The Playgoer: Censorship at the Comedie-Francaise?

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Monday, May 01, 2006

Censorship at the Comedie-Francaise?

Thanks to you readers who kept the site active all weekend!

An intriguing parallel (though not exact) to our recent downtown institutional self-censorship debates over in crazy communist France--our liberal paradise, non?

As the Times reported Friday in their "Arts Briefly" column and followed up today, the Comedie-Francaise has outright cancelled (not even postponed) a production they planned of a new play by famed Austrian experimental playwright Peter Handke.

The problem, however, was not with the play, just with Handke's personal politics. True, he's a been a bit out there of late, as an apologist for--now how's this for controversial--Slobodan Milosevic. Once Handke was seen attending, nay speaking, at Milosevic's recent funeral, the show was off.

This begs much more reporting, and hopefully the Times will follow up in a proper article. But a couple of facts are worth pointing out to start with:

-This new play of Handke's--entitled "Voyage to the Sonorous Land, or the Art of Asking"--is described in NYT as an "inquiry into language" and so apparently does not explicitly address the issue of Milosevic at all. (Again, more reporting here would be valuable.) While all plays, granted, are political acts, Handke's legacy and importance to the (post)modern theatre has been as an abstract avant-gardist. Typified in his 60s classics "Kaspar" and "Offending the Audience" (both now practically canonical on European stages). Outside of the German-speaking world he is best known as a co-writer of the Wim Wenders film "Wings of Desire" a kind of political allegory about postwar Germany, but received mostly as a (post)romantic, postwar, disenchanted fable.

-Let's remember the Comedie-Francaise is an official state theatre. So while we may still debate whether such a cancellation by a private US nonprofit like New York Theatre Workshop can properly be called "censorship"...the Comedie (arguably the first ever National Theatre) is about as official as it gets.

So basically the Comedie is saying, blatantly, this guy Handke is a political outlaw, and we don't want to be associated with him. Fair enough, you might say. But when plays start getting cancelled we have indeed entered into the realm of that c-word. Note the statement from Friday's piece by Marcel Bozonnet, described as the "administrator" of the company:

Mr. Bozonnet told Le Monde, "The theater is a tribune; its effect goes far beyond the audience at a single performance." He went on to say that even if "Voyage to the Sonorous Land," originally scheduled for January, was not a piece of propaganda, a performance would lend the playwright visibility.

Where have we heard this before... it "goes far beyond the audience." Again, the experience the audience has, one-on-one with the work itself, is discounted. The play is not allowed to speak for itself, and must suffer the judgment of even those who won't bother to see it because they don't like what the author stands for.

Need I point out I do not support Slobodan Milosevic? Nor am I familiar with Handke's arguments in his defense. (Again worth following up for all of us. Is it possible Handke is more anti-Croatian than pro-Serbian, given Croatia's Nazi-checkered past? Not an excuse, granted, but some, yes, context does seem necessary here.) But it seems Handke has been exercising his free speech rights in the tradition of modern European civil discourse. Even if that means serving as an apologist for ethnic cleansing.

Gore Vidal defended Timothy McVeigh, remember. Not his finest moment, in my book. But we're not banning his books (yet) are we?

Today's follow-up relays one of the first major protests of the Comedie's decision, from Nobel-winning writer and fellow Austrian Elfriede Jelinek (The Piano Teacher).

In a statement made public by Olivier Le Ray, the French translator of her works, Ms. Jelinek said she was "horrified" that the Comédie-Française had acted like a "censor." "By not putting on this play," she said, "the Comédie-Française, with its rich past, is following in the worst tradition of cultural institutions under dictatorships, who throw out artists who cause trouble and condemn them to silence"....Referring to the decision to cancel Mr. Handke's play, Ms. Jelinek said, "Behavior like this is the worst possible way of doing justice to the victims of the Milosevic regime."

Let's see if others follow suit. I'm aware that the European left has always been accused of being soft on Milosevic. (A vestige of Soviet sympathies?) But free discourse is free discourse. And writers such as Jelinek--whose own confrontational depictions of sex and violence have been controversial--rightly recognize it could be them next.

If anyone out there has good French or German, I welcome any relays of press reports there. (I don't really trust Google translator.) Otherwise, I hope NYT has a reporter on the case and will soon bump this up from the "Arts Briefly" ghetto, where it sits alongside such other important news as their 50th piece on the travails of Pete Doherty!

UPDATE: Bloggers Alison Croggon and Ben Ellis beat me to the punch and have far more info than I. So please read them. Handke's politics do indeed seem...challenging to say the least. And I don't want to be naive about how repellant he might be. A veritable genocide-denier, according to Alison:

Handke's politics have literally caused riots since the early 1990s. In 1997 he released A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, a short, hallucinatory book which argued that the Srebrenica massacres never happened...

Alison also has an interesting take on the Comedie still being more honorable than NYTW in their position, laying everything out straight from the beginning. Perhaps. Leave it to a state institution to show us how censorship is done by the pros.


Anonymous said...

Handke's politics are indeed troubling on the Milosevic question. So are Harold Pinter's. He has also defended Milosevic in ways that make my hair stand on end. But we aren't censoring his plays (or his Nobel Prize.)

Anonymous said...

This is totally different from the Corrie affair. If Alan Rickman came out and said the Holocaust never happened, NYTW would have been well within their rights to say, "Sorry, see ya."

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Garrett - from what I hear there's a huge shitfight going on at the CF, where the decision was made unilaterally by the general manager, and many CF members are strongly against it. Editorials all over Paris. And I also hear that's it's a possibility that the decision may be overturned.

No, I don't think blackbanning an artist for their political beliefs is the way to go. Handke is easy to criticise; but where do you stop? It's a really good precedent for McCarthyism.

Alison Croggon said...

Just to clarify, I didn't say the CF was more "honourable"; just that there is something appealing about M. Bozonnet's very French "fuck off" frankness about his decision, especially when contrasted with the opacity and shillyshallying of the NYTW, where we still don't know what really happened. At least you know what you are arguing about.

Anonymous said...

There's a similarity between the rationale in this case (to judge from what little I know) and the thinking behind McCarthyism. On the other hand, I see a difference between the CF's cancelling of the Handke play, on one hand, and the actual practice of McCarthyism and of censorship on the other hand. In its strict sense, censorship involves an outright ban by an agent of the state and would entail no French theater being able to produce the Handke play (think of Ulysses and Lolita in America); McCarthyism involves a climate of coercion and fear in which no one, or hardly anyone, dares to go against the grain; neither is true here. There's much about the position of the Comédie-Française I don't know, but so far it looks like to me (I find myself echoing Scott Walters here) as if it's one theater, albeit one very important one, deciding not to produce one play. Not to say I approve of it--I'm just always in favor of as much clarity as I can get.

freespeechlover said...

I think clarity is what makes it possible for others to contest your position. When information is withheld or keeps changing, and then when the person finally releases some more information and calls you "ill-informed" or "unthinking," that's a game in which at least part of what is at stake is power over information and perception.