Known and Unknown; a Play

The Old Room, a play by William Stanton; directed by Martin Harvey, with Nick Limm, Patrick Romer, Nicole Roberts, Karina Knapinska, Miranda Shamiso, Frazer Blaxland; The White Bear Theatre, Kennington, London

For every seemingly insoluble problem there is (probably) a short list of imponderables which explain the problem (I refer you to the nostrum, gnotum per ignotius, Latin for "the unknown by the more unknown”); for example, we are all familiar with the “known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns” made famous by the infamous Donald Rumsfeld. It was in fact Gerald Ford, US President after Nixon was forced to resign (I recall something to do with walking and chewing gum), who first introduced les enfants terribles, Rumsfeld and the then 34 year old Cheney, into the White House and, Iraq notwithstanding, he (Rumsfeld) is now more famous for this bon mot than almost anything else in his career. (His autobiography is entitled Known and Unknown: A Memoir, so has only himself to blame.)

However complex a philosophical problem knowing and unknowing may be (Bertrand Russell’s teapot is entertaining too, and yes, I’ve been on Wikipedia; don’t get me started on Elon Musk and his ridiculous orbiting car) spy stories, especially those set against the old cold war (Gorky Park, excellent in its way) or the new cold war (Red Sparrow, just a little bit silly) are a staple of the pulp fiction sub-genre in whatever medium and what good sellers they are. John le Carré, it is assumed, has made many, many times more by selling books about spooks than by selling the spooks themselves, assuming he was ever tempted to do so.

I guess the whole point of spies is a venturing forth into the unknown. Spying, to summarise, could be said to be on a kind of lifelong, never-ending journey from the known known, via the known unknown to the unknown unknown. The philosopher, Slavoj Žižek asserts that, beyond the three categories enunciated by Rumsfeld, there is a fourth, the unknown known, wherein you, consciously or unconsciously, ignore what you actually know, pretending not to know it. Perhaps this is where spy fiction finds its niche.

After all that, what I’m trying to say is, if you want to write a spy story, then you better be pretty clear about exactly what it is your spies don’t know. (George Smiley, if you remember, doesn’t know who the mole is. He knows he doesn’t know.)

If I can change the subject briefly: books and films about spies proliferate; plays about spies are as common as hen’s teeth. This feels like a known unknown, shading into an unknown unknown. We know there aren’t many plays on this subject. What we don’t know is why. An answer, of sorts, may lie in this play.

There are theatre plays, television plays and radio plays (so many things come in threes). Audiences for any or all of these go on a journey which is the reverse of that of the spy; they start with unknown unknowns, and end up, via known unknowns, at known knowns, at which point they go home happy. (Let’s leave Slavoj out of it. I don’t think he’s one for happy endings.) The really tricky bit comes at the beginning, getting from unknown unknowns to known unknowns, otherwise called exposition. Spy stories need loads of it and in books and films it can be a lot of fun. It could be argued that a James Bond film is entirely exposition, craftily camouflaged among action sequences.

Radio, a medium which is intended as a source of information, can handle exposition in drama very easily. You can listen to information on the radio all day long. Television, radio with pictures, is also at home with drama that involves a great deal of informative chit chat. Theatre? That’s a different story. Theatre advances not by information but by conflict, conflict in the moment.

Conflict doesn’t thrive in the land of the unknown unknown. If no-one knows anything, then there’s really nothing to argue about. In The Old Room, rather than giving the characters something specific not to know, their general, all encompassing unknowing creates a kind of emotional instability, or maybe dispersed intensity. They are trapped by their inability to know, or ever find out, anything. Donald Rumsfeld may have been interested to discover there was another dimension entirely to his series, a kind of utter despair in the knowledge that there is no way of ever knowing, a known unknown unknown that stretches to the crack of doom.

Maybe this is starting to sound more like Beckett than le Carré, but the known in Beckett were the characters, the people. As much as it’s fun to make fun of Donald Rumsfeld, knowns and unknowns are externals, things which connect us all. In The Old Room, the unknowing is internalised, almost fetishised, the emotional inner life made to stand for something which may seem important, significant, and yet is just a little self-obsessed.

Nick Limm as Sam, the lynchpin, the quondam spy, is intelligent and charming even when confused, always working to reveal something truthful in the play. And the idea that Anthropology could be a thorough basis for spying is perhaps not as crazy as it sounds. If there is any discipline dedicated to studying the known knowns as if they were unknown that would have to be it.

Paul Corcoran