Nicolas Stemann’s production of Elfriede Jelinek’s text Die Schutzbefohlenen, at the 2015 Berlin Theatertreffen, began with, perhaps, the most overworked gesture of intermedial theatre: as the audience entered, a live feed flickered on monitors around the auditorium, while an interviewer asked several people onstage—refugees, apparently—about their experiences of flight and resettlement. What interested me, from the beginning, was not the tired trope of documentary authenticity evoked by staging an—if simulated—journalistic exchange; it was, for one, the fact that the production had felt the urgent necessity to put actual refugee bodies and stories onto the stage and into the shared space, only to subvert that statement, without apparent irony, with the most conventional framing device of digital mediation, thus implicitly conceding that, in the experience of most theatre-goers at least, refugees exist in an irreducibly mediated and mediatized space, even if they are actually present. The second thought that struck me was that hardly anyone was paying attention. Theatertreffen is an elite social occasion studded with high-culture celebrity, and the refugees, now chanting “We are Lampedusa!” would have to wait until all the kiss-kissing and backslapping had subsided.
Thus, the production, originating at Hamburg’s respected Thalia Theater, subsequently endowed with the imprimatur of several international theatre festivals (Theater der Welt and Holland Festival), and now given pride of place as the lead offering at Theatertreffen, was effectively performing its own inefficacy, and, with it, putting the inadequacy of art to give due to the most pressing humanitarian crisis of our time on overt display. In fact, festival juror Barbara Burckhardt argued the virtue of this deficiency when she wrote: “Nicolas Stemann [asks] the question of how to represent the suffering: Who can speak for whom here? The production revolves around the failure of civil society–and of art.”
Purportedly, Stemann’s production was a realization—in fact, the premiere—of Nobel Prize-winning writer Elfriede Jelinek’s new dramatic text, Die Schutzbefohlenen. The title is an archaism that literally translates to “those commended to protection,” that is, those who are entitled to safety, and is an echo of Die Schutzflehenden, the German title of Aeschylus’ The Suppliants. In the first part of the mostly lost Aeschylean Danaides tetralogy, the safety-seeking maidens are given sanctuary in Argos after King Pelasgos, at first, rejects them, but, finally, acquiesces to the will of the enlightened Argive population. Like their twenty-first-century successors, the distressed daughters of Danaus are fleeing a threat from the Middle East; in this case, a forced marriage to Egyptian suitors. In The Suppliants, the Greek—and, by implication, European—ethos of the hiketeia, or right of sacred sanctuary, becomes manifest. The telling irony that much of the current refugee trail geographically duplicates the ancient model while straining the ethical principle enshrined in it is of course inescapable.
Jelinek’s text, though infused with the appellative tone of ancient choral speech, is also entirely contemporary. Technically, it is less a drama (dran means to act, little of which happens here), than an extended stasimon, a choral ode in the collective voice of the refugees, alternately demanding and reflective, hectoring and rebarbative. Aeschylus and Ovid’s Metamorphoses provide the mythological undercurrent, Martin Heidegger’s philosophy the ontological superstructure, but the text’s primary linguistic target is an Austrian government brochure on resettlement and integration filled with platitudes that lapse from the poetic into the bureaucratic (“freedom is a feeling”), which it skewers with the author’s customary acerbic irony.
The immediate trigger event for the play was the action by sixty mostly Pakistani migrants who, in November 2012, left their internment camp and took refuge in a Viennese church, seeking permanent asylum and work permits (the church, as if the discontents of civilization were not marked with sufficiently clear irony, was close to Sigmund-Freud-Platz). A hunger strike, arrests, extraditions, and protests and counter-protests followed. While the text is shot through with direct references to these events, it is open enough to allow it to stand for a larger political situation.
In many ways, Jelinek’s text is signally unsuitable for its intended purpose, the exposure of a political and ethical crisis of historic proportions, because it dwells with obsessive insistence on the kinds of petty hypocrisies Austria specializes in; in this case the fact that Boris Yeltsin’s daughter and opera soprano Anna Netrebko (a notorious Putinista) were able to buy their way into citizenship while others languished. In appropriating the refugees’ voice, moreover, the text can hardly escape the patronizing gestures it superficially condemns—an ineluctable, systemic failure of Western theatre that Stemann, in his production, attempted to address.
Jelinek, of course, is aware of this aporia. The text, though forbiddingly block-like and impenetrable in appearance, actually exists in intermedial form as a an open-ended, malleable theatrical hypertext on her web site where, in response to the unfolding of the European refugee situation, she has continued to expand, tweak, gloss, re- and overwrite it like a postdramatic palimpsest. In that sense, the failure of the text to come to terms with the crisis has become its structuring principle. Such a gesture of simultaneously glutting and withholding; such Medienzertrümmerung (media destruction) has its deeper roots in Jelinek’s long-avowed skepticism of the representational theatre—in a 1983 Theater Heute essay, long before ubiquitous postdramatic sloganeering, she declared: “I don’t want to play and I don’t want to see others play, either,” and embraced an aesthetics of “shallowness.” Subsequently, she has cultivated a permissive, if sometimes slightly hostile, relationship with the directors of her texts who, as she has minimized and finally eliminated stage directions, have become co-authors in what is probably the most consequent realization of the Regietheater. In reference to Jelinek’s Maria Ulrike Stuart, in 2006, which he also directed, Stemann noted that “a certain irresponsibility towards the text is precisely what the text demands of the director.”
To me, Stemann’s production and others like it raise a different kind of question about intermediality; one that is slightly distinct from the aesthetic or formal integration of medial discourses in live performance, though it responds to Chiel Kattenbelt’s observation that intermedial practice strives for a “resensibilisation of perception.” Here, straining to contribute to an increasingly contentious discussion about European refugee policy in an increasingly fractured and fractious public sphere, Stemann pursued a series of intermedial interventions designed both to evoke theatre’s power to suspend or sublate (in the Hegelian sense) representation in presence and to declare, finally, an impasse to that self-same Enlightenment project.
Unfortunately, the production was mightily enamored of its own contradictions and the insistent, recursive irony with which it exhibited them. Could the theatre speak for the refugees? Could they even speak for themselves? In one exchange—interpolated into the text by Stemann—the three main white actors (Felix Knopp, Daniel Lommatzsch, Sebastian Rudolph) mistook a black actor (Ernest Allen Hausmann) for an immigrant. Even as he answered their awkward English in perfect stage German, they refused to understand him, since a person of color conversing in their native tongue seemed unthinkable. Superficially droll, the scene skewered the easy target of the clueless Gutmensch, a naive, politically correct meddler, but it drew on stereotypes decades out of date in an increasingly multicultural Germany.
The actors, in mock plaintive voice, offered the quintessential defense of artistic insufficiency when later in the play the refugees impatiently importuned them to take action: “We can’t help you,” they cried, “we’re too busy playing you.” In a certain type of theatre, the production seemed to say, the Marxian praxis of political action will always already be subsumed by the Aristotelian praxis of aesthetic action.
However, Stemann’s production could offer scant assurances that it was not itself that type of theatre; indeed, in its overtly arch gestures of parody, mocking the excesses of the avant-garde and of Regietheater (actors in high heels and evening attire speaking chorally; a huge Christ figure flown in from above; projections of the pyramid of divine providence found on the dollar bill; the quasi-Pirandellian and extempore comments on the supertitles that translated Jelinek’s text into English) it seemed self-laceratingly conscious of its limitations. Stemann appeared to be courting the collision between his own sense of privilege and high artistic affectations and the irreducible presence of the refugees to the point of embarrassment, as if in acknowledgment that in the hypermedium of the theatre, resensibilization was now only possible through a modicum of mortification.
Matthias Dell of Theater der Zeit wrote scathingly that Die Schutzbefohlenen was “marked by awkwardness” and “behaves like a high-school theatre from 20 years ago that wants to rehearse something about discrimination.” A large digital counter on stage progressed inexorably, from 24168, at the start of the show (or when I first became aware of it), to 24299, at its close. But what did this discrepancy of 131 signify? The number of refugees who had died, elsewhere, in the two hours traffic on the stage?
Though Stemann utilized a number of intermedial strategies (live feed, projections, etc.), the key factor for me here is that the attempt to come to terms with the refugee crisis through performance is already irrevocably imbricated with the medial matrix in which it exists. For better or worse, refugees and migrants are creatures of the mass medial imagination, in which narratives of individual suffering which feed emotional concerns (for instance the pictures of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach of Bodrum in September 2015) compete with the images of columns of bedraggled migrants tussling with border guards and marching on dusty roads into the heart of European civilization, provoking political backlash.
Unsurprisingly, the medial image of refugees is marked by agendas and omissions. The independent watchdog organization Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) released a report in December 2015 indicting Western media coverage of the refugee crisis. Among the findings of the report, Moving Stories, was that journalists failed to “get ahead” of the story and address the developments when they first happened; that media have let coverage become sensationalized and hijacked by hate speech and inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric; and that the systematic gutting of news operations and editorial resources has led to superficial, inaccurate and repetitive reporting. Research by scholars from the University of Cardiff in Wales found that there are notable differences in terminology that have the power to set the agenda. British newspaper coverage of the crisis is the most consistently polarized between liberal- and right-leaning publications: While Germany (91.0%) and Sweden (75.3%) overwhelmingly used the terms “refugee” or “asylum seeker”, in Spain the most widely (67.1%) used term was “immigrant” and in Britain (54.2%) and Italy (35.8%) “migrant.” “Migrant,” you will note, is linguistically subtly different from “immigrant,” a legal term of purposeful resettlement; phonetically close to “vagrant,” it carries overtones of transgression and disruption.
As I was writing this paper (June 2016), the reports of another shipwreck catastrophe in the Mediterranean, with an assumed 1,000 victims, was added to a tally that grows with numbing regularity. Given the centrality of the refugee crisis to the debate about the larger humanitarian responsibilities of the European powers and to the political future of the EU, a theatrical response is to be expected. The topic of migrants and refugees, their stories in documentary and fictionalized form, and, increasingly, their actual bodies, have found their way onto the European stage. Refugee theatre is, if not a bona fide new genre, then, at least a compelling contemporary performance trope that is almost inevitably realized in the idiom(s) of intermediality. This is not the place to give a full accounting of refugee-themed theatre, even if that were possible, but I will mention some instances.
In the years since David Edgar offered eloquent neo-Brechtian disquisitions about culture and displacement, in his 1994 Balkans play Pentecost, and Ariane Mnouchkine an epic set of vignettes on crossings and sufferings, Le Dernier Caravanserail (2003)—in fact, a decade later, the political pressures of the moment have demanded a less poetically contemplative and more activist, even interventionist strategy. In a recent article, Simon Hagemann discussed three paradigmatic German representational approaches to the border and migration situation, including Jelinek’s Die Schutzbefohlenen. The two others are Hans-Werner Kroesinger’s documentary drama FRONTex SECURITY, co-produced with Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) Berlin, in December 2013, and Po.W.E.R. by BBM, a group specialized in machine performance, first staged in Hanover, in 2014.
While Kroesinger’s documentary piece is a fact-rich juxtaposition, often in “dry and complicated . . . bureaucratic jargon” of legal and political texts, BBM create a kind of retrospective science fiction narrative in which speaking robots, from a posthuman future 10,000 years hence, discuss the climate and refugee crises of the twenty-first century. But “migrant participation” has become a watchword of more recent performances which attempt, not merely to thematize the crisis, but to make it physically present, even unavoidable.
Dries Verhoeven’s ground-breaking, ambulatory performance piece, No Man’s Land, from 2008 (and most recently in its 2014 iterations in Athens and Munich), was likely the first to give mediated voice to individual migrants and put them into one-on-one contact with audiences. But, while based on a conceit of mediation (an audio track with a refugee narrative), Verhoeven’s piece succeeded by dislodging the experiencers from the safety of the theatre and sustaining a brittle physical intimacy between them and their guides as they made their way through unfamiliar cityscapes.
In a so-called EcoFavela set up at the Hamburg venue Kampnagel, the art collective Baltic Raw created performance pieces with migrants from the Lampedusa community and provided a temporary habitat for five refugees until legal action by the right-wing AfD party, in 2015, shut it down. And, in what may be the most radical realization of the staging of refugee bodies, performance group Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty), in June 2015, exhumed and reburied in Berlin several bodies of drowned refugees salvaged from the Mediterranean.
The action Die Toten Kommen (The Dead Are Coming), its title a sardonic nod to popular culture’s obsession with zombies, was aimed at bringing the victims from the margins of Europe’s watery borders to the center of political power and to restore posthumously an individuality they had lost in the flood of statistics and the haze of medial images. André Leipold, co-founder of ZPS, emphasizes that “politically beautiful acts” are those that put up resistance against human rights violations and disturb the “bloodless and poetry-free political sphere” by using the means of the theatre to drive them “into the here and now.” He calls their method, citing Jean Baudrillard, “hyperreal.” Like so-called Bürgerbühnen (citizens stages) where ordinary people create theatre with professional guidance, or the “Experts of the Everyday” of Rimini Protokoll, the hyperreal recourse to an actual Other that presents an ontological challenge to the cosseted mediality of the stage follows a “realistic turn” in the German theatre.
The dramaturg of the Berlin Schaubühne, Bernd Stegemann, in his book Lob des Realismus (In Praise of Realism, 2015) has recently argued for a return to a kind of realism that accounts for the “perceptual games” and self-referential strategies in postdramatic performance, but looks for a new sensibility beyond the refusal of meaning-making and synthesis “in order to create a common horizon of experience on the basis of which a conflict between the divergent realities of the spectators can occur.” But he is quick to point out that simply replacing realism with extratheatrical reality is no solution. This is a point that Stemann too conceded in an interview when he noted,
For me, that’s often too undialectical when ‘real people’ appear on a stage – they don’t actually stand there as themselves but play a part. Of course that leads to a series of questions: how do you accomplish that the refugees aren’t just exhibited on stage or patronized, that they are more than an image? It’s important to be conscious of the traps that surround you. I groped my way, step by step. And this groping is the process of the production.
Talking about their project Morgenland (an archaism for “Orient”), which included Arabic-speaking migrants, Miriam Tscholl, the director of the Citizen’s Stage in Dresden, a city that has become a byword for anti-immigrant hostility, shrugged about the impossibility of creating effective refugee-themed performances: “We don’t have anything at the moment that we could show to each other and about which we could be certain. We only rehearse and try out. . . . You can’t just pat yourself on the back anymore. The audience is divided, our employees as well, even the ranks of the Citizen’s Stage (Bürgerbühne).”
Putting refugees on the stage, in the flesh, can be seen as a gesture fit to subvert neoliberal agendas, but it typically involves three interlocking discourses which cannot be easily resolved or separated: political, economic, and aesthetic. To put refugees on stage as a political gesture means to display the individual behind the drone of statistics and the ceaselessly streaming media images of mass migration. A chorus of Libyan migrants, who began to increasingly challenge the actors’ hegemonic position in Stemann’s performance, chanted: “We are here/we will fight/for freedom of movement/it’s everybody’s right!” As an economic gesture, it asserts the arbitrariness of work permits and barriers to employment, but it also marks the theatre itself as a place of labor and part of a system of exchange and, potentially, of exploitation. Indeed, Stemann ran into political trouble by demonstratively breaking asylum and immigration laws when he hired refugees from the Lampedusa community in Hamburg and Berlin. As such, the production tried its best to align itself with political activism. But, as an aesthetic gesture, the placement of real refugees on stage inevitably destabilizes the very claim to authenticity it so strenuously upholds. I am reminded of Bert States’s phenomenological discussion of the dog or child on stage—although of course I am not proposing any rash and regrettable analogy between refugees and dogs—in the sense that, although the entire overdetermined enterprise of the production was frequently thrown into relief by the artless presence of the migrants, their inclusion was also always sufficiently choreographed and reined-in to preserve the didactic supremacy of the production. Writes States:
“The illusion has introduced something into itself to demonstrate its tolerance of things. It is not the world that has invaded the illusion; the illusion has stolen something from the world in order to display its own power.”
Although States surely didn’t have the geopolitical inflections of “invasion,” “stealing” and “power” in mind when he wrote this passage, it is an apt description of Stemann’s strategy and reminds us that there is indeed a power differential at stake here that gets played out in the space of representation. But because its power is soft rather than firm, it conceals its tracks by interjecting an entire litany of self-subversions, or as Franz Wille in Theater heute wrote, “countless scenes with critique and counter-critique, self-critique and critique-critique. . . .” The moment when the production’s buzzing metacritical cycle was arrested with a genuinely startling image was when a white actor appeared in blackface, thus ironically accomplishing the feat of using a visual trope of appropriation and inauthenticity to provide one of the few authentic instances of theatrical presence. The use of blackface on the German stage having become a contentious issue of late; walkouts and (if muted) protests followed.
Stemann, in an interview, tried to rationalize the blackface decision as essentially presentational (“The actor who paints his face in my production doesn’t play a black person but a white person who paints his face. That way we demonstrate blackfacing”), but later expunged the moment. Jelinek’s text itself repeatedly acknowledges, implicitly and explicitly, that it is caught in a critical-representational trap and ends on a note of philosophical resignation that seems to summon an aesthetic as much as a political impasse. The refugee chorus chants, “It will not happen. It doesn’t exist. We are not even here. We have arrived, but we are not even here.”
Indeed, the very notion of “here,” of the complex confluence of geography, identity, culture and ontology suggested by that term, is in question. There is a compelling analogy between performance, especially intermedial performance, and the coercive mechanisms of European border protection and surveillance. The EU’s organization, set up in 2004 for transnational border management, Frontex, is a peculiar hybrid whose task is coordinating joint maneuvers, training, intelligence sharing, as well as what is euphemistically referred to as “return operations.” Though its activities extend widely into geopolitical space and circumscribe the borders of the twenty-eight member nations, the central nerve center or situation room where operations are coordinated is a cramped space full of screens on the twenty-second floor of a high rise in Warsaw, Poland. As described by the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, “This is where information from the borders convenes, as well as from connected news agencies and Europol: reports, satellite images, profiles of migrants, weather prognoses, and much more. It’s from here that wealthy Europe organizes its defensive strategy against the assault of the poor.”
As with drone warfare, NSA surveillance and global banking, virtuality is, in fact, the existential condition and overriding reality of this operational context. But if the very concept of borders, like that of the liminal space in performance, relies on perspective and perception, and is in fact a performative gesture of assertion as much as an actual boundary or suture, is the border then really located on the Greek coast or Italian shore, or is it in Warsaw?
Etienne Balibar has written about the changing definition of borders:
The term border is extremely rich in significations. One of my hypotheses [is] that it is profoundly changing in meaning. The borders of new politico-economic entities, in which an attempt is being made to preserve the functions of the sovereignty of the state, are no longer at all situated at the outer limit of territories: they are dispersed a little everywhere, wherever the movement of information, people, and things is happening and is controlled—for example, in cosmopolitan cities.”
The theatre, and Stemann’s theatre in particular, can be implicated by such an observation in two ways. First, because it, too, is one of the institutions centered chiefly in cosmopolitan cities and concerned with the movement of information and people; and is, in fact, in spite of its protestations to the contrary, an institution of control in (if not of) the neoliberal state, especially in the context of the highly subsidized German scene. Such a theatre, secondly, is intent on policing its own boundaries and asserting its aesthetic and moral autonomy. Like Europe, it has fashioned a moral image of itself which it aims to defend, but like some simulacrum of the Frontex command center in Warsaw, it relies on a series of internal representations that both enforce its sense of sovereignty and expose its radical contingency and fictitiousness. In the online portal nachtkritik, Esther Bold identifies this self-protective vacillation as a symptom of current German theatre:
With its helplessness Die Schutzbefohlenen is certainly not alone: the German theatre yearns for relevance and feels that it can’t bypass the vectors of contemporary political conflict, but it can’t resolve to leave its secure position—that of reflection and ambiguity. It’s not searching; it has already found. It doesn’t look reality in the face, it once more cordons off the artificial world of the stage.
The problem is an ethical impasse wrapped inside an aesthetic failure—the inability of the hypermedium theatre to provide a “resensibilization” that has not already been subsumed by the mediated and mediatized presence of the unassimilable refugee bodies. But, in fact, the problem, as Jelinek points out at the beginning of her text, is epistemological as well. Her refugee chorus laments, as if in double reference to their fugitive lives and the fugitive perceptual consciousness with which we apprehend them:
“That which is knowable has perished from our lives, it has been suffocated under a layer of appearances, nothing is the object of knowledge any longer, it is nothing anymore. It is no longer necessary to have a concept of anything.”
 Burckhardt’s remark is found in the press materials of Berliner Festspiele for Theatertreffen 2015, 20. This and all subsequent translations from the German are my own.
 All of Jelinek’s texts can be accessed at www.elfriedejelinek.com
 Qtd. in Karen Jürs-Munby, “The Resistant Text in Postdramatic Theatre: Performing Elfriede Jelineks Sprachflächen,” Performance Research 14.1 (2009): 52.
 See Chiel Kattenbelt, “Intermediality in Performance as a Mode of Performativity,” Mapping Intermediality in Performance, ed. Sarah Bay-Cheng et al. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2010, 29-37.
 Matthias Dell, “Unser Problem,” Theater der Zeit 69.10 (Oktober 2014): 16.
 Aidan White, ed., Moving Stories: International Review of How Media Cover Migration. EJN, 2015. http://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/assets/docs/038/141/6adda26-23eaf8d.pdf
 Simon Hagemann, “Performing Lampedusa – Über europäische Grenz- und Migrationspolitik in Elfriede Jelineks ‘Die Schutzbefohlenen,’ Hans-Werner Kroesingers ‘FRONTex security’ und BBMs ‘Po.W.E.R’.” Germanica 56 (2015): 129.
 Ralph Hammerthaler, “Soziale Plastik.” Theater der Zeit 70.6 (June 2015): 23.
 André Leipold, ”Hyperreales Theater: Das Zentrum für politische Schönheit schärft die Konturen der Realität.” Theater der Zeit 70.11 (November 2015): 22-23.
 Bernd Stegemann, Lob des Realismus. Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2015, 156.
 Nicolas Stemann, “Habt Ihr Einen Schaden?” Interview with Patrick Wildermann. Tagesspiegel 29 April 2015. http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/nicolas-stemann-eroeffnet-theatertreffen-habt-ihr-einen-schaden/11703258.html
 Michael Bartsch, “Montagswirklichkeit” – Interview with Miriam Tscholl and Tilman Köhler. Theater der Zeit 70.11 (November 2015): 12-13.
 Bert O. States, Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater. Berkeley: U of California P., 1985, 34.
 Wille, Franz, “Nur die ganze Welt,” Theater heute 7 (2014): 8.
 Guntenhöner, Lena, “Blackfacing beim Theatertreffen,” Cicero Online, 15 May 2015. http://www.cicero.de/berliner-republik/blackfacing-beim-theatertreffen-diese-debatte-wird-auf-dem-ruecken-der
 In a recording of the production made by Thalia Theater and dated November 30, 2015, there is no longer a blackface incident. I am grateful to the Thalia Theater for granting me access to the recording.
 Thomas Bärnthaler and Malte Herwig, “An ihr führt kein Weg vorbei,” Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin 27 (2014). http://sz-magazin.sueddeutsche.de/texte/anzeigen/41999/An-ihnen-fuehrt-kein-Weg-vorbei/
 Etienne Balibar and Erin M. Williams, “World Borders, Political Borders.” PMLA 117.1 (2002): 71.
 Esther Bold, “Sprecht Lieber Selbst!,” nachtkritik.de.
*Ralf Remshardt is professor of theatre at the University of Florida where he is the coordinator of the graduate program in acting. He attended universities in Munich and Berlin, Germany, and received a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art at UC Santa Barbara. He previously taught theatre at Denison University. Remshardt has worked in professional and university theatres as a director, translator, and dramaturg. His publications have appeared in many journals and several edited collections. His book, Staging the Savage God: The Grotesque in Performance, was published in 2004. He co-produced a documentary film about New York Hispanic theatre in 2015.
Copyright © 2016 Ralf Remshardt
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