Cowards Rather Than Heroes

Photo: Peter Župník

Back in 1986 Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote: Theatre is not in crisis, the world no longer needs theatre. Or the arts – they have moved to the margins of the world, everything has been superseded by reality. Dürrenmatt wrote these words in his free native country at a time when his dramas and books could not be staged or published in my own unfree native country. They were banned solely because of the fact that Friedrich Dürrenmatt had condemned the 1968 occupation of my homeland by the armies of the Warsaw Pact and because he spoke out in support of his colleagues who were persecuted and imprisoned in communist Czechoslovakia.

It’s snowing on the TV screen

Three years after he pronounced these sceptical words the symbol of divided Europe – the Berlin Wall – collapsed. The first time I faced this monstrosity was in 1967. I was staying in a cheap hotel in East Berlin not far from the Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse border crossing, with a view of the wall with its barbed wire and watch towers. I had to make a phone call to my colleagues from the Freie Universität which was located in the city’s western sector. I went down to the hotel lobby, handed the receptionist the phone number and asked him to connect me. Das ist doch unmöglich!, came his resolute answer. If my colleagues from the Freie Universität came to the wall from the other side, I could have called out to them from my hotel window but I was not able to speak to them on the phone.  I turned on the TV: the West Berlin channels were blocked. It was snowing on the black and white screen. Just like in George Orwell.  This absurd situation was familiar from home. We had the same barbed wire with minefields and watch towers at the border with Austria, just outside Bratislava. Except that the TV signal was not jammed.

One in a thousand

On the other hand, within our own reservation we Czechs and Slovaks formed quite an obedient community. There were 15 million of us living here, including 1.8 million adult citizens who were members of the communist party. Only Romania had a higher ratio of communist party members to citizens. Charter 77 attracted 1,800 citizens. The ratio of communists to chartists was thus 1,800,000:1,800, i.e. 1:1,000! The question is: were we really located so far on the revolutionary left or did most of us subscribe to practical opportunism vis a vis the totalitarian regime?  I suspect the latter was the case, in line with the maxim: It’s best to be on good terms with the authorities.  In sum – we were no heroes. Rather, we were cowards, or, to use the current jargon, realistic pragmatists.

However, in this country of realistic pragmatists where many things did not work there was one thing that did work, albeit not on a massive scale: it was the arts and the theatre in particular. The 1986 quote from Friedrich Dürrenmatt (Theatre is not in crisis, the world no longer needs the theatre. Or the arts – they have moved to the margins of the world…) was untrue not just in the year 1986 but in the previous years, too. And it was untrue not only in Czechoslovakia, but also in the neighbouring Poland, Hungary, and even the GDR. As early as 1967, the year when I was not able to place a phone call to West Berlin but could cross over at Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse thanks to the early blossoming of the Prague Spring, theatres in West Berlin were not much more exciting than those in East Berlin, and theatres in Czechoslovakia were no less inspiring than those in Poland. Suffice it to mention names such as Besson, Langhoff , Kantor, Swinarski, Grotowski, Wajda, Jarocki, Radok, Krejča, Grossman.

A platform for discourse

In the regulated communist society of the sixties, seventies and eighties theatre often claimed more than its fair share of freedom, daring to raise issues that had been taboo in the fifties. Society passed through a number of turning points: from repression to liberalization, from democratization to occupation, from strikes to military coup, with theatre productions often banned before they even opened – a fate shared by Mickiewicz’s  Â‚Forefathers‘ Eve‘, Havel’s ‚Garden Party‘ and Lasica and Satinský’s adaptation of the 18th century satirical novel ‚René mládenca príhody a skúsenosti‘ (The Adventures and Experiences of the Young Man Rene [the first novel to be written in the Slovak language]), by Jozef Ignác Bajza. Some theatres were closed down and many others were subjected to manipulation by administrative means but art, especially theatre which maintained lively contact with the audience, was neither marginalized nor in crisis. People would spend nights in sleeping bags on the pavement outside the ?inoherní klub (The Drama Club), a celebrated theatre in Prague before tickets for the following month went on sale.

Despite all the restrictions, censorship and ideological control, theatre under communism remained a platform for public discourse, also thanks to its lively contact with the audience. It broached fundamental themes, such as the relationship between individual and society, it mirrored false national myths, questioned ephemeral authorities and raised profound existential questions. It also offered a variety of genres, ranging from the intelligent and poetic cabaret cultivated by the Semafor Theatre in Prague or Lasica and Satinský in Bratislava, to the ritualistic theatre of Grotowski or Kantor in Poland.

A specific beauty

Timothy Garton Ash once said: Europe is like a patchwork. Every national and subnational culture has its specific beauty. Every language, even the smallest one, is shrouded in a subtle difference of lifestyle and mode of thinking that has been ripening for centuries.  And just like the communist ideology, imposed by Soviet power on occupied Eastern and Central Europe, which did not succeed in levelling out the cultures of the individual socialist countries, we need not fear a levelling out of national cultures in a united Europe. Soviet tanks in East Berlin, Budapest and Prague and martial law in Poland failed to eradicate the specific culture of these countries. It is really absurd to fear that it will happen now. Freedom and variety do not contradict each other; in fact it is the other way round.

Following the split of Czechoslovakia and the emergence of an independent Slovak Republic, the nationalist political outfit that assumed power in my country tried to assert its control over art, and theatre in particular. The Ministry of Culture set up a pyramid-shaped system for controlling cultural institutions, bringing in new directors and mercilessly applying economic pressure to silence critical alternative theatre companies. Following years of communist domination it attempted to install a Slovak version of Thatcherism in our own peculiar democratic circumstances.

Economic leverage was combined with ideological propaganda: for example, the National Theatre’s drama repertory was subjected to harsh criticism for being cosmopolitan, un-Slovak and decadent – the vocabulary was reminiscent of the propaganda of the fifties or the period of so-called normalization that followed the 1968 invasion. The cultural public rebelled. Let’s Save Culture, an open forum, was set up in Bratislava, uniting artists working in film, theatre and the visual arts, people working in museums and galleries, scholars, university teachers and students. The forum’s demands received the support of the Confederation of Slovakia’s Trade Unions; some 10,000 people attended its rally in Bratislava and 30,000 signed its petition; in February 1996 fourteen theatres went on strike and on 10 March, after the authorities refused to meet the forum’s demands, artists occupied the Ministry of Culture building. Their demands were even supported by the country’s president.

A synonym for ethics

In the next few years the nationalist outfit lost the elections, Slovakia joined the EU and NATO, and this year it has joined the Eurozone, turning into what some refer to as a normal democratic country. People nominated by the ruling parties are in charge of public institutions such as radio and television; in Prague or Bratislava audiences no longer wait for the theatre box offices to open in sleeping bags on the pavements (and not only because tickets are now available on the internet); commercial entertainment is reaching considerably more people than real art; instead of spending nights on ministry corridors, actors now sleep in comfortable beds in TV sitcoms; politics has become openly Machiavellian; and Václav Havel’s erstwhile propositions of an apolitical politics: and politics as practised morality are now publicly laughed at. But all of this is a sign of normalcy too.

In 1990, soon after the collapse of communism, a symposium on ethics and politics was held in Bratislava. Almost exactly ten years later another symposium, on culture  and politics, was held in the same venue. Culture replaced ethics in the conference title but in what sense? As the opposite of politics? As a synonym for ethics? That is the question! Ethics is a synonym of morality but the same does not apply to culture and art. It is possible to talk of fascist or communist culture or art but terms such as fascist ethics or communist ethics are a contradiction in terms.

The one thing that matters

But what about culture and freedom? How do they relate to each other? Is culture more meaningful and important when we are free or when we are unfree? And what kind of culture? If islands of free culture can exist in unfreedom, they can be enormously meaningful. They can corrode and destroy unfreedom, simply by not conforming, by not being uniform, simply by being different. And what about unfree culture, conformist culture, a subservient culture in unfreedom? We can find the answer in the paintings and statues of Hitler or Stalin, in Nazi art or communist realism. These paintings and statues reflect the regimes and ideologies that produced them.

But what about culture in freedom? It can be absolutely free which means that there can also be an absolutely conformist art, an absolutely consumerist art, or an absolutely market art. This is the good fortune as well as the curse of freedom.

The Berlin Wall still exists. It is no longer a wall; what remains is just a symbolic trace in the pavement. We can perceive it as a symbol, an ornament, part of the pavement or as art. Everyone can have their own, distinctive view of it. We can step over it, trample on it, not notice it. This is where our freedom lies. What matters is that we will no longer be shot at. 

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Slovak in the SME on 4 April 2009. 

We are grateful to Martin Porubjak for the permission to publish this text in English.