by Katrin Trüstedt
Fundamental questions of migration and asylum that determine contemporary political debates also take center stage in some contemporary theaters. On the German speaking stage, Asylum seekers have made a lasting impact that gave rise to recent controversial discussions. Announcing his latest book, professor at the Hochschule für Schauspielkunst Ernst Busch Bernd Stegemann claimed that the impact of the “refugees on stage” marks a problematic turn towards authenticity. It implies, according to him, a form of banishing mimetic art from the stage on which no fictive world is emerging anymore. In line with several “new realisms” and a dominance of documentary forms, refugees are put on the stage as “real human beings” that are supposedly just “being themselves.” Stegemann understands this as a takeover by a performative art form that not only expels mimetic art from the theater, but in his view also furthers a new populism with its claim for authenticity.
This diagnosis underestimates the complex conditions and reflective potential of the contemporary stage. A play like Elfriede Jelinek's The Charges (the Supplicants) does not take the appearance of “real people” for granted. Rather, it explores the question what it means to enter a stage, to make an appearance, and to take on or receive a role, even “as oneself.” And it highlights especially what it means to appear as a “stateless,” in the double sense of being without state and being without status. Not only any claim for authenticity is very much up for debate here, but the very foundations of mimetic as well as of performative art is being explored. In Jelinek's text, the question of asylum on the one hand, and the very nature of the theater on the other are fundamentally linked.
Nicolas Stemann's production of Jelinek's text premiered in 2014 at Thalia Theater in Hamburg, staging a chorus of “refugees playing the parts of refugees,” as they would say in the play, as potential agents whose place and status is suspended in various ways. Jelinek's text was written in 2013 within the context of the increasing casualties of European asylum policy that became undeniable with the 2013 Lampedusa migrant shipwreck, in which hundreds of asylum seekers from Africa drowned at the external borders of the EU, and the many protests, such as the hunger strike and occupation of a church in Vienna by 60 asylum seekers in 2012. At Vienna University, the right-wing movement Die Identitären crashed a performance of Jelinek's play by bringing fake blood and distributing “multiculturalism kills” flyers, much as they recently interrupted a performance with refugees at the Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin, appropriating the kind of performative protest forms traditionally associated with leftist activism and re-appropriating them in a paradoxical move to performatively reinstitute an identity that was, in these very acts, claimed to be a simple and natural given, not the product of any performance. Despite claims proclaiming the death of the theater, the theater has become once again a site of political and cultural confrontation, where the complex act of ascribing status and identity is at stake.
The title of Jelinek's play, The Charges (the Supplicants) echoes the German title of Aeschylus' The Suppliants. With this explicit reference, Jelinek's piece alludes to the ancient institutions of theater at play here. As a public space, and as a space of exception (secured by the laws of freedom of art), the theater corresponds not only to other exceptional and transitory spaces, but also to institutional spaces such as the church and the courtroom. Jelinek exposes the theater as a space of figuration and personification, a space that allows us to question what it means to appeare and to bring forth an identifiable status by performative practices of ascription, producing the visibility of bodies as persons whose utterances can be recognized as words and deeds that can be attributed to them. Not only Aeschylus's earlier play The Suppliants can obviously be read as an architext to Jelinek's The Charges, but also Aeschylus'S The Eumenides, which highlights the difficulty of becoming a recognizable person against the background of the specific impersonality of the chorus. When the furies in Aeschylus's play The Eumenides first appeared as an undefined mass of bodies on stage in 458 BC, they were apparently too ugly to look at. Such ugliness, it seems, is not due to a particular – ugly – form or feature, but rather the very lacking of form, and more precisely of the theatrical and legal form of being a person. In ancient reports recounting the play's staging, they are called “Aprosopon”: without a face or a mask. Jelinek's play stages the challenges that theater and law both face in dealing with the undefined plurality of bodies and the need for the mask (prosopon, persona), that enables the body to become visible, identifiable, and to be ascribed a specific status. Aeschylus's “portrayal” of the furies in the Eumenides depicts a primal scene both for the theater and also for the court that is this particular theater. Only what is visible, what takes place, and what has a face, a mask, a status can be negotiated and judged. In the sphere of the polis the face or the mask is the emblem of any instance that is able to act in a way that is accountable. It is literally what the Roman law has called a “person”. This understanding of “person” – as the representative and public surface of our existence to which we can attribute our words and deeds, our properties and obligations, our claims and rights, this person that still governs our laws today – made its first appearance in the theater.
What distinguishes theatre from other media is that what it presents on the stage to the spectator's sight are primarily living bodies, “living means,” as Walter Benjamin called them. But theater especially exhibits the complex relation of the materiality of these living bodies to their status and the particular meaning they take on stage – a relation that Jelinek foregrounds through the ancient tradition of the chorus as a background for a dramatic person that steps out and exposes him- or herself. Instead of a dramatic persona entering the stage, as the dramatic tradition would have us expect, the production opens with three different constellations that mark forms of entering and beginning.
At first, we see an undifferentiated mass of people on the stage and one figure who is singled out by means of a video projection that seems to be filmed live on stage. Instead of one person physically stepping forward from a background towards an audience, facing the undifferentiated mass of the ancient chorus, here the camera zooms in and the projection singles out, linking the physical act from off to on stage to the technical form of separation that allows for a certain “coming closer,” even though this individual is actually not the living body on stage, but rather two-dimensional, a flat projection on a screen. Entering is a physical as well as a symbolic act, or rather: a physical act becoming symbolic. Such an act of symbolic embodiment is necessary in order to produce a dramatic person. Here, this act of appearing is technically transformed and exhibited as a complex act, as the play is bringing an off-stage background (the scene of filming) that enables the appearance, onto the stage itself. Individualization requires a mediality that is itself foregrounded here in this medial separation of one individual from the mass (the chorus).
The camera that enables this first individual entering resurfaces again later in the play, referring to the surveillance techniques that are used to trace and identify immigrants illegally crossing borders while they are trying to “appear”, to “make an entrance” in Europe or in the US in a different way. There is a scene in which a team with a small hand held camera walks through a mass of people lying on the stage and uncovers and films their hidden faces. At this later point, we see the encroaching flip side of the practice of zooming in and the way in which this exposure can also involve subjection and a disciplinary grasp. Making an entrance, becoming a person, is for the ones who need it most urgently at the same time not just a goal withheld from them, but has an inherently ambiguous character: it might just as well be the mode in which they are caught, to be thrown back into the void from which they were trying to emerge.
The second type of entering that we see in the beginning of the play is one in which the individual is not singled out, but where the mass itself seems to become a kind of subject or agent – a chorus. In this second type of appearing, instead of a successful entrance of a dramatic role facing the chorus, we see the formation of a group chanting “we are here, we will fight,” approaching the audience up to a point where they seem to be on the verge of crossing the border of the so-called fourth wall. For a moment, it seems that the practice of protest or assembly has transformed the theater into a space of political action. Once again, this movement questions the theater's traditional lines of demarcation: Is it a protest itself, and what would such political action mean for the role of the audience? Or is it the quotation of a protest slogan within the scope of the play? Is this a moment that is situated “before” the actual beginning of the play, one interrupting the play, or part of the play itself? Is the protest slogan “we are here” a speech act, producing the here and now of the theater? Or is it evoking the here and now of another space – like camps, churches and occupied schools?
The third kind of entering is manifested by individual voices speaking Jelinek's text: “We are alive. We are alive. The main thing is we live and it hardly is more than that after leaving the sacred homeland.” With this third appearance, we are dealing with a ghostly kind of entering that does not establish the figurative presence of a dramatic person on stage, as voice and body are here clearly dissociated: There is a gap between the mass of bodies in the front facing us, a chorus that is visible but does not speak; and what seems to be professional actors who speak via microphones, but who are – from the position of the audience – more or less invisible, blocked from view from the crowd at the front of the stage. The text that these professional actors speak is here articulated in the the first-person plural, although the actors speak mostly alone, while alternating, so that a clear attribution of the words to one role is impossible. Moreover, the point of view (“after leaving the sacred homeland”) is one that we attribute not to those who are speaking, but to the chorus, although it is articulated in a perfect and indeed professional and playful German that we attribute to neither the actors, nor to the chorus, but instead to the author Elfriede Jelinek. This complex scene addresses the question: Who speaks here, for whom, and based on what authority? The “we”, declaring it's position is stated, only to declare from this position the very impossibility of this speaking. “No one speaks for us, and we ourselves don't speak either, no, also our dead do not speak, surely not for us, just like our deeds, that may speak, but not for us.”
All these three entrances explicitly recall the ancient separation of the actor from the chorus as a primal scene of “becoming a person” for the law and the theater. It is an integral part of Aeschylus's plays that the hero not only exposes him- or herself in front of the audience witnessed by the chorus, but must listen to her fate being declared by the chorus on stage. What we see here in Jelinek's play, however, are not individual actors entering and facing the chorus as particular roles and listening to the chorus stating their fate. Rather we see the equivalent of a chorus silent in the front, listening on stage to a text being read from their perspective, and ultimately blocking our view to the individuals that seem to speak, but do so in turn not for themselves but rather for or through the silence of the chorus that we do see.
These complications do not only reflect the post-dramatic theatricality that, following Bertolt Brecht, Heiner Müller and others, stages the very conditions of theatrical presence. At the same time, these complications are inherently connected to a specific crisis of personhood that has become especially prevalent in the situation of the stateless. This inherent crisis is brought out in Hannah Arendt's analysis of the structural situation of refugees in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt makes clear that the 20th century has produced an incredible number of stateless people who are thus forced to live in territories and under laws that are not their own and which do not recognize them as bearers of rights, that is, as fully accountable agents. The conception of right was rearticulated by an idea of human rights that is tied to the new nation state, as Arendt has shown, and thereby to the holy trinity of state, territory and a people. The status as human is linked to that of the citizen, and therefore the new ‘status' of the stateless is not just a natural one, but the by-product of tying the conception of the state to the legal fiction of a Volk. The concept of the person has undergone a complicated shift in the past 200 years by means of which personhood has come to seem naturalized and subjectivized, and has thereby become a means of governance that penetrates ever more deeply into those bodies that strive to become visible and accountable. In the situation of the stateless that Arendt delineates, the severe ambiguity of personification for the stateless comes to light: On the one hand, the stateless are denied a form of personhood as bearers of active rights within a framework in which they can appear as subjects, which thus makes it a goal to attain such personhood: to become visible and be heard; on the other hand, the stateless are persecuted by techniques of identification, which do not grant them the space to appear, but instead arrest them in the light of the law. Thus, those whom Arendt calls the stateless seem to be confronted with a double bind in which they must strive to appear and yet avoid appearing. If it is true that the figure of the refugee, as Salman Rushdie has pointed out, should not be viewed as the anormality, but instead as the defining figure for our time, this double bind concerns us all.
Our being ascribed the status of a person is not something “natural,” our being visible is not a given, but rather, as Jelinek's play exhibits, a complex act that involves a public space and various interconnected positions, like the separated audience that relates the physical entering of the body to the mask that is artificially and externally being ascribed to it. The categories and means that we have to enter a public space – to be recognized as not only a body but also as someone who can participate, partake in, and contribute to this space – are in a crisis. Jelinek's play brings these categories of personhood and the various means of appearing into question, so that we can not only acknowledge their aporias and ambiguities, but can try to explore their historical possibilities and undiscovered potentialities in the transitory openness of our various stages. This is, after all, also what constitutes the theater. It makes it possible for the appearance, despite all the complexity of meaning and status that is necessarily tied to it, to insist in its bodily presence. We are here.