One of the most successful things theatre can do is respond thoughtfully to events happening in the world. Recently I’ve been reading and studying different playwrights, directors, and theatre makers doing just this, and the overarching theme is: War. These artists are asking the necessary questions: What are the lasting affects of war? How do we acknowledge/ignore it? What is the role of art/theatre in the face of war?
Who are these artists?
First is a name you’ve probably heard of: Sarah Kane. Sarah Kane wrote five full length plays, her first and most well known, is Blasted. After its premier at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in London in 1995, Blasted was (forgive the pun) blasted apart by critics who called it a “disgusting piece of filth” and dismissed it as a woman’s attempt to shock audiences. On the other hand, Kane was supported by renowned playwrights such as Harold Pinter, and Carol Churchill who referred to Blasted as “rather a tender play.” And, as I’ve discovered after a few readings of it and an in depth class discussion, it really is. For those of you who may not know, Blasted is centered around two main topics: domestic violence, and war. Drawing heavily on the events of the Bosnian War/genocide occurring during the time Blasted was written, Kane’s intention was to show how the former is the seed which leads to the fully grown tree of the later. Blasted draws heavily on the grotesque, making note of things such as human stink, graphic images of violent sexual acts, and the gross and disturbing realities of war. There is abuse, rape, suicide, cannibalism, death, and finally in the very last moment of the play, hope. Kane put these shocking and grotesque events and images onstage because they are real. These are the casualties of war that people did not want to acknowledge, and she challenged that in an extremely brave and intelligent way.
The second artist making work around these topics is Serbian playwright, Biljana Srbljanović, with her 1998 play, Family Stories: Belgrade. Writing from a post-war perspective, Srbljanovć addresses similar themes as Kane does, but from a more personal perspective. Srbljanović is a politically active Serbian native, claiming the capital city Belgrade as her home. Through her work, Srbljanović parses out what it means to be a Serbian citizen in the face of Serbia’s detrimental role in the various conflicts, wars, and genocides resulting from the separation of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In Family Stories: Belgrade, four adult actors play children playing a shockingly loaded game of house which always ends with the two “parents” dying. Besides the moments of graphic violence in Family Stories, what is most shockingly is the words the children speak. “Father” Vojin, “mother” Milena, and “son” Andrija banter back and forth in the way their society has taught them people are to act. Vojin beats his son for having independent thoughts, and we repeatedly hear that violence against Milena is acceptable because she is a woman. Like Kane in Blasted, Srbljanović shows how these learned behaviors of abuse and oppression are the seedlings which lead to bigger problems; wars.
Regarding these two plays, I am very interested in how they’ve been received in different parts of the world. From what I’ve read, Western audiences have been less likely to fully grasp and sympathize with the weight of Family Stories. In America, we see representations of war as filtered through the media, and while we may think we have an understanding of it, many Americans have not had to step outside of their house into a war zone. Like critics’ first responses to Blasted, many people may simply not have the life experience to realize the weight of these plays. However, in Germany who has a complicated and recent history with war and its affects, both Kane and Srbljanović’s works are widely respected and produced.
With their works, these two playwrights have done and are doing something incredibly brave: making theatre in direct response to real, unpleasant, and unfortunately relevant topics in their lives. They challenge our own bravery with these pieces…will we rise to meet them?