Ivan Medenica[1]

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Résumé

La révolution vend ses enfants

On s’interroge ici sur le fait que la conscience critique et l’engagement social au théâtre dans une période de transition économique (ce qui, en Europe de l’Est, n’est qu’une manière décente de parler de vulgaire « accumulation originale de capital ») seraient autant combattus, voire davantage, que dans des régimes non démocratiques. Les obstacles sont toujours plus difficiles à surmonter car ils sont invisibles, n’apparaissant plus sous la forme d’une négation ouverte de libertés, mais plutôt comme des intérêts cachés, politiques et surtout financiers.

Le point culminant de la situation apparemment absurde, qui constitue en fait la manifestation d’une parfaite logique politico-financière, est représenté dans le cas décrit ici. Certains projets prétendument contestataires ne sont en fait qu’une « cohabitation » avec le pouvoir politique et cette mutation « perverse », aujourd’hui en Serbie, résulte de la dépendance du théâtre et de la culture à l’égard des sources de financement gouvernementales ou pro-gouvernementales. Comme l’illustrent les imprimés sur des tasses et des T-shirts, la révolution n’a pas seulement dévoré ses enfants : elle les a simplement vendus.

When Yun-Cheol Kim invited me to contribute an essay on censorship in the theatre from the point of view of the current Serbian experience and, more generally, on the complex relationship between politics and theatre, my feelings were divided. On the one hand, I am grateful Kim has not forgotten what happened to me personally a year ago—a case which invited an immediate and principled reaction on his part: I had written a severe but, to be sure, objective and grounded criticism of the way Atelier 212 is managed—this theatre is one of the most important in Belgrade—and its manager “punished” me by pulling my name off the premiere protocol list. Kim, as well as many of my Serbian colleagues, saw it as a kind of censorship, as the removal of a disobedient critic. On the other hand, I did not accept the invitation to write for this issue of Critical Stages right away, as I considered, and I still do, that this quite isolated case certainly does not prove that there is a kind of censorship in Serbian theatre. This is not a patriotic claim—on the contrary, I am very critical of Serbian society as well as its theatre—but it would be wrong to draw a general conclusion from this case; it could present a threat to that highest value in our profession: the truth. But the fact that there is no censorship doesn’t mean that a relationship between theatre and politics is not controversial in Serbia today. And that is something I would like to think and write about.

Before I move on to the current situation, I have to take a step back to the time when the position of Serbian theatre, culture and society was unique, at least in the context of Europe. During the 1990s, under Slobodan Milosevic’s rule, Serbia took an all-encompassing and thorough plunge on the political, moral and cultural levels. The causes were several: the ex-Yugoslav wars (1991-1995), for which Serbia was greatly responsible; the isolation imposed on us by the international community; the cruel way of dealing with political opponents; xenophobia and other forms of intolerance towards differences… Even under such circumstances there was no censorship in Serbian culture or theatre. Although some commentators would be right in saying that political engagement appeared only in the late 1990s, when Milosevic’s war politics started losing momentum, and that until then theatre was escapist, there is no room for denying the existence of such engagement.[2] The anti-regime attitude in theatre was taking different shapes: from the new, strongly critical dramas to reinterpretations of classics that highlight up-to-date, provocative themes. Noninstitutional theatre provided a particularly favourable arena for critical reflection, where the political and artistic “alternatives” found a place for their realisation and organisation.

Among the new authors, one name earned an absolutely prominent place, both for the elaborate forms of her plays, and for her open and daring political position: writer Biljana Srbljanović (b. 1970). She soon became the best-known name in Serbian theatre in the world. Her plays (Belgrade Trilogy, Family Stories, etc.) have been translated into more than twenty languages, and have been staged in perhaps a hundred theatres worldwide, winning many kinds of prestigious recognition, among them the Premio Europa—New Theatrical Realities award. This playwright had problems because of the level of her engagement, which, besides in the theatre, found its manifestation in her newspaper articles, but even then the problems remained on the level of media attacks. Her plays—as well as other productions with a critical focus in the theatre, and the other arts—were simply never banned.

This does not imply some “deeply hidden” vein of democracy under Milosevic’s regime: it was simply a cunning, pragmatic and accurate assessment that forbidding art works could bring more harm than good. The government was profoundly populist, so it never really counted on the support of the ten percent of the population that makes up the audience for the theatres, museums, galleries, bookstores, libraries, concert halls, etc., even in communities that are more culturally developed than the Serbian one is. In other words, tolerating rebel intellectuals and artists was something it could afford.

To the same extent that political pressure hindered the development of art that was critical, it also provided its greatest impetus. When the political oppression is explicit and has a clear profile[3], then it is easy to formulate—though not equally easy to realise—an oppositional political and cultural platform. The wars, nationalism, non-democracy and robbery can be clearly and explicitly contrasted with peace, tolerance, lawful order, democracy, the rule of human rights… A great number of artists and intellectuals were, more or less openly, against Milosevic. Indeed, among them there was the occasional stray critic of Milosevic who criticised him not for waging the wars but for losing them, for not fighting for the national interest to the end, whatever that means. The former—being the only real opposition to the ruling regime—gained support from the world for their active engagement, and some forms of this support were quite practical in nature. For example, the Soros Foundation financed almost the entire independent, politically critical artistic scene.

Milosevic’s fall from power, which finally took place in October 2000, did not automatically eliminate all the manifestations and/or causes of such a system. However, very soon the prevailing opinion in Serbia came to be that Milosevic’s removal from political life—the new authorities handed him to the International Hague Tribunal, where he died in 2006—was a sufficient guarantee of political change. It soon came as a painful realisation to us that this was an illusion, either born of an unwillingness to face the deep metastases of the inherited regime (some segments of the new authorities were against Milosevic’s communist background, but not against his nationalist politics), or of an objective lack of capacity to deal quickly and painlessly with the inherited military, police and other structures (the problem faced by pro-European elements among the new authorities). Loose-cannon forces of the (para)police apparatus killed the first democratic president of Serbia, Zoran Đinđić, in 2003. The government response was energetic, yet it failed, due to a complex political situation to follow, to realise a conclusive break with the movers of the previous regime. This led to a situation—to keep this historical review short—in which Serbia is currently led by a coalition of the parties of the late Milosevic and Đinđić, which were formerly strong opponents; this pragmatic deal (with the priority of winning power) was not preceded by revelations of truths, punishment of the guilty parties, or reconciliation with our own selves and with those we pushed into suffering in the 1990s.

The theatre which aspires to be labelled as truly critical in Serbia is, therefore, in a situation which is not easier for the fact that Milosevic’s regime fell. Due to all the aforementioned factors, it would still have to be dealing with the nationalist and war heritage of the 1990s, which has essentially not diminished but only been transferred to a gray zone, thus becoming much more difficult to pinpoint. Besides the old challenges, the Serbian political theatre got new ones, those which have come from the political and economic transition from communism to democracy and a market economy—that is, the processes that were unfolding in the rest of Eastern Europe while we were fighting the wars of the 1990s, and which resulted in savage liberal capitalism, the overwhelming power of money in comparison to all other social motors and interest, a general corruption, an erosion of critical thought and sympathy for the public interests, a consumer society boom… It is really difficult to articulate a clear attitude towards these such interlaced, controversial and complex social processes, which make understandable, yet not acceptable, the fact that political theatre in Serbia today is weaker than it was during the late 1990s.

Locusts, written by Biljana Srbljanović, directed by Dejan Mizač, Yugoslav Drama Theater, Belgrade
Locusts, written by Biljana Srbljanović, directed by Dejan Mizač, Yugoslav Drama Theater, Belgrade
Locusts, written by Biljana Srbljanović, directed by Dejan Mizač, Yugoslav Drama Theater, Belgrade
Locusts, written by Biljana Srbljanović, directed by Dejan Mizač, Yugoslav Drama Theater, Belgrade

The symbolic expression of the political weakening of the theatre is the work of Biljana Srbljanović. In her case it is not a real weakening, but a transformation of the critical discourse. In her first works written after 2000, Srbljanović moves her focus from Serbia to the EU and the U.S.: in Supermarket, she offers a critical treatment of the challenges encountered by the former Eastern European countries in the EU, while in America, Second Part, she unmasks the illusion of the “American dream,” once again from the point of view of a European immigrant. This shift is not a sign of her escapism from Serbian social reality, which is now increasingly harder critically to perceive and understand, but a legitimate change of interest invited equally by changes in her personal circumstances (a U.S. scholarship, her marriage in France), and the need of a true intellectual to reflect not only on local but also on global phenomena as well. The problem, therefore, is not in her approach, especially in light of the fact that, in her media appearances, Srbljanović is still uncompromisingly critical of the remnants of Milosevic’s’ politics. In her latest plays (Locusts and Barbelo), she is back in the Serbian milieu, but this time she uses it as a setting for universal life issues such as getting old, the fear of death, loneliness, frustrated attempts at motherhood.

Over the last decade, the new generation of authors (mostly women, in their thirties) have shown interest in social themes as well. This fact, together with their re-examination and innovation of the dramatic form, allows us to make an association between their work and the work of Biljana Srbljanović. Nevertheless, even though there are undeniable similarities, it would be unfounded to talk about a “wave” started by Biljana.

One of the shared, common topics in the plays written by these women playwrights is the challenges encountered by a woman in a war and post-war society. One actress plays different female roles in several linked episodes that take place in different parts of ex-Yugoslavia, immediately before, during and right after the wars of the 1990s, providing a stage articulation of the central metaphor: women are always the greatest war victims (Milena Marković, Rails). A girl who is growing up without a father in the extremely patriarchal and violent environment of the urban outskirts adopts the dominant models of identification, so she insists on being addressed and treated as a man, and is violent herself (Milena Bogavac, Dear Dad). Quite opposite—but equally retrograde—models for female identification are offered by the consumer society that has been booming in Serbia. The pressure that such a society puts on women to stay eternally young, beautiful and fit, leads to an identity crisis and nervous breakdown in the heroine of the drama Orange Peel, by Maja Pelević.

As this summary implies, these plays are focused more on diagnosing the present social deviations than in getting into a deeper analysis of their causes and contexts (with the exception of the drama Rails, which offers more comprehensive cause-and-effect insight). The reason perhaps lies in the fact that the young are naturally inclined to ignore historical perspective, but also in the specific need of the Serbian youth to break free from the burden of the 1990s, when they were just children. The need is understandable but illusory: the events of that period are latently haunting them, as well as the rest of us, emerging unexpectedly as the root of many social and personal troubles.

Heldenplatz, written by Thomas Bernhard, directed by Dejan Mijač, Atelje 212, Belgrade
Heldenplatz, written by Thomas Bernhard, directed by Dejan Mijač, Atelje 212, Belgrade
Heldenplatz, written by Thomas Bernhard, directed by Dejan Mijač, Atelje 212, Belgrade
Heldenplatz, written by Thomas Bernhard, directed by Dejan Mijač, Atelje 212, Belgrade

Perhaps, just as in nature, one can see things more clearly from a distance, by taking a step back. A more pronounced critical engagement seems to be achieved in plays without direct links to the Serbian circumstances. I am referring to the productions based on classical or contemporary foreign dramas, where directors have chosen not to bring these stories closer to the local and current context, but wisely left it to their audiences instead to draw parallels between the narrative and their own experiences. So, as it has happened, without any modernising interventions, Thomas Bernhard is emerging as one of the most politically oriented playwrights in Serbia today, with plays such as Heldenplatz, remarkably staged by the doyen of Serbian theatre, Dejan Mijač (Atelier 212 Theatre), and The Eve of Retirement, directed by our Sarajevo guest, Dino Mustafić (Yugoslav Drama Theatre). Bernhard’s obsession—the revival of Austrian Nazism, resulting from the Austrian society’s failure to face its past (because, unlike the Germans, it was never forced to do so)—rings with a distant, yet disturbing echo in the contemporary Serbian milieu which, as previously pointed out, is still largely based on the heritage of war.

A rare, but sharply effective form of political engagement is achieved in performances which not only deal with provocative topics, but also create a specific theatrical experience that is upsetting for the audience. This can be defined as postdramatic political engagement in theatre, in the spirit of Hans-Thies Lehmann’s thought: “Theatre becomes political no longer by a direct thematisation of the political, but by implicit content of its way of presentation.”[4] The examples of this kind of political are the performances of Šuma blista (The Woods Glitter) (Atelier 212) and Kukavičluk (Cowardice) (National Theatre in Subotica). The drama The Woods Glitter, by Milena Marković, set in a tavern located close to a border used as a crossing for white slavery trafficking, speaks about people from the social margin. In his staging of this drama, Slovene director Tomi Janežić used a very slow pace, long breaks in the dramatic action, poor lighting (the entire show is performed in semidarkness) and intentionally unintelligible dialogue to give the audience a sensation of all the emptiness, inertia, boredom and frailty of this world. Croatian director Oliver Frljić—theatrical cooperation in this ex-Yugoslav region has been largely revived—concludes the play Kukavičluk (Cowardice) with a scene deadly in both its content and the stage articulation. The audience is looking at an empty stage while actors and actresses, sitting at the sides, peacefully utter the names of over five hundred victims of Serbian crimes against Bosniaks in Srebrenica. This leads to a fusion of a sensory unease caused by such a theatre experience (for more than ten minutes the audience is left without any visual stimulus, while the auditory one is absolutely rhythmically monotonous) with a moral and spiritual unease caused by a confrontation with concrete, named victims of a crime whose perpetrators are members of the same nation as the audience.

Barbelo, written by Biljana Srbljanović, directed by Dejan Mizač, Yugoslav Drama Theater, Belgrade
Barbelo, written by Biljana Srbljanović, directed by Dejan Mizač, Yugoslav Drama Theater, Belgrade
Barbelo, written by Biljana Srbljanović, directed by Dejan Mizač, Yugoslav Drama Theater, Belgrade
Barbelo, written by Biljana Srbljanović, directed by Dejan Mizač, Yugoslav Drama Theater, Belgrade

This review seems to contradict the initial claim that the political engagement in Serbian theatre today is weaker than we would like it to be, or than it was in the late 1990s. However, despite these shining examples (together with those I had no time to mention or unintentionally forgot to mention), the fact remains that critical thought and social attitude are not predominant characteristics of the recent Serbian theatre. Quite to the contrary, the commercial attitude is getting stronger, propelled by both the financial crisis and the reduction of the budget for culture which came as its consequence. Some theatres are starting to stage musicals, popular with large audiences, and the latest phenomena are theatrical adaptations of screenplays (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, All About My Mother, When Father Was Away on Business), motivated not so much by the artistic challenge, as by the commercial potential of these popular film scripts.

Additional reasons for the weakening critical potential can be found in the (already elaborated) complicated and interlaced social currents, which lead to an ideological confusion, as well as in the fact that the balance of power is not so clearly defined as it was in Milosevic’s era. As we have already seen, the previous regime did not carry out censorship—it let artists do what they would without much interest, while some of them received foreign help for their anti-regime attitude, so that the rebel position was not all that risky. Today, the power is in the hands of the political option almost all rebellious artists belong to, which is (at least professedly) pro-European and liberal. Therefore the majority of artists are trying to be “for” instead of “against” the authorities, which spontaneously leads to self-censorship of their critical edge and social activism.

Let me now, at the very end, go back to my “conflict” with the current manager of the Atelier 212 Theatre, which opened this text. (By the way, all the productions by this theatre that I have singled out here were made before his mandate). At the core of this conflict lies my proposition that what we are witnessing in the Atelier 212 is a bizarre mutation of political aspirations. This theatre, which presents itself as a daring political provocation—so the musical Hair was transposed from the anti-war milieu at the time of the Vietnam War to our anti-globalist world of today—actually turns out to be a par excellence product of the society it “would-be” rising against. The co-producer of such an anti-globalistHair is the multi-national company Philip Morris (!?); aggressive marketing was the main weapon of the project; it brings to theatre the very political and economic elite which the show is supposed to be attacking, while the superficial stage effects overwhelm its critical charge… The effect of a (declarative) political stand mutating into the logic of commercial success characterises other productions of the Atelier 212 done in the seasons dealing with issues envisaged as politically very provocative for Serbia today: the positive heritage of Communism and the positive heritage of Yugoslavia… But, just as in “the Hair case,” the provocativeness of these shows remains on the surface and doesn’t reach any further than the T-shirts and mugs with images of Tito and Che Guevara sold in the theatre’s shop.

This all leads to a general assumption that critical awareness and social engagement in theatre in this period of economic transition (which, in Eastern Europe, is merely a polite name for the vulgar “accumulation of capital”) is equally as much under attack as it was during the undemocratic rule, if not more. The obstacles are ever harder to overcome for the fact that they are invisible, that they no longer appear in the form of open denial of freedoms, but rather in hidden political and, primarily, financial interests. The culmination of the seeming absurdity of the situation, which is actually a manifestation of perfect political-financial logic, is represented in the case just described of perverting the political rebellion in art into a cynical “cohabitation.” As the said mugs and T-shirts illustrate, the revolution did not devour its children: it simply sold them out.

The Woods Glitter, written by Milena Marković, directed by Tomi Janežič, Atelje 212, Belgrade
The Woods Glitter, written by Milena Marković, directed by Tomi Janežič, Atelje 212, Belgrade
The Woods Glitter, written by Milena Marković, directed by Tomi Janežič, Atelje 212, Belgrade
The Woods Glitter, written by Milena Marković, directed by Tomi Janežič, Atelje 212, Belgrade

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[1] Ivan Medenica, PhD, was born in Belgrade. He simultaneously studied Philosophy and Dramaturgy. Now Medenica holds the title of Docent teaching The History of World Drama and Theatre at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts. He regularly publishes articles in the national and foreign theatre periodicals; his articles have been published in French, German, Czech, Hungarian, Spanish, Slovakian, Polish, Romanian… He was the Chairman or co-Chairman of three International Symposiums of Theatre Critics and Experts (2003, 2006, 2009) organized by Sterijino Pozorje festival in cooperation with IATC. He has participated in a number of conferences abroad: Prague, St Etienne, Moscow, Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava, Avignon, Almada, Maribor, etc. He is actively engaged in theatre criticism. He has received the National Award for the Best Theatre Criticism four times, in 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2008. He is member of the editorial board of the theatre periodical Teatron. From 2003 till 2007 Medenica was the Artistic Director of the Sterijino pozorje theater festival in Novi Sad. From 2007, he is The Adjunct Secretary General of the IATC.
[2] “It was only by the end of 1994 and the beginning of 1995, that the first, great antiwar plays started ’shyly’ appearing”; Aleksandra Jovićević, Trenutak srećnog samozaborava [A Moment of Happy Self-Abandonment], Teatron 118, Muzej pozorišne umetnosti Srbije, Beograd 2002, 48
[3] In Milosevic’ case, it was a feigned protection of Serbian national interests in the process of the dissolution of the multi-national Yugoslav state, which actually camouflaged the protection of an undemocratic system inherited from the Communist times and wild “privatisation” of state-owned property.
[4] Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramsko kazalište [Postdramatic Theatre], Centar za dramsku umjetnost i TkH – centar za teoriju i praksu izvođačkih umetnosti, Zagreb/Beograd 2004, 334

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A Revolution Sells Its Children