her stamp on the material. She calls forth wonderful performances in her well chosen cast who remain very faithful to the complex messages of the text. Equally she gathers a talented set of creatives around her to realise the project according to the important rules established by Belvoir for 25a. Ella Butler does set and costume very much according to the film Primer (a film I happen to love) that gives off a strong combination of the fantastic partnered with the banal, an aesthetic essential to the spirit of this play. The set and costume act as vital anchor for the complicated subject matter and give a reference point for clarity. Ben Pierpoint strikes a tense note with his sound, particularly the movement from device to enveloping sound and Kelsey Lee’s lights bring a nightmarish aspect to the set.

Performances are strong in Extinction of the Learned Response, with the all-important roles of Rachael and Wells performed extraordinarily well by Sarah Meacham and Eddie Orton. These are performances that remain very true to Emme Hoy’s vision while providing a vital link for the audience to a more complex idea than the ‘scientist and his creature’ sci-fi theories. The scientists are Jennifer Rani as Marlow and Tel Benjamin as Duncan, each of whom perform their role in a misogynistic framework very well. Jennifer Rani’s bewildered female is beautifully posited against Tel Benjamin’s dumb dominant male, and for my money the performances made a strong reveal of an often lived real life scenario.

Extinction of the Learned Response is an extremely difficult play to get a firm grip on, but at any level of understanding it is captivating, fast paced and very interesting. Personally, I find it gratifying and exciting to see a young female Australian playwright struggling with how to get Derridean concepts onto the stage. Scope, ambition and intellect are the gifts of this play and its exciting to be in an audience to witness it. Both Emme Hoy and Carissa Licciardello are to be congratulated for their courage and determination, as are Glitterbomb for giving us all the opportunity to see it. Make sure you get along to see this very interesting play.