Yana Meerzon[1]

Exile as pain. Exile as difference. Exile as performative adventure. In the following article, excerpted from her upcoming book, Performing Exile — Performing Self: Drama, Theatre, Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Russian-born and now Canadian-based theatre scholar Yana Meerzon examines a wide range of contemporary and traditional exilic conditions in an effort to define a field that is both ancient and agonizing, theatrical and political, complicated and challenging in the context of contemporary definitions of self. In the process, she redefines ideas of home and homeland and the kinds of journeys of recognition and change they can represent and have represented for theatre artists.

In the summer of 2008 I traveled to Holstebro, Denmark, the hometown of Eugenio Barba’s company, Odin Teatret. I joined the Odin’s actors and the Jasonite Family, an international group of 30 theatre youngsters, at the Holstebro Festuge (Festive Week), a celebration of the people and the city of Holstebro.

The 2008 Festuge opened with a meeting for the participants and the guests, who were asked to introduce themselves to the “family.” In my short speech, I said that I study the lives and the art of those theatre makers who left their countries to find a new home in a different land. I explained that I was in Holstebro to visit Barba and the Odin Teatret, an example of a theatre company working in exile.

A young man approached me after the meeting. “I’m in exile!” he exclaimed. “Your project is about me. I’m from Greece and I left home when I was 18. I first moved to Paris, and then to London, now I’m here and hope to go to New York next fall. I’m an artist in exile, a theatre maker who left his country to find a new home in a different land!” This young man was clearly excited – we had found something in common. I smiled too and then said to him: “No, I think you’re your own project, the theatre of nomads…”

I begin my study of theater and exile with this anecdote to illustrate that in today’s globalized consciousness one’s attitude towards exile as banishment or as a necessity to leave one’s home, to seek refuge elsewhere, has changed. Today, the very word exile often sounds like an invitation for a personal adventure. Taken as one’s personal quest and cultural expedition, such a view of exile refers to something that Julia Kristeva calls “the height of the foreigner’s autonomy” (Strangers to Ourselves, 7) or what I call nomadic consciousness, and thus makes the contemporary paradigm of exile quite different from that of the past.

This rendering of exile as a new economic and political condition of today’s cosmopolitan world requires a proper description and examination of what the exilic state in its historical and modern interpretations entails, and a reminder that even the very globalized exile “cannot be treated as a mere metaphor,” a “somewhat facile argument that every intellectual is always already in a ‘spiritual exile’.” (Boym, ‘Estrangement as a Lifestyle’, 243)

Hence I propose to look at the condition of exile as a wide spectrum of possible scenarios: from exile as banishment to exile as nomadism; from the impossibility of return to a desire for constant voyage resulting in a transient state of transnational experience and transcultural art. Thus I engage with the concept of exilic theatre as the artist’s manifestation of his/her exilic condition found in the themes, forms, and means of the artist-immigrants’ literary, theatrical and cinematic performances. I envision the practice of the exilic performative as stemming from the intersection of an exilic artist’s original cultural knowledge (both personal and communal) as well as his/her professional knowledge, which this artist intends to preserve and advance in his/her newly adopted country; and the demands, tastes, and expectations of his/her adopted target audience.

Finally, I intend to celebrate the hardships and the victories of the individual in today’s cosmopolitan world in which exile is claimed to become the new norm of social being. This norm I argue is still an illusion. No subject of global cosmopolitanism or of symbolic citizenship (Margalit, The Decent Society, 158-160) can escape the mechanisms of the state’s manipulation and its scrutiny of the individual. Global cosmopolitanism cannot provide one with a shield to defend from the linguistic and cultural shocks that one experiences in a new land, whether as tourist, economic migrant, political exile, or war refugee. Symbolic citizenship cannot guarantee a traveler his/her personal presumption of innocence. Hence, symbolic citizenship cannot help with one’s personal journey into acceptance, integration and “arrival” into the adopted land regardless of whether one is an artist. This personal journey of redefining what one calls home and where one finds one’s homeland, a journey of recognition and change, is the subject of my inquiry.

I define the exilic performative as manifested in the artist’s everyday life and described in Erving Goffman’s famous “dramatic realization” of self (The Presentation of Self, 30), as well as those theatrical appearances that the exilic artist makes professionally, whether on stage, in images and sounds, or in language. I consider each manifestation of the exilic performative as an example of the exilic artist’s call for remaking one’s identity and thus performing the act of self-fashioning. I believe that the poetics of exile, the quotidian and professional art of self-fashioning and survival, is always grounded within the artist’s social, economic and personal exilic conditions, it is the process of constant negotiation and translation.

As such, I envision exilic theatre in a close proximity to poetic theatre, theatre of auto-portrait, testimony theatre and theatre of memory, among others. I also recognize in the aesthetics of exilic theatre the prevalence of a poetic utterance: an utterance that embraces theatre performances based on plays written in verse and in prose; performances based on non-verbal expression, movement and image; reciting poetry as professional and personal performance; and creating the meta-performative constructs. Following the dominant genealogy of Western understanding of exile found in Greek democracy—exile as both punishment and existential voyage – I theorize exilic experience as a dramatic and performative odyssey.

I adapt the temporal vision of exile as a circular journey which consists of three essential steps — leaving home, living in a new country, and homecoming; and I argue that although not every exilic experience follows this tripartite schema, and not every exile returns to his/her native country, the children of exile eventually seek this passage “home.” In the following, I wish to demonstrate that the exilic voyage involves the processes of the artist’s self-estrangement. It becomes an opportunity for creative self-liberation, an enhancement of the artist’s chosen mode of creative self-expression.

Theatre and exile: some general statements

The experience of exile, as it was practiced in the period of the Greek Democracy, took the forms of torture, both physical and emotional, and death from hunger and thirst in the desert. The democratic state used exile as a form of punishment and as a mechanism of self-defense. At the time, the act of political exile secured the expulsion of “the tyrant from the community” (Forsdyke, Exile, Ostracism, 6).

The political exile remains even today the most powerful paradigm of physical, spatial and temporal separation from one’s native land. Accordingly, the word exile evokes such meanings as trauma, muteness, impossibility of reconciliation, and the deficiency of any personal or collective closure. It also signifies a displacement and a falling out of time phenomenon.

Following this tradition, Edward Said defines exile as a metaphor of death and suggests a view of the exilic journey as a crossing of the River Styx from the world of the living (the homeland) to the world of the dead (the new land) (Said, Reflections of Exile, 174). In his definition, Said therefore reinforces a long-standing tradition of seeing exile as regret, doubt, sorrow, and nostalgia. Echoing Said, Bharati Mukherjee views exile as “the comparative luxury of self–removal [that] is replaced by harsh compulsion” (‘Imagining Homelands’, 73). This view of exile, in other words, suggests that the exilic state may be understood as an experience of suffering and agony offering no possibility for self-realization.

In an age of global migration, however, it becomes difficult to accept readily this longstanding view of exile as territorial, historical, and personal loss. In a time of cultural shifts, one needs to recognize that the exilic journey can rest on changing premises which are much broader, more complicated and unpredictable than just expulsion from one’s native land. These premises endorse and attest to the condition of the modern exile as a manifestation of intellectual and cultural discomfort.

Today, the condition we call exile derived via the Middle English exil from the Latin exilium encompasses both one’s enforced removal from home as well as one’s self-imposed absence from a native country. This condition manifests itself either as an internal exile (a voluntarily choice to resist and confront the state’s politics from within) or as an external exile (a life away from one’s land). As an act of banishment and expulsion, exile results in a state of displacement, loss, sorrow, and personal marginality. It nevertheless becomes a solution to a perceived threat, be it confinement, civil war, poverty, ethnic discrimination, or physical or psychological persecution.

Paradoxically, exile can also provoke a state of happiness and pleasure, as well as a bittersweet taste of nostalgia for one’s home, one’s childhood, and one’s history. Exilic life can provide a sense of continuity and personal satisfaction. It can trigger artistic discoveries and lead to economic fulfillment or benefits. Finally, the condition we call “exile” also serves as an invitation to grow up, to recognize and welcome one’s capacity for creativity, for innovation and reinvention of self.

Today’s exiles, both voluntary and involuntary, risk being misunderstood because of language barriers. They face the potential humiliation of having to exist outside of their social class and familiar discourse and thus need to fight for various forms of economic recognition and means of self-expression. They also face the processes of cultural loss, breaking with their past collective mythology, and the necessity of coming to terms with the values of an adoptive nation. Nevertheless, these obstacles do not deter today’s émigrés from mastering a new language or updating their professional vocabulary. On the contrary, such experiences can stimulate the exiles’ personal creativity and encourage them to seek intellectual and economic well-being.

Accordingly, the exilic state today can be experienced as an exercise in alterity, in which social, psychological and artistic challenges dictate “an immense force for liberation, for extra distance, for developing new structures in one’s head, not just syntactic and lexical but social and psychological” (Brooke-Rose, ‘Exsul’,40).
Today’s exile can be experienced in many complex forms, but it will always be marked by the conditions of translation, adaptation and integration shaped by the cultural and linguistic challenges one meets in a new country. Nowadays, exile can be experienced as banishment, and it can be used as the means for saving one’s life. At the same time, the experience of exile can be triggered by one’s longing for adventure and seeking “the meeting with the unknown”. It can also manifest itself as a condition of birth, the divided self.

The artist of the divided self repeatedly seeks a mode of communication that can reach a wide variety of globalized and cosmopolitan audiences. This artist seeks the aesthetics of transnational, the ultimate expression of the exilic condition and the exilic chronotope. Lastly, exile can be experienced as a post-exilic anxiety for roots by the post-exilic subject, someone who never experienced personally the perils of a flight but would dedicate his life to the search for reconciliation with his ancestry.

For that reason, by redefining the exilic paradigm as a creative opportunity for the liberation of self and as an occasion to celebrate the existential condition of being “other,” we must aim not only to shift the perception of exile away from the archetype of suffering, disorientation and displacement, but also to explore the spiritual quest of the exilic artists who long to re-establish their creative environment and build an aesthetic shelter in a new land. We need to investigate the change of social and narrative paradigms of exile that have been taking place in the period starting after the Second World War, and adapt Homi Bhabha’s definition of global migration as global cosmopolitanism to the concept of personal exile, seen s as the condition of personal mobility.

These exilic artists’ flights and longing for return are exemplified in the processes of coming to terms with one’s artistic identity. This identity originates within the exilic artist’s gradual move from seeing oneself as an ethno-cultural and thus national subject in the past, at home; to recognizing oneself as a representative of a certain profession – a poet, a theatre director, a writer, a dancer, or a filmmaker – someone whose life abroad, in the artist’s present, must be defined by what this person does, and not by what place, language or cultural heritage this artist belongs to.

The exilic identity rests with the sentiment and the practices of the exilic voyage, which often includes the major transformation of the exilic subjects themselves. Either in the space of one’s own lifetime or within the temporal span of the life of the exilic subjects’ children, the exilic artist undergoes a transformation from the clash of cultures to hybridity, a condition that becomes a cultural antonym to the state that originated it. The elements of the individual discourse mixed with the narrative of the dominant or adopted culture form the basis of this exilic identity. The exilic transformation leads to a series of progressions: the exilic subject’s linguistic, cultural and ideological challenges eventually lead to the forms of one’s personal and professional integration, adaptation and change.

Both the act of creation (the process of writing plays, staging theatre and dance productions, and making films) and the products of exilic creativity (the plays, the productions, and the films themselves) serve as examples of exilic transcendence. The act of the exilic performative leads to the artists’ problematizing and foregrounding the chosen media of their creative expression: be it the media of poetry, drama, theatre performance, dance or film. Very often the exilic artists find themselves having to re-evaluate the effectiveness of a habitual artistic routine, i.e., one brought from home and often popular “back there”. The artists find it necessary to adapt their original poetic, dramatic or performative language of expression to the needs and the tastes of their new audiences. The condition of exile makes these artists re-evaluate the opportunities one’s creative medium offers in the new cultural environment. In exile, the artists find themselves forced to generate instances of meta-discourse as one begins to rely on the devices of meta-dramatic, meta-theatrical, meta-cinematic, and meta-narrative communication.

Hence, I recognize an artist in exile as someone who, whatever the reasons for his/her flight, chooses to continue his/her creative quest in one’s adopted language and not necessarily directed at the community of his/her former compatriots. An exilic artist is someone who is aware of and embraces the linguistic, cultural and economic challenges of the new land not as obstacles but as stimuli for both one’s creativity and one’s personal growth. The works of the exilic artists build upon the forms of existential and professional continuity which define the exilic condition.

The exilic artists choose to speak to three audiences: 1) the larger audiences of their adopted country, thus aiming their works at international and domestic readership; 2) the diasporic audiences of their home-country’s community abroad; and 3) their former home-country’s audience.

These artists consciously resist complete integration either into their newly found society or into the community of their former compatriots. They reject the opportunity to become the chroniclers of their displaced community, subscribing instead to the creative opportunities of expatriation. These artists take exile as an act of “sustained self–removal from one’s native culture, balanced by a conscious resistance to total inclusion in the new host society. The motives for expatriation are as numerous as the expatriates themselves: aesthetic and intellectual affinity, a better job, a more interesting or less hassled life, greater freedom or simple tax relief, just as the motives for non-integration may range from principle, to nostalgia, to laziness or fear” (Mukherjee, ‘Imagining Homelands’, 71-72).

These exilic artists, therefore, are characterized by their “cool detachment” from the everyday hardships of exilic being. They lack the immigrant’s troubled engagement with one’s present social condition. They are to remain the freely floating islands, difficult to confine or define within the normative bureaucratic language of the state’s administration. Ultimately, expatriation in the forms of both forced or self-imposed exile serves these artists as “the escape from small–mindedness, from niggling irritations” (‘Imagining Homelands’ , 71-72) of their home culture or the culture of their adopted homeland.

Accordingly, I see the exilic artists along Said’s definition of intellectuals in exile:those artists who strive well beyond the artistic norms, criteria and demands of their new homeland. These artists find themselves in a constant state of negotiation, seeking continuity between their past and present experience, between their professional skills and the expectations of the new audiences, and between their habitual artistic langue and a new creative parole. To work in one’s second language and to search for other (possibly non-verbal) means of creative communication, to address not only the audiences of one’s ethnic community but the large groups of international readership or spectatorship are the artistic and existential goals an artist in exile faces.

This search for an expressive language of the exilic experience is particularly pertinent to “an intellectual as an outsider” (Said, ‘Intellectual in Exile’, 39), someone who is dependent on his/her linguistic forms of expression not only in everyday life but also and more importantly in his/her professional domains. Said describes this challenge as a condition of marginality and solitude, but also of pleasure and privilege (‘Intellectual in Exile’, 39).

In other words, an artist in exile is someone who consciously chooses not to belong to “any place, any time, any love” (Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 7) and who rarely defines oneself in spatial terms but sees exile as an existential voyage unfolding in temporal dimensions. As Kristeva states, “the space of the foreigner is a moving train, a plane in flight, the very transition that precludes stopping. As to landmarks, there are none” (Strangers to Ourselves, 8) and thus the temporal dimensions of exilic experience dominate its spatial coordinates.

Exile as Banishment

Exile as banishment and displacement not only changes one’s social and political status but also challenges an émigré’s perception of self. The need to communicate in a second language (even if one has mastered it at home) increases an exile’s insecurity not only in his/her own eyes but quite often in the eyes of the residents of a newly adopted home country. Fortunately, the “instinct of theatricality” (Evreinov, Teatr kak takovoi) serves an exile both as a protective shield and as a means of reconnecting with his/her sense of self, when one’s essential tools of everyday communication undergo the processes of theatricalization. As a result, the quotidian practice of the exilic experience turns into a performative site of negotiation between the émigré’s self-perception and his/her newly adopted culture’s perception of this exilic subject.

A comprehensive grid for the exilic performative as the site of the émigré’s everyday and artistic negotiation must consist of the description and analysis of the new tendencies in cognition instigated by the exilic being that inspire exilic artists in their everyday and in their professional performative practices. The definition of the exilic performative requires rendering the concepts of performance andperformative beyond the scope of theatre studies and welcomes an expansion of the term performativityto describe and analyze various artistic representations of the exilic self, namely in language, drama, theatrical production, dance, and film.

A performative scene of the exilic wandering embodies the dramaturgy of social and existential dialogue leading to forms of cultural performativity based on the dynamic of people’s interaction framed within its socio-political and linguistic context. It becomes the tool for re-establishing self-identity as the framework for one’s self-imposed (and therefore self-accepted) norms and potentials of societal being. Exiles and other marginalized people or groups can be considered exclusions instigated by the established societal norms and expectations. Therefore, the processes of re-signification of self and of personalization of the forms of societal performativity can be manifested in economic, political, artistic, and social discursive self-expression.

According to Evreinov, our self-performativity is based on the instinct of theatricality and improvisation, the pre-aesthetic and pre-religious need for human cognition, which emerges from our collective unconscious and constitutes our desire to play, to imitate, and to enact. The instinct of theatricality is equal to biological law and it is the uncovering of human nature that is exactly the goal of making theatre. In exile, the instinct of theatricality is defined anew. In the mind of the performer, an exile who is an initiator of communication, becomes estranged. The moment an immigrant starts to instigate a dialogue, his/her vocal and visual differences betray the speaker’s foreignness: the accent of one’s speech, the colour of one’s skin or the cut of one’s clothes makes the exile a marked being, someone who always circulates at the centre of the communicating model. The exile’s theatricalization of self, therefore, becomes estranged and the everyday improvisation loses its flow of transitions.

The theatricality of the exilic experience unfolds within the tension between the exilic individual and the exilic collective performative as a clash of theatrical representation and reception. This process, therefore, is also framed twice: first within the émigré’s own consciousness as a pariah and secondly within the consciousness of the inhabitants of the émigré’s newly adopted country.

In her famous description of how gender is performed and constructed in any given social milieu, Judith Butler writes: “gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts” (Gender Trouble, 179). Similarly and in an even more complex fashion, the exilic self originates in a variety of quotidian, performative acts that an exile constantly produces: “the way we hold ourselves, the way we speak, the spaces we occupy and how we occupy them, all in fact serve to create or bring about the multi-levelled self that these acts are so often taken merely to create or represent” (Loxley, Performativity, 119).

As Butler notes, gender is produced by “the stylization of the body” (Gender Trouble, 179) from without, by the exterior gazes directed towards an individual. Analogously, the exilic self and the exilic body are constructed, performed, and sorted out in the public space. The exilic self, very much as the gendered self, is conditioned by the “conventional gestures, movements and styles [we] produce,” as well as “the colours of the clothes we wear as babies, […] the toys we play with as toddlers, […] or the sports we are made to play at school, to the ways we learn to talk about ourselves” (Loxley, Performativity,119). All these unmarked differences become marked and visible when one crosses a border and emerges as an actor, director, playwright, dancer, or film maker. The culturally unmarked conventions of our psychological and physical being become marked (visible and audible) when we move across the borders; they emerge through the exile’s (foreigner’s) accented voice and body.

An exile often experiences an imbalance between his/her audio and visual comprehensive abilities in which the former are suppressed and dominated by the latter. One’s visual, vestibular (balance) and spatial sense of self and body increase. The weak mastery of a new language leaves one’s ear less active, and as the brain performs the act of substitutions or transfers, it gives controlling powers to one’s visual sensors. This imbalance of the perceptive mechanisms makes an émigré-theatre maker far more sensitive to the visual and kinetic world around, which this artist can then translate into the artistic language of his/her theatrical presentations. This explains why exilic theatre often privileges either the practices of purely movement-based performance, or creates opportunities in text-based theatre for the exilic actor to express oneself through the increased physicality of his/her stage presence.

In addition, life in a new land influences one’s physical expression. Often, an exilic person finds him/herself displaced not only within the new exterior landscapes but also within the bodily topography and kinetic organization that comprises his/her interior landscape (Berthoz, The Brain’s Sense, 5-6). Strangely enough, in exile not only does one’s sense of topographical assurance fade but one’s movements and gestures may become imprecise as well. These processes are familiar to anyone traveling abroad who experiences a kind of culture shock when forced to function in a second language. A similar process occurs upon coming home after a prolonged absence, when it can take hours or even days for the traveler to re-adjust back to his/her familiar geography, sounds, idiomatic expressions, smells and so on.

Exiles with no return ticket in their pockets realize the urge and the inevitability of making their surroundings familiar, of forcefully mastering the techniques of un-defamiliarizarion. To paraphrase Viktor Shklovsky’s classic formula of estrangement, in exile one is forced to learn the skills of making unfamiliar things familiar. These skills include the exile’s excessive self-performativity both in everyday life and on stage, and the reshaping of his/her culturally loaded professional devices. Both the everyday performative skills and the exilic artist’s professional expertise constitute the basis for the aesthetics of the performative in the theatre of exile.

In exile, therefore, the instinct of theatricality appears at the intersection of the existential and theatrical mechanisms that every émigré practices in a new land. The anxiety of exilic experience functions as a reaction to this theatricalization of self as well as a response to the exilic encounters of linguistic duality and cultural hybridity. The challenge of bridging the exile’s original worldviews with the idiom and the cultural traditions of a new country constitutes, in other words, the phenomenon of one’s exilic performative. This exilic performative creates a framework for seeing exilic theatre not only as a state of permanent translation but also as an artistic struggle between traditions. It highlights the practice of the exilic artist to consciously seek a position as an outsider, stressing his “necessity to remain foreign, to be a floating island that does not put down roots in a particular culture” (Turner, Eugenio Barba, 23).

The widespread variety of intercultural, postcultural, transcultural, intracultural, and multicultural theatre makes the boundaries between the cultures involved in the artistic exchange indistinct. This variety produces a generic fusion of previously established theatrical utterances, which reflects Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic model and sanctions the appearance of situational art, produced in response to certain social, economic, or political situations in which an artist might find him/herself; and narcissistic art (to paraphrase Linda Hutcheon’s term), which features as its subject matter the artist him/herself and thus uses a range of self-reflective, (auto)biographic and (self-)estrangement techniques. However, the work of the exilic artist, discontented with the unwanted role of community preacher and looking for collaborative opportunities within the host country, does not fit these practices.

Cultural explosion serves as the first step in the processes of exilic adaptation; it presents the exilic artist with a moment of unpredictability (Lotman, Kul’tura i vzryv, 191) as a possibility for a meeting with the unknown. This possibility acts for an exilic artist as a source of self-estrangement, artistic encouragement and aesthetic pleasure. An artist in exile simultaneously “accentuates the potency of what is given, of the forces that have shaped us before we could shape ourselves” (Hoffman, ‘The New Nomad’, 60); and also makes use of his/her newly acquired position as an outsider. A moment of cultural explosion, the state in between, becomes in Joseph Brodsky’s words the condition of a freed individual, someone who has sought and finally acquired “a posture of somebody isolated, operating in his own idiosyncratic way, somebody on the outside instead of in the thick of things” (in Hadley, ‘Conversation with Joseph Brodsky’).

Accordingly, the cultural explosion triggers processes of improvisation and theatricalization of self when an exile is forced to experiment and improvise with his/her experience in a new country, i.e., to (re)construct order in the disorder that surrounds him/her. Cultural explosion resolves itself in the further condition of hybridity, creolization and glocalization that presents the idea of a fusion of global and local tendencies in the exile-expatriate’s life and art through which one balances the position of in-betweenand above. It postulates and conditions the state of the exilic performative as the émigré’s site for negotiation of self.

A product of cultural explosion, the exilic theatre originates in the collision of the culturally differentiated contexts of the exilic artist and his/her adopted culture. This collision maintains a moment of unpredictability as “a set of options” of possible structural and cultural positions making all participating elements equal. As a result, exilic theatre replicates the new tendencies in cognition to which every exile is subjected in a new land, and echoes them thematically in text-based performance and through changes in the actors’ vocal and physical work in devised performance. Exilic theatre advances the principles of scenic glocalization as a state of permanent translation and struggle between traditions. It refuses territorial definitions and prefers to function within temporal or existential dimensions of being.

Exilic theatre privileges the position of the outsider. It cherishes the state of liminality and thus it neither seeks any influential role within the culture of the dominant, nor identifies itself with the culture of that linguistic and cultural community to which an exilic artist belongs. In other words, exilic theatre sees itself growing in parallel to the adopted culture and of its diaspora. It tends to engage with the culture of the dominant and to develop itself both within and separately from the administrative frames of the adopted state. Exilic theatre privileges the sporadic, mobile, and flexible life style of the artistic communitas. It tends to live on the outskirts of the society; it reserves the right to float freely between languages, traditions and cultural referents, and thus it presents an administrative challenge to cultural and institutional bodies. Exilic theatre acts as the expression of borderlessness, flexibility, and free movement between separate cultural, ethnic and communal entities. In this sense, exilic theatre can be rendered cosmopolitan, built by the artists who are both the citizens of the world and the detached observers of it.

The move to a new land forces one to relive an earlier stage of his/her cognitive development. The need to learn a new language, to find some new means to communicate with the world takes a grown up person back to one’s childhood. Unable to adequately express oneself in a new language, an exilic adult is forced to face one’s own existence as a particular psycho-physical, intellectually driven and mortal being a new. Unable to properly communicate with the new world, an exile repeatedly asks him/herself the essentialist questions, such as: Who am I? Where am I coming from? What is the purpose of my existence? What am I doing in this world? and Why am I doing what I’ve chosen or was pushed do to?

This search for the “essentials” often makes an exilic artist “a modernist by default”; someone who in today’s age of postmodernist reproduction and simulacra resists cultural entropy. In one’s artistic utterances, an exile is bound to simultaneously become autobiographical and to search for wider audiences. An exilic artist, therefore, seeks out a multilayered discourse that remains deeply personal to the artist but also allows others to see experiences that may be analogical or differential to their own lives. This quest, nevertheless, remains utopian. It suggests the model of multiple or personal modernities for which the exilic artists opt.

As Naficy claims, the authority of exilic artists derives from their position as “subjects inhabiting interstitial places and sites of struggle” (An Accented Cinema, 12). The creativity is necessarily colored by the exilic artists’ goal to remember, reconstruct and re-evoke the homeland left behind. As Naficy writes, exilic artists/filmmakers “memorialize the homeland by fetishizing it in the form of cathected sounds, images, and chronotopes that are circulated intertextually in exilic popular culture, including in films and music videos. The exiles’ primary relationship, in short, is with their countries and cultures of origin and with the sight, sound, taste, and feel of an originary experience of an elsewhere at other times”. (An Accented Cinema, 12) Still Naficy’s view of exilic art provides a limited frame of the Lot’s wife gaze or (self)-reflective nostalgia in Svetlana Boym’s terms (Future of Nostalgia, 41), the gaze tuned into the “prohibited direction” of once lost past.

I propose the concept of the performative nostalgia based on the Phoenix phenomenon, which postulates a view of exilic art originating in the trajectory of the émigré’s gaze slowly turning from the direction of “over-there” to “here-and-now,” focusing either inwardly on the exile’s very concrete Self or on the circumstances of the exilic dasein. The gaze, however, is never fixed; the view is never complete. The ambiguity and flexibility of the exilic position is always bound to oscillate between there and here, between past and present, between lost and newly acquired homes. Hence, this work renders exilic art and thus exilic theatre as rooted not only in territory but also in time, when a historical epoch and a particular exilic flight together create an exilic experience and condition.

I see exile as a personal voyage and an everlasting lesson about one’s self, time and space. Based on the constant re-mapping and re-fashioning of Self in a new country, new language and new culture, the condition of exile facilitates one’s effort for performance. It suggests that exilic art oscillates between the highly idiosyncratic experience of the exilic artist and his/her search for a new means of expression, marked by this artist’s need to function in a new language and in the immediate proximity of his/her newly acquired audiences.

Exilic art often builds on the autobiographical experience of the author, who strives to transgress the universality of pain and hope. Exilic theater, therefore, although informed by the highly traumatic circumstances of its production, is capable of addressing the most profound questions of human existence as well as acting as a therapeutic tool of hope for those who are struggling to succeed in a new land and those who have already achieved something.

Moreover, exilic theatre challenges the binary oppositions proposed by intercultural performance practices and their theories. If the practice of intercultural performance is characterized by the dialogic exchange between the elements of Context A and the elements of Context B, which creates an intertextual activity within a performance text (Fischer-Lichte, The Show and the Gaze, 285), the exilic theatre is not dialectical, binary or linear. It consists of the artists who carry within themselves the complex, multilayered and multivocal performative texts that are always adapted and changed by the surrounding context of a theatrical event that they become a part of.

Exilic theatre, based on the principles of amalgamation and continuity, adapts to the new structures. The exiles maintain their new identity and stay true to the techniques brought from home. They make the theatrical stage a manifestation of their professional and cultural self, an assertion of the emigré’s dignity and pride. In other words, exilic theatre revolts against the processes of decontextualization and desemantization of intercultural performance, in which the elements of one theatrical tradition placed within a production originating in another theatrical tradition become only the counterpoints or riffs on the background of the major text of a performance.

Exilic theatre is the result of the amalgamation of one’s inherited cultural traditions and those of a new world. It often stages and maintains the tension between continuity and difference, and so for an exilic artist it becomes a search for a professional homeland which “transcends cultural specificity and encourages the development of an identity that is formed from living in the theatre rather than a society” (Turner, Eugenio Barba, 23).


[1] Yana Meerzon, born in the former USSR, is director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Theatre at the University of Ottawa in Canada. She is author of a major study on Michael Chekhov entitled The Path of a Character (Peter Lang,2005) and was co-editor of the volume Performance, Exile and America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). She has published in numerous journals including Modern Drama, the New England Theatre Journal, Theatre Research in Canada, Canadian Theatre Review and the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. This essay was published with the agreement of Palgrave Macmillan.

Copyright © 2011 Yana Meerzon
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Theatre in Exile: Defining the Field as Performing Odyssey