I suppose I should preface this with a caveat to the effect of: I have no idea what this play is actually supposed to be about. I get that there’s some sort of war going on, but even after reading the play twice (the second time, rather begrudgingly), I don’t get it. This is all little more than a very long-winded guess.
That said, I do think it might have something to do with propaganda. Or at least, governments using fear to control people. In my comparative politics class, we just learned about “state capacity,” which is basically a government’s ability to administer its territory effectively. There are four elements of state capacity: extractive, steering, legitimation, and coercive. The presence of the first three is indicative of a government that’s functional, while the last one, coercive capacity, is what governments revert to when the other three break down, and that’s what I think might be happening in this play.
State coercive capacity is the power to push people to do things, or the power to dominate a people, with the threat of force. (Think: Pol Pot. Hitler too, I think.) State coercion doesn’t always have to involve violence, though; sometimes, any fear involved can just have to do with the fear of being singled out or ostracized, and not necessarily murder by military firing squad. Also, it can manifest itself in the form of government propaganda. In the US, coercion is typically a nonviolent thing. But say you’re at a sporting event or something, and before the game starts someone goes onto the field/court/rink/whatever and sings the National Anthem — do you feel compelled to stand? Do you worry about how it might look if you don’t? What about when you were in grade school — did you recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning because it’s compulsory, and you knew your teacher might call you out in front of the whole class if you didn’t? Unless you really had some sort of desire to verbally state your allegiance to your country (and to God, kind of) every morning, than it serves as an example of the sort of coercion Americans submit to on a near-daily basis.
And that’s sort of an unnatural thing, right? I mean, humans are naturally freethinking, independent beings. Submitting to coercion is certainly not a product of nature the same way (for example) our need for contact with other humans is. That’s natural. Allowing some outside force to tell us how to think or speak or behave is not.
That’s what I think Caryl Churchill is getting at with “Far Away.” In the final scene, the characters are discussing a “war” where literally every species and most natural forces have taken a side. Joan’s little monologue at the end describes the situation in some detail: “It wasn’t so much the birds I was frightened of, it was the weather, the weather here’s on the side of the Japanese… The Bolivians are working with gravity… But we’re getting further with noise and there’s thousands dead of light in Madagascar. Who’s going to mobilise darkness and silence?” (37). That doesn’t make sense. At least, not literally. But perhaps Churchill is suggesting that such phenomena are no more “natural” than humans submitting to the fear-mongering tactics of coercive government agencies.
I know “Far Away” was written before September 11, but it sort of reminds me of Bush’s Homeland Security Advisory System. Wasn’t that thing pretty much always at either yellow or orange? And what did that even mean? Well, I know what it “meant” in terms of the government’s definitions — yellow was “elevated,” orange was “high,” as you can see in the picture on the right — but what did it mean to go from, say, “elevated” to “high”? What does “guarded” even mean? And why wasn’t there a “no threat” or even a “minimal threat” color? Was I seriously at risk of being killed by terrorists every single day of post-9/11 existence, or did the Bush administration just want to make sure that any latent fear of terrorism was thrust back into the forefront of my consciousness on a daily basis? I’d venture to guess it was the latter. It was a mechanism of fear-mongering, used to make it so every single (rational) person in the country didn’t completely lose his or her mind when the Patriot Act was passed. It was a form of government coercion.
There has to be some of that at play in “Far Away,” too. The opening scene, I think, serves as a sort of frame for how we are meant to understand the rest of the play: intuition tells Joan that something is wrong with what she sees her uncle doing, but because Harper is an authority figure, Joan believes her when she rationalizes every element of the scene to which Joan bears witness. Joan questions her ability to think for herself in her apparent belief that whatever Harper says is somehow more correct than what she “thought” she saw. Similarly, in the final scene, Harper, Todd, and Joan seem to be afraid of nearly everything that exists in the natural world. How can they believe that gravity is on someone’s side? Or light, or noise? Obviously, those things can’t speak; the characters only “know” what they do about whose side everything is on because someone — probably an authority figure; even more probably a governmental figure — has told them. They’ve been coerced (perhaps, more accurately, brainwashed) by way of one form or another of government propaganda.
I think the final line in the play (“The water laps around your ankles in any case”) is a way of indicating just how brainwashed these people are. The river isn’t on anyone’s side. Neither is gravity or light or sound or the weather. That’s a ridiculous premise. But Joan, Todd, and Harper buy into it wholeheartedly. Joan says she doesn’t know what side the river is on, and when it behaves naturally — “It was very cold but so far that was all… The water laps around your ankles in any case” — she takes that as something to be read into; as an indicator of potential loyalty to one side or another. But the whole time, it was just doing what rivers do.
Churchill, Caryl. Far Away. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2001. Print.