Ideology shaped holes.


Romanian Flag, 1989.

Healy, Thomas. “Past and Present Shakespeares: Shakespearian Appropriations in Europe.” Shakespeare and National Culture. Ed. John J Joughin. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997. 206 – 232.

Thomas Healy’s article, “Past and Present Shakespeares”, explores the issues around contemporary localizations of Shakespeare’s culturally and historically specific texts, and the concept of a “universal” Shakespeare in relation to expressions of national identity.  He opens and closes with re-visionings of Shakespeare in post-Communist Eastern Europe: a Bulgarian Romeo and Juliet and a Croatian Titus Andronicus. The former, a near silent, experimental production, is celebrated as a critique of any attempt at nationalist hegemonic appropriations. Having been absorbed initially as a symbol of European resistance to Ottoman culture, Romeo and Juliet had a highly politicized reading in this Bulgarian context, and under its later Soviet influences.  Although Shakespeare was then “celebrated in the Soviet world as a heroic representative of the progressive historical will,” (Healy in Joughin, 1997: 208), it nonetheless continued to be read as a symbolic representation of “the struggle for national self-determination against a controlling power.” (207)   Quoting Bulgarian critic Boika Sokolova, both she and Healy liken the silence in the production to the symbolism of protestors in neighbouring Romania cutting a hole in their national flag during the 1989/1990 protests against the regime, the hole literally removing the symbol of the Communist Party:

“This largely silent production exemplified a past no longer complete, a future still undecided, and, most prominently, a present where known theories and structures for understanding known happenings were displaced, yet where nothing had confidently replaced them.” (208)

Healy explores the second production through an article by Croatian critic Janja Ciglar-Zanic, “Recruiting the Bard: onstage and offstage glimpses of recent Shakespeare productions in Croatia” and both production and article cause him considerably more unease as they transform the text, and understanding of the significance of texts by Shakespeare, “to address a contemporary Croatian political and social climate.” ( 223)  Healy is “disturb[ed]” that here, “this essay illustrates the dangers of the protean, placeless Shakespeare”, the very same protean, placeless Shakespeare that is fashionable in the world of Shakespeare conferences and festivals at the moment.  His concern is that Shakespeare “ is open to co-option to every history” (my emphasis,  223).  Ciglar-Zanic reportedly asserts that Central Europe is really Western Europe in “spiritual” terms; in other words, it is in opposition to the East, both Russian and Near Asian, including Serbia:

“what actually underlies Ciglar-Zanic’s argument, however, is a desire to have a Croatian use of Shakespeare seen as evidence of this country’s proper participation in ‘a common European cultural unity’, allowing this nation’s perspectives to be legitimised is being authentically European.” (224).

He goes on to argue that:

“Shakespeare is recruited by a specific national platform because it is hoped this gives European, or even universal, cultural approval to its politics: civilisation is on our side.” (224).

What is different in this Croatian example is that the “climate”, in which the former Yugoslavia descends into religious, cultural and ethnic “cleansing”, is much less palatable to Healy, and to most readers, than Romania’s rejection of Ceausescu’s vision, or Bulgaria’s identification with an ideology shaped hole at the centre of the psyche of former Eastern Europe (although I remember feeling sick at the execution of the Ceaucescus a week after their capture).

Other than its specific local details, what interests me here is, to what extent do we, as critics, stand back from the politics of our material?  How differently do we respond when Shakespeare is appropriated by the ‘wrong side’? Dobson addressed this in a lecture at the University of York when he explored British POW Shakespeare productions in German prison camps in WWII.  What about the ethics and politics of prisoners who put on The Merchant of Venice, with costumes and sets provided by their captors? Can we, with hindsight, view them as anything other than collaborators? (York, November 2009)

Returning to the Croatian appropriation, I wonder if Healy is arguing against the validity of any form of making Shakespeare our contemporary, because of the dangerous political uses to which his works can be put?    This isn’t expressed in the main text, but is there in the subtext.  He compares Ciglar-Zanic’s argument to the content of an article by Milan Kundera: ‘A Kidnapped West or culture bows out.”  According to Healy, Kundera identifies a spiritual geography thus: ‘the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Slovenes and Croats belong to the West, opposing the Orthodox Slavs.” (Healy in Joughgin, 1997: 225)

“on the Eastern border of the West –  more than anywhere else –  Russia is seen not just as one more European power but as a singular civilisation, an other civilisation.” (Kundera in Healy 225)

What bothers me about Healy’s argument isn’t that he disagrees with Ciglar-Zanic’s and Kundera’s standpoint, but that he rejects it out of hand as a “fatuous […] line of argument…” (Healy 225). Without compromising our own values, do we not need to try to understand the contexts of such attempts to redefine national identity, even whilst rejecting, in the case of Croatia, the emerging politics? I suppose that for me, it’s not the rightness or wrongness of appropriations that interest me in the context of my PhD.  I don’t feel great anger that “the Bard” is usurped.  This is because on the one hand that is allowing my liberal thinking to co-opt him to my own liberal agenda (which I confess I do as a teacher).  Communist societies in transition were alien and admittedly fascinating societies to me as a lefty teenager growing up during the Cold War.  So, on the other hand, looking at the politics of these alien societies through the lens of plays that are familiar to me from my own culture, gives me a way into trying to begin to understand the contexts of those very other experiences.

As usual, I have skipped down a side alley in my thinking.  However, how will I deal with the politics of a nation that is alien to me and presented in terms of an other civilisation by Western media and analysis?

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