Looking a long time back, from far away: war theater’s lessons for a foreign journalist
Sarajevo, 1993 and 1994: What did a middle-aged New York theater critic see then, and what do those experiences mean now? Twenty-two years ago all sentient Americans were passionately debating the Bosnia war, primarily because of the United States’ complicity and hypocrisy. As someone who first visited Yugoslavia in 1969 (to attend BITEF) and spent many summers there, my own grief cut to the heart. To a writer committed to free, skeptical, open art, it was obvious that Sarajevans making theater under fire in defense of multicultural civilization had to be witnessed and documented.
The 1993 reality was often surprising. I had seen theater produced in situations of violent conflict in many countries during the preceding decades, but this seemed different. Not only in the ways the siege affected technical production, choice of repertoire and the lives of actors, but above all in the productions’ relation to audiences and the complex discussions around this relationship. These various aspects of each production will be considered. (There was always also the question of how my nationality, profession, political ideas, linguistic ignorance, and personal connections affected my perceptions.) By 1994, the city was functioning better, but the public mood had darkened in response to the West’s inaction, and certain foreshadowings of the city’s – and its art’s – future were visible, though full of contradictions.
Serbia, 2000: A 1996 trip to Belgrade and Croatia added other perspectives, but focused on nationalism and human rights, not theater. a subject not re-visited until 2000. Then, an enlightening symposium in Novi Sad on “War and Theater,” followed by visits to several dissident Belgrade theaters – this was after the NATO bombing, six months before Milosevic’s fall – showed how the war was being addressed, and avoided. Theater at a society’s apparent turning-point, angry, courageous and defiant, formally inventive, with enormous intellectual and artistic resource: the question was, what was its future?
After 2001: There is a 15-year-long empty space in my mind where thoughts of war theater in former Yugoslavia simply don’t exist. I was a foreigner, distant, able to detach from depressing post-war reality the way I was able to fly out of Sarajevo, but the primary cause was that 9/11 and Iraq made American aggression and nationalism the most urgent issue. However, this space has made it possible to look back at Sarajevo, and find some new meanings, messages about the role and possibilities of theater that come from that long-ago horror and still resonate.
Erika Munk was the editor of Theater magazine and Professor of Dramaturgy at Yale University’s School of Drama from 1992 to 2004. She had been a senior arts editor and theater critic of The Village Voice from 1978 to 1990; after she left the newspaper, she continued to publish in the Voice throughout the 90s. Her more recent writing appeared in the Nation, the New York Times, American Theater, Women’s Review of Books, The Washington Post, New York Newsday, The Brecht Yearbook, and many other publications. For the last five years she has worked with refugees at the International Rescue Committee and with the formerly incarcerated at the Fortune Society.