Issue #46, 2014
Scene

Social Hate, Anger, And The Gratifying Theatre
Iulia Popovici

“Aw, this show is so touching“ – writes a Facebook user about Sebastian’s Great Love, a reading/performance based on the diary of an inter-war Romanian-Jewish novelist and playwright.1 In another internet debate, a documentary theatre performance dealing with the ecologically and politically hot topic of a gold mining project using cyanides is “dismissed“ as socially irrelevant on the basis of performing arts being “emotion-driven“.2

Somehow, in the last two decades and especially after 2000, when café-theatres and many other forms of private entertainment theatre started to become extremely visible in Bucharest and other big Romanian cities, the public perception of performing arts has shifted from “politically compensatory“3 to “emotionally rewarding“ – with a strong emphasis on positive emotions – love, joy, surprise4 (joy being probably the jolly joker here).

No doubt, audience expectations put a pressure on theatre producers, more than on theatre artists – and if emotions and their representation are the cornerstone of a whole acting tradition (the Stanislavski school and its contemporary followers), the strategies adopted in dealing with them highly depends on the spectre of emotions covered by the artistic approach and whether the intended emotions are individual or social.5

Social (and/or political) theatre has a natural tendency to deal with actual manifestations of social emotions – trying not only to represent them but also to nurture and channel them, very often with the purpose of identifying their political agency. But what are the roles of the artistic strategies used in this very politically aware kind of performing arts?

Heated Minds(2010) is a documentary performance clearly influenced by Anna Deavere Smith’s practice6, with one actor (Alexandru Potocean) re-enacting, as faithful as possible, statements and confessions given by seven (more or less) public figures directly involved in the most violent civil conflict in post-war Romania: the so-called “Mineriad“ on June 13th–15th, 1990. The genealogy – traced back, in this case, specifically to Deavere Smith but common to the conventions of Anglo-American verbatim theatre7 in general – of the artistic strategies used in this performance is relevant since these strategies define a whole string of stage approaches that are (self-) identified as political. Heated Minds was the first such approach – and one of the few that could be more or less universally seen as political, since it deals with the role of the state/government, politics and public policies.8

The most “neuter“ narrative of the most violent of the several Mineriads would be the following: after the first “free“ general elections (on May 20th, 1990), won with a large majority by the National Salvation Front (NSF), protesters in Bucharest gathered in the University Square (a symbolic place reminding of the Revolution ever since, even if the most important place for the events in December was not this particular square), asking for the recognition for a certain demand of a popular proclamation issued in Timișoara. The demand stated that communists and former communists (including the newly elected president, Ion Iliescu) be prevented from holding official functions. What was initially a hunger strike grew to be a very vocal and accidently violent manifestation, and in June 1990, President Iliescu called in the workers in the Jiu Valley coal mines to “defend the country“ in face of the “hooligans“. On trains and buses (provided by the authorities themselves), around 10,000 miners came to Bucharest and violently confronted anyone they saw as opposing the government: students, young people in general, bearded men. An unknown number of people died and thousands were injured, but the real development of events remains a mystery up to today, the general opinion being that the miners were joined and aided by “vigilantes“, later credibly identified as former officers of the secret police, and the whole confrontation was “staged“ by President Iliescu and the NSF, while all the different narratives coexist in the public opinion without necessarily intersecting one another: the one focusing on a conflict between the “good“ and the “bad“/the “civilized“ (the urban protesters) and the “uncivilized“ (the miners), the one interested in the manipulation by the secret police, the one meant to depict President Iliescu as a devilish figure “confiscating“ the Revolution, etc.

In other words, the specific nature of public space conflicts (where assigning blame is something belonging more to the symbolic than to the factual), in general, and the lack of trust in the following inquiries related to the Mineriad in particular have turned the events of June 1990 into a highly emotional subject inside the Romanian society, depending on different personal experiences, political views etc.

The team of Heated Minds – playwright Mihaela Michailov, stage director David Schwartz and video artist Cinty Ionescu (whose video interventions comment the monologues), alongside Potocean – interviewed for the performance the former leader of the miners, Miron Cozma, the author of the “hymn“ of the protesters in University Square, a leader of the protesters, the leader of the Students’ Union at the moment of the Mineriad, two prominent protesters (a member of a well-known pop band and a poet), the director of the Romanian Secret Services (the former secret police) in 1990, and ex-President Iliescu himself. On opposing barricades in 1990, now they still have at least two things in common: they are all men (which tends to confirm the cliché that social confrontations are “a men thing“ and leads the performative discourse towards a specifically gender-colored range of emotions), and they are all publicly recognized for their role in the events (which means that they have had many opportunities to tell and rehearse their story, turning it into a subjective, self-serving narrative, very difficult for the artists to challenge, even if they are aware of its nature). The videos that accompany the stories mix original footage (from the archive of the public television9) with fragments from press articles of the time and excerpts from international reports (commissioned, for instance, by the Helsinki Committee) on the June 1990 violence, thus giving a certain context for the personal accounts of the seven characters (“After we selected the monologues, we realized they were not enough, and so we got to the video part, in order to fill out the image, with pictures and text, because in the monologues only, the information is truncated“, says director David Schwartz10).

Even so, the general picture is by definition partial – and that’s perhaps what makes Heated Minds such a defining example of how Romanian theatre deals with socially and politically controversial events and the range of emotions they raise on societal level. “(We did) interviews with witnesses of the events, from all categories, from victims, beaten people, illegally arrested persons, to political figures, leaders of the University Square, miners, people who wrote about the events“, explains Schwartz. “And having so many perspectives . . ., it became obvious what we’d known from the very beginning, that no truth could be established about the Mineriad. So we chose to show as many different perspectives as possible on those three days“, he adds. In fact, the team dismissed various lines of performative development for different, yet relevant for their approach, reasons. For instance, one of the group targets for the miners and vigilantes was the Roma community in Bucharest, but despite the large press coverage of these episodes, the artists were unable to directly document them, because of the genuine reluctance of the Roma people to talk. But the whole endeavor of the verbatim theatre relies on the first-hand personal recounting of events and on “reflectionist“ strategies, as Michael Peterson11 would put it when making a distinction between “reflectionism“ and “interventionism“ in political theatre. The specific focus of verbatim theatre has on the accuracy of testimonials has precedence over the other core element of this practice (exercising democracy in giving a voice to social categories that usually are not given the right to speak) in the formal devising of a show like this, emphasizing the reflection of reality and not a challenged interpretation of it. Hence, the “reflectionist“ strategy puts the show closer to the mainstream realist theatre – an aspect even more obvious in the production, by the same artistic team, that followed Heated Minds.

The absence of a feminine perspective in the final version of Heated Minds could be explained, as the story unfolds, by the simple fact that there was no woman in the frontline of the confrontation, not even of the “ideological“ one, neither before or after the arrival of the miners, and the team of the show chose to focus exclusively on the leaders.

Besides the aesthetic choice and the obvious technical limitations, the artists were also interested not in representing the crowd confrontation, but the inside mechanism, which put face-to-face naïve revolutionary impulses and the infallible logic of the state. And, finally, one cannot dismiss the hypothesis that the symbolic battle on assigning blame was already won and very difficult to challenge – which, while stressing the “reflectionist“ side of the show, would also place the artistic approach in the field of the Romanian anti-communist ideology.12

The absence of the regular miners’ voice – which cannot be identified with Miron Cozma’s13 but to which the artists will go back in their next performance, Under the Ground: The Jiu Valley After 1989 (2012)– and that of “normal“ citizens of Bucharest, directly affected by the violence in the streets are connected to their absence in the dominant narrative about the Mineriads – and to what appears to be an interest of the artists in therapeutically addressing a social emotion of anger. It is widely documented that a large number of persons in Bucharest actually supported the arrival of the miners, but the symbolic casting of public roles, which up to today opposes the “good“ right-wing parties and intellectuals (represented in the square) to the “bad“ left-wing party of former communists, has designed the Mineriad as a clash of civilizations, with the politically emancipated, highly-educated citizens of the Capital resisting the violence of the barbarian, manual workers from the remote coal mines in the Jiu Valley. Hence, the social anger tends to exclusively concern the lack of an official resolution according to the view of the most symbolically powerful part of the public opinion.

All the “missing parts“ in Heated Minds – the Roma, the women, the miners – are present in Under the Ground, a show that uses similar verbatim conventions (first-hand documentation, artistic interventions limited to the choice of material and script-devising – the frame is that of a metaphorical mining museum14) but employs a team of actors (each playing multiple parts) instead of one performer, and “archives“15 a community instead of a specific event.

As the oldest and best-known coal mining region in Romania, with a long history of strikes and anti-governmental movements (including a huge anti-Ceaușescu protest in 1977), proving a high level of communitarian cohesion and feeling of identity, the Jiu Valley has been for decades the perfect metaphor for the traditional working class and its typical social mobility – being, in the same time, the least represented social category in the Romanian performing arts after 1970. In an interview published by Suplimentul de cultură16, Mihaela Michailov and David Schwartz explicitly state their interest in filling the gap in the local representation of work and workers, especially miners.

The seven monologues in Under the Ground bring on stage – in the same “Anna Deavere Smith“ manner trying to reenact the corporeality of the real persons, in a frontal, non-engaging setup – a series of characters whose lives revolve around the mines and most of whom came to the Jiu Valley from remote rural areas: an elderly widow of a miner; a member of a mining rescue team who has never rescued anybody alive; a retired miner; the owner of a small fast-food restaurant, married to an injured miner; a 40-year old still active miner, whose relatives went back to working the land in their native village; the watchman of a semi-closed mine; a Roma woman who lives mainly by stealing coal and iron; and a group of children from different social milieus, with their particular experiences of the life in the Valley. Performed several times in the Jiu Valley for the local audience of miners’ families, the show has a power of instant gratification – because of the members of the community (with limited – if any – previous theatrical experience), who recognize themselves, their neighbors and life events. But the show was not made primarily for this kind of communitarian emotions but for an audience unfamiliar with the miners’ life and willing to participate in a public conversation about it, through a kind of empathy generated through an increased feeling of class guilt instead of artistic strategies.

What is to be noticed about these performances dealing with complex social issues is that even if they are produced independently, they don’t fall into the realm of aesthetic experimentalism, on the contrary, they confirm the artistic status quo – both Heated Minds and Under the Ground use an alienating frontal setup, a “presentational“ structure and “biologic“ gender casting (male play male, female play female), while, in the same time, discursively supporting the pre-eminence of reenacted reality over constructed theatricality and the inherent political value of the subject over the form. Which, somehow, confirms an idea common to many commentators of the theatre that considers itself political: when politics is everywhere in our lives, the most political artistic gesture is to turn against the form and the political status-quo of your own production system.

 

 

Notes:
1. ‑A diary otherwise famous for the depiction of rising anti-Semitism amidst the Romanian intelligentsia in the eve of WWII.
2. ‑See the commentaries around the online version of the article discussing the performance “Roșia Montană pe linie fizică și pe linie politică“ (Roșia Montană on the physical line and on the political line) (Hungarian State Theatre, Cluj/dramAcum, 2010), Observator cultural no. 553, December 3rd 2010 (http://www.observatorcultural.ro/TEATRU.-Intersectia-liniilor-fizice-si-rasparul-politicii*articleID_24654-articles_details.html).
3. ‑For the mainstream Romanian theatre, its aesthetics and aims, as practiced under communism and right after 1990, see Kalina Stefanova (ed.), Eastern European Theatre After the Iron Curtain, Amsterdam, Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000.
4. ‑As classified by W. G. Parrott, Emotions in Social Psychology: Essential Readings, Philadelphia, Psychology Press, 2001.
5. ‑For more on the theory of social emotions, see Jan E. Stets and Jonathan H. Turner (eds.), Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions, New York, Springer, 2006.
6. ‑As in her long-term project, On the Road: A Search for the American Character, in the framework of which Anna Deavere Smith created a number of documentary performances on social and political issues (Fires in the Mirror, Twilight: Los Angeles), where she alone passes from one character to another, trying to maintain the original appearance, attitude, manner of talking etc. of the interviewed person.
7. ‑For more about this practice, see Will Hammond and Dan Steward, Verbatim Verbatim: Contemporary Documentary Theatre, London, Oberon, 2008.
8. ‑The definition of political theatre and the differences between political and social theatre are subject to many debates. For the use of this text, I understand by political theatre a theatre that explicitly tackles issues related to political consciousness, to state order, to the empowerment of the people in relation with the political order, to public policies, or governmental politics.
9. ‑Even if, at that time, the Romanian Television openly sided with the government, against the protesters, it is the only one with an extensive video archive from both the Revolution and the Mineriad, which makes it a questionable, but inevitable resource.
10. ‑Personal interview, May 2011.
11. ‑See Michael Peterson, Strategies of Political Theatre: Post-War British Playwrights, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
12. ‑For the mechanisms of this ideology, see Vasile Ernu, Costi Rogozanu, Ciprian șiulea, and Ovidiu Țichindeleanu (eds.), Iluzia anticomunismului: Lecturi ale Raportului Tismăneanu, Chișinău, Cartier, 2008.
13. ‑Now rejected by the miners themselves, Cozma is considered to have been a “leader of opportunity“. See Alin Rus, Mineriadele: Între manipulare politică și solidaritate muncitorească, Bucharest, Curtea Veche, 2007.
14. ‑The “museum device“ was previously used in the dramAcum collective production Roșia Montană on the Physical Line and on the Political Line (2010).
15. ‑It’s the term used by the artists and it is common to the field of oral history in sociology.
16. ‑On October 6th 2012.