The Playgoer: Handke vs Comedie, Week 2

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Handke vs Comedie, Week 2

"Many, in the theatre field, recognise in private that Bozonnet has made 'an enormous stupidity.' Yet, you can count on the fingers of one hand those who express themselves publicly, either to defend to contradict Bozonnet's decision. This silence, often worried, is embarrassing."
- Emmanuel de Roux and Brigitte Salino, in Le Monde. (Translation, Ben Ellis.)

Playwright/blogger Ben Ellis continues his excellent reporting, "live" from Paris, on the Comedie-Francais (the official national theatre of France) cancelling a play by Peter Handke (one of the formemost European playwrights of the last quarter century) over Handke's controversial support for Slobodon Milosevec. Today's post includes extended commentary from the Comedie, the French Press, and Ben's readers, so I strongly recommend.

George Hunka is right in pointing out the parallels to "Rachel Corrie" in NYC, despite important incidental differences (re: state funding, stated rationales, e.g.).

One clear difference in this tale of censorship in two cities is... the existence of this Le Monde column at all! Here is the kind of statement we never got on the NY Times op-ed page. Plus, it seems from Ben's updates, this story is in the major French papers almost every day. I guess that's what happens when theatre is still part of your national cultural discourse.

What seems to be emerging as the larger debate around this story is the question of, does a theatre producer have anyone else to answer to but him or herself? The defense of M. Bozonnet, and his defenders, is that he is allowed to express his views and act upon them in his own institution. Surprisingly this was not a case made by Jim Nicola at New York Theatre Workshop, even though he is in a better place to make it--compared to Bozonnet at the very official and state-run Comedie. Still, both theatres represent a kind of "public trust, " and "public service." (Such language is even written into the US taxcode for nonprofit organizations.) And even if you want to believe the producer should have this autonomy and be respected as an individual, we still know that's a fiction in the real world--whenever they are pressured or ousted by a Board of Directors, if not the State.

Still an interesting debate worth having. But you probably won't see many Artistic Directors here flout their boards and grants by declaring Le Theatre, C'est Moi!


George Hunka said...

Well, who knows ... not being in Paris, I can't say whether this is a major media statement indicative of the centrality of theater to contemporary life in Paris, or the Ed Rothsteinization of the issue.

But yes, and I hope that this does not ultimately devolve into a conversation about NATO bombing or Milosevic (although that conversation must be had as well), as the Corrie controversy threatened to turn into a debate on the Middle East. What these two events demonstrate -- the NYTW "postponement" and the CF ban against Handke's work -- is that, regardless of the particular political issue underlying the suppression, the suppression is being accepted within the theater community as part of a theater administration's right to limit an artistic expression previously permitted access to that stage. The consequences as to the range of permissible expressions on our stages are chilling in the extreme.

Anonymous said...

That's right -- unless you think that a producer or presenter has no right not to produce someone whose stated views (or maybe just their personality) s/he finds reprehensible (regardless of how s/he finds the person's art.) In other words, is it censorship only if the presentation is cancelled after it has been announced? What if the CF had refused to present Handke in the first place and had never announced plans to do it? I object to their censorship. But there are so many theaters that refuse to do work on political grounds all the time and we just never hear about it. (MNIRC was rejected by many a theater in NYC first time around. That doesn't make NYTW any less weasely, of course, but is important to remember.) I find this whole question difficult because I find Handke's views reprehensible, indeed, and though I admire many of his plays, probably would not want him at my theater (if I had one) any more than I'd want an active an outspoken racist or homophobe.

George Hunka said...

This is a recent phenomenon, this conflation of a theater's mission with what any of its individual playwrights may believe, as if the theater itself is lending legitimacy to an individual's beliefs simply by presenting their work (whether that work explicitly reflects a writer's more reprehensible political opinions or not). What a cozy assumption that is. If, as a film professor or the manager of a repertory movie theater, I decide to show "Triumph of the Will," "The Birth of a Nation" or "A Streetcar Named Desire," I'm not legitimizing Nazi-ism, racism or cooperation in government witchhunts, am I?

Now, I can decide not to show any movies by Leni Riefenstahl, D.W. Griffith or Elia Kazan to demonstrate my disapproval of their politics. (And there are plenty of theaters out there that will show their movies anyway.) But if anybody coming to my theater is hoping to get some kind of legitimate understanding not only of the art form but even of the cultural content of that art form, there are going to be huge, gaping holes in that understanding, and they'll have been put there by my own personal prejudices. Not that I don't have the right to them, but it says more about me than it says about the art.

One could let this lie. But to paraphrase another witness to HUAC, young and emerging playwrights should not feel the need to tailor their opinions to fit the fashion of an artistic director's whim.

Anonymous said...

Of course not. But get real: Artistic directors' whims and prejudices already control what they present -- and sadly, some playwrights do (perhaps unconsciously) tailor their art to fit such fashions and whims.

Also, a theater doing a living playwright's work often develops a real, working relationship with that playwright; that is very different from a cinema putting a reel of celluloid on a machine. It is that respect that I have some understanding of artistic directors who decline to work with someone whose views they find reprehensible -- they would be WORKING WITH THEM, not just presenting their work. Maybe they should work with them anyway, but I'm trying to make a more subtle point. My guess is that many a director declines to work with a playwright that just rubs her/him the wrong way for the most frivolous of reasons.

George Hunka said...

Point taken. But should these playwrights have to consciously worry about it? Or does this contribute to an atmosphere of mendacity in the selection and production process?

This also puts the playwright, both personally and politically, in a subservient position to the artistic director (assuming, for the moment, that artistic directors can hold political opinions or have personal habits just as abhorrent as some playwrights', though I'm sure that's not the case). That may be "the way it is." But it isn't the way it should be. And for a playwright to need to worry that her production may be pulled if she says the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time ... well, what is served by that? Or should they just shut up until their production opens?

Anonymous said...

Whether you agree with the Comedie-Francaise's decision or not, this isn't censorship, and injecting that word into the debate muddies the issue. What Bozzonet has done is to say "Not in my house", which I believe is his right, even in a state-run theater. That isn't censorship: Censorship is when the state says "Not in ANYBODY'S house". There's a huge difference. If another theater in France wants to present his world, it can. As one of the above posters pointed out, works are accepted or rejected all the time for far less substantial reasons than the reprehensible politics of the author.

Artistic directors at any theater, state-run or otherwise, are presumably there to use their taste and judgment. Why should they be forbidden to employ that when it comes to an artist's politics but encouraged to use it in every other area? At least this guy owned his beliefs. If Jim Nicola had said, "I think 'Rachel Corrie' is vile propaganda and I don't want it on my stage", terrible decision though that would have been, it would have been completely within his rights, and far more acceptable than what he did (which, for the record, was not censorship either, but as a kind of pre-emptive self-censorship, was closer, at least, than the Handke/Comedie situation).

Anonymous said...

Sorry--in the first paragraph above, I meant "present his work", not "present his world".

Anonymous said...

I think, in a really healthy theater, artistic directors would often be programming plays they 1) did not necessarily agree with and 2) did not necessarily like. An artistic director is a symbolic position -- it must be larger than the individual's personality. And that person should have the ability to recognize the importance of plays he may have no feeling for.

A big problem in America is that these institutions come to reflect, top to bottom, the a.d.'s idiosyncratic personalities. What kind of person would want to run a theatre for 20 years? Look at the last 30 years of the National Theatre, as opposed to the last 30 years of Manhattan Theatre Club, to see what short terms and psychologically mature a.d.'s can achieve.

Anonymous said...

All a.d.'s should be idiosyncratic (better that than generic) and I think there are certainly a.d.'s in New York who program plays they may not like but the value of which they recognize. But I don't think you can actually be a particularly good a.d without a degree of arrogant belief in your own taste. The audience may not corroborate it, but if they don't, at least the a.d. can still say, "I believe in this play and this artist." If you can't say that, why bother being an a.d. in the first place?

I think that a.d.'s should recognize that a multiplicity of viewpoints and perspectives is a core value of theater. But that doesn't mean that every perspective has the same intrinsic value or that you're required to program a writer you find repugnant.

dude said...

if we limit the discussion to "what are the "rights" of a theater?" then we have no discussion at all. In a modern liberal democracy, certainly a private, or semi-private institution has the "Right" to present what they want. To limit the definition of censorship to government or state regulation is similarly foolish. Maybe in Belarus one can have that discussion, but not as easily in the US or France. eg, Webster's has a nuanced definition of "Censor".

All of these decisions are, to me, about ideology. What one "Considers objectionable." OF COURSE NYTW's decision on MNIRC and the CF's decision on this play is censorship because the artistic directors imply that a work, or the creators of a work must pass an ideological litmus test before they can pass through the gate. Ideology trumps "artistic merit". If the Met Opera said: "We will no longer mount Wagner's operas because he was an anti-Semite", that would be censorship. you can spin it however you want, "i don't like that wagner's music doesn't resolve harmonically", or "it's propaganda", but the fact is that something in these "artistic directors'" heads is censoring an honest appraisal of the work itself.

So the conversation has to shift from "does a theater has the Right to censor art?" (it certainly does) to "At what point does ideological censorship become a Grave Historical Wrong?" or "How do we know we're Doing the Right Thing?" it's a psychological (psychopathological?) discussion with societal ramifications more than a societal discussion with psychological ramifications. Why do these "artistic directors" hold THIS PARTICULAR ideology??????? and don't they direct art in a particular direction?

Alison Croggon said...

An important aspect of this argument is that Bozonnet's decision has nothing to do with his artistic taste: his taste programmed this play in the first place. (And it is a very beautiful and strange play.) He took if off the program to protest Handke's support for Milosevic - ie a personal stance that bears no relationhip to the play. The Comedie-Francaise is a state institution, and his decision has ramifications way beyond his personal preferences. In the current climate of repression it sets a very bad precedent. I think he's wrong, and like Le Vabre I think he's forgotten that he has responsibilities as a public figure that go beyond his private preferences. It certainly does not appear to be a thought-out and careful decision to me.

Damien said...

If you're going to define "censorship" as broadly as Dude does, the word becomes stripped of the meaning that makes it worth using in the first place. To pick up on the Wagner example he cites, I think open discussion of (and disgust at) Wagner's anti-Semitism has fueled some pretty cogent and interesting interpretations of his operas. If the goal is, as he says, "an honest appraisal of the work", that's not achieved by willfully refusing to consider the work in the light of what one knows about the artist--including his personal politics.

We consider an artist's work in all kinds of contexts--the context of his previous work, the context of work by other artists on the same subject, the context of history. Public political statements made by the artist shouldn't get an exemption--and I don't think most artists who consider themselves political, on the right or left, would say "Please look the other way because that stuff I said shouldn't matter." Of course it matters.

Artists who choose to put their politics on the line all do so with the understanding that it may affect the way their work is seen (and in some cases if it is seen at all). What's happening is exactly what should be happening: Handke and Bozonnet have both acted on their consciences in a public way, leading to spirited debate. That hardly seems like a climate of repression, or of censorship. (And while I've tried to keep the political specifics out of it, it does seem worth pointing out that the man of whom Peter Handke is so fond was quite a proponent of REAL state-run censorship, so boo-hooing about it now is arrant hypocrisy.)

Alison Croggon said...

I agree that one big difference between the French and American cases is that Bozonnet has made no bones about what he is doing, and why he is doing it. This facilitates discussion, because you're not spending your time speculating about statements that are various degrees of nonsense. I think the really interesting aspect of this controversy is that for many of us it is not possible to approve of Handke's support of Milosevic, and so it is not easy to feel complacent about supporting the right of his work to be heard; whereas the appeal of RC is all too easy. The distinction between art and politics, art and ideology, is in this case interestingly complex. This, to my mind, makes the debate all the more important.

dude said...

you have to define censorship as broadly as i do, or you end up confusing censorship with "when my team loses." what gives the word meaning to most people is when an artist on their ideological team is censored. this is wrong. it's implied that "censorship" is only perpetrated by evil nazi, commies and serbs. NO! there's no good reason to separate a theatrical institution's choices of programming from censorship decisions an "evil" state makes. the goal of the censorship is the same: restrict the ideologies the audience is exposed to. prevent those with opposing ideologies from being able to communicate with the public.

once again, these private, semi-private institutions have the Right to do this. that is not my question. my question is: how can a theatrical institution that is for the advancement of art make ideological decisions? they clearly have to. how can they go about this and not embarrass themselves? I'm not saying it's easy.

above i wrote about how an artistic director's ideology can prevent "an honest appraisal of the work itself" but i'm hardly calling for a return to the "intentional fallacy" where we only look at the work as it stands alone. i'm all for looking at the artist in her world, learning about her context, etc... Discussing an artist's shortcomings, what she believed, etc, that's all well and good. people do it ALL the time. People are smart. audiences are really, really smart. But refusing to mount an artist's work because it disagrees with your own ideology, that is censorship and the decision to limit the programming to this ideology should go in the theater's mission statement. something like "we support artists of upright moral character". that would be a great theater, someone should build it.

you'll find a perfect work of art when you find the perfect man.

so the theaters really should put up the plays, let us talk about them, see whether the play is as dangerous as these "Dangerous" ideas these playwrights seem to have these days.

what do the theaters do instead? they cancel plays, the theaters are dark for 2 months as everyone blogs and wrings their hands. That is censorship. yes it is.

dude said...

and yes, alison, Bozo making no bones about his censoring and this does facilitate discussion, but what really facilitates discussion is mounting the play while you publicly denounce the playwright's political opinions if you want to.

that is what art is all about: The messy. the contradictions.

these artistic directors are all about the big gestures. the ideology du jour. the quick fix.

Is "The Persians" anti-persian propaganda or orientalist or an athenian victory song? mount the work, let the audience decide.

Damien said...

Dude wrote: "Refusing to mount an artist's work because it disagrees with your own ideology, that is censorship and the decision to limit the programming to this ideology should go in the theater's mission statement."

Theaters draw lines all the time. It's why we don't see more plays from a Palestinian perspective (as we've all been rightly complaining about); it's also why we don't see pro-Nazi or pro-pedophile plays. The act of drawing a line is not, in itself, censorship--it's not censorship when "my team loses" or when it wins. It's the difference between running a theater and just owning a space that you rent out.

I'm not sure it's useful to spend a lot of time defending the principle of never drawing a line. If the Comedie had rejected the Handke play out of hand, would this be an issue? No--we'd never have known about it. So people are only complaining because what happened was, for once, made transparent, and at least was based on a principle that the person who decided owned up to. I assume he felt he was fulfilling his role to serve the public trust; anyone who disagrees and owns a theater can obviously produce the play. I wish this happened out in the open more often; the fact that it usually happens privately should be of much greater concern to all of us.

Alison Croggon said...

Bozo making no bones about his censoring and this does facilitate discussion, but what really facilitates discussion is mounting the play while you publicly denounce the playwright's political opinions if you want to.

that is what art is all about: The messy. the contradictions.

Right with you there, Dude. Actually, I'm a little confused: in all the references I find, Bozonnet is called the administrator or manager of the CF, not artistic director. I'm unsure what the hierarchy is in French theatre companies (that job could include being AD), but from here it looks like he is just Boss. I might inquire...

The issue isn't about "never drawing a line". It's about a nakedly political decision made about a supposedly artistic issue, which extinguishes the distinction that (some people think) ought to be made between an artist and an artist's work, they being two different phenomena. If Bozonnet decided he didn't agree with the content of the play we might still be speaking about censorship, but in a different way: but as it happens, the play predates Handke's Serbian promulgations by some years, and has nothing to do with the issue at hand. Nobody is arguing this. And Bozonnet is quite aware of the weight that CF holds in French culture, as THE national theatre, THE establishment, and is using it against Handke the person. That is the issue at hand. If he uses that weight, I think one can rightly argue that he ought to use it responsibly, and censoring (it is blatantly censorship) an artist's work is hardly an enlightened choice for an artistic institution which claims to be principled.

I think he called it totally wrong: and naturally, Handke is using all the welcome publicity this decision has generated to further his own political agenda. So not only is it wrong, its consequences are the absolute reverse of what Bozonnet claimed he wanted to achieve. Or did he just think that everyone would agree with him?

Alison Croggon said...

Also, just to clarify: the CF has a repertoire, from which it chooses its work. Living writers very seldom are chosen for the repertoire (Pinter got in only in the past few years) and it is considered a great honour. The repertoire is voted on by CF members. Writers can be thrown out too - I believe Genet was for a while. So it's not quite like a play was offered to them and they rejected it: it's more like Handke is in the golden circle, his ticket came up, and then was pulled because Bozonnet read the paper. What I'm unsure about - I think it isn't the case - is whether Handke has been chucked from the repertoire, or if that is on the cards.

freespeechlover said...

back from Britain and I think a lot of this "drawing lines" talk is nonsense. No one is saying that theaters don't draw lines. What's interesting is when they do it overtly or covertly for political reasons. If we flip the word, censorship over, we have the term, expression. The question becomes why is some expression acceptable at one stage only to become unacceptable at another?

The issue of censorship in the 21st century is not about legal prohibition. That was the issue of the twentieth century, and people are more sophisticated about the way they exercise various sorts of controls on expression. These ways are political and cultural, not legal, and I think it's a red herring to get all twisted up over legalities, since no one is talking about censorship in a legal sense. But just because it's not legal censorship, doesn't mean there isn't something crucial to monitor and document during an age when politics and culture are the primary categories through which debate over "expression" takes place.