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TALES FROM TERRA INCOGNITA – Writer
TALES FROM TERRA INCOGNITA

Ioana IeronIm

IN THINKING ABOUT THE STATE OF BALKAN DRAMA today – in particular, six plays from Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Serbia, all of which have enjoyed considerable international successes between 1994 and 2007 – I have to notice once again, as a Romanian, a paradoxical situation: Despite the proximity of our neighboring countries in Eastern Europe, we typically do not know a lot about one another. “Balkan” is the Turkish name that was given to the European part of the Ottoman Empire, a zone imprecisely defined and redefined, with shift- ing frontiers. The nations in the area prefer not to belong; most of the time they try to persuade themselves and others that the Balkans start somewhere beyond their respective borders.

Still, whether it is valued for its color or blamed for its violent conflicts, the Balkan world is fascinating, and its culture remains quite varied. The Balkan nations share a vast spread of similar experiences. (A territory of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, the Balkans suffered the pressures of the Czarist, the Austrian, then the Austro-Hungarian empires, as well as the devastation of World War II and the repressive force of the Soviet Union.) When these four countries were part of the Soviet bloc, there were major differences in each of their experiences with socialist totalitarianism. The impact of those differences has been significant in the theatre, an inevitably political art form.
Albania experienced the most repressive Communist regime in the

Balkan region. Its “theatre was the most affected part of literature,” says Ardian-Christian Kuciuk, an Albanian writer living in Romania, who adds that prominent authors “were executed by the Communist regime or died in prison. Their works were publicly burned, their plays were condemned forever.” Such repression hindered the development of true theatre in Albania. As was the Communist wont, state-approved theatres were established with the intention of spreading radical ideology and socialist realism. But the enormous pressure of history, wars and death became mere banalities; the exhaustion and poverty of the populace prevented theatre from becoming a cultural force in Albania. Furthermore, the usual function of theatre as a medium for reinforcing national consciousness and cultural cohesion did not rise above the level of provincialism.

In 1992, after the fall of Communism, Dominique Dolmieu, a French director, staged the work of Kasem Trebeshina, an Albanian dissident freed from political prison, in Paris. Dolmieu made an enormous contribution by enthusiastically promoting East European theatre (Romanian work included) in the French-speaking world. Through his productions, debates (at the Maison d’Europe et d’Orient in Paris) and the publication of plays (in L’Espace d’un instant), works by such Albanian writers as Minush Jeno and Ilirjan Beshani, Eqrem Basha and Anton Pashku (the latter two reside in Kosovo) were widely heard and distributed.

The recent situation has been changing rapidly. Stefan Çapaliku, an Albanian writer of the post-totalitarian period, studied not only in his native country but also abroad. Çapaliku’s best-known work, Allegretto Albania (2007), tells the story of a family of a music critic who becomes a victim of the traditional kanun, or blood vengeance, the family is forced to be confined in its own home. (To illustrate the pertinence of this ancient practice that resurfaced after the fall of Communism: Several years ago, a theatre director in Shkodër, one of Albania’s historic towns, faced a brutal vendetta that left him similarly housebound.) The play’s action takes place entirely in the living room. There the family studies the old rules of the blood feud, with its confusing and absurd details, while simultaneously watching the world news on TV. The two sons are cool boys who can speak English and take every opportunity to do so. The reductio ad absurdum continues as a humanitarian group provides the family with the neces- sities of everyday life, including a computer and an Internet connection with the enemy family. The person assigned the task of administering the ancestral punishment appears on the TV news – as one of the soldiers in the Albanian peacekeeping forces just back from Iraq. The play offers a sense of optimism: The bloody, archaic custom cannot possibly last much longer under the circumstances of global communication.

Çapaliku’s plays have been performed in several European coun- tries, and he is now at the forefront of those who are contributing to the encouragement of promising new directions in contemporary Albanian culture. Albanian authors from the former Yugoslavia are also gaining international visibility. One example is Jeton Neziraj, a young playwright from Pristina, who founded the Multimedia Center in that city and has been recently appointed artistic director of the National Theatre in Kosovo. His writings on modern drama and the sociology of theatre attempt to build bridges in a world traumatized by conflict and to bring nuanced communication in a world under the deadly grip of Manichaeism.

BEFORE 1989, BULGARIA HAD A SOCIALIST REGIME THAT WAS somewhere between repressive Albania and relaxed former Yugoslavia. As the accompanying essay by the Bulgarian critic Kalina Stefanova attests (see “The Tradition of the Non-Traditional,” page 32), theatre there, as in other countries of the Communist bloc, was Aesopian: Audiences were trained in decoding the subversive meanings encrypted in the texts. It was a deeply political theatre. In 1991, the French public had the opportunity to view some of Stanislas Stratiev’s theatrical allegories, which ridiculed the absurdities of totalitarianism (e.g., a story about a bus driver who ter- rorized his passengers). Both Stratiev and Jordan Raditchikov, two giants of the modern Bulgarian theatre, began their international careers in this context.

In 1999, Bulgaria was represented at Fes- tival d’Avignon in France with an exemplary new play, Colonel Bird by Hristo Boytchev. The most prominent initiative in the Bulgarian alternative theatre followed from the works of the celebrated stage directors Margarita Mladenova and Ivan Dobchev, who emerged from the group centered at the anthropological theatre of Sfumato, which had been founded in 1989 on strict Stanislavskian principles. They, too, performed at Avignon. After the fall of Communism, the theatre of the absurd flourished in Bulgaria (Beckett, for example, finally began to be performed in that country in the 1990s). But, as Stefanova notes, about that time Bulgarian theatre moved into the streets; the development of theatre proper has since become increasingly apolitical and now tends in the direction of mere popular entertainment. Consequently, young people often equate plays focusing on social and political problems with the theatre of the old totalitarian regime.

Bulgaria’s repertory now rarely includes original pieces. Boytchev, whose plays are performed in some 30 countries, remains relatively little known at home. In Orchestra Titanic, one of his best-known works, a 1999 “sad comedy,” as the author describes it, the characters (who call themselves “former human beings”) are homeless vagabonds who have lost their identity, live in a train station and exist on whatever the passengers deign to throw out of the train when passing through. This image is the comic and bitter fabric of the Balkans – a station where the trains rarely stop. The helpless characters thus learn, according to the dramatist-narrator, about the immense power of illusion, in which humanity finds its strength to survive. Finally, a train picks up these disinherited people – but it is a most disturbing train, for there are no other passengers, and there is no engineer. This theatrical parable, with its absurdist air of fantasy in the Ionesco/Beckett tradition, succeeds in illuminating the depths of human despair.

IN YUGOSLAVIA, JOSIP BROZ TITO’S SOCIALIST REGIME, the most relaxed in the whole Communist world, allowed its citizens to travel internationally and gave them a relative liberty of expression, while the state generously supported the arts. Yugoslavian theatre developed under far more favorable conditions than did that of Albania and Bulgaria. The Belgrade International Theatre Festival (BITEF), for example, was founded in 1967 as a venue for new theatre tendencies. The festival soon became a major world event, a venue all the important names of world theatre have visited. Its establish- ment coincided with the birth of a strong spirit of the avant-garde in the mid-1960s. “We grew up on the BITEF,” writes Goran Stefanovski in his 2005 work Tales from the Wild East. “The Living Theatre came to Yugoslavia in 1968, when hardly anyone had heard about them outside New York City. Grotowski, Brook and Robert Wilson were household names in Yugoslavia. We brushed shoulders with them. We believed that we sent them to the West – that they came to show us what they had discovered. And only then, after gaining our approval, would they go and show it elsewhere.”

BITEF had its source in Atelje 212, which was founded by the legendary Mira Trailovic in Belgrade in 1956, in a hall of little more than 200 seats. Atelje 212 was dedicated to the contemporary avant-garde – it was the first venue in Eastern Europe to stage Waiting for Godot. After Beckett came Jean- Paul Sartre, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, Arthur Kopit and Jean Genet. Several of the leading playwrights of Yugoslavia (includ- ing Dusan Kovacevic) also emerged from BITEF. Cultivating an avant-garde theatre of radical pessimism, with its acid humor and sharp edges, and supporting a thriving underground theatre were hardly negligible achievements. Today Atelje 212 is larger in size and one of the best-equipped theatres in the Balkans.

Pondering over what later evolved in former Yugoslavia, Stefanovski takes a pes- simistic outlook: “Perhaps it was because the Yugoslav experience was so sophisticated that it met such a shameful and violent end. Belgrade never really appropriated the nov- elties of its BITEF festival. It watched and observed, but absorbed very little. Under a veneer of Europeanism, it kept its Byz- antine narrative intact.” Nevertheless, the effect of BITEF’s openness was profound and enduring. Those who recognized and aligned their theatrical efforts with the most daring, contemporary, creative forces – being free to travel and having access to theatrical information – set solid professional standards in drama. That progressive orientation has contributed significantly to the education of the younger generation of playwrights in the former Yugoslavia.

Young Serbian dramatists such as Biljana Srbljanovic and Milena Markovic, as well as others even younger than they, studied the dramatic arts in Belgrade with some of the country’s most important theatrical minds as their teachers. In turn, Srbljanovic now teaches there.

Stefanovski studied theatre in Belgrade, too, and, building on the theatrical tradition of his own Macedonian family, he founded in 1986 a program for playwriting and script- writing at the University of Skopje in the Republic of Macedonia. A leading playwright and screenwriter of international renown, Stefanovski is now based in Canterbury and teaches at Canterbury Christ Church University’s department of media. Among Stefanovski’s students were the Macedonian dramatists Zanina Mircevska and Dejan Dukovski. The author of the symbolic play Powder Keg, Dukovski teaches today at the University of Skopje.

Beyond historical or political disrup- tions and generational frictions, sure signs of quality – such as uncompromising cre- ative freedom, and a skillful knowledge of form – are visible among even the youngest generation of dramatists.

Dukovski’s Powder Keg, in particular, gives theatrical expression to the failure and collective tragedy of the formerly Yugoslav people. Structured to suggest “a spiral of violence,” the play’s independent episodes take place in a no-man’s land (a pub, a train, at a table, at a door, in a prison, on the ocean, and in a hotel); the concatenated scenes retain a similar character from one scene to the next. In its strange horror and poetry, this 1994 play conveys a sense of the ubiquity of violence. The first and the last episodes show us the same two mutually destructive characters, the aggressor/torturer and the victim, drinking and chatting together in a pub. Violence appears as a natural and constant aspect of humanity; the reaction of theatre to the war-torn environment, as local critics note, is to explode with blood, sweat and sperm. The aim is to push audiences out of their consumer-guilty passivity as inert onlookers as well as to cut into people’s com- fort zones and force them to confront their demons. Indeed, nowhere else in Europe was such an attitude more justified than in the war-ridden former Yugoslavia. The world can still be a tougher place than whatever we see on the stage, Macedonian theatre scholar Jelena Luzina has noted, however shocking and subversive that theatre may be.

DRAGAN KLAIC,THE PROMINENT CRITIC now living in Amsterdam, wrote that theatre in Yugoslavia between 1970 and 1980 was able, at times, to refer to and even anticipate “the contradictions of socialism in Yugoslavia, the failures, the accumulating conflicts: past col- lective traumas, which could be seen despite the taboos.” Some playwrights, he continued, even succeeded in anticipating (obliquely, of course, since freedom of expression had its well-understood limits) “the disintegration and catastrophe that followed.”

One such playwright was a Serbian, Dusan Kovacevic, whose Radovan III is a black comedy that has played in Belgrade with considerable success from the time of its pre- miere in 1973. When the play was presented with American actors in Washington, D.C., under a Center for Strategic and International Studies initiative in 1994 (at the height of the war in Sarajevo, the news of which was being broadcast on TV screens around the world), the main character, Radovan, a wild nationalist who dreams of destroying his enemies and speaks in a language of outra- geous violence, provoked the sensitivities of an audience comprised of several hundred politicians, political scientists, congressmen, senators, think-tank academics, artists and diplomats. At a time of peace, Radovan would have been simply absurd and improbable. But in the 1990s, Radovan’s words were literal reflections of a living nightmare in a bloody landscape. A heated discussion followed the performance, exploring the ways in which the arts, particularly theatre, could be used as a tool of political analysis – how artists have antennae that quickly receive the signals of social alarm. Although Kovacevic had, for years, spoken out through his character Radovan about the brutal, fratricide mentality that was building up in Serbia, the catastrophe had still not been prevented.

“Theatre cannot stop the war or repair injustice,” wrote Klaic, “but it can show us how power loses its moral ground, how the dream of omnipotence can blind us, and how the supposed victors are defeated.” It is a viable option to show such crisis on stage, but to be successful, it requires a minimal distance. (Klaic remembers that, when he saw the women refugees of Kosovo, he sensed that he had seen them before: in Andrei Serban’s Trojan Women at La MaMa E.T.C. in New York.) The disaster in Bosnia has inspired foreign playwrights such as Romanian-born Matei Visniec and Lisa D’Amour of the U.S., as well as playwrights from the now- dismembered Yugoslavia, such as Srbljanovic, Markovic and the prolific Stefanovski. The latter dramatist wrote Sarajevo in 1993. The play that established Sarah Kane, Blasted, is understood to have been inspired by terrifying images from Bosnia as well.

Srbljanovic’s 1998 play Family Stories probably comes closest to answering the ques- tion: How was the war possible in the former Yugoslavia? The script puts grown-up actors in the roles of children whose game is to play grown-ups, which proves to be a theatrical instrument of outstanding efficiency. The children in the play repeat like a mantra what they have heard grown-ups say, and then they act out their preconceived notions of what grown-ups would do under similar circum- stances. Playing at killing moves inexorably toward real murder. [The English translation of Family Stories was published in American Theatre in April ’03.]

How does one live through war as a woman – that is, finding oneself in distress- ing circumstances in a society dominated by a rampant machismo? This is the question that Markovic, also from Serbia, addresses in her 2002 play Tracks, outlining a time before, during and after the war with intense poetic strength. One actress plays various manifesta- tions of a woman (from a simple young girl to a prostitute to a psychologist, and so forth). In all of those embodiments, she finds herself subjected to contempt, aggression and the risk of physical destruction. The play leaves behind a number of unanswered but demand- ing questions: How can one exist in society after such an evil has been perpetrated? How can one live with the unspeakable trauma that the war leaves behind in social relationships, not to mention the relation between men and women? Will love even be possible again?

ALTHOUGH THE MUSES ARE FAMOUSLY silent at time of war, theatre life has neverthe- less survived, even under the most adverse conditions. The National Theatre in Zagreb, affected by the bombings, kept offering public performances and a sense of normality (as well as physical shelter). Similarly, the stage director Haris Pasovic organized, against all odds, the MESS Festival, which hosted some 100 theatrical performances of small and experimental theatre companies between 1992 and 1995 in Sarajevo.

On the other hand, culture fueled the spirit of nationalism throughout the Balkan region. “Intolerance was spread through the media, hatred and the idea of ethnic purity were derived from national traditions, cultural icons and images were cultivated by national- ist cultural productions,” Klaic wrote of the phenomenon; objects of cultural heritage “were systematically neglected and destroyed by military operations in times of war and looting in times of peace.”

When moderate, internationalist atti- tudes were no longer tolerated in their own countries, many artists and intellectuals from the Balkan countries of Central and South- eastern Europe became exiles. Writing about the identity problems of the former Yugo- slavia, Anne Madelain (editor in chief of the Au sud de l’Est, dedicated to Balkan subjects) quotes David Albahari, a writer from Belgrade now living in Canada: “Because I continued to believe in a common language, I became a kind of prehistoric man, one who inhabited a history that no longer existed and a time that everybody said was no longer there.”

Predictably, exile appears in the newer plays as a major, recurrent theme. Stefanovski’s Hotel Europa (2000) – an avant-garde script that has been staged monumentally by 9 directors and performed by 25 actors from mainly Balkan and Baltic countries (the five-city project was produced by former Living Theatre actor Chris Torch, now of Stockholm-based Intercult) – depicts a Europe that at once attracts and rejects, a continent in which masses of people do migrate, only to encounter still more borders, old and new. Performed in a derelict building, the play takes place in a seedy hotel whose rooms (some of them installations) are visited by the audience. It is a space of transition for people who have lost their way along “the fault line dividing Europe.” There is the sense of humanity traumatized – these people may have fled a ruined city (as stage director Naum Panovski suggests). The characters are marginal individuals from Eastern Europe, Gastarbeiter, mafiosi, nostalgic dreamers, the disinherited and the profiteers. The diversity of Eastern European voices is rendered with virtuosity and a fine sense of the real thing: from earthy to the poetic, from the up-to- date Euro-bureaucratese to local slang, from “europeretta” kitsch to a suave non-figurative word usage springing from realms of the unconscious and filtered over centuries.

As noted, there are significant differ- ences between countries in Southeastern Europe, and the plays mentioned above differ considerably from one another as well. Never- theless there is in them a sense of a common space, a recognizable slant of imagination and a familiar local ring.

Balkan dramatists have an unerring eye for the incongruities of a world in dis- agreement with itself. They have a quick, spontaneous instinct for the vast distances separating appearance from substance, the wretchedness of immediate realities from fantasies of historical glory.

It is a world that proclaims pain but denies tragedy. There are profound reasons why true tragedy is foreign to our world today in general—even if Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller may have still seen the possi- bilities for the expression of tragedy, founded on human dignity. Periods when “social values and moral norms become blurred or uncertain”—as in Stefanovski’s definition, having in mind the Balkan experience— will be associated with tragicomedy: “The been terrain reserved for two or three major directors at any one time. But after the staff changes of the mid-’90s, the National started inviting a range of talented directors to work there, including directing students, like Galin Stoev, who had not yet graduated from the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts vision of tragicomedy is the vision of helpless desperation. It is the vision of horror. But, paradoxically, it’s very much like our everyday lives. We grin and bear it. We go on.”

Recent Balkan dramas come out of a tradition rich in nuance and color, poetry, vision and crude contrasts, where unspeak- able cruelty can coexist with innocence. The absurd is at home in that territory, where people give birth to many kinds of humor, which helps them survive in a world that has rarely given them the power to control their own destinies. The Balkans is for many a terra incognita, and such outstanding dramatic texts privilege us to learn more about this unknown world. ZS

Poet and writer loana leronim has also served as Romania’s cultural counselor in Washington, D.C., and as program director for Fulbright U.S.-Romanian exchanges in Bucharest. This essay is adapted from her preface to Dramaturgie contemporana din Balcani (Balkan Drama Today), containing six recent plays from the Balkans (“Camil Petrescu” Foundation, Bucharest, 2008).

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