Tragic experience – Models of presentation, 2005

In his wish to prove and interpret the “crisis of modern tragedy”, George Steiner has written one of the most interesting theatre books of the twentieth century. In Steiner’s view, true and universal tragic impulses, tragic icons and characters bestowed with the miracle of living independent lives, can be extracted solely from mythological images of the world. And, says Steiner, “mythologies created by Western civilisations, are not the product of an individual’s brilliant mind”. “Mythology crystallizes the sediment accumulated through broad strokes of time. Into conventional form it accumulates ancient memories and the historical experience of the human race. (…) Great myths are unchained as slowly as it takes language to liberate itself. Behind Homer’s and Aeschylus’ legends lies reality over a thousand years old. The Christian image of the pilgrimage of the soul had become ancient before it was used by Dante and Milton.” Where modern drama turns to ancient mythology, Steiner sees some kind of proof that “no mythology created during the period of rational empiricism can, either in its tragic force or theatrical form, be compared with that of antique times.” Because, “where the artist must become the architect of his own mythology, time works against him. He cannot live long enough to impose his personal vision” and its symbols “upon the linguistic and emotional habits of his society”.

This year’s Festival in Rijeka opens a lively dialogue with Steiner’s theses. It does so through the selected shows that question a variety of tragic experiences and numerous models of scenic presentation. We shall see contemporary reinterpretations and adaptations of classical literary works and motifs, arranged so as to form the broadest possible historical and cultural arch – from “Electra” and “Antigone”, to “Hamlet”, to Chekhov’s “Seagull” and “Blow, Wind!”, the play of the greatest Romanian classic author, Rainis. All those performances, with the exception of “The Seagull”, are characterised by a dramaturgical reorganisation of a classical textual model, as well as by a ritual/ceremonial performative structure, while for at least two of the shows invited (“Electra” and “”Blow, Wind!”) could be viewed in an ethno-anthropological key as well. Even with Steiner, Chekhov is a milestone; “an explorer of inner space, of the realms of social and psychic turmoil occurring midway between the poles of the tragic and the comic”, on territory “best fit for the dry and hidden effect of contemporary anguish”. As numerous European critics agree, in one of the most fascinating scenic interpretations of “The Seagull”, Arpad Schilling takes his audiences to the very essence of such “contemporary anguish, to the epicentre of vacuity in which Steiner does not find “the mythology necessary for the internal landscape to be modelled for the sake of achieving tragic articulation”. It is precisely with Steiner that the shows classified under the second sub-segment of the Festival argue; the shows that question the possibilities of presenting the tragic sense of life through parameters of our rationalistic cyber space. We start, however, from essentially different hypotheses and expectations; we do not search for values/symbols which shall remain eternally universal, but only for a language (a language in itself as well as one of scenic expression) which, at the moment of its application becomes universally intelligible and which, in dealing with “ignoble” themes, offers possibilities for tragic awareness. The catalogue of themes offered is quite broad: from the (de)mystification of the tragic icons of pop culture, like Kurt Cobain (“The Big White Conspiracy”), to the perpetual modern dread of totalitarian social concepts (“Have I None”) and the individual consequences that result from attempts at establishing such concepts (“The Notebook”, “The Proof”), to the recognition of tragic impulses in an invisible “river of life” (“Being Awake”, “The Other Side”) which flows with us and beside us, day in and day out, yet unnoticed. We agree with the first sentence of Steiner’s “Death of Tragedy”: “We tread on immense yet complex grounds”, but we are also encouraged by faith and hope that we have made our first step and fulfilled our primary goal – that of conceiving The Small-Scene Theatre Festival as an interesting, inspiring presentation of high quality shows. All the rest belongs to the miracle of individual revelation, interpretation, and understanding.

Hrvoje Ivanković