Human categorizations, which are based on dominant differences such as ethnicity, national and religious affiliation and gender, are used to distinguish people from one another, or to subsume them into social collectives according to the characteristics they share. Dealing with such categorizations on a daily basis, sociology has to cope, as Stefan Hirschauer emphasizes, with two principal difficulties: with the substantial heterogeneity of human differentiation variants, on the one hand, and with the varying intensity of the social collectives, on the other hand (see Hirschauer 2015, 171). Since its emergence in the eighteenth century, the institutionalized straight theatre has blocked out these issues and reproduced body based differentiations by both seeking appropriate casts and reproducing privileged artists and viewers; however, in “postdramatic theatre,” these mechanisms are being questioned or actively undermined. The question of participation now takes centre stage and persuades theatre, among other things, to deliberately acquire the so-called “nontheatrical groups”—not only in the audience but also on stage (see Wihstutz 2012).
For the premiere of Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Schutzbeholfenen (Charges (the Supplicants)), in 2014, Nicolas Stemann engaged a “refugee chorus” and let it perform alongside regular ensemble members. In his article, published in the German weekly Die Zeit, Ludwig Greven claimed that by engaging the chorus the Thalia Theater “takes sides, becomes politicized: in favour of the Lampedusa refugees and other asylum seekers who fail because of the legal regulations and, in their view, also because of the mercilessness of the state authorities in Hamburg and all Europe” (Greven 2014). At the same time, however, this directorial approach poses controversial questions: Is the first-person plural evoked in Jelinek’s rhizomatic text indeed a coherent quantity that may be transformed into a choral figure? Does the performative showing of refugees affirm the here/there distinctions and, consequently, support a sense of national, ethnic and religious borders that standardize individuals on both sides? Does Stemann’s staging deconstruct human differentiations or does it reproduce them?
To explore these questions, I will start by doing an intertextual analysis of Jelinek’s “tragedy update,” Charges (the Supplicants), focusing on the first-person plural introduced in the text. Joining in this process, an in depth analysis of Nicolas Stemann’s staging will rely, inter alia, on sociological considerations and approaches of political theory. But, first, I would like to examine more closely the original context of the drama and proceed to Jelinek’s dramaturgical process which is constituted by an intertextual recourse to Aeschylus’ The Suppliants.
Predicting the Past?
Although it is not uncommon that the majority of the texts Jelinek publishes online are subject to revisions, updates and rewritings, no other text has been processed so profoundly as Charges (the Supplicants) so far. The drama was prompted by a protest movement of asylum seekers organized in autumn 2012; the refugees marched from the initial reception centre in Traiskirchen (Lower Austria) to Vienna and occupied the Votive Church as a symbolic sanctuary. Invoking the sacral right to asylum, the archdiocese of Vienna and the local Caritas initially guaranteed the requested protection to the refugees, but later appealed to them to make use of a proposed alternative venue, a monastery. After approximately eleven weeks and several hunger strikes, the refugees finally moved in there. The conclusion of the so-called “Votive Church Refugee Protest”: twenty-seven out of sixty squatters received negative asylum decisions and seven of the eight refugees who had been charged with people smuggling during a highly criticized court case were found guilty.
The first version of the text, completed by Jelinek in June 2013, was followed by a second one, written in the autumn of the same year, in the wake of the devastating tragedy near Lampedusa, in which more than 300 boat refugees were killed. The launching of the Italian coast guarding operation “Mare Nostrum,” which was later superseded by Frontex Operation Triton, led Jelinek to yet another revision of the text published in November 2013. A fourth version was written in 2015, together with three additional texts dealing with European responses to the supposedly unpredictable, so-called “influx of refugees.” The most recent of these texts was published on Jelinek’s website in December 2015 under the title Europas Wehr. Jetzt staut es sich aber sehr! (Europe’s Defense. What a Jam We’re Having!)
Due to the latest events surrounding the way Europe deals with asylum seekers, Jelinek’s Charges (the Supplicants) is now celebrated by German language municipal theatres as the “text of the hour”—in 2015, it was staged in ten theatres with several premieres already announced for 2016. Considering that the play was written as early as 2013, it now reads almost as a prophecy. Describing people dying of suffocation in a refrigerated truck, the text seemed to have been overtaken by reality on August 27, 2015, two years after its publication. On this very day, the bodies of seventy refugees were discovered after dying an agonizing death by suffocation in a refrigerated truck somewhere between Hungary and Austria. This discovery and the subsequent, unexpected consternation of the population resulted in a turning point in the Austrian refugee debate. Having anticipated this event in her drama as well as predicted the impact of the economic crisis in her 2008 business comedy Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns (The Merchant’s Contracts), the writing of the Nobel laureate deserves being labeled as an intuitive act of prophecy. And yet, I would argue that her “tragedy updates” blur temporal categories by subverting a linear, teleological understanding of history. To substantiate this claim, let me briefly sum up the synopsis of Aeschylus’ The Suppliants.
The text is about the fifty daughters of Danaus who flee Egypt for Argos where they vehemently entreat King Pelasgus to grant them protection and asylum. Written around 460 BC, at a time when the institutions of Attic democracy were taking shape, this tragedy reproduces and affirms the ideal of the democratic rhetoric. By giving freedom of expression to those who do not get a chance to speak in public discourse, it may also be read as a thought experiment probing the limits of democracy. The Danaids are female foreigners, that is, doubly marginalized voices who put the democratic sensitivity of Attic citizens or the theatre audience to the test. Although they do not act as explicit speakers in Jelinek’s text, it is their voices that emerge from the very beginning, as evidenced by the first sentences of the play:
We are alive. We are alive. The main thing is we live and it hardly is more than that after leaving the sacred homeland. No one looks down with mercy at our train, but everyone looks down on us. We fled, not convicted by any court in the world, convicted by all, there and here. (Jelinek 2014, 2)
Modifying the ancient lines, the voices that resonate here reveal important questions about the European asylum law and, against the background of the pretext, make classifications, such as “then” and “now,” appear fragile. If Aeschylus’ suppliants, caught between the port and the city centre (asty), are in a liminal status, then the speech in Jelinek’s text also refers to an “in-between” which stigmatizes the refugees of today; waiting for an asylum decision, they eke out an existence of the “living dead” (see Agamben 1995)
In the passage quoted above, Jelinek also alludes to the impression of movement or migration created at the beginning of the ancient tragedy by doing without a prologue—just like Aeschylus (see Bakewell 2013, 20-21)—and immediately starting with the first-person plural instead. The fact that Aeschylus’ tragedy opens with a choral passage is interesting from the perspective of theatre history and has served as an epistemic indicator for a long time; due to the dominance of the chorus, The Suppliants was considered to be the oldest tragedy until 1956. But no less extraordinary is the fact that it is this very chorus of asylum-seeking women that introduces the fundamental questions and issues of the democratic order the play deals with. It is, eventually, the Danaids who drive Pelasgus to aporia by provocatively questioning the principle of popular sovereignty. The following two crucial questions arise in both the tragedy and the fundamental political discourse of the time: To whom should the final authority in political affairs be assigned? And to what extent can the impact of such decisions overtax individuals?
The rest serves as an exploration of the stability of their own political system. It is an accurate designation of the challenge today’s democratically legitimized European politics faces in view of the controversially discussed asylum issue. The nostrifying, yet othering first-person plural may thus be identified as a key point where Aeschylus’ The Suppliants and Jelinek’s Charges (the Supplicants) meet. But who does this “we” refer to?
In Aeschylus’ tragedy, Pelasgus is faced with the dilemma: either to grant asylum to the persons seeking protection according to the ritual of hiketeia and risk a war, or to reject the request of those in need, thus neglecting the sacred duty. One of the decisive moves the Danaids make during their persuasion is emphasizing their decent from the primal mother Io. By claiming to have the same ancestors, they are trying to assert their affiliation to Argos (see Aeschylus, lines 271-73). It is therefore the common historical legacy that helps the immigrants to justify their asylum claim. This declaration is followed by a stichomythia, that is, a cross-examination scene, in which King Pelasgus seems to be showing a passionate interest in the ancestry of the suppliants. Yet, the assignment of these lines is uncertain, as shown in Martin West’s critical edition of Aeschylus’ tragedies. In verses 291 to 335, there is no information on who speaks, and the lines 298 to 307 are not assigned to either the king or the chorus (see Aeschylus). The assignments made in translations are speculative. Considering that in ancient tragedy, stichomythia generally served the process of anagnorisis, that is recognition or realization, it is an extremely dubious truth that has been established by philologists: Had the lines been assigned the other way around, the protection seekers would have been granted a different status (see Bakewell 2013, 28).
If it is individual passages in Aeschylus’ text that are unclear, then the question as to “Who’s speaking?” and the associated phenomena of inclusion and exclusion turn out to be constitutive aspects of Jelinek’s work. Throughout Charges (the Supplicants), one needs to deal with an undefined and irritating first-person plural. The receptive responses to the uncertainties both texts come up with may be, however, compared to each other. While philologists responded to the knowledge gaps in Aeschylus’ tragedy by assigning the unassigned lines, Nicolas Stemann and certain other directors reacted to the mysterious, unspecified first-person plural in Jelinek’s drama by interpreting it as a chorus figure and casting “authentic” refugees to take part in the chorus. Were the German actors as well as the refugees both playing the chorus?
The impetus for this interpretation was provided by Stemann’s original reading of Charges (the Supplicants) in Hamburg’s St. Pauli Church, which had been accommodating African refugees since July 2013. The drama was presented there by actors of the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, together with a part of these refugees. This project provided the basis for the first performance of the play, which premiered the following year during the festival “Theater der Welt” (“Theatre of the World”), in the German city of Mannheim. In addition to the actors listed by name in the programme brochure, a “refugee chorus” is taken on stage, situated, for the most part, beyond the spoken word. Although the voices of this chorus are the first to be heard (the chorus forms in the dark on a ramp chanting “We are here and we will fight, freedom of movement is everybody’s right”), they fall silent once the faces of its members become visible to the audience. It is only now that three of the institutionalized actors, who appear, slightly elevated, at three microphone stands behind the “refugees,” start reciting Jelinek’s text.
The thing that seems to be brought to the scene is what Jacques Rancière means by “politics,” namely, the division of the community between those who have a part in the logos within the space of political visibility and those who have no such part and no logos whatsoever: “Politics is primarily a conflict over the existence of a common stage and over the existence and status of those present on it” (Rancière 2002, 26-27). Since the participation of refugees in Stemann’s staging enables disagreement and conflict, it opens up a space in which politics in Rancière’s sense may emerge. At the same time, the division of the performing community between those who have a part (in the speech) and those who do not raises awareness for the centrality of the distinctions between “us” and “them” in the process of constructing collective political identities.
The staging claims, on the one hand, that antagonisms are indissoluble, and refers to the problematic asymmetry of human differentiations which continue to be put into effect from a certain position. Let us, at this point, make a brief reference to the sociologist Stefan Hirschauer who pointed out that it is not possible for people to make distinctions without identifying with a particular group. The one who draws the distinction turns out not to be an “objective eye” but always an advocate of one side or the other. According to Hirschauer, this results in a connection of valences that range from slight preferences for the “in-group” to strong appreciation and depreciation” (Hirschauer 2014, 174). In turn, the ethnologist Justin Stagl draws attention to the fact that these differentiations go often hand in hand with normative gestures of othering and nostrification (see Stagl 1981).
In the theatre, this phenomenon is materialized in the collective gesture of applause. Applause has a community forming and, at the same time, delimiting effect by uniting the community of recipients, yet separating it from the group of performers; it fulfills a similar function as the fourth wall in bourgeois theatre. When applauding the performers titled as asylum seekers at the end of Stemann’s staging, the members of the ensemble adopt the viewpoint of their audience; by the time applauding had established itself as a practice of shared participation, the audience was considered a representative of the public, through which theatres may assume a national identity establishing role (see Roselt 2014, 130). Having emerged at the same time as the idea of a national theatre, it may be argued that in Stemann’s staging, the fourth wall is broken down by the actors in the nostrifying and othering gesture of applause. However, with the actors identifying with the “we” of the audience and dissociating from that of the performing refugees, another boundary making takes place.
Social Collectives, Contingency and Theatre
Nicolas Stemann’s decision to stage Jelinek’s theatre text together with asylum seekers has inspired several theatre makers to adopt a similar approach. Also working with amateurs, the production called Schutzbefohlene performen Jelineks Schutzbefohlene (Performing Jelinek’s Charges, directed by Bernhard Dechant and Tina Leisch and premiered in Arena Wien on 12 September 2015) was awarded with the Austrian Nestroy prize in 2015. In this case, chorus scenes are performed by asylum seekers from the reception centre in Traiskirchen as a “chorus of German-learning refugees” (Leisch 2015).
Peter Carp’s staging at the Theater Oberhausen also has refugees on stage. What we have here is a silent chorus of refugees that leaves the text to four actors who transform the first-person into third-person plural: “What Jelinek approaches as a complaint of the affected people themselves, becomes a conversation of four persons with the publicly debated conservative and libertarian attitudes towards immigration and foreign infiltration distributed among them” (2014), wrote Friederike Felbeck in her Nachtkritik review. But is the first-person plural evoked in Jelinek’s text actually to be considered as one-dimensional?
The play renounces figures in the traditional sense, as well as temporal and local indications. With the more recent works of the author containing at least indications of who speaks or a kind of stage directions (as in Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns/The Merchant’s Contracts, Kein Licht., FaustIn and out or Das schweigende Mädchen), the text Charges (the Supplicants) not only raises the question as to who speaks, but also from what standpoint it all happens and what inclusions and exclusions arise (see Felber 2016). Although, at first glance, the reading suggests the assumption that we are dealing with a coherent, indicting “we”-narrator, a close reading of the text reveals occasional, seemingly paradoxical we/I-hybrid constructions, evoking a polymorphous speech: “Forgive me, please, we know, of course, that people are not fond of wordy speech such as mine” (Jelinek 2014). The passage demonstrates emblematically a writing method employed throughout the text: changing narrative voices are always to be found; they are constituted out of nowhere, grow stronger to become an apparent authority (see Felber/Kovacs 2015), but then disintegrate again, and thus reveal the indissolubility of antagonisms, evading, at the same time, a specific identification of “us” and “them.” In this way, the text uncovers a delimiting and ostracizing speaking about the other or others that refers to a democratic axiom which may be subsumed within Derrida’s notion of “constitutive outside.”
According to Wendy Brown, all democracies are historically constituted through a closed inside, on the one hand (that is, women, slaves, certain ethnic groups or illegal residents) and a constitutive outside, on the other hand (that is, communism or, as in the case of our present Western democracies, Islam). From the very beginning, democrats require an antagonistic barbarian figure to set themselves apart from and to have their democratic identities confirmed (see Brown 2009).
It comes as no surprise that Jelinek’s text repeatedly picks up on this very delimiting notion of barbarians, using it as a reference to trace a genealogy of comprehension of the European affiliation rooted in Aeschylus’ tragedy. Used both as an adjective and as a noun, the term “βάρβαρος” (bárbaros) had originally no exclusively negative connotations and translated simply as “stammering” or “speaking incomprehensibly.” It made its first literary appearance in Homer’s Iliad undergoing a semantic mutation towards “foreign-language” (see Jüthner 1923, 2). It only became an ethnocentrically motivated, yet not completely downgrading, designation of all non-Greeks during the fifth century BC, in the wake of the victory of (Greek) democracy over (Persian) tyranny. When attributed to Persians, the term saw a semantic shift towards “cruel,” “dissolute” and “illiberal.” This barbarian image emerged under the influence of Aeschylus’ The Persians (472 BC), who declare themselves barbarians in the tragedy and complain about their slavery under the cruelly portrayed, despotic reign of Xerxes (see Jüthner 1923, 18-19). Having shaped the European self-understanding inimitably, the Hellene-Barbarian antithesis is thus based on a judgmental antagonism between (Greek) freedom and (barbarian) un-freedom. In turn, The Suppliants show how this antithesis became established through aesthetic components. In this way, Pelasgus determines the foreignness of the Danaids—whom he calls “a swarm of barbarians”—based on their dresses and veils (see Aeschylus, lines 234-37).
The ethnographic quality of this passage offers important evidence by referring to the fact that in ancient Greece, foreigners were determined primarily through the physical aspect, that is, based on their height, skin, hair and eye colour and also clothes (see Effenterre 1990, 252). Having been presaged by Aeschylus’ Hellene-Barbarian antithesis and, in 1748, revitalized by Montesquieu (L’Esprit des Lois), Posidonius’ deterministic theory of climatic zones experienced a revival in popularity during the new humanism, shaping the so-called racial science that emerged at the same time (see Winkler 2009: 58-63).
By revisiting and mutating the aforementioned passages, Jelinek touches on the origins of an aesthetically influenced Eurocentrism, the consequences of which are still noticeable. According to Bernhard Waldenfels, it may be understood as a “refined form of ethnocentrism” (Waldenfels 2013, 135). The chorus in Jelinek’s text says:
We have no veils to suit your customs or taste, we are simply veiled, like everyone else, but we know, even if we were to look like you: You would spot us, you would recognize us among thousands, you would spot us anywhere, you would know we don’t belong here. (Jelinek 2014, 9-10)
Nicolas Stemann interprets this passage as an offer to try different ways of acting. Making use of headscarves, beards and wigs and practicing black / white / yellow facing, the performers emphasize the governance of somatic categorizations and, at the same time, dismantle them by affectively disrupting ethnical, religious and gender specific dominant differences. The ambiguating practices of cross-dressing and masquerade employed in the play not only lead to an “ambiguation” (VerUneindeutigung, Engel 2002), but also refer to the circumstances, tendentially neglected in both everyday and sociological discourse, namely that individuals always consider social collectives as multiple affiliations. Linked to this are the changing social relevance of affiliations or the question of their particular intensity.
While sociology tends to talk about race, ethnicity and nation of human groups in its investigations (see Brubaker 2007), the challenge arising from this context also faces theatre. What aesthetic practices make it possible to demonstrate and show the contingency of affiliation so that it is always “temporally fluctuating emotions, processes of categorization, political rhetoric, organizational services and mass media framings” (Hirschauer 2014, 172) concerning the group members?
One way of “undoing ethnicity” is the approach, proposed by sociology, to think about cultural distinctions—unlike the topologically oriented concept of boundary—in temporal perspective, that is, to focus on moments of updating and neutralizing (such as breaks and turning points), or on biographical and historical conjunctures of distinctions (see Hirschauer 2014, 182). Generating and reflecting multifaceted time experiences, postdramatic theatre seems to open up spaces where affiliation may be negotiated.
Following HansThies Lehmann, the biographical time of the artists steps aside for the time of what is represented and of the performance (see Lehmann 1999, 301). Near the end of Stemann’s staging, the members of the so-called “refugee chorus,” standing on the ramp, talk about their lives and disclose very personal information; this situation opens up opportunities for affiliation to be renegotiated. But since there are fewer life stories and more escape stories being told, an implicit boundary making process is again taking place between (re)presented asylum seekers and performers.
Whereas Elfriede Jelinek‘s drama Die Schutzbefohlenen reveals the problems of human differentiations in a radical way and blurs boundaries at various levels, theatre continues to have difficulties to stage this blurring. As shown here, directors such as Nicolas Stemann run the risk of reproducing differentiations between “us” and “the others,” and thereby affirming the inclusions and exclusions, instead of deconstructing them. To sum up, satisfactory responses of theatre aesthetics to Jelinek’s writing method of “unmaking boundaries” are yet to materialize.
 The March 2016 conference Re/produktionsmaschine Kunst. Kategorisierungen des Körpers in den Darstellenden Künsten (Re/production machine art. Categorisations of the body in the performing arts) dealt with these issues (see http://www.theater.rub.de/?announcement=reproduktionsmaschine-kunst-kategorisierungen-des-koerpers-in-den-darstellenden-kuensten, accessed February 8, 2016).
 In this context, cf. also my paper “Wer wenn nicht wir? Zur Kontingenz europäischer Zugehörigkeit bei Aischylos und Elfriede Jelinek „ (Who if not us? On contingency of European affiliation in the works of Aeschylus and Elfriede Jelinek) at the conference Performing Europe – Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf Europa im Theater der Gegenwart (Performing Europe – Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Europe in Contemporary Theatre) at the University of Luxembourg (22.1.2016).
 The Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2256 fr. 3 discovered in 1952 showed that The Suppliants cannot be considered to be the oldest preserved play (see Earp 1953).
 The following analysis refers to the premiere at the Thalia Theater Hamburg (12.9.2014).
 This is even more obvious in verses 279-290 (see Bakewell 2013: 22).
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*Silke Felber currently holds a Hertha-Firnberg Position of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) at the Department of Theatre, Film and Media Studies, University of Vienna (Austria). After obtaining her PhD in 2013, she was a Research Assistant at the Research Platform dedicated to the writings of Nobel Prize laureate Elfriede Jelinek. Prior to that, she worked as a theatre production manager and free lance dramaturg. The body of Silke Felber’s research is located within the following areas: Pre- and Postdramatic Dramaturgies, Theatre and Cultural Transfer, Theatre and Political Theory.