The Playgoer: Handke, continued

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Handke, continued

"The work of art may have a moral effect, but to demand moral purpose from the artist is to make him ruin his own work."

Which dangerous irresponsible radical said that? Try Goethe, as cited by Rachel Campbell-Johnston in a very cogent argument against the Comedie-Francaise in today's Times of London.

Imagine getting away with such a statement in grant application today? Luckily Goethe had more enlightened patrons.

Many interesting comments here yesterday on L'Affaire Handke. Once again we have the questions of is it censorship if the play isn't banned everywhere, or is it censorship just because it was pulled as opposed to never selected in the first place. Fair points, worthy of debate. But I return as I have before to the counter question that if "censorship" is only wholesale totalitarian prosecution and shutdown, then we're left with the unconvincing assertion that there is no censorship in the West at all now. We have to call it something when the official state theatre of France decides to pull a play due to a writer's political views.

And, again, pulling the play is the point. Maybe that seems unfair to go after those who reverse a decision to produce a controversial work over those who don't bother. But the distinction is important. I don't think every unproduced writer sitting alone, toiling over a play exposing the government is a victim of censorship when they get a rejection letter. The realm of censorship (ok, how's "censorship-relateactivitieses"?) is upon us when forces suddenly intervene into the normal artistic process. A theatre likes a play wants to do it... then stops, due to external circumstances or pressures. With both Handke and Rachel Corrie (our two "authors" here) their personal histories suddenly emerged as too controversial for these theatres to want to handle. This despite both theatres' strong initial commitment to the art itself.

By the way, Comedie-Francaise now has posted a whole page of damage control under "raisons", including official statements, press conference transcripts, etc. Google translator won't work on it for some reason. (Hm, might Google have already perfected the bullshit detector?) My French isn't good enough to summarize it, but have at it if you wish. Also here's a bio of M. Bozonnet. Looks like he's hardly the usual bureaucrat, but an actor!

As for the comment that it is ironic to go out of one's way to defend free speech rights of someone supporting a real censor, I can only say: I don't believe free speech should be reserved only for the free or freedom-loving. What else is freedom?

Addendum: Ben Ellis, again, has the latest. Including this vigorous defense by Handke himself.

"I did not place a red rose on the coffin of Slobodan Milosevic. I did not touch the coffin. I did not brandish the Serbian flag. And never did I approve of "the Srebrenican massacre and other crimes committed in the name of cleansing." Never did I consider the Serbs as "the real victims of the war".

See Ben to read more.

8 comments:

Ian W. Hill said...

Fair points, worthy of debate. But I return as I have before to the counter question that if "censorship" is only wholesale totalitarian prosecution and shutdown, then we're left with the unconvincing assertion that there is no censorship in the West at all now.

No, that's not true. As I've mentioned before (it's a free speech subject close to my heart), Britain, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Austria have lists, LISTS, of books, movies, comics, etc. that are indeed BANNED by law in those countries. Hell, there are IDEAS that are banned by governmental law from being expressed publicly in some of those countries. THAT is censorship. I believe Italy and Spain also do this, but I don't know that for sure. I've never heard anything about France. There are artworks that the distribution/exhibiting of will get you jail time and/or a fine, quite legally, in all of these countries.

To reverse your question, if you want to call it censorship when the director of a (not "the," there are several) official state theatre chooses to cancel a production of the play for ridiculous reasons, but the play could in any case still go up if someone else wanted to do it, including at another state theatre, no problem -- what do you call it when producing the play anywhere in the country will get you thrown in jail?

As for the comment that it is ironic to go out of one's way to defend free speech rights of someone supporting a real censor, I can only say: I don't believe free speech should be reserved only for the free or freedom-loving. What else is freedom?

Bingo. Not "ironic" at all. Which means of course defending the the right of the hatred-spouting to spout, as unpleasant as that might be. Problem is, that's never going to win you many friends, and leaves you open to charges of being a hater yourself.

Anonymous said...

Playgoer wrote: "As for the comment that it is ironic to go out of one's way to defend free speech rights of someone supporting a real censor, I can only say: I don't believe free speech should be reserved only for the free or freedom-loving. What else is freedom?"

Sorry, but as a gay man, I've had to listen to too many homophobes and bigots say, "Well, if you want us to tolerate you, why can't you tolerate OUR point of view?" to buy this argument. It's a specious form of "democracy" in which everybody's political beliefs are given the exact same weight and thus mean nothing. Handke's "free speech" (a value he seemed not quite as passionate about when his favorite despot was in power) has not come close to being abridged; the director of a theater has cancelled his play because he thinks he's vile. His plays remain in print, available, and producable. There is a chasm of difference between that and censorship;

It's strange that we're all so committed to political art, and yet so willing to say that we should avert our eyes from an artist's political beliefs when those beliefs are unappetizing because they have nothing to do with his art. Of course they do. Handke's politics, which people are saying should be discreetly sealed under a glass dome when it comes to a decision whether to produce his plays or not, are, like any artist's politics, an absolutely integral key to understanding how they view the world, humanity and themselves. (And I would argue that Handke's politics are all over his plays, especially in what those plays refuse to consider.)

And by the way, I would not characterize "I did not touch the coffin" as a vigorous self-defense; it's about on the level of "It depends on what your definition of the word is is".

Dr. Cashmere said...

For those of us who are critical of the Comedie-Francaise's decision, I think it's a mistake--both tactically and intellectually--to get hung up on the word censorship.

The key point is that the play was pulled because of the artist's political views. You can call that "censorship" or you can call it "strawberry pancake." Either way, it's a bad thing (for all the reasons set out by George Hunka and others) and something that needs to be vigorously opposed.

dude said...

the problem is that whenever leaders who consider themselves the "good guys" perform an action that is similar to what the "bad guys" did in ages past, the "good guys", afraid of being lumped in with the nazis or commies or fascists, have to redefine words in order to preserve their self-image.

So instead of a crusade, we have a war on terror; instead of torture, we have "intelligence gathering"; instead of a gulag or concentration camp, we have "extraordinary rendition"; instead of killing people, we have "shock and awe". on an artistic level instead of spin, we have context; and instead of censorship, we have "postponement"
or "a theater's right".

so i don't want to be all logical positivist, or deconstructionist or whatever, but words and their definitions do matter.

and to those who say that state censorhip is sooooo different from an individual theater's censorship, eg, "Why can't the play just be done in another theater???" Couldn't the State equally say "Go to another country! We don't want your art here! There are many countries in the world!!!" This is the same exact thing. And the history of the 20th century is thinkers and artists leaving their evil countries to come to the US or somewhere else that wasn't as hostile to their opinions.

what matters is that it has taken a long time for society to evolve into a liberal democracy where we can have sort of have free speech. why do some theaters these days think they are above this model?

Alison Croggon said...

I keep wanting to return to the fact that the play is not hate speech (and nor btw is any statement I have read of Handke's what I would call "hate speech").

Do we only defend those we agree with?

Damien said...

I'm curious--since I'm apparently in a small minority on this board this time around--how the people attacking the Comedie's decision would feel if the play had never been scheduled in the first place, but if Bozzonet had still gone public with his reason. Would that be acceptable? If so, what's so bad about him coming to the same decision later?

And if it still wouldn't be acceptable, are you then saying that an AD may NEVER reject a play because he doesn't like its author's politics? If so, can he accept a play because he likes its author's politics or is that wrong too? And are politics the only thing he's not allowed to consider? And if so, why? (And if not, what else?) And doesn't that put at a disadvantage authors who DON'T express controversial political positions publicly, since apparently once you do, your right to have your work performed anyway becomes an untouchable freedom-of-speech value the denial of which equals censorship? I'm being slightly facetious, but only slightly, because this discussion doesn't seem to be leaving much room to acknowledge the vast gray, subjective, personalized, taste/art/religion/politics-driven realm in which ALL of these decisions are made. The absolutism that is being advocated here can't exist as long as these decisions are made by human beings.

George Hunka said...

Well, of course Bozonnet and Nicola are ultimately answerable to their boards or the state ministers who wield control over the appointment, and that right to determine repertory is granted by those boards and ministers to them. And they can have it. As Ben or Alison has pointed out, the CF has in the past tossed Genet from the repertory of living playwrights for political reasons. I would be surprised to hear that there wasn't a similar fury that accompanied that rejection at the time.

Nobody here is advocating any kind of absolutism, though, they're advocating accountability; and your note that all this is a "gray area," Damien, is well-taken. Another gray area is how ADs handle the responsibility to the art through the rights that have been granted to them. Of course each play, each playwright is a different case. But ADs have to be held accountable for their decisions, and because theater is a public act, that accountability must be public as well.

freespeechlover said...

This is coming late, but I think Allison's question is really to the point--do we only defend theater whose expression we feel comfortable with?