Introduction to ‘Spectres of Europe: European Theatre between Communitarianism and Cosmopolitanism’

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Introduction to ‘Spectres of Europe: European Theatre between Communitarianism and Cosmopolitanism’

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While for the last four centuries Europe has exported its political models and the consequences of clashes between its nations around the world, it is now facing the contradictions of such politics. Although respect for human rights and the right to asylum are still formally declared as indispensable to all European democracies, in response to mass migration from impoverished areas of the world to the rich centres, the radical right and conservative politics in Europe have grown significantly. This turbulence in the political arena of almost every European democracy is challenging the modern ideal of cosmopolitanism which, according to Étienne Balibar,1] goes hand-in-hand with citizenship in modern nations. The international and multicultural foundations of cosmopolitanism collide with what Balibar calls ‘public communitarianism’, which is usually concerned with the protection of so-called ‘traditional values’. Although contemporary societies are irreducible to a single model of national assimilation, one can notice the recent strengthening of conservative communitarianism in Europe, ‘centred on the state and its exclusive claim to incarnate the universal’.2] Balibar argues that such a version of communitarianism demands and allows a permanent stigmatization of the foreigner.

The aim of the Essays Section in this first issue of the European Journal of Theatre and Performance is to encourage critical thinking – embedded in theatrical, aesthetic, ethical and sociological concepts – about past and present ideologies which have shaped ‘identity politics’ in Europe and beyond European borders. Nowadays there are many performing arts productions that challenge (realistically or metaphorically) authoritarian tendencies and conservative politics in Europe. Some of them practice ‘fearless speech’3] and, by doing so, position themselves against all kinds of prejudices, including the ‘antitheatrical prejudice’.4] When planning and conceptualising the Essays Section, we were predominantly interested in essays investigating the relationship between theatre practice/institutions and communitarianism/cosmopolitanism, especially the ways in which theatre and performance artists have critically participated in debates on national, European, or civic identities. Authors of the eight essays published in this section offer their readings of the many contradictions in these processes, while highlighting several artists and theatres that are important representatives of a critical and progressive theatre in contemporary Europe.

Who is allowed to represent whom on stage, and in the arts in general? And how should we deal with the alterity of the Other(s) on stage? These questions are the starting point of the article ‘Singular Plural Theatre’ by Nikolaus Müller-Schöll, in which he argues that theatre’s contribution to the debate on identity and diversity lies in its questioning of the very logic of identity as such. With regard to Jan Lauwers’ production Blind Poet, and referring briefly to some other examples, he shows that theatre has the privilege of questioning these boundaries by confronting us with the foreign Other within ourselves. Lauwers and the Needcompany are working on a form of performance art, at the centre of which we find the ‘singular plural’ of each character.

Whereas Müller-Schöll’s article provides an overview of the topic, other essays focus on particular case studies – theatre groups, artists, events or performances – which are analysed in detail. Rosaria Ruffini’s essay ‘Alle soglie d’Europa: Il Good Chance Theatre e la sperimentazione di linguaggi performativi nei centri di prima accoglienza e nei campi per rifugiati’ investigates the Good Chance Theatre, a network of international artists operating in the refugee camps and in the Reception Centres for Migrants. Founded in 2015, in the unofficial Calais camp, the Good Chance Theatre has developed a network in France and in Great Britain, aiming to increase spaces of experimentation, where the performative language challenges multiple identities in transition. This case study considers the role, responsibility and advantage of being an artist facing mass migration, and offers the possibility to reflect on migrants’ journey (factual or figurative) to reach Europe, and to become new Europeans.

However, what does it mean to be ‘European’ today? By exploring Thomas Bellinck’s Domo de Eŭropa Historio en Ekzilo, Jasper Delbecke’s article ‘Lemon Juicer Merkel: Where the Real and the Fictional Europe Meet’ seeks to demonstrate how Europe’s resort to its past is more than a desperate answer in the absence of a new narrative for the future of Europe. As he shows, this nostalgic reflex is part of a broader phenomenon that is both a response to and a symptom of a temporal crisis, emphasizing our inability to cope with the past and to imagine alternative futures. With Domo as an instrument, and with the insights of Andreas Huyssen, François Hartog and Svetlana Boym as a theoretical framework, Delbecke explores how theatre practices can help to overcome our inability to deal with the recalcitrant past.

The concept of ‘nostalgia’, and particularly Boym’s distinction between ‘reflective’ and ‘restorative’ nostalgia, is equally important for Dick Zijp’s analysis of Dutch cabaret in his essay ‘The Politics of Humour and Nostalgia in Dutch Cabaret’ in which he shows how social critique and conservative political narratives can clash and coexist in cabaret performances. Zijp reads closely the famous Wim Sonneveld’s cabaret song ‘Het Dorp’ (1965) and two of its parodies (2004 version by Alex Klaasen/Jurrian van Dongen and Erik van Muiswinkel, and 2017 version by Kyle Seconna/Elisha Zeeman), and argues that ‘Het Dorp’ presents a conservative worldview in which nostalgia is mobilized to mourn the loss of order and traditional values in the present, modernized world. He demonstrates that both parodies of the song use change of setting, humorous incongruity, and playful citation to reveal and criticize the conservative implications of nostalgia in ‘Het Dorp’, thereby ‘repoliticizing’ a song that hides and depoliticizes its conservative political agenda.

The next essay, ‘The “Easthetics” of the NSK’ by Simon Bell, describes how the Slovenian art-performance collective the NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) and its associated music group, Laibach, interrogate the representation of Central and Eastern European identity in the context of post-Socialism, and thus operate as a nexus between Eastern Europe and the West. Laibach and NSK praxis is comprised of a multitude of discursive fields: art, politics, history and performance, combining together in a rigorous and often problematic exploration of identity. Bell explains how this is established through a strategy of militant non-alignment with temporal, ideological, geo-political and aesthetic determinants, and how their core aesthetic dynamic, Retrogardism, both originates from, and sustains, Laibach and the NSK’s role as East-West nexus.

At the core of the essay ‘The Paradoxes of Kosovo in the Theatre of Jeton Neziraj’ by Anna Maria Monteverdi are the paradoxes of Kosovo as reflected in the theatre of Jeton Neziraj from Pristina, one of the most representative playwrights in the Balkans. Neziraj’s controversial and often censored texts, written in an absurd and ironic style, deal with current and burning social topics in Kosovo, the paradoxical realm of instability, controlled ethnic minorities, religious fundamentalism, nationalism, racism, immigration, homophobia, and corruption. Monteverdi’s essay includes highlights from interviews with the author, reflections on the contrasts and suffering of the youngest country in Europe, and descriptions of the theatre performances directed by Blerta Rrustemi Neziraj.

With Tom Nicholas’ essay ‘Roots and Routes: Kingston-upon-Hull-upon-Stage’ we move from the Balkans to Great Britain facing the consequences of the 2016 Brexit vote. For the duration of 2017, Hull, a port city on the North East coast of England, held the title of UK City of Culture. Exploring the contemporary place identity of Hull was high on the agenda of organisers. Following 67.6% of Hull residents voting for the UK to leave the European Union, a tension appeared in the event’s promotional campaign. Nicholas’ article draws upon this tension in order to discuss two theatre productions commissioned for Hull 2017: The Hypocrite and All We Ever Wanted Was Everything. Nicholas seeks to analyse how each performance text represents Hull as a lived environment and communal identity, before considering how this affects the perception of Hull as a cosmopolitan or communitarian city.

The final essay of this section, ‘La face larvée de l’Europe’ by Kathrin-Julie Zenker concerns the documentary performance Breivik’s Statement created in 2012 by Swiss theatre director Milo Rau, the Artist in Focus of the first issue of our journal. Within a minimalist scenic device, Rau brought to theatre the speech that Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik addressed in April 2012 to the Federal Court of Oslo, in an ideological attempt to justify his terrorist actions. As argued by Zenker, Rau creates a subtle dramaturgy of shift by avoiding modification of the textual document: through a cross-casting, the Turkish actress Sascha Ö. Soydan oscillates between the reality of her own (female) body and the (male) person whose words she reads. Zenker’s analysis of the performance seeks connections with Rau’s theory of New Realism, which grasps reality in a dialectical manner and makes it strange.

The fact that these articles explore almost exclusively recent practices shows how both contemporary theatre artists and theatre researchers have become sensitive to a broadly understood political dimension of theatre art. Nonetheless, one must not forget the historical processes and concepts that gave birth to and influenced the ways that European identity and European theatre have been understood, performed, and cloaked, such as the notion of nation state and history, which in fact diverts attention from European empire histories.5] We hope that such a selection of essays – written by researchers of various origins, interests and methodologies, and covering a range of theatre and performance practices undertaken in different European regions – will further stimulate discussion on the spectres of European identity that have been roaming the continent, including their historical aspects. Identity itself is deeply performative, so perhaps it is through the lenses of theatre and performance activities that we can investigate today which ‘spectres’ need to be exorcised, expelled, acknowledged, or retrieved.

Agata Łuksza and Aldo Milohnić

Editors of the Essays Section

1. Étienne Balibar, We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, trans. James Swenson (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004).

2. Balibar, 37.

3. Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001).

4. Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1981).

5. Gurminder K. Bhambra, Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).