A View from the Bridge
Alarm: next week marks the beginning of a new cultural season and poorly maintained bridges are crumbling down. That this second part is a metaphor does not mean that it’s harmless. We are not going to start the new season with such incredulity: metaphor is indeed dangerous. So: alarm, alarm. Unfortunately, no one is at risk of hearing the alarm bell because on both the left and right sides of the poorly maintained bridge, people are singing their own battle songs at the top of their voices, nicely on the left side, nicely on the right side.
And the bridge, it creaks.
Culture sits on the left. That’s easy. The more you tilt to the right, the more you notice phenomena that you would have to say are situated on your left. That’s physics. These days, judges, lawyers, and NGOs also tend to be on the left. As it happens, there are lots of things that tilt to the right. Provisionally we can still assume that human rights, when dealing with the past and social justice, are not left and right but pillars on which a bridge can be built. Though that is no longer certain.
Instead of bombarding the right side from the left, or the other way round, it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea to examine the chasm from the bridge.
Because classical politics is becoming ever more powerless, it’s only to be applauded that citizens and artists increasingly feel the need to politicise.
In recent times, the theatre and the broader cultural sector have explicitly embraced themes that are considered ‘left’. Artists and institutions have taken the lead in several much-needed social rectifications. The structural racism depicted by our society, the need for profound decolonisation, the correction of the historically-developed dominant view of the Western white male: these are subjects that the cultural sector has – rightly so – explicitly placed on the agenda. Several of these voices have also given a firm shove in advancing the insight into the side effects of some of our beloved traditions: Zwarte Piet, beefsteak, the privately owned car...
These are themes our society considers ‘left’. With themes considered ‘right’, it’s a different story: that sector is not in a hurry to deal with the dangers of perverse Wahabism or anything concerning corporal punishment in Brussels’ Arabic schools. There’s also not much enthusiasm shown towards rejecting the recurring flirtation with communism as a misunderstanding of the suffering of millions of victims of Stalin and co. All the themes by which the ‘right’ likes to profile itself. It is therefore not entirely surprising that the sector is considered leftist and, through this pronounced profiling, the chasm is deepened.
The engine of democracy runs on voices for and voices against. This works as long as we listen to one other. No matter how accurate a person is, if nobody listens, even the strongest voice blows away like sand in the wind. Regardless of who makes use of this deaf-mute national stance in order to assume power, the left and right sides each have their own angst-ridden vision, although neither of them is pleasant.
During trench warfare, it’s mainly quiet.
One hears only the creaking of the bridge.
And that’s not at all politicising.
It is just in fiction, in theatre and film, in the magical arts, that we can enter into an area untouched by a proposition. Where everyone can remain deaf to a pronounced truth, where the game of cunning and lies reveals a truth in all its inherent ambiguity and magical elusiveness. Fiction can help us see things from the bridge. Long ago, Arthur Miller wrote a play called A View from the Bridge, a good old-fashioned fictional piece – classic repertory theatre and, moreover, outspoken politics. I, for one, have never been occupied with the old repertory, but in a recent press publication from the NTGent announcing its otherwise very interesting new programme, it promises that “the text available prior to the show may only represent 20% of the duration of the performance”. Because the goal is no longer “to represent the world but to change the world”.
This is the kind of reasoning through which the bridge is surely going to sag. Perhaps it’s necessary to think more deeply about the aesthetic strategies of our otherwise fine provincial theatres. The question is whether it renders true the claim to politicise.
If the theatre denies its own fabulousness in a desire to be ‘real’, then it loses itself in powerlessness. This dominant, fashionable, mainstream form of theatre is desperate for ‘authenticity’ complete with real graffiti and real refugees on stage. In this way, the play is transformed into an instrument or polemic in which everyone is doomed to become stuck.
This type of theatre satisfies the longing for a grip on reality but makes a false promise. The more credible it wants to be, the more unbelievable it becomes. The more it screams politics, whether or not it’s from a marketing and profiling perspective, the more it is cast aside by a relevant part of the potential audience and the less it can actually be political.
The aesthetic strategies of this type of theatre do not stretch beyond the symptoms of one’s own helplessness. It does not want to tell a story about the world, it wants to be the world. That’s the late-capitalist collective psychosis - real people, real biographies, real conflicts, the real world. The desire for authenticity only holds up when authenticity is absent. Whoever sails down a river in a kayak doesn’t think to her/himself: “I wish I had sailed in a boat”. That’s only when you’re driving on the A12 near Wilrijk, for example. The bourgeois leisure industry has emerged precisely in order to meet a desire for that ‘real’ experience. In the Efteling amusement park, there are plastic tree trunks in which you can coast through the water. It’s not the real thing, it approaches it, and in so doing increasingly sparks the desire for the real thing. It also makes the loss thereof even more painful. Once you’re hoisted up by a steel cable and seated inside a plastic tree trunk, it is clear to see, even before you rumble downstream, that you’re in a suburban neighbourhood somewhere in the lowlands. The real experience of mountain rivers is not here. Only in its imitation, in its kitschy theatralicalisation, is it available. The same is true of this type of theatre: the more it wants to obtain a grip on the real and change the world, the more bourgeois, kitsch, and melancholy it becomes.
An urban theatre’s logo takes the form of counterfeit graffiti; the elusive street experience has been recreated and used for the marketing and profiling of one of the largest cultural institutions in Flanders. Above the entrance of a different city theatre hangs a well-painted sign stating ‘revolution’. However interesting and versatile the programme may be, you are bound to run into problems with such a statement. They’re going to do it there. Fists are already in the air. As if Chekov’s three sisters are actually going to go to Moscow this time. In any case, it is clear: these theatres do not play Chekhov’s Three Sisters, they are the three sisters.
The more fiercely it claims to be real, to be of the world, the more it highlights its own irreality in the most bourgeois, melancholic way.
Of course, the tree trunk at the Efteling is not real, but for those who like kayaking it’s also “fine”. Likewise, this theatre does not have a real grip on reality but for those who care about society it’s also “fine”.
To the right, there is the Efteling; to the left, there is the Echteling (truth-telling). You have a subscribed formula in both cases.
Because I don’t like to run with the pack, I’ve made a little play.
When the play is banished from the stage to make room for ‘the real’ and thus avoids any chance of politicisation, an opinion piece becomes the accepted place for little plays.
The following takes place on a creaking bridge:
From Above: You think that I’m from above. Just because history has always called me that. But I’m actually from below.
From Below: You have always been from above. You have no idea what it means to be from below.
From Above: I have just as little money, just as little grasp. Do I have to be reduced to the history of my ancestors?
From Below: Yes, because you reproduce their history. You may well have always been from above, but morally you are from below.
From Above: So are you going to educate me in the correct moral values?
From Below: It’s time for social correction. Yes.
From Above: Are you going to proselytise? Do you think you’re above because you’re below? Like in the colonies, do I have to think like you? Do as you do?
From Below: Fuck off. I’m the victim.
From Above: Fuck off. I’m the victim.
And then the bridge collapsed.
And from that very moment, something completely new could be built.