Jelena Lužina

ESSAY: The Theatre of Violence, Today
Reality_macedonia_by_opa__video_still_1_medium
Reality Macedonia_video still by OPA
Translated from the Macedonian by Ognen Cemerski

"Something is rotten in these years of European hope"
Dejan Dukovski, Who the Fuck Started All This (The Third Circle)”


The bogeyman of violence threatens to seize nearly all European theatre stages – the bogeyman of the so called New European Drama

What is actually the issue here?

It is a phenomenon, but also a certain affirmation of a powerful, aggressive, increasingly popular and (undoubtedly) profitable theatre trend, which has been imposing itself on European theatres since the mid 1990s, while criticism and theory have sensationalistically determined its thematic axis with three bold words: blood, sweat and sperm.

The dramaturgy that has decided to formulate its agenda so directly (dare I say drastically), is undoubtedly determined to accomplish at least two radical/unpleasant tasks:

First – to shock or provoke the so-called community; second – to force that jaded, mythologised and allegedly “monumental”/united/snug, virtually Arcadian “illusionist” European community into facing the ugliness (the reverse side) of its own existence (in both space and time – that is, “now” and “here”).

The authors whom both scholarly (“ex-cathedra”) theatrology and the most distinguished (“university”) criticics unanimously label as followers of this trend (by the way, quite unimaginatively called the New European Drama), seemingly do tackle clear and obvious issues – that which is colloquially called reality. Their dramatic stories are “common”, obvious, banal and trivial (they often seem to have been taken from police briefs in daily newspapers!), and in the final sense they are dramatically realistic, or hyper realistic. Their coincidence with the real is absolute, paranoid, Baudrillard would say terrorist, because terrorism is, as a rule, expressed as terrorism of the real, (Baudrillard, 1991: 48). In fact, the world we live in (“here” and “now”) is a world that is only seemingly real. In its essence, it is fictional – it is moderated by fictions of every sort, by the fictions that we recognise and consume regularly through advertising slogans and photographs. One such fiction is the glittering commercial story of an ideal, powerful and shared Europe, where everything glows with optimism, beauty, success, health, happiness…. And in its azure and pure sky there is the perpetual twinkle of those confident, eternal, touchingly identical, consonant, equal stars…

Living in the reality that is predominantly modelled by fictions – Baudrillard would say: living the simulacrum! – we, actually, live in a vast and quite “fictional” story. Unlike the dramatists who were fortunate (or unfortunate) to write their dramatic stories in different times, and were compelled to “invent” their fictional context, their colleagues of our time – the postmodernists, are confronted with an entirely different (and more complex) task. Namely, aware that we all live in the “great novel” (or in the “great drama”, but in any case in the “great fiction”!), they no longer have to invent “additional” fictional contexts for their (prose, poetic, dramatic…) works. Rather, they must invent reality itself. The complicated task that all of today’s (let us use the attribute post-modern!) art undertakes, including drama/theatre art, is virtually identical to the task of finding the quadrature of a circle: placing itself in the uncomfortable hyperrealist/simulacric context, if it wants to defamiliarise (as the Russian formalists would say!), it must re-invent/re-create/re-define reality itself!

What is reality today, and what is the real (hyper-real) drama world and how can it be transposed into a drama/theatre spectacle?

Any transposition of reality through any medium, including the transposition enabled by the highly sensitised theatre medium, the so-called real picture (even when seemingly hyper-real) inevitably transforms it into a simulacrum phenomenon. The so-called realistic picture, even when its events are “most faithfully” (hyper-realistically) imitated on stage (as good old Aristotle put it), already, by the very fact that it has “moved” from the real context into that representative scenic frame defined architecturally and through the media, can no longer affect the spectator as a “real event”. It can only be a “picture of a picture” or, using Baudrillard’s language – of a simulacrum.

Of course, the authors who belong to the trend called New European Drama are not only very aware of this fact but they have also developed the appropriate mechanism for “adjusting” their pieces to the consumer needs of post-industrial society, which is now finding its strong pillars (as Henrik Ibsen fancied to say) exclusively in consumerism and the media. An inevitable and omnipresent (‘terrorist’, to use Baudrillard’s words!) mediation of reality through the media, must inevitably pervert that very same reality, rendering it materialised only as a simulation of the real.

The theatre that aims to position itself in the context of such a sensibility (post-modern theory intensively uses the term Zeitgeist), must be prepared to take most radical steps that will truly disturb, provoke, shock and scandalise its potential audience. It not only has to attack what remains of their feelings but also to develop the strategy of those attacks with all the force it can muster. Therefore, this theatre must show – intensively and quite directly – brutal scenes of all sorts of violence. Unlike the theatre systems (and aesthetics) of some past epochs, which used to entertain, animate or educate their recipients, the fierce theatre of the New European Dramatists and their directors directly brutalises its audience.

*

The reviewers and commentators of the aggressive theatre trend called New European Drama almost mythologise the fact that it is an offspring of the nineties, and that its true (not only metaphorical) cradle is Great Britain.

January 1995 is considered to be some sort of a birth date of this New European Drama Trend – that is, the opening night of Sarah Kane’s first play at the London Royal Court Theatre. Sarah Kane, who was only twenty-four years old at the time, was to become a star of European and world renown. Her debut play was entitled Blasted. The show not only shocked the British audience but also caused a months-long flood of polemical texts on the pages of the most prominent newspapers and magazines.

The story of Blasted – otherwise banal in its facture – still continues to be denoted as a direct theatre reference to the war horrors in Bosnia, just as it did in 1995. In fact, what it boils down to are explicit portrayals of various forms of physical (sexual) abuse of a mentally retarded girl, closed in the claustrophobic space of a cheap hotel room. The girl has been picked up from a remote place, perhaps even from that unfortunate Bosnia. Her abuser is a man who, by the way, has serious problems with his libido, a fact that automatically casts doubt on the manhood that he is constantly trying to prove. He is a journalist working for a tabloid (a piece of information that additionally emphasises the problematical pulp context!) and is visibly burdened by his neurotic need to confirm his macho superiority time and again. The play abounds with disgusting scenes of rape, masturbation, defecation….

In September the following year, the first play by Mark Ravenhill – the next (in chronological order) New European Drama playwright – was also staged at the Royal Court Theatre. It is an equally shocking and drastically ‘violent’ play. In addition, its title is already so provocative that in order to be understood, not only denotatively but also connotatively, it should not be translated at all. It communicates universally: Shopping and Fucking. Ravenhill’s trivial story also seems to have been ‘taken over’ directly from police briefs, that is, from subaltern life situations (or, ultimately, from pulp films): a young couple, petty drug dealers and criminals, now and then pick up a third (random) partner in the street in order to entertain themselves afflicting him – literally – to death….

Each performance of this now extremely popular play insists – as if by rule – on the scenes of empty, cold, bestial sex, without hesitating to show even the naturalistic homosexual scenes, or to culminate with an extremely brutal theatricalised murder (a knife stuck in someone’s rectum; blood spraying all over the white props on the stage…).

This play has probably been one of the most widely performed texts formally assigned to the New European Drama trend or classified as its obvious asset. Theatres – not only those in the big cultural centres but also the ones working in out-of-the-way European provinces, including the Balkans! – simply competed over which one of them would render ‘the most explicit’ performance. Hence, I believe it is really interesting that the Macedonian translation of Shopping and Fucking was performed in Skopje, only two years after the London opening, by the Macedonian National Theatre and, which is more, with great success too (the opening of the play, translated and directed by Srđan Janićiević, was on 28 December 1998).

I am quite inclined to conclude that this drastic and, in terms of the circumstances of Macedonian theatre, surprisingly bold and highly professionally directed and acted play, could be performed in Skopje (as far back as five years ago!) only due to several undeniable facts of theatre history that had preceded it and which demand further elaboration.

The facts point to Dejan Dukovski, a Macedonian playwright of undoubted European/world renown, and to his place and role in the development and affirmation of the theatre trend called New European Drama.

The great success and the broadest European and world promotion of his two pieces - Powder Keg (1994) and Who the Fuck Started All This (1997), notably the former – cannot escape being associated with the formative, expressive, spatial-temporal, thematic, structural (and every other) qualities of this dominant theatre trend of the nineties.

Still, despite all the formal ‘parameters’ that virtually automatically qualify Dukovski’s plays as ‘N.E.D’, one exceptionally significant piece of information concerning the first of the two – Powder Keg – adds another important dimension.

Namely, that the opening of Powder Keg took place in Skopje on 15 October 1994. It was produced by the Macedonian National Theatre Drama and directed by Sašo Milenkovski, who was at the time a thriving thirty year-old director. The play and its cast, involving the best and most creative actors, had a triumphal reception among both the audience and the theatre critics. With lightning speed, it gained a cult status which has remained with it to the present day and, with some normal changes in the cast, it still continues to be performed equally successfully on its home stage in Skopje.

Again we highlight the date of its first performance: 15 October, 1994! The simple chronology of events points to the conclusion that Powder Keg – a play that would eventually be considered as one of the most significant examples of the New European Drama trend that engulfed all of Europe – undoubtedly preceded both Sarah Kane’s and Mark Ravenhill’s texts, which were to see their first and famous stage performances several months after Dukovski’s great success in Skopje (by the way, Dukovski was born in 1969). In other words, precisely this rough (violent) play by a young (and trendy) Macedonian playwright who later gained brilliant European fame, heralded the so-called New European Drama/Theatre Trend. Alhough this great Europe might not like the fact, it is true that the harbinger came precisely from our out-of-the-way, extremely sensitive and talented Balkan province.

Five months after the Skopje opening, on 18 March 1995, the Macedonian director Slobodan Unkovski staged the second performance of Powder Keg at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre (that later burned down and was rebuilt). The play was no longer just a triumph, sensation or an event… it was a little short of a miracle, opening, to the text and to the author, the roads that lead to the centres of European theatre.

The endless spiral of violence – which is actually the leitmotif of Dukovski’s text, as well as of Unkovski’s Belgrade performance and his ensemble (otherwise, a theme developed through eleven flawlessly written, utterly redundant and hopelessly desperate scenes with video clip dynamism) – perfectly blended at that moment with the feeling of collective tragedy (Zeitgeist) engendered by a series of military, political, social, moral and all other kinds of defeats that the Serbian society of the time had to endure. In the numerous interviews he gave to the newspapers in Belgrade, the director Unkovski referred to the text of Powder Keg as “a wonderful version of an ancient tragedy” – that is, as a text that spoke of “an extremely tragic period for the peoples of these Balkan lands”, because “it manages to articulate the tragic sentiment of the anguish of living in the Balkans” (Mazova, 2001:70).

Following its Belgrade performance – which contextualised Powder Keg entirely as a “local phenomenon”, fully impregnating it with the ongoing Balkan politics and the tragedies it was causing – Dukovski’s text began its theatre life outside the stages of the Balkans. The German agency that took on its promotion sold the text to theatres, not on the strength of its local or Balkan substance, but for its immanent trendy actuality. In other words, Powder Keg gained its meteoric glory not because of its ‘narrow’, potential, even hypothetical Balkan theme (that has by now completely spent its infamous actuality), but because of its universal, explicit, undoubtedly trendy theme of violence, which aligned this text with the so-called New European Drama Art, and in great style indeed.

The performances that this play has had so far - from Ireland and Greece, through Bulgaria and the Netherlands, to Russia and beyond – prove that this is exactly how matters concerning Powder Keg now stand – i.e. that they are determined by extremely pragmatic (trendy) rather than quasi-romantic (“local”, “exotic”, Balkan) reasons. The latest opening of Powder Keg was on 7 October, 2003, on the stage of a New York theatre.

Has anyone forgotten to mention violence?

*
Barely two years ago, the Guardian published an interview with a very interesting playwright of the middle generation and teacher of the graduate course Play Writing at Birmingham University, who taught a number of young New European (trendy) playwrights, including today’s modern classics Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill. Not only as a playwright but also as one of the several undisputed mentors of the New European Drama, this experienced gentleman – who goes by the authoritative name David Edgar – noted at one point that nearly all plays of the nineties, i.e. plays dealing with the so-called contemporary themes, were mainly plays about men. We are not talking about ‘ordinary’ plays about men but rather about plays that speak of the crisis-stricken masculinity. Masculinity, says Edgar, should be recognised as the big theme of the nineties. It is a theme that provokes female and male authors equally. Unlike the eighties, when women led the new drama wave and the plays intensively dealt with the so-called female aspects, issues and themes, his students’ plays (including those by female playwrights) are becoming increasingly “male”. This obvious masculinisation of the contemporary European drama discourse involves not only the shift in the so-called ‘point of view’ (which good old Archer calls ‘the point of attack’) but also, above all, the serious change of the dramatic genre and the means of expression employed to realise it. Most often, those means are explicitly naturalistic, drastic, in a word: violent.

The so-called New European Drama constantly expresses itself as a drama of blood, sweat and sperm! In fact, as drama of brutality.

Currently one of the most popular and most successful European directors, the 35 year-old German Thomas Ostermeier, who signed some of the anthological (and at the same time anthologically violent) stage performances of Sarah Kane’s and Mark Ravenhill’s plays, has recently said that he prefers the texts of the New European dramatists precisely because they deal with the few mythical issues that the real theatre has always dealt with: love, death, war and sex. Theatre is not to blame for the fact that, perhaps, the choice of the means of expression with which those matters are nowadays theatricalised differ from those of Shakespeare’s time, or for the fact that today’s means of expression are more drastic; it is rather the world surrounding us and in which we are compelled to live that should be blamed. Such as it is – senseless, false, simulated/simulacric - our world is by far rougher and more drastic than the one theatre imitates on stage! Theatre, therefore, ought to expose it. And it must do that – to the bone!

The trend of the New European Drama is quite fervently and equally well affirmed by young and outraged British authors of the format and the calibre of Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Patrick Marber, Ende Walsh… some German authors, led by Marius von Mayenburg, some diabolical Russians: Ljudmila Ruzmaskaja, Vasilij Sigaretov, Nikolai Koljada… a few brilliant playwrights from the Balkans, including the globally successful Dejan Dukovski and Biljana Srbljanović….

Their ugly, brutal, shocking, provocative and subversive plays should (actually) also be treated as a kind of a generational revolt against the conservatism of the established art “as such”. That is why they look as they do: they are located in increasingly empty and unidentified dramatic spaces, framed in an increasingly featureless dramatic time (most often broken into short video clip sequences, that change ambiguously and with lightning speed), peopled with some more anonymous and featureless, marginal personae who cannot or do not want to develop any dramatic action. Recently analysing about twenty plays that belong to this aggressive theatre trend, and trying to systematise and classify them according to typology, I have concluded that they are structured exclusively in terms of ‘non-being’: there is no space in them, there are no characters, there is no action, there is no suspense, no emotions, no beginning or end, there is no grand or important story, no significant events, no live or immediate communication whatsoever. (Lužina, 2003:103).

But there is much violence, violence in excess, of every sort. Nothing but sheer violence.
This drama seems to encompass and then sum up and multiply all the cruelty and all the violence of this wretched world….

In one of his biting lines, Dejan Dukovski formulates the collective feeling of hopelessness, the collective spleen (Zeitgeist) of our sad, violent and quite senseless epoch:

“How come all the good things happen to others? In other places? Where did we go wrong?”
(Powder Keg, scene 8, “Until the End of the World”).


Bibliography:

Bodrijar, Žan / Baudrillard, Jean (1991) Simulacija i svetovi (transl.), Beograd: Svetovi
Dukovski, Dejan (2002) Drami, Skopje: Proarts
Fiske, John (1990) Understanding Popular Culture, London: Routledge
Kane, Sarah (2001) Complete Plays, London
Lužina Jelena (2003) Teatralika, pak, Skopje: Magor
Mazova, Liljana (2001) Kovčeg so vreme, Skopje: Matica makedonska
New European Drama - Art or Commercial Product – Symposium (2003), Novi Sad







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