Handke comedie update ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Handke comedie update

Update: Our Man in Paris Ben Ellis updates the story with an excellent post that summarises for us blockhead monolinguists some of the admirably complex arguments happening in the French public sphere. And Ben makes some good points himself. Most interesting is an article in Le Monde asserting that despite much private noise, a public silence surrounds the decision. Superfluities and Playgoer follow up.


Despite much interest (here and here) in the banning of Peter Handke's Voyage to the Sonorous Land or the Art of Asking by the Comédie Française, it's hard to follow what's going on. Here I plead mea culpa: if I had studied French instead of Latin in high school, I'd be able to read the newspapers...

Despite speculation that the decision might have been reversed, it appears that M. Bonzonnet, defender of the purity of French theatre, has stuck to his guns. My spies tell me that competing petitions - one, originating from within the Comédie Française, supporting Bozonnet and the other defending Handke - are currently battling it out in the fora of public opinion. The Literary Salon also has some interesting details on the article that sparked M. Bozonnet's displeasure, which has the Nouvel Observateur apologising for regrettable "factual errors" after threats of legal action from Handke. And Literary Salon also has some links. In French. Merde.

As a side note: on Playgoer, a poster in the comments draws a further parallel between the Handke bingle and the Rachel Corrie controversy. Brian Souter, a fellow Australian, claims that Slobodan Milosevic is, like Rachel Corrie, a "victim". "If Rachel Corrie has been demonised for the defence of Palestinians," he writes, "even more has Milosevic been a victim of the media-spun lies of the western power elites".

This kind of sticks in my craw. Whatever the merits of her actions, Corrie was a genuine innocent. Milosevic is not. I've no doubt that Milosevic was the victim of sustained and politically motivated media spin, and that ought to be acknowledged and debated. But no side on the Balkans war has clean hands - one cliche which demonstrates its truth again and again is that the complexities of the Balkan conflicts are labyrinthine. To side with Milosevic in the interests of justice seems to me a profound mistake.

For some balanced views of the demonisation of Serbia and the culpabilities of Milosevic in the run-up to the NATO bombing campaign, see here and here. Also, for an interesting and complicating take on the manipulation of the media by all sides, and a re-framing of the idea of Balkans nationalism, check out Sylvia Poggioli's fascinating 1993 article in Harvard's Nieman Reports.


Andrew Eglinton said...

Handke's antics are unfathomable to me. We'll never know his personal motivation behind his support for Milosovic, but regardless of that, he was well aware of the impact that his presence at the funeral would have and as such it should be read as a political statement. I wonder what his position on Ratko Mladic is, i dread to think.

On the flip side if Handke had turned up with a eulogy at Reagan's state funeral and placed a rose on his coffin, I wonder if the Comedie Francaise would still have wiped him from 'le repertoire'. Given Reagan's support of the contras in the Nicaragua Vs. US case...

My point is, to what extent can a playwright be an overt supporter of a political regime as controversial as the Serbian or the US governments? Unless you're perceived as being in the 'right camp' you are likely to be supressed. The 'right camp' is framed by world media, which in turn is framed by government propaganda, powerful lobbies and corporations. To be a supporter of Saddam or George could, on one level, amount to the same thing. But in terms of public opinion, and this is what the Comedie Francaise is afraid of, the two leaders are literally worlds apart.

p.s. I love your blog and I'm never disappointed by what I read here.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Andrew - thanks for your nice comment!

I think that we have to make a distinction, however arbitrary it might seem in some cases, between an artist and his or her work. McCarthyism decimated American cultural life by persecuting anyone whose private political opinions did not accord with the right "side". In this case, no one is arguing the play's artistic merit, or that the play promulgates racism or anything of the sort; the focus is wholly on its author's political stance. And this I think is extremely troubling, and sets a very bad precedent.

Andrew Eglinton said...


I agree with your point. I'd just like to add, that I can also see where Bonzonnet is coming from, misinformed by Valentini's diatribe though he was, he was trying to save his behind. Arguably though, no matter what his decision had been, it would have caused controversy either way. The real issue behind this whole affair is the Nouvel Observateur allowing Ruth Valentini to publish a misinformed article. The irony is that she states Handke as a revisionist...

That Valentini may have strong views against Handke's political orientation is completely acceptable, but to distort the reality of an event then publish it, knowing full well that it would lead to some sort of scandalous/speculative eruption is not.

Freedom of expression must be upheld at all costs if we are to believe in just one iota of a functioning democracy, but that does not justify the publication of 'lies' - that is - if Handke is telling the truth of course. So we are back to the flogged horse of an idea of what is the limit of free speech? The fact that it is often held up to the magnifying glass for public and political scrutiny (Dutch cartoons, Behzti, Rachel Corrie etc etc) is perhaps sign of a healthy system. Were it not for these sporadic checks to the balance, we would not know what free speech meant.