Enlightened Catastrophism

Home / Journal EASTAP numéro 1 – 2018 / Enlightened Catastrophism

Enlightened Catastrophism

A Conversation between Milo Rau and Harald Wolff


Enlightened Catastrophism
A Conversation between Milo Rau and Harald Wolff
On the Occasion of the 60th Anniversary Conference of the Dramaturgische Gesellschaft, 2016

Harald Wolff: Can theatre change the world?

Milo Rau: In my experience: yes. But one has to take the theatre for what it is: It doesn’t create pragmatic, only symbolic spaces. In The Congo Tribunal, for example, we analysed what an international system of economic jurisdiction might look like. The perpetrators were summoned to a tribunal, but in the end obviously nobody got incarcerated, there weren’t any legal consequences. That’s exactly why The Congo Tribunal worked: because it took place under artificial circumstances. For the International Court of Justice in The Hague all that would have been completely impossible.

Harald Wolff: In our post-political period there is a widespread feeling that political action only amounts to meaningless simulation. What are you recommending to people who feel helpless in this way? After all, you wrote a book called What Should We Do?

Milo Rau: To question the possibility of political action as such is a typical form of thinking by an outmoded European sociology. It is of no help when describing topical forms of action. Already the affirmatively used term ‘post-politics’ is a chimera contradicted by empirical facts. I am always surprised how quickly things get in motion when people define themselves as political subjects and organize in groups – for better or for worse. If cultural pessimists insinuate the impossibility of political action, they do so out of wilful blindness, which is deeply tragic and culpable. That’s why I use the Œdipus metaphor in my play Compassion. Pretending to know nothing about injustice in the world doesn’t mean I am innocent; on the contrary, it makes me culpable. On the flipside of this attitude naturally are the widespread false theatrics of morality and concern. What we are witnessing from so-called activist artists for months now with regard to the refugee crisis is simply pathetic. To research Compassion, seven months ago we visited the refugee camp at Idomeni on the border between Greece and Macedonia. We refer to that in the play’s prologue. If on Facebook I now suddenly see good old Ai Weiwei trudging around there, dazed and confused, and using this global conflagration to light a ciggie just before the camp gets evacuated, obviously that’s a hilarious example of luxury-trash. But it is also double treason: treason against the refugees and treason against political art, which is drained of all meaning.

Harald Wolff: This constitutes an appeal for a seismic theatre. If you search out places like Molenbeek or Idomeni as early as that, it means these developments aren’t a surprise; they were to be expected.

Milo Rau: I am rather bored by seasonal outbursts of hysteria. It’s always the same procedure. First you have the economists. Then you get the civil society with its various groupings. After that, already much-delayed, the committees of experts and the governments follow. And finally the artists and theatre people stumble onto the stage. The refugee crisis was glaringly obvious for twenty years and has escalated during the last decade. In the theatre we have been dealing with it for two, maybe three years now.

Harald Wolff: Maybe the question of political possibilities for the theatre is a different one, if you organize trials in Russia or with Congolese politicians that create a massive stir. What is your motivation? What drives you to make theatre, when there are so many other ways to be politically active?

Milo Rau: Theatre for me is a way to live and to learn. I am an emotional situationist, I need the pressure to act, to feel existentially responsible. Actually, we are all traumatized by things which happen but can’t be grasped, can’t be shown. My attempt is the following: to make things observable with all their conflicts, their tragic antagonism, to politicise them. Maybe it sounds trite, but I really like to work with people as a team. Theatre is per se a social form of art. To gather in a room, to participate together in a live event, creates a situation I cannot control. In addition, the stage has a magical function, it transforms people. The players suddenly have a knowledge, ways of thinking and acting which they didn’t have outside of the theatre. There is no inherently political or unpolitical action, only a space in which our actions – however private they may be – become political. That’s the theatrical space. A crime is only a crime. Put onto the stage, however, it becomes tragic. Theatre is completely open and free; it formulates its own rules during the process of playing, whilst a trial is subject to very strict external rules.

Harald Wolff: Politics that claim to be without alternative abolishes itself. That was the impression for many people in Germany over the last few years. But suddenly reality seemed to transcend it: Angela Merkel not only opened the borders, but also kick-started political debate again. All of a sudden there was a massive political confrontation about alternative ways of proceeding. But in an essay for the weekly paper Die Zeit you called it the beginning of the last stage towards post-politics. What did you mean by that?

Milo Rau: The big moral gesture of opening the border was made out of fear for the European project. Merkel knew the EU would collapse if Germany didn’t strategically help the Balkan states by taking in refugees. Indeed, there was this brief moment when the gates of heaven opened and you could see beyond Europe’s borders. Politics had truly returned. But in the wings already the deals with Turkey were done – and since around Christmas the economic perspective has dominated again. Today we are once more in the midst of an old-fashioned imperial debate about what is pragmatically possible, and which doesn’t reach further than the Greek isles.

Harald Wolff: Your use of the word politics contains a strongly utopian moment. That is a very philosophical approach.

Milo Rau: Well, reality is far ahead of any kind of utopia! The global economy is exceedingly utopian; for more than a hundred years it has categorically left all national or historic borders behind. The phone by means of which we are communicating is made with products and work processes from more than 100,000 subcontractors worldwide. The crazy thing is, there isn’t an artistic conscience – a moral sensitivity operating on this global level. In the theatre we are still following Lessing’s Hamburg Dramaturgy, but we need a Congolese, a Syrian, a Russian, a Chinese dramaturgy. It is the job of artists and intellectuals to find ways and means of showing what is really happening. We have to understand local conflicts as the universal conflicts they in fact are.

Harald Wolff: Celebrating our 60th anniversary, we don’t only want to look back but rather into the future. You often refer to David Van Reybrouck’s book, Congo. The Epic History of a People. He claims that completely collapsed regions like Eastern Congo or Syria and the resulting streams of refugees, however archaic they might appear, aren’t our past but our future. What kind of future are you envisaging?

Milo Rau: The whole global economy and the channels of supply are connected to the combustion engine. What will happen when we finally run out of oil in thirty years? What room for manoeuvre will remain for us? Who is the political subject? What are our manufacturing conditions? These are questions you can ask very well, and perhaps better than anywhere else, in the theatre, because they will be answered locally, face-to-face. And, we are living in a democracy. Tomorrow we are free to vote and to change things. That’s the open window showing us the sky. We aren’t bound by any constraints – at the end of the day these are all imaginary. We have to detect the existing possibilities for action.

Harald Wolff: What a marvellous way to end our conversation!

Milo Rau: But here’s the antithesis: for me, the glory of tragic art is defined by the knowledge that every political action is bound to fail, that all hope is without foundation. There is a law of inertia in human history: capitalism will function until it collapses – and collapse it will, sometime this century. For me it’s the artist’s prime task to address this moment of futility, to imagine the inevitable catastrophe. My term for that is enlightened catastrophism. And after this collapse there will be a chance for renewal – albeit initially at a rather local level.

Translation: Michael Raab

First published in: dramaturgie. zeitschrift der dramaturgischen gesellschaft, No. 2, 2016. (Shortened version of a conversation during the 60th anniversary conference of the Dramaturgische Gesellschaft in 2016: ‘What should we do? Political action now’.)