The theatre is in the city and the city is in the world and its walls are of skin

State of the Union speech, 1994 Theatre Festival

Etcetera Oct 1994English

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Contextual note
This State of the Union address was delivered at the 1994 Theaterfestival in Brussels and was first published in Dutch in Etcetera. Translated from Dutch by Gregory Ball.

I have to admit that I have never found it so hard to write a text; not only because of an incapacity to formulate it well, but also, or mainly, because of the struggle I had with my own unease and my own disingenuousness. I hope that in this text I can convey something of what underlies that struggle.



If a dramaturge is asked to give the ‘State of the Union’ speech, in other words to say something about the state of affairs in theatreland, what they say will inevitably have something to do with dramaturgy. It seems to me that there is such a thing as a major and a minor dramaturgy, and although my preference is mainly for the minor, which means those things that can be grasped on a human scale, I would here like to talk about the major dramaturgy. Because it is necessary. Because I think that today it is extremely necessary.
We could define the minor dramaturgy as that zone, that structural circle, which lies in and around a production. But a production comes alive through its interaction, through its audience, and through what is going on outside its own orbit. And around the production lies the theatre and around the theatre lies the city and around the city, as far as we can see, lies the whole world and even the sky and all its stars. The walls that link all these circles together are made of skin, they have pores, they breathe.
This is sometimes forgotten.



When I received the Dutch Theatre Yearbook in 1992 and for the occasion had to say something about the resurgence of social commitment in the theatre, images of hope and despair alternated in my mind. Now, two years later, looking for the colour of those images which, by their intrusiveness, define the identity of this period, there is one single powerful feeling that dominates: a great sense of loss, of rage at the loss, and of the lack of the strength that is needed to act against that loss.
They are the images (you know them, they have already become a cliché) of those thousands who are being driven to death so utterly without respect, so pathetically and defencelessly, all of them with a name and a house and friends or children. The only thing that still has a name is death: it is called starvation or exhaustion, typhoid or AIDS, bullet or machete.
But never mind: by making a tax-deductible bank transfer to the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders we can easily push these images out of our conscience.
If it were not for the fact…



If it were not for the fact that even closer to home, where there are no mass graves or refugee camps to spoil our view of the landscape, the sense of loss remains. The communist world has been wiped off the map, even the literally ‘last island’ of Cuba is now under severe pressure, Europe is falling apart more than coming together, there is the movement to the right, there is racism: you know the story, that too is a cliché. The notions we defended as principles and carried with us as values (equality, democracy, culture, utopia, history etc.) now seem to be slipping through our fingers and vanishing into the sand.
Perhaps this is our good fortune, perhaps this is the point at which our dubious sense of solidarity (dubious because it is not converted into action) may yet lead to the realisation that it is now no longer possible to be involved exclusively with one’s own minor dramaturgy. The world truly is one whole. The theatre is in the city and the city is in the world and its walls are of skin. We cannot escape that which penetrates the pores.
In contrast to everything that has been and is being lost, the awareness of cohesion is one of the most important things to regain. The category of totality, the consciousness of the dominance of the whole over the parts, one of those essential elements of Marxist philosophy, now looks like a ‘good old value’ which, after our passage through postmodern fragmentation, we can embrace like a lost son.



However, the reception of this and other lost sons at the same time confronts us with the fact that those who are usually among the progressive forces in society – intellectuals, artists etc. – now have other tasks to fulfil than in the joyous post-68 years. We feel ill at ease about it, but we shall have to learn to accept that today our task will only too emphatically be to cope with loss, taking on the defence of values that are in danger of disappearing, in other words to preserve principles instead of raising a storm with revolutionary theories. If we theatre-makers, being among these so-called progressive forces, do indeed find the energy to generate a new social commitment, it will have to be of a different nature and colour from that of the 70s. The new political period and the tasks it puts on the agenda urgently require the development of their own thinking and vocabulary. A language in which to make the present time manageable.
Out of the complex tangle the present time appears to us to be, I would like to pick out several problems that occupy my mind. I shall put them to you; they are what they are, still incomplete and unripe.



The first concerns history and memory and more especially Islam. But the story begins right here and now. Here are a few figures by way of introduction: the 4,723 Brussels taxi-drivers registered in 1994 were of 41 different nationalities; 2000 of them were Belgian, and apart from that there were 42 Algerians, 281 Iranians, 69 Turks, 101 Tunisians and 1062 Moroccans. I mention only these, but by looking at the list one can see that more than a third come from the Islamic world. Some districts in Brussels, but also in Antwerp and other cities, have entirely Islamic populations.
To us these people are foreigners. Nevertheless, we once read in our history books that in 732 Charles Martel defeated the Muslims near Poitiers in 732 AD and that they were finally driven out of Europe in 1492 – could it be more symbolic – after the fall of the small kingdom of Granada. So from the beginning of the 8th till the end of the 15th century, 800 years, the Islamic culture was part of everyday European reality, but we never ‘sensed’ this in our history education; the world was reduced to feats of arms.
In the light of the present reality, which we experience ‘daily’ and in which history and memory are coming to the fore again, is it not necessary to reassess these eight centuries? Have they not been hidden away in the pages of our history books for ideological reasons? The recalibration, the re-‘writing’ of history in the light of the present era is an ongoing task that has to be carried out not only for recent history (Second World War, communism etc.), but also for periods further back in time.
In his recent essay La vieille Europe et la nôtre, the renowned French mediaevalist Jacques Le Goff wrote: ‘Plus que d'autres continents, l'Europe connaît aujourd'hui un réveil de la mémoire. Ici encore, si la mémoire doit combattre l'oubli des erreurs et des crimes du passé pour aider à ne pas les reproduire, elle doit laisser à une historiographie scientifique et objective le soin de construire sur le respect de l'histoire de chacun la commune mémoire de l'Europe.’
Perhaps this is an area for cooperation between Europe and that small part of the Islamic world that lives within its frontiers: once again seeking that common memory. Unlike Europe, the Islamic world has not had a moment of reflection, overthrow and revaluation comparable to the French Revolution. In his book Rethinking Islam, Mohammed Arkoun argues that one of the present consequences of this is that ‘in Muslim societies the chasm has grown even deeper between the increase in violent behaviour and the possibilities still remaining to the intellectual, the thinker or the artist to produce work that offers a counterbalance to the semantic chaos and derailment of thought. In Western democracies there is still sufficient freedom for critical thought and artistic creativity at least to contemplate reflection, knowledge and political and moral codes once again.’
So let us at least make use of this freedom to reach out to those who may not have it. Ultimately there will be just as many beautiful and ugly things in Islam as there are in Christianity.



For the second problem that concerns me I would again like to return to the past, again to the Middle Ages and again to the 8th century, to the moment when the struggle was fought out between iconoclasts and iconodulists – the venerators of religious images. The matter in question was whether it was permitted to make images of God: whether he was to be given a visible face or that it was to be left to the believer’s imagination.
I do not want to go into the religious and especially not the political aspects associated with this and I am also aware that it is thanks to the triumph of the iconodulists that such a wealth of painting and sculpture was able to take shape in the Western part of Europe in subsequent centuries. What I am concerned with here is the very topical problem of what can/may be ‘depicted’ and what may not – and what form you have to give this ‘not’. What is currently the subject of a possible new struggle between iconoclasts and iconodulists is no longer the face of God but the picture of all the horrors created by human hand.
We are swamped by images that have lost their authenticity and to which our imagination no longer knows what meaning to attach: the landing in Somalia is staged as an action film. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is served up – even to secondary schoolchildren who, because of our defective history education, know very little of the Second World War – as ‘the truth about the camps’; in fact it is a Hollywood success-story that has been presented to the public as a result of a Barnum advertising campaign. In an opinion column in the newspapers, Claude Lanzmann, film-maker and author of the nine-hour documentary Shoah about life in the camps (and perhaps he cannot be absolved of all envy of Spielberg’s public success), wrote that ‘a certain form of horror cannot be communicated’ and that ‘images (of this horror) kill the imagination’.
In the face of the Holocaust, of the whole of the Second World War, which later, when the last direct witness has died, will depart from our collective memory and will start to become ‘history’, in the face of all the horrors taking place now or in the future, the artist, the intellectual and above all the media-worker has to develop a new ‘professional ethics’: his choice between iconoclast and iconodulist, his responsibility regarding what he does or does not show and how he shows it has now become enormous.
I think that the fact that the images of horror I mentioned to you at the beginning have now become clichés largely helps determine our doubtful solidarity. We cannot escape the sapping effect of the daily repetition of these images (or any other images). In the years gone by we have fought to make the concept understood, that making art is an autonomous occupation; although this statement has to remain an elementary facet of our working method, nowadays we can no longer avoid the fact that this autonomy should not lead to indifference in the reception of what we create; the images created have to retain their autonomy, but the artist must at least build up a responsibility, shared with the audience, towards the perception of his images. In the future he will have to use all his creativity to develop another way of viewing things, to create images that prevent the horror from becoming a cliché.



The third point starts with myself. Everyone has in their lives a few things that fascinate them, that won’t let them loose. For me, one of these things has always been the refusal to accept that there is a rift between theory and practice. Perhaps that is the underlying reason why I became a dramaturge. A dramaturge is a bridge-builder, is constantly involved in linking together theory and practice, art and science, emotion and reason.
I see my stubborn belief that in human dealings theory and practice are in fact inseparably linked confirmed every day when I observe the way artists work: the theory is there, it’s in the work, it is born in the working process. The painter Francis Bacon once said in an interview that ‘all great art is deeply ordered’. I have by now become convinced – as a result of these observations and by reading, conversations and so on – that these constant attempts to bring theory and practice together cannot simply be put down to a personal frustration on my part, but that the achievement of their unity in every form of human action is one of the most important historical tasks of the present time.
In his book Cosmopolis. The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, the philosopher and historian Stephen Toulmin (one of the academics who was interviewed in Wim Kayzer’s tv-series Een Schitterend Ongeluk) wrote the following: ‘If there is one lesson we ought to learn from the experiences of the 1960s and ‘70s, it is (I have come to believe) the need to regain the wisdom of the 16th-century humanists and to develop an outlook in which the abstract rigour and exactitude of the 17th-century ‘new philosophy’ is combined with a practical interest in the concrete details of human life’.
That 17th-century philosophy was founded on the new discoveries in physics, on the certainty that was derived from Newton’s world-view, a certainty that was to hold good for three centuries. We now no longer share this certainty; our era is one of doubt. A doubt thanks to which we may succeed in once again bringing together the world and the stars, the cosmos and the polis, philosophy and art, theory and practice. Toulmin writes that we have to return ‘to that honest examination of experience in which Montaigne and Bacon put all their trust’.
Experience should once again become a key concept in our lives and our thinking. John Berger wrote: ‘the approach to a moment of experience requires both meticulous study (proximity) and the ability to make connections (distance). The pattern of the writing is like the movement of a shuttle in a loom: again and again it shoots forward and then withdraws again, comes closer and then distances itself again. But unlike a shuttle, the writing is not fixed in a frame. The more the pattern of the writing is repeated, the more intimate the relationship with the experience. If one is lucky, the ultimate fruit of this intimacy is meaning.’



How is one to summarise all these impulses, problems and concepts? They flutter about together and as they move they change shape. But one feeling dominates: the feeling – hope too, after all, as well as despair – that we are experiencing a time which, although it may be horrific, is also fascinating, and that we have an agenda bulging with huge tasks: finding a new commitment, combating loss, preserving values, restoring unity, recalibrating history, seeking images to describe the horror, rediscovering experience, becoming a shuttle, and so on.
There is a lot of work to do and working means surviving, as such well-known examples as Ron Vawter and Dennis Potter have taught us. We can set to work with doubt as our loyal companion. We take only one certainty with us: today’s theatre is in the world and beneath the heavens; its walls are of skin; they have pores; they breathe.
Let’s try not to forget that anymore.