to index
Political theatre - on artistic terms
A sketch for a psychoanalysis of Norwegian contemporary theatre
By Tore Vagn Lid

What exactly do we mean by engaged contemporary theatre? Isn’t that something that should go without saying, that a modern theatre must also be an engaged theatre? This might seem obvious, but looking around at the contemporary landscape of the scenic arts, the sharp countours of true engagement have been a rare sight rather than the rule.

The problem - I believe - is to be found precisely in the combination of the two words: We can find examples of contemporary theatre without commitment, and conversely there is engaged theatre which is not contemporary. We’re bumping shoulders with something we might call a hereditary sin in the history of Norwegian theatre. And like so many things that are inherited - one is not always aware of the existence of this heritage, nor do we know from whom or whence these heirlooms came.
Despite the looming threat of nostalgia, a brief reminiscence is necessary, of the time when Willoch was our prime minister, when the Bobbysocks were putting the final polish on their winning musical recipe, and Poco Loco suits in white and pink were the uniform de rigeur on the dance floors of the nation.

To be fair, little has survived the time between. Disregarding remixes of Abba tunes, retro parties and the parliamentary attempts at doing da capos of Willoch’s heyday of happy yuppy times, the 80’s influence is running thinner and thinner.
But something has survived, nonetheless. Something has proved to be quite resilient, in a scale far beyond the rediscovered pop hits and semi-ironic retro-fashion. Perhaps the art scene - and especially the darkness of the theatre - offers better camouflage than the flash flooded catwalks?
At least, it is precisely here that this something has been able to flesh out a hegemony of sorts, like a pale blue thread straight through the shifts and slides of reality, ever since the days when a cowboy was elected president of the US of A and TV 2 was only a faraway fantasy in the minds of our cultural policymakers.
I’m speaking of the fear or aversion of the Norwegian contemporary arts - and above all of the Norwegian contemporary theatre - of anything that can be construed as engagement or political commitment.

Throughout a span of two decades of Norwegian scenic arts, an apolitical attitude has been the politically correct attitude. A perplexing paradox, but true nonetheless.
Because even in the adoption of an attitude of perceived political correctness - there is nevertheless a political attitude. And because the art scene of the 80’s and 90’s in Norway became so utterly politically correct on the issues of politics in the arts, it became so incredibly political! And perhaps more importantly - in contrast to the longhaired and banner-wielding parental generation of the 70’s - it became so incredibly politically successful!
While the leftwing militant MLs around the close of the 70’s were daydreaming about the ultimate and classless victory of the proletariat, the postmoderns won the election by a landslide margin. If the Marxist utopia was a radical dream, postmodernism became an equally radical reality!

Time moved slowly but worked efficiently
In coalition with the naivism of the 90’s, they weren’t merely clearing the tables and filling all chairs, they even began to root out the ‘opposition’. Thus the censorship which the MLs had argued in favor of had been carried on, realized and professionalized by the sovereign winners of the new generation: the philosopher Lyotard replaced Marx; Dario Fo was supplanted on the theatrical stage by Robert Wilson; and in the flicker of strobelights on the dance floors we saw flared hoses jousted by a pastel spectrum of leisure suits.
As late as in the summer of 2000 the author Erlend Loe was doing his best in the columns of Aftenposten, to suffocate the engaged artist to the point where s/he’d stop trying to produce anything meaningful.
And even if one wasn’t killed by the fall of the Berlin wall, one can be knocked on the head with the remains even today.
When the Transitheatre piece “Opus 1. The Anatomy of Power” was premiered in Mohlenpris in Bergen two years ago, it wasn’t merely uncool to deal with politics in theatre - it was synonymous with suicide. As most people know, it’s often difficult to distinguish between suicide and active - or even passive - euthanasia, and this is also true in the scenic arts.

But, returning to reminiscence.
In the holy year of 1983 there were few things so cool, so in, hip and correct as the performance artist’s democratization of the theatre. Gone were the hierarchic organizations, party chairmen, discipline and ideology of the leftwing movements. The ideologies were stone dead. In England the democrat Margaret Thatcher settled her differences with the dwindling remains of an undemocratic union - differences, by the way, which were shared by the regime she had waged her campaign against the previous year.
In the circles of theatre an interesting conclusion was drawn: with an ear turned to ‘The land of freedom’, organizations were replaced by art organizations, in a turn from macro-political liberalization to liberalization within the artwork itself.
From the free state of Netherlands - and from Flemish Belgium - impulses were brought home which would mate the idea of the pure, introverted formal experiment with the even freer organization of project-based free theatre:
Politics was power. Direction and director alike were undemocratic foreign elements. A clear artistic profile spoiled the spontaneity of the individual actor, and fixed ensembles belonged where hippie hair and collectivism had gone. You came together as individual artists, improvised something - created art - and then you returned happily whence you came! The scenic artist was - and remained - a ‘free rider’ in an increasingly freer market. All but forgotten were Brecht and the Prussian discipline of yore. All but vanished were the modernist highflying demands of precision, organization and technical skills, and the remains of any ensemble concepts were confined to the trusty institutional theatres’ ghostly pale refinement practices of their Stanislavskij.

The artist was free, the audience interpretation was free, and the Norwegian free theatre was even freer - actually to such a degree that young scenic artists in the 90’s felt compelled to improvise, to constantly swing between partners, to spontaneously produce loosely defined and shorttermed projects without any meaning - because the investment of meaning - one thought - was tantamount to lecturing the audience. And to lecture to the audience - one was taught - was a relic of the 70’s and had nothing to do with art. A project like that - one decided - deserved neither public support nor public performance in the correctly black-draped and stylishly introvertive stages of contemporary theatre.

It strikes me that the liberal slogans of this day and their ideals of flexibility blend very interestingly with the postmodern ideas of the free, creative and individualistic artist on the open seas of the art market. I’ll leave that suspicion where I found it - after all, postmodernism has nothing to do with politics (as everybody must know).
Still, I can’t quite shake the nagging sense that these things are related: the paradox implicit in the demands of flexibility that are laid on the working man in the ‘new economy’ is the same as the imposition of free improvisation on the free theatre ensemble.
Thou shalt not make meaning! Thou shalt not think too much! Thou shalt base thine plays on improvisation, and as the flexible and free artist thou art, thou shouldst move in and out of ever newer projects and flexible collaborative constellations. - All of this has been like a law of nature in Norwegian contemporary theatre from the 80’s and right on up to this day. And precisely here lies also the potential for change in the theatre of today.
There have been and still are several reasons not to attempt something like this. Ghosts of the 80’s and 90’s are still haunting the hallways, the foyers and funding organs. In the recent years they’ve been joined by new - and less articulate - poltergeists of cultural policymaking: In Denmark the new wave of conservative politics threatens to exterminate contemporary theatre, while at home the scenic arts are increasingly forced to trade away their artistic merit for silver coins.
Nonetheless - or perhaps all the more - the engaged theatre is worth the effort. In the world of theatre as in the world at large, the times don’t change unless we change them.
Things have changed in the last few years: The Arts - in Central Europe especially - seem to have discovered the reality which they’ve been part of, yet ignored for the last two decades. To refrain from action is also an action, as Jean Paul Sartre realized in the 40’s, touching a nerve in today’s theatre as well:
Even when it thinks it has hidden itself, the largest bird in the world is still there. It is there precisely as a very large bird hiding its head in the sand. And the same goes for the theatre.
You are producing a lot of meaning when you’re yelling at the top of your voice that you don’t mean it.
With this insight comes responsibility, and with responsibility - we can hope, at least - commitment will return to Norwegian theatre.

Though it doesn’t always seem so, no one can file a patent on the term contemporary theatre - just as nobody can protect the term contemporary music. Anyone attempting to claim such rights is no longer involved in contemporary art, he has historicized himself.
A well known Norwegian scenic artist recently stated that he thought his art would … “play in tune with the times”. But - one might ask - who is creating these times if not the active subject, as a human being and and artist?
Unfortunately this is symptomatic: you have a notion of what the current trends are - what’s happening in the Netherlands right now, for example - and then you measure your achievements or your level of contemporaneousness - in short, your status as a contemporary artist - against this yardstick.
What we don’t ask ourselves - and certainly don’t answer - are the questions of how these trends are created, who creates them and not least, whether they merit our support and efforts to spread them!
Looking at fashion: it’s contemporary! Looking at oneself and saying: I’m in tune with my times, I’m creating contemporary art! In this way artists are turning their present into something they don’t have an active part in - it creates itself - and art is left to recreate. But this entails a loss of responsibility, the trends become rules, and following these rules becomes conformist behavior.
I may be wrong, but to me this is oddly contradictory: one claims innovation, though strictly it’s only recreating instances of innovation. Rather than a taking another step toward the future, one is taking a step backwards. Out of the Prada purse hangs a pink leather tie.

Nothing is more regressive for the contemporary arts than blindly to follow one’s contemporaries. By dressing up in fashion, be it a knitted sweater or full body paint, art relinquishes not only its responsibility but also its most important purpose - to produce. Rather than critically producing it is insignificantly reproducing its present.
Instead of this imagined “pact with the future” the theatre can - I believe - realize itself as a quest for the present.
I was going to call this little essay “Beyond Performance and Beyond Audun Automat”. For those who are into trends and fashion (and many are in the contemporary arts scene), one could ask whether good riddance of those hallmark eighties moccasins isn’t just the beginning of a new ordeal with flared pants? In other words: isn’t it possible that a critical standoff with the postmodernism of the 80’s and the naivism of the 90’s will entail a return of the politicized 70’s, of slogans and flying red banners?
The suspicion is justified - few things have been so detrimental to the potential political theatre than political theatre itself! More than twenty years have passed since theatric commitment shot its own foot and built a cast around the remains. In the hunt for simple solutions and prefabricated analysis, the catastrophic mistake was made, of confusing theatre with party politics, art with slogans. Adorno was proven correct: the lie stained the artwork. Poor politics made poor art.

What was forgotten was theatre as experiment - a theatre which through its own means can put modern realities to the critical test.

In a framework such as this, theatre is not only content, form is also important: certainly, art is imbued with politics, and certainly, the scenic space becomes a critical testing ground - but this will happen - I hope - on the terms of art and the artist.

The basic impulse of the modern artistic project was - as I see it - to always challenge the taboos within art itself; to rebel against itself and its own dogma. Schonberg made a break with tonality, Picasso with the figurative style of painting.
When it ultimately became a taboo for modern arts to carry meaning, perhaps today the modernist impulse lays dormant where you least expect to find it. Perhaps the distance between Pablo Picasso and the ruins of a Norwegian shipping dock in Bergen isn’t so vast after all?

Tore Vagn Lid, director and artistic leader for Transiteatret, Bergen.

Translator’s note: I found no good cultural translation for this. Audun Automat was a character in a television series performed by a politically engaged but theatrically heavyhanded theatre group called TramTeateret.