Section Editor: Ivan Medenica* (Serbia)
Theatre in fragmented society
In this issue of Conference papers we publish two contributions that were presented at the conference Theatre and Populism held in Tbilisi (Georgia) in October 2017, and organized by the IATC, Tbilisi International Festivalof Theatre (TIFT) and Shota Rustaveli State University of Theatre and Film. After the victory of Donald Trump in the presidential election in the United States in 2016 and the rise of extreme right-wing parties all across Europe, as well as in some other parts of the world, the phenomenon of populism and its clash with liberal democracy became one of the most urgent issues and most dangerous problems of contemporary society.
How does theatre react to this situation and/or reflect it? From the Tbilisi conference dedicated to this topic, we chose (only) two papers because they are both sharply and directly focusing on the issue; moreover, they both come from the oldest and most representative Western democracies (France and the USA), both of which are now heavily threatened by the right-wing populism represented by the elected president (Trump) and an tenaciously ever-present presidential candidate (Marine Le Pen).
Besides the similar social context from which they are coming, these two papers mirror each other by stressing a similar, if not the identical, thesis. Both Christine Sirejols and Jeffrey Eric Jenkins conclude their articles referring to the omnipresent social fragmentarisation which is, to a certain extent, interconnected with the populist movements (“with populist anger on the rise – and let’s call it what it is, really, white anger – communities are pulling into themselves”, Jenkins).
Both papers give a multilayered analysis of this fragmentarisation into isolated communities and of the place of theatre within it: the reasons for this social phenomenon are not only connected to right-wing populism, there is a certain responsibility on the other side as well. The production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Central Park in New York that refers to Trump (Caesar with orange hair) has been interrupted a few times by protesters who have accused the production of “normalizing assassination” (!?).
On the other hand, a Chicago theatre critic was told that she “doesn’t understand American racism” and a petition demanding that she be barred from reviewing was signed by 3,500 people: all this because she wrote, in a generally very affirmative review, that a certain play gives a very simplistic characterization of a racist cop, while completely ignoring the violence perpetrated within the African American community itself.
In France there is the bizarre case (it isn’t a widespread phenomenon but it is still significant) of a “park of theatre attractions” called Puy du Fou. Supported heavily by Le Pen’s National Front, it celebrates “national identity” with reenactments of romanticized scenes from French history, seen from a very politically conservative point of view. On the other hand, there are constant attacks or pressure against an “intello” theatre reserved for the Parisian cultural elite (the work of Marguerite Duras is a symbol of this kind of theatre), not by the radical right and, even, the left, but also by the cultural authorities, who are worried about the financial sustainability of the subsidized theatre venues and institutions.
The final remarks of the two authors differ. Sirejols is afraid that, in the current circumstances of social fragmentarisation, it might prove impossible to resurrect the democratic, left-wing projects of Jean Villar and Antoin Vitez, which sought to create an “elitist theatre for everybody.” Jenkins argues, somewhat differently, that nowadays theater people are responsible for building bridges and for providing communication between isolated communities, because politicians are not capable and/or willing to do it.
*Ivan Medenica (Belgrade, Serbia), works at the FDA as Professor, teaching The History of World Drama and Theatre. He is an active theater critic and has received six times the national award for the best theatre criticism. He was the artistic director of Sterijino Pozorje in Novi Sad, the leading national theater festival in Serbia (2003-2007), to which he brought some important structural changes, especially in the domain of internationalization. From 2001 to 2012, Medenica was one of the main editors of the prestigious journal Teatron. He is a member of the International Association of Theater Critics’ Executive Committee and the Director of its international conferences. He is also member of the editorial board of Critical Stages, the web journal of the Association, and as of October 2015, the artistic director of Bitef Festival (Belgrade).