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Olivier Neveux: Against Political Theatre

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Olivier Neveux

AGAINST POLITICAL THEATRE, La Fabrique, Paris 2019

Translation: Panagiota Kalogeropoulou, Dramatist-Researcher.

 

Medea Electronique welcomes Olivier Neveux, professor of theatre history and aesthetics at Lumière Lyon-2 University and his influential book ‘Against Political Theatre’, in its first translation into Greek. The dramatist and researcher Panagiota Kalogeropoulou, who is familiar with the French scene and dramaturgy, undertook the difficult task of translating Neveux’s dense, provocative, and demanding speech, exclusively for ACT II.

Against political theatre means against what neutralises theatre and politics within the conformism of their alliance, to reactivate fertile, awkward, political, conflicting relations between theatre and politics. We defend the theatre scene as a place of dissent and not consensus. Consensus is one of the dominant words today. Consensus means non-discrimination: everything is everything. Consensus eliminates the heart of politics: dissent and disagreement. 

Rather than thinking that ‘everything is political’, it would be better to think that everything can be politicised.

 

Everything is political

Yes, ‘everything is political’, but, according to activist and philosopher Daniel Bensaid, only ‘to a certain rate and a certain extent’[1]. In a sense, this book attempts to address the consequences of such a limitation on the function, use, and political impact in contemporary theatre.

Because in the state theatre, ‘everything is political’ and oh, how much more ‘we shudder at our political sensitivity!’[2].

Political, a paternalistic and compassionate representation of some modern drama. Political, the sexist and racist work (unless it aims to denounce it – who knows?). Political, the democratic morality. Political, a direction that just becomes the decoration of Domination. Political, this participatory and referendum theatre. Political, this temporary denunciation of surplus money. Political, a psalm and its macabre gravity. Political, the hollow vitality. Political, a small episode of reality. Political, the re-reading of the classics. Just as, equally well: political, the frivolous theatre. Political, the classic. Political, the whispers, as well as the ‘sound & light’. Political, this table, this feather, this beer can, this screen, or this samovar. In other words: political, the theatre itself.

Of course, here and there, resistance is observed – some proclamations and spectacles make politics ‘dissuasive’. They stand out through it, claiming the freedom of acting, the peculiarity of the gesture. Through this, we recognize that (politics) has a central position in the media, institutional, and artistic discourse no matter what objects to it: metaphysical quests, dreamy escapes, visual perspectives, or egocentric research. Some will clarify: ‘political, indeed, but…’ not actively, away from the danger of lecturing, from tried and tested forms of partisanship. Politics in a somewhat elegantly automated way since ‘all theatre is political’.

This mantra is the faithful copy, with the opposing stakes, of the slogan ‘Everything is political’ which was, at the time it appeared, what revealed the power relations that structure social life: the invisible, insidious power within romantic relations, in everyday life, within what is not openly admitted as political. The claim attacked the deceptive haze of social relations. ‘All theatre is political’ means, most of the time, the opposite. Not functioning against the immaculate whiteness of a world rescued from uninspired politics, ultimately confirms the presence of this world as something stable, noble, and ideal.

Politics is divided: there is, in fact, a disagreement about what this means. At first glance, it would seem easier to define, once and for all, its objective properties and to abide by them. However, clarity finds its limits in its virtue: it prevents the discovery of politics when it takes on new forms. To distinguish in advance what is political from what is not means to perceive political theatre only in the light of what precedes and [in the light of] the points that recognize and certify it. What do we mean, then, in the pages that follow, by the term ‘political theatre’? I chose, unlike previous works, a broader definition: [political theatre is] every theatre that supports, manifests, maintains a political concern, a political tendency, a political project, in a way that can be discreet or blatant, of a fighting spirit or a critical distance, frontal or remote, through the stories or expectations. This was necessary to avoid routine and not prematurely immobilise (and therefore, sideline) what politics and theatre can produce, each one from its side, each one for each other, and what they can bring to each other.

We have to  understand, without previous discrimination, a whole set of heterogeneous plays and get rid of the taxonomic correctness of specialists who are only interested in  agreeing initially on the ‘meaning of words’ and  then build – if not cement  – the landscape

Nevertheless, ‘If everything is political, [then] nothing is[3]‘ as Jacques Rancière notes – before proposing on his behalf ‘Politics’ and ‘Polis’ to be distinguished.

Satisfying ourselves by saying that theatre is ‘essentially political’, by affirming that ‘theatre is either political or not theatre at all[4]‘, produces the same result every time: the expulsion of politics. A magician’s logic that solves the question even before it is formulated – and causes the revival of one of the ‘myths’ identified by Jean Duvignaud more than half a century ago: ‘for the political myth, we can say that it dominated and still dominates theatre, not only through the various ideologies it proposes but also through the contents it seeks to impose. Of all these literary myths, it is the one that has been formulated most complacently and extensively, as well as in the most dogmatic way. Both by authors who justified themselves, and by politicians who tried to subordinate theatre to their intentions[5]‘.

Politics is always here. In its historical variant, ‘Athenian’, it reigns, exquisite. You just have to appear in a playground, to be publicly exposed – in front of a gathered community – to create grandiose politics. And yet, ‘as public, as theatre may be, it is not – in our societies – a miniature of the city,  as well as,  the theatrical “assembly” is not the crucible of democracy. It is time to mourn these utopias of restarting and returning to the Greek origins of theatre and Western politics’[6].

In its second, most misrepresented variant, the saying ‘all theatre is political’ implies the choice – the commitment – between being the sucker or the master of politics, to endure it or to claim it. We need to clarify this:  when everything, in a way, is fermented, nourished, object and subject of ideology, the discussion is hardly promoted. However, the theatre that abstains from the blatant political content does not mean that it is, without merit or political stakes. Works are always inscribed in a certain period of history, they take place within productive and dominant relationships, and arise within ‘a divided world’.

So, instead of thinking that ‘everything is political’, wouldn’t it be interesting to consider that ‘everything can be politicised’ and make this attempt the subject of an obstacle rather than a self-evident certainty? [There would be no interest] in inscribing politics in the discomfort of a kind of practice, a transformation, a translation in different rhythms and imaginative? Perhaps this is the first symptom that manifests itself and needs to be considered in contemporary theatre: politics often exists only on the condition that nothing is disturbed or unsettled by it. Even more so, as far as we are concerned here, [politics exists] only on the condition that we identify with the points and forms that usually attest to its presence.

And this is where the first problem begins: the difficulty of art to exempt the compromises of politics – what politics is, what it produces, what it represents. Director Milo Rau notes, harshly, that as a ritual, ‘political art has been identical, for two generations now, to a petty bourgeois artist [who] throws fragments of material in the media to be indignant, and they try to catch these materials in the air… [7]‘.

Therefore, is it a question of investigating the presence of politics in art, not in the light of suspicion, but of concern: the inflation of assignments is not inversely proportional to the trace of its liveliness? Isn’t politics limited to some spectacular and immutable contexts, to the detriment of the invention of contemporary conditions of its appearance? For some years now, the ‘aesthetic restoration’ resulting from the Thermidor of the 1980s led to distrust for ‘Art’, its teachers, its mythologies, its supposed indifference, its religiosity. With a reversal of circumstances, it is now urgent to worry about it. This reversal is, to tell the truth, only the reverse of the same defeat: renounced or rejected in one case, instrumentalised and neutralised in the other, politics slows down, as it is often absent from the very heart of its constant appeal.

Art: the word,  huge,  a little ridiculous, worn out, uttered. We won’t say much about it. We will be cautious even twice, instead of once, of the ‘aura’ that rises like a wall between Art and Culture[8], of those beautiful for the eye and the ears contrasts, which make it possible to distinguish the good artists from the bad-others. The word art carries with it so many pompous attitudes, so much unbearable arrogance that it is difficult to defend it. Platitudes with cursed, marginalised, ardent, and inspiring poets tire us out – even if, we have to admit, these obnoxious, rugged figures, the incompatible with the rules of neoliberal sociability are missing.  What art has, in some cases, been able to demonstrate,  strange presence, radical intolerance, anomaly, spending waste, sometimes is painfully missing.

Art, in this book, will be theatrical art. Caring for theatre: the desire for it and its importance, its fragility as well as its greatness. Exiled to the United States on May 9th, 1942, Brecht writes in his Work Diary:

Eisler rightly points out the danger we run when we throw purely technical innovations into circulation, without linking them to their social function. There was the claim for a kind of music that would activate. We can listen on the radio to such energising music 100 times a day: choirs that encourage the purchase of Coca-Cola. We desperately demand art for art’s sake[9].

In short, Brecht captures the recurring design of political art:  the statement ‘to activate the viewer’, underlines the danger: the statement ‘to distract the viewer from any social function’, identifies failures: ‘its appropriation by the opponent’, and demonstrates a perhaps paradoxical perspective: ‘art for art’s sake’. His analysis prevents misinterpretations: the last demand [art for art’s sake] is not made in the name of an ideal of non-politicized art. It stems precisely from an active concern: to prevent capitalism from absorbing the forms and mechanisms of the art of protest.

Care for (theatrical) art as well as for politics: this would be the compass of this book. Examples are many, varied, and questionable: some have not abandoned the radicalism of one under the pretext of the urgency of the other. Among other things, Meyerhold wrote in 1925: ‘If we are told “formalism is enough, let us deal only with the content!”, we will not be able to retreat from this argument. We know that the stronger the ideological content of a performance is, the stronger its turbulent impact is, and the higher it will have to be elevated in its aesthetic form[10]‘.  Also, the revolutionary Latvian Asja Lacis says ‘these shapes were fully aware that by not having a certain artistic level, they could not achieve their propagandistic goal. Also, their serious attempts to improve the form are a new fact. We ask the actors for professional qualifications. To study the technique of speech and movement, we invoke experts coming from the bourgeoisie[11]‘.  It is Brecht, again, who, in 1950, annoyed, reads the study of a ‘student worker in Leipzig’ for his and Gorky’s work: ‘ideology,  and again,  ideology,  constant ideology. Not one aesthetic concept anywhere[12]‘. In 1971, Antoine Vitez: ‘The change of forms cannot be left to the unconscious fashion movements. We cannot simply be satisfied with doing a ‘good job’ without something more. We really have to respond. The question of form is not just a question of form[13]‘.  The probability of this enumeration is certainly not infinite. What do they say?  That theatrical art should not be sacrificed or hindered by politics.

This movement of elimination of theatrical art, since it is about political art, lies in the intersection of distinct interests: where the State and the market together, as allies, talk about culture, at the same time, wonderful performances rise up against them. The good and the bad side of the same depreciation, the same absence of a similar dissolution. The instrumentalized logic takes power everywhere. Theatrical art seems useless unless it makes use of at least the valuable attention it requires for itself. From now on, it will be less a question of the theatre being played in the zones to be defended – however fair, necessary, and important this may be – and more of the actual zone it must defend and that theatre could be done.

Some authors defend the policy of the text and explain with many arguments how a juxtaposition of two adverbs, an alliteration, random punctuation, etc. set up the most decisive of all the anti-capitalist barricades. Others will find in such movements, in a sign or in an unnatural slowness, the most intense objections of art against destructive neoliberalism. I mention that without being sarcastic at all. Testing the work, and its internal subversiveness is decisive. How ‘words match up with each other’ or rip each other apart, how the syntax is structured, the way bodies appear or disappear, certifies, more certainly than any other dimension,  politics in motion. However, two objections appear. The first concerns the reason: everything, potentially, can become through rhetoric, subversive. The flexibility of interpretations is being mastered. It’s not subordinate. One of the challenges of the work is also that it is allowed to speak to itself and about itself – something that Rancière insists on: It puts its experiences into words and it tests its words, […] translates its spiritual adventures to be used by others and  […] anti-translates the translations proposed to it into its own adventures[14]‘.  However, ‘eloquence is not enough’, except to turn politics into a game without limits, without consequences, which would imply nothing but excellent performers or cunning interpreters. Another difficulty is related to the mobilisation scale. Such readings are shifting from micro-politics – which, by definition, was not very broad – to ‘microscopic-politics’. An infinitesimal kind of politics, effective, no doubt, but slightly needy. Can we not try to conceive politics in a more invigorating way? Thinking about the politics of works does not mean looking at them from an ideological point of view and questioning them in the light of what they are supposed to be,  nor identifying the signs which are supposed to cause an automatic result or to confirm, for the sake of their transparency, such a will. It means understanding them within the political: in the light of a certain – predetermined – perception of the present.

What does the value of the agony of art on the scale of the necessary struggles worth? The fact that there are more and are won would be enough. It would be defeatist to claim great art instead of battles, beautiful shows instead of aggressive strikes against domination: We are not, even for a moment, going to join forces with the caste of an aesthete who is satisfied with itself and finds itself on opening nights, indifferent to the world, disgusting and very often very foolish. It is clear to whom this text is addressed. It is intended for the countless people who, here and there, are struggling to motivate theatre to go against this world. Because the title here is obviously ironic. As aggressive as it is, it would be good, even before we start, to clarify it: this book is not part of this long chain of repentant works that come to burn what they have strongly defended. It persecutes those who ‘resent emancipation’[15]. We shouldn’t underestimate what theatre can achieve regarding the transformation, if not the conditions, at least, of the constructs of existence. It is likely to remain passionate about what it denies and the ways it has to ‘look for trouble’. I talk and I am friends with many of its supporters. I will always, in a hearty way, be by their side, against every supporter of neo-academism or against every rentier-artist who lives off the new forms of the timeworn. In a way, this text is a contribution, which means to give to the tangible and political, aesthetic, and emotional questioning, a legal and necessary dimension of the regular discussions of our time, as well as the regulatory and exaggerated daydreams of the world that is to come. A contribution, that is, a text that does not intend to legislate or prescribe anything, a text that is written with the certainty that there can be no definitive solutions to the question raised: there are only a handful of principles from which some assumptions can be deduced, as they result from the circumstances.

However, we must clarify this defence of politics. Why should we give it so much value when we observe the ridiculous electoral and parliamentary farces it has been sentenced to (today)? Why shouldn’t we take advance of its intended turpitude to leave it to die – maybe it’s already dead. ‘Against political theatre’ is, at the exact same time,  also literal,  against this schoolyard that very often becomes the ‘political scene’  with its share of the lie, with its foolish games, with its submission to the interests of the market and the economy. We are aware of those rousing texts that asked us, some decades ago,  to separate from it, [to detach] from this ‘scientific-practical fetish’, ‘from this place in which we are necessarily limited to measuring the behaviours of our lives within state time’,  and they promised that we would see the arrival of a new subject, quipster, uncommitted, emerging from where no one expected it, from an area that no one guarded: outside the zone of politics[16]. Today, here and there, we find reactivation. These texts are charming (not a weak argument). It is undoubtedly important to distrust politics, because of what it hinders, [because] it blinds and cannibalises. Even more, and even more generally, it proves crucial to keep in distance its hegemonic desires. Politics is not everything about life, nor is it art, nor does it mean that those works that have nothing to do with it are not decisive or fantastic.

Nevertheless, there is no place for collusion with complaints that wanted, here and there, to define ‘totalitarianism’ as an ‘exaggeration of politics’,  even when they came, ‘to oppose a systematic destruction of the political and its various manifestations’. A disaster that has already begun and is underway: the neoliberal attack attacks its very existence.[17] We should understand politics here as what a decade ago, almost at the end of a militant life, the philosopher Daniel Bensaid characterised as profane, ‘neither a science of administration, nor a technology of institutions, but an art of favourable conditions and decision[18]‘. An art: that of ‘founding or changing a world’[19]. This kind of politics has been defeated. So are art and theatre. This is expressed with some concern – a fair wind blows concerning doomsday. Cassandras abound. We are well aware of this attitude that tramples or demonstrates the defeat of thought. Apocalyptic forecasts are painful. Isn’t it too narcissistic to wish for your time to be the most hopeless of all?   Resistance will be kept: do not concede anything to the apostles of the end (defeat does not mean extinction) and, at the same time, do not succumb to the criminal optimism of reassuring denials.

We do not know very well, I recognize it, whether what is now being written is due to a circumstantial effect or comes from further afar and aims at the beyond. Sometimes, there is no doubt that we make some assumptions as to the importance of the moment. Most of the time, however, things get complicated. It is difficult to know what is fully due to the circumstances of the present and what goes beyond them. Therefore, we propose for this essay to be given only a temporary status and for these observations to be given a transitional or temporary time.

This intervention text consists of three parts. The first concerns the current campaign of aggression against politics. It tries to analyse what is happening, in the light of cultural policies: what politics has undergone through art and culture since the ‘left wing’ and then since Macronism and, consequently,  what of that, becomes altered, corrupted, compromised. It tries to outline some state of theatrical politics.

The second, ‘Du trop de réalisme’ – the title of which echoes the important work of Annie Le Brun Du trop de réalité[20] – seeks to challenge the forms contemporary opposition political theatrical works take in a massively way and hence some of their assumptions about what ‘politics’ is and what therefore theatre is capable of. It tries, therefore, to outline a certain state of political theatre.

The third, ‘The Art of Theatre’, is the opposite. It is inspired by contemporary works to consider possible alliances between theatre and politics provided that they do not participate in return for their dissolution. In a way, it disconnects theatre and politics from their harmonious connection. It tries to understand, according to performances, how theatre can then participate in the creation of some ‘reality of utopia’[21], damaging for the class that reigns. It, thus, tries to outline a certain political situation in theatre. The title may be misleading: it does not state ‘the art of theatre’ in general, the eternal and substantial, but that of some works. The spectacles mentioned and studied, as we shall see, are essentially political in a frontal manner. This is for presentation purposes. The following text does in fact wish to argue that the title is neither a treaty nor dissolution of the ‘political’ work (and that it does not invalidate it through contrast).

I’m not an artist. I’m not here to say what needs to be done. I come ‘afterwards’, on the night of the performance. I don’t always stay late after the performance. I work with what I see. I have no advice to give. It is not I who exhaust myself in the production of works that are subjected to stupidity, injustice, incomprehension, absence of gaze, or kindness. I don’t know the doubt of artistic creation: not knowing, getting lost, starting over, deciding, finding and losing, acting. I take the risk, honestly, only out of boredom, out of anger, out of frustration–  or by some dizziness and surprise. I arrive ‘afterwards’ and ‘compose my own poem with the elements of the poem in front of me[22]‘. I keep this to myself – there are works, in my opinion, big ones that will not be discussed here. What I see is necessarily incomplete. Despite my stubborn friction as a spectator, I continue to miss performances  –  several a day. One night here, in a particular national theatre, another there, in an art school, a Tuesday in a social centre, a Fourth in a squat unless this time it’s a municipal theatre, a festival, or, more rarely, a private Parisian theatre. I try to keep up with what excites the theatre world – and at the same time, I attend businesses that are in their infancy. And so this text will make the scandalous equivalence between a recognised project and a research proposal, a student draft, and a temporary success. The material resources and the experiences are certainly not the same. However, for me the viewer, it is indeed the same sentence that is written, and the same questions that persist.

From performance to performance, intuition became concrete: theatre and politics become for each other energetic and annoying only on the condition that they are rid of what articulates them and what reconciles their relationship, in short, only by stumbling, through their strange interconnection, on ‘the political theatre’.

 

[1] Daniel Bensaid, Une lente impatience, Paris, 2004, p. 454.

[2] E. Pieiller, «De la Bastille à l΄ Elysée», Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2016.

[3] J. Rancière, La Mésentete, Paris, pub. Galilée, 1995, p.55.

[4] Thomas Jolly, in B. Deruisseau «Shakespeare a inventé le mainstream», Les Inrockuptibles, April 28 2015.

[5] J. Duvignaud, Sociologie du  théâtre, Paris, pub. PUF (“Quadrige”), 1965, p. 515.

[6] J. – P. Sarrazac, Critique du théâtre 2. Du moderne au contemporain et retour, Strasbourg, pub.Circe, p. 72.

[7] M. Rau, Global realism, Réalisme global, NTGent & Internalional Instistute of Political  Murder / Vebrecher Verlag, 2018, p. 216.

[8] A. Brossat, Le Grand Degout culturel, Paris, pub. Seuil, 2008.

[9] B. Brecht, Journal de travail : 1938-1955, fr. tex. P. Ivernel, Paris, 1976, p.282.

[10] V. Μeyerhold, «Le professeur Boubous. Théâtre et musique», Ecrits sur le théâtre. Vol. ΙΙ, trans., introduction and notes Béatrice Picon Vallin, Lausanne, Paris, pub. L’ Age d’ homme, 2009, p.82

[11] A. Lacis, Profession Révolutionnaire (1971), German pub. H. Brenner, trans. P Ivernel Presses Universitaires de Grenoble (‘Débuts d’un siècle’), Grenoble, 1989, p. 142. Later, regarding theatre in Germany in the years 1931-32, he writes: ‘The demand for spectacles of high artistic value was not an abstract aesthetic solution, on the contrary it resulted from the daily needs of class struggle. As the propaganda had to be done in the direction of layers that were difficult to sensitise, it was necessary to reflect reality more adequately. That was the first aspect. The second was the fact that a higher artistic level often protected revolutionary theatre from police terrorism: a truly skilled art found its defenders in the intellectual circles, protesting against police reprisals. Thus, the centre of gravity of this revolutionary theatre shifted at that time towards professional theatre’ (p.158).

[12] B, Brecht, Journal de travail, 1938-1955, i.b., p.520.

[13] A. Vitez, Le Théâtre des idées, Anthology. Proposals. D. Sallenave & G. Banu, Paris, Gallimard, p.22.

[14] J. Rancière, Le Spectateur émancipé, Paris, La fabrique, 2008, p. 17.

[15] J. Rancière, Le Philosophe et ses pauvres, Paris, Flammarion, 2007, p.V

[16] F. Berardi, «Bifo», Le Ciel est enfin tombé sur la tête, trans, from Ital. P. Rival, Paris,, Seuil, pp.11-17.

[17] Μ.Abensour, La Communauté politique des tous uns, Conversation with M. Enaudeau, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, p.153.

[18] D. Bensaid, Eloge de la politique profane, Paris, Albin Michel, 2008, p.355.

[19] Idem, p.347.

[20] A. Le Brun, Du trop de la réalité, Paris, Stock, 2000.

[21] M. Riot – Sarcey, Le Réel de l’utopie. Essai sur le politique au XIXe siècle, Paris, Albin Michel, 1998.

[22]J. Rancière, Le Spectateur émancipé, i.d. p.19.

 

 

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