Invitation to an Exorcism:
An analysis of audience response to the reading of Biljana Srbljanović's Belgrade Trilogy at Harbourfront Studio Theatre in Toronto, Ontario.
Biljana Srbljanović - one of the strongest voices in the new wave of Serbian drama - has received an overwhelmingly positive reaction in the rest of Europe. Since the mid-nineties, five of her plays have been translated into twenty languages and produced in over fifty theatres across the continent. The thirty-three-year-old playwright's work has been particularly well received in Germany and England, both countries of exceptionally vibrant and competitive theatre traditions, which makes her success even more impressive.
In her native Serbia, on the other hand, the response to her work as well as to her public persona has been, at best, far more controversial. Both Srbljanović's plays and public appearances, i.e. interviews, polemics, etc., have focused predominantly on the social trauma experienced during the Milošević and post-Milošević eras, and tend to be unapologetically critical of the Serbian ethos. Her unequivocal stance that the nation ought to look inside itself prior to assigning blame for its current predicament elsewhere has provoked a definite polarization amongst both native audiences and critics. Her plays have been performed more often abroad then at home, which in itself testifies to the fact that it is challenging to stage her work at home, and, moreover, that her work transcends the ordinary theatrical process.
Srbljanović's most contentious theme, without a doubt, is the development and existence of Fascism in Serbia, which she contextualizes above and beyond the impact of Milošević's dictatorship. Assuming that the Serbian brand of Fascism cannot be pinned on the now ousted dictator, the critical question both her audience and readership have to face is whether there exists a certain historical, cultural, traditional, or even genetic predisposition in the Serbian nation towards political extremes. It is understandable why such a view would not be popular amongst people who have historically fought Fascism, particularly in the moment when the nation has provoked a regime change in anticipation of a more optimistic future for itself. On the other hand, the recent successes of the Radical Party as well as brewing public dissent give Srbljanović's argument far more weight. Meanwhile, Srbljanović claims that her theatre is not obsessed with Milošević or Serbia for that matter - her interests lie in political and social turmoil on a larger scale as East and West cautiously move towards a projected integration. While this may very well be true, it is also evident that it is her original and uncompromising interpretation of specifically Serbian daily reality that stands firmly at the core of her work and her unprecedented success abroad.
This essay examines the controversial reception of Biljana Srbljanović's Belgrade Trilogy, during and after its staged reading by the Actors Repertory Company at Toronto's Harbourfront Studio Theatre this past fall. It was the privilege of the author of this text to bring the English translation of the play to the attention of one of the city's youngest companies for two reasons. First, the play was age appropriate, offering an array of challenging and potentially rewarding 'young' parts, which ARC could tackle with great enthusiasm. Secondly, it was a text of modest demands in terms of set and costume, thus economically plausible as a consideration for future production.
The Belgrade Trilogy deals with dislocation and the problems of the diaspora, as the play follows several groups of Serbian emigrants through Prague, Sidney and Los Angeles. Members of ARC thought that the theme was particularly appropriate for Toronto, a city of immigrants and that it would potentially draw a large and multiethnic audience. Indeed, despite very limited advertising effort, the reading garnered surprising interest amongst both the Canadian and Serbian community.
The play's style ranges from farce to tragedy; its scenes are short and visceral, dialogue is fast, economic and very effective. Combined with extraordinarily engaging acting, it was no surprise that the reading seemed to have been a success - almost a hundred and fifty people joined the actors after the performance for a question and answer period. As expected, the overwhelming response to the play was that it had a universal appeal and was of interest to all audiences, including those not of Serbian heritage. The only peculiarity was that there was no commentary from any of the Serbs in attendance, even though the reservation list suggested that they comprised at least half the house. Only afterwards, in the hallways, one young gentleman was heard objecting that "such [an] ugly side of Serbs" was being shown to Canadians. He correctly compared the play to the film Balkan Cabaret, which is based on the play The Powder Keg, which deals with the social disintegration in Serbia during the late nineties in a similar manner. This initially benign protest was then followed by a very persistent Internet-based campaign, in which Biljana Srbljanović was dubbed a "Serb-hater" and "anti-Serb" and through which Toronto Serbs were asked insistently to boycott the reading. Ironically, like all things Balkan, this campaign started a day after the reading was over.
On a less comical note, the campaign served as useful analytic fodder for the reasons why such a discrepancy between the Canadian and Serbian reception of the text arose. All the more so in view of the fact that the recent generation of Serbian emigrants must have been literate in terms of political theatre: the genre thrived in Yugoslavia during the last two decades of its existence. Tito's infamous critique and ban of Dragoslav Mihailović's When Pumpkins were in Bloom in 1968 opened the doors to the commercial and popular success of the many political plays to come. So much so, in fact, that, after this initial fiasco, during the period between the late seventies and early nineties, political theatre had no real rival at the box office. The dissent soon spread into Yugoslav film, which, for its part, carried the political issues and messages into the furthest corners of the country. In other words, art with a domestic political context stopped being the privilege of the large cultural centers. Why, then, did the Belgrade Trilogy offend an audience that has presumably grown up on equally, if not more, politically charged works of Popović, Jovanović, Snajder, Mihić, Kovacević and Stefanovski, to name only a few?
One of the obvious reasons for the above would have to be a drastic change in geopolitical circumstances. When political theatre dominated Yugoslav stages, the Communist Party still had a strong hold on power, and as such was an implied or direct target of the playwrights' criticisms. Thus, the political theatre often provided a welcome respite to an audience that was getting equally tired of the repression of the regime as it was bewildered by its impotence to adjust to the democratic processes in Eastern Europe. Political theatre, for a while at least, became the forum where change could be anticipated, a prism through which the nation could observe not only its deteriorating leadership, but also taboo themes from the Communist Party's past. The paradoxical strategy was to allow plays to deal constructively with the fundamental issues of the regime's ideology, while protecting their authors with a shroud of historical distance.
Srbljanović's texts target political issues in far more fluid and ambivalent social circumstances" first during the repressive regime of Milošević and then in a young and chaotic democracy. In contrast to the vague and all embracing Yugoslav communist doctrine of "brotherhood and unity," Milošević's regime was firmly rooted in Serbian nationalism. Therefore, an attack on the regime became implicitly an attack on the nation (in this case, a large portion of the audience). The relations within the triangle author-audience-regime, in which, initially, the author and the audience had conspired against the regime, have shifted in a way that found the political playwrights isolated against the newly formed alliance between the audience and the regime. Watching her shows is even more tasking today, as in Serbia there is currently neither a regime nor a government for that matter. Almost by default, Srbljanović's criticism falls on the back of the nation/audience itself, as the only other remaining and viable element of the equation. Her theatre is not a prism anymore - it has become a mirror. However, when her theatre confronts the Serbian audience at home, it is now contextualized only by other theatre productions that render her plays as only one of the possible visions of reality. When this mirror is transferred to Toronto it becomes the only performed reality - as such it lures its Serbian audience with the promise of nostalgia and then corners it without offering the respite of alternative perspectives, historical distance, or even the comforting sound of the Serbian language. Indeed, the English language spoken by actors, and a surrounding English speaking audience robbed the Serbs in the theatre of their sense of privacy and made their isolation more public.. As the play unfolded, the process for the Serbs, judging by the Internet outcry, turned from a benign pondering on the universal themes of dislocation, into a bizarre class of anatomy. The Serbs became simultaneously the students and a corpse, performing a self-dissection to the seeming delight of others.
In effect Srbljanović's saga paradoxically stopped being an apotheosis of the emigrants' plight and became an invitation to a cathartic ritual that would free the Serbs of the complex stigma of being a Serbian emigrant and in the process allow them to accept their new circumstances as reality. Based on the reaction of the Serbian audiences in Toronto, the question does the theatre have the power to still perform such tasks remains?
© Aleksandar Lukač