Dialog, 03/2014

Dialog, 03/2014
March 20, 2015 x

Dialog, 03/2014, Warsaw
-Małgorzata Leyko-
Translation: Judith Sobczak

History in a theatric remix

The author is a professor at the University of Łódź, working at the faculty of drama and theater. She is also manager of literature in the theater of W. Bogusławski in the city of Kalisz. Among other things she deals with the cultural context of the German and Jewish theater from the ending of the 19th century. Recently she wrote Theater in the land of utopia (word/picture terytoria 2012).

History is a natural domain of theater, which is always in an enduring relationship.Theater which stages history converts, in compliance with the binding aesthetics, consolidated pictures of the past. At the same time through the conventions, in which she shows them, she tesitfies binding types of historical narration in the given era. In other words: the way, by which history is constructed, by which its educational function is definded and by thus the way by which the past is presented to society, will always find a reflection in theatric conventions. That means then, when theater opposes these „official“ narrations. Present breaking of historic narrations in the form of how it has been shown by tradition, moving away from generalization and standardization of the past’s vision for the sake of new historical discourses, has the effect that theater also searches for new ways of presenting history and it is evident that is is surprisingly creative in showing erased tracks of the past. This is as clear in diverse memory concepts on stage as the opposing category towards history, as it is search for a new practice concerning the presentation of extruded or absent problems in the main flow of history. Building a frame of reflection over the present reading of history, theater artists are engaged in making history and using strategies and techniques similar to these which are used in the area of cyberculture.

In his text History in cultural remix Andrzej Radomski refers mainly to new practices in history making in the world wide web. But he also stresses that „historiography 2.0“ could refer to more institutionalized undertakings, so also to theater. However Lawrence Lessig determines changes in the range of democratizing participation in culture as a crossing from the culture RO (Read Only) to the culture RW (Read/Write) in the context of practical remix, Andrzej Radomski is calling the changes in history creation also a process of going through historiography RO, which is created by professional historians, to historiography RW, which is based on the „community production of history“.

The effect of it is a public (popular) history created by public historians in an environment beyond academic theories. This public history on an equal footing with other cultural elements could  also become an object of consumption and entertainment not only in a virtual range, but in the form of more or less instutionalized ventures. In the sphere of spectacles this could be for example reconstructions of historical events or theater performances or even expanding the description – performance activities which are based on the historiography RW, so a collage, adaptation, rewriting. remix, mash-up, found footage of existing fragments in terms of historical records/documents, which create a completely new whole and have an own message formulated by the author. This type of activities lead to the form of critical-historical researches, instead of the only former aesthetically aim. Today, theatrical remix of history has diverse forms and expresses a whole spectrum of attitudes and aims which are placed between two poles: art and history undertood as a reconstruction of something, that does not exist anymore.

This polarity I want to explain by two examples – projects realized in 2012 and 2013. The first one places itself by the subtitle – History Remix – into the over talked issues.

Displaced women. History Remix. Berlin – Łódź – Minsk is a trilateral project realized by an international artist team and performers, who are following the aim of extracting women’s experiences during World War II from oblivion which were displaced from the „male“ version of history. Monika Dobrowlańska – co-author and director – connects three areas of culture through her biography: born and educated in Poland, she continued her studies in Germany and graduated in the  GITIS Acting and Directing Class in Moscow. As a dramatist Michał Walczak cooperated with her, one of the most interesting contemporary polish authors, the stage design and costumes were developed by Johanna Pfau, who gained experience through designing the decoration of the most famous German directors.This anchoring of artists in different cultures was reflected in the way of working out the given issue, because although the events of the second World War seen through the German, Russian or Polish perspective are almost 70 years ago, there is no common international history. But the authors were able to create a certain type of a transcultural narration based on the war experiences deep down in the memories of women from different countries. The basis of the script are three recently published reports showing the experiences of the women in different situations throughout the war. Their common denominator is the fact that all were a taboo subject in the war discourse.

The Unwomanly Face of the War of Swietlana Alexievich are several dozen of collected tales of women, who survived the Second World War. They participated in war next to men as first-aid workers, liaison officers, snipers, but from the historical view they got excluded, excluded from the participation in heroism and also from suffering which goes with the war. On the other side the memoirs from the 20th April until the 22nd June 1945, which were written by a pseudonym Anonyma and were published entitled Eine Frau in Berlin, are showing dramatic survivals of a German woman in times of the Berlin occupation by the Soviet army. Sentenced to their oppression and violence, she tries to survive and for the price of her own dignity she is looking for salvation. As a consequence she is able to survive, but rejected by the closest man in her life. At the end it is clear that their war stories do not have a tangential point. Finally community work Berlin. Memories of Polish people concerning forced labour in the capital of the Third Reich in 1939-1945 contains among other things a report of a young Polish woman, who was deported from Łódź to forced labour in a Berlin factory, where she was forced to work overtaxing her strenghs. Facing violence and a life in very bad conditions, she also meets some gestures of compassion and solidarity. Extracting fragments from these three texts, where each is functioning as an autonomous memory record, the authors of the script are making a „postproduction“ through processing already existing contents and changing the former record. Since Ewa Wójtowicz writes:

The artist is becoming […] a postproducer not just in respect of material artefacts or electronic versions of the work as a project, but also in respect of the meanings, which emerge through the work that faces new reports enabled by the remix.

That, what was an record of individual experiences and functions in the context of similar war desitinies and experiences – separately – Russian, German and Polish women, was rewritten and ended up in a new story, bringing the history of women during World War II into being, absent in the official history record.

Three actresses from Germany, Poland and Belarus: Anna Poetter, Monika Dawidziuk and Svetlana Anikej, impersonating not only „displaced women“ – women precipitated through war from their own environment – but also their butchers. They are telling about their destinies in German, Russian and Polish, alternating further images. On the empty stage there are sitting three women on chairs in neutral clothes, behind them there are some screens, where the translation and their zoomed faces are displayed and in the final scene archival photographies. These three chairs and a mobile wooden chest is enough for everything: trenches, factory machines, table, shelters of the Berlin apartment or a smashed-up truck. With their uniforms, military side caps and trousers, red canvas, too tight sweaters or headscarfs the actresses fluently change their role, at the same time giving a new meaning to the played space. These simple drama devices support and dramatize this unusual story, which shows a less known face of the war.

How Swietłana Aleksijewicz writes,

women are telling differently and about something different. “Female“ war has its own colours, smells, own lights and feelings. Own words. There are no heroes and unreal achievements, there are just humans occupied with human and inhuman issues. And not only humans are suffering there, but also the earth, birds, trees. All people who live together with us on this earth. They suffer without words and this is even worse… .

Starting points for the staged tale are details, small things, gestures and pictures, crumbs of a normal life, which are used  to anchor the memory, says Pierre Nora. They appear in the memories of the women because in their version of events „there are a lot more things during war besides death. There is everything we have in our normal lives. War is also life. To this life belong „very long plaits, up to the knees“ which are cutted by the 18-year-old girl entering the Red Army. And the plaits of the forced labourer, cutted because of head louses and send to the mother in a cardboard. A red scarf which was lost by Sasza – a sharpshooter, because „a red scarf on the snow is visible, unmasking. And a foal who „is running in such a calm way as nothing would be going on, no war“ in front of the starving female soldiers. And the candy which were shared by a stranger. There is also this number K1. 7176, which was given to Polish girl forced to labour, and a vanishing, foggy picture in front of tired eyes during the drill work. This is a memorized picture of the conquered German villages: “flowerpots with flowers, nice curtains in the windows, even in the sheds. At home – white dishes. Expensive dishes. Pottery“. This picture is in contrast to the momories of the dominating cold and mud at the front: “We slept on straw, on twigs. Sometimes two or three days without a warm meal“. This memory also refers to tattered, bloodstained dresses and a stuffy smell of the basement, in which conquerors raped German women. Stars on the hats and military caots, whose owners could have guaranteed even for short security. And the painting on the wall of the Reichstag: “The Russian girl from Saratow defeated you“.

But the moment of defeat, the historical ending of the war, started admittedly a tragic chapter in the life of these women, which were aware of two truths “the own truth, pushed down to the underworld and to a foreign, […] soaked by the spirit of the time. The smell of newspapers“, as there were two wars at once. They had to adapt to life, which they did not know, when they went to the front as teenage girls. The women’s participation in war – on both sides of the front – has been revealed by infamy. The women were excluded from the war discourse as well in terms of suffering which they had to face, as in terms of heroism by which they were distinguished. After some passed years they state with bitterness: “Men were the conquerors, heroes, fiances, they had their war and looked at us with totally different eyes. […] they took our victory from us“.


Monika Dobrowlanska’s play was composed due to a principle of freely consequense of sampled text sequences, scenery flow, memory stream, theatre situations built around the prop, gesture, image, a word precisely outplayed by actresses. The play refers to the question of excilded women’ identity and integrates itself into the present process of activitizing our mind and the history itself, knowledge and ingnorance.
Creating the „place of memory“ in the meanining of Pierre Nora, the artists of Displaced Women History Remix tries to show that history is not able to dominate diferent memories, which abandonned from their main flow do return to strengthen our identity since seeing for memory ist he test of finding one’s own history story. Nora claims that the „places of memory“ emerged while in society past rituals started to vanish, when society started to reavange on ist own new over old, young over old, future times over oast times. The place of memory includes museums, archives, cementaries, festivals, annniversaries, monuments, shrines.
If would give the same status tot he theatre, their similiar as in the case of literature – it will be become a place of memory unless it verifies history, when the artist becomes as well a human being of art as well as a human being of action, what means that he changes the individual discourse to collective one by his artistic acting.
So, while using mixed up techniques, the artist creates a “device of negotiating meaning and identity“. He activates the interpretation creativeness of the recipient through the same tactic, because the mix refers in equal measure to the process of creativeness and delivery. The performance Displaced women does not have the character of a dead repository, but fulfils the role of an emphatically shelter, it directs the record to the individual viewe, commiting its operation to what could be his participation in the collective memory. The function of theatre understood like descriped is the eloquent expression of the experience revived in memory, which becomes a device of the dramatic remix through direct participation of the viewer.
With the performance Displaced women, which I use as an example of drama fulfilling a indirect function towards history and wherein the viewer’s aesthetic experience connects to cognitive experiences, I would like to confront a totally different project. Their creators just make use of the situation of a drama performance to show results of historical researches, revealing uncomfortable and excluded aspects of the past events. However arts – in a wide range of understanding – is bringing art performances in a modern way to science laboratories, we are facing an opposite situation –  science (history) is entering the stage.

At the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee conference, 20 January 2012, the group Historikerlabor (laboratory of historians) presented at the villa next to Grosser Wannsee 56/58 in Berlin the historical performance Die Wannsee-Konferenz. It was the effect of several months work of 15 German historians born (with one exception) between 1971 and 1984, invited to the project by its iniciator – Christian Tietz, a historian and director working with amateur companies.The aim of Christian Tietz and the group of young explorers was a performance in a historical place where the conference had taken place. The place which served to plan in detail the logistic, legal and economic aspect regarding the extermination of eleven million Jews. The drama company did not have the intention to prepare a historical reenactement, which would be based on the reconstruction of the  conference’s course with portraying each participant of the conference. There was neither the intention to create a “Dokutainment“, which would be a form of an easily digestible story. The authors of the project named it “Dokumentar-Theater-Projekt“ (project of the documentary theater). They rather tried to find a lively way, which would involve the spectators directly and deeply and would also confront them with events of the past which had been eclipsed by oficial historical records and narrations. The historian-performers cared a lot to unveil the falseness written in the basic document, which is the protocol of the conference’s course to “the Final Solution of the Jewish Question“ (as the extermination of Jews was called euphemistically) and they also cared to unmask the real aim of the conference. In this case we deal with  the creating of historiography RW in a grass roots way (socially, popularly and publically) which initially emerges during the cooperation between professional historians, but does not belong to the professional academic historical discourse and its use is the emerging direct announcement addressed to the spectator-participants of the event.

The task of the project producers was the gathering of archive material within a few months of research, which enabled to take a closer look at the biographies and views of each 15 conference participants regarding the extermination of Jews. Furthermore it was also important to examine, which role the organizations and institutions represented by them played. From researchers one expected to hear the answer to the following questions concerning every conference participant: “Which view did he hold in terms of the Jews’ extermination? Had he been a declared anti-Semite or rather a careerist which had found an opportunity to reach this aim? What was the role of the institution, for which he worked in the extermination of Jews? Had he been a forcing power or rather tried to stop this process? Which aims were represented by the institution during the conference in Wannsee?“. The gathered documents and comments of historians were initially the basis of two months work on the script. This was made by Kalliniki Fili and the rehearsals were conducted by Christian Tietz. In this way 15 paths were created to enter the event which happened in January 1942 in the Wannsee villa. The structure of the whole event was determined by reading the protocol, which was remixed with quotations and comments of the founded documents. The content of the protocol, which could have implied the preparation of a huge european campaign of Jewish evacuation, had been confronted with documents unambiguously prooving fully consciousness of all participants that the conference’s aim is the total annihilation of all European Jews. There were no reports which would suggest any scruples or doubts of the participants. Every quoted fragment of the text was added with its source to convince the spectators that these are real hard facts and no historical fiction.

The executors – the historians themselves – did not impersonate the role of the conference’s participants, they also did not speak them. In a way they did represent them but they spoke on behalf of the history. The whole spectacle was without any historical staffage. It was conducted in a small audience, where the conference had taken place 70 years ago. Today you can find there an exhibition showing all effects of the then undertaken decision. Along the room fiveteen chairs were arranged alternately in both sides; on both sides the audience was gathered. On the chairs the performers sat who appeared in their private clothes holding files with the read out documents and with a photo of each former participant of the conference. They did not use any theatrical devices, “they were real protagonists, being historians or their representants, who wanted to share their researches with the audience on the stage“. On less space the spectators were listening for one and a half hour (this is also the duration of the Wannsee Conference) to texts expressing completely contempt to human life. Their image of the past, primarily shaped by media, got confronted in an authentic place with the testimony of time, which they would have never get to know in another way. Each presentation was accompanied by a discussion, which allowed to reach distance to the represented facts.

The project Die Wannsee-Konferenz met a perfect reception and a wide public interest; the spectacle  was repeated several times, among others at the Berlin Maxim Gorki-Theater, it was also registered on DVD. Above all things it was a grass roots initiative for the historical Die Erfindung und Vernichtung des Untermenschen (the finding and extermination of the under man), which following parts will be the next projects – Die Hungerplan-Konferenz und der Vernichtungskrieg gegen Sowjetunion (conference about the plan of starvation and exterminating war against the Soviet Union). The premiere will take place in May 2014 in the German-Russian museum, Berlin-Karlshorst, as well as “Die Endlösung der Zigeunerfrage“ – ein fiktives, wissenschaftliches und internationales Simposion, Berlin 1941 (“The Final Solution of the Gypsy Question“ – ficticious, scientific and international symposium, Berlin 1941), which effects will be represented in February and March 2015 at the Max Planck Institute, Berlin-Dahlem.

The chosen topics in both over talked operations on the verge of theater and history, as well in Displaced women, as in Die Wannsee-Konferenz, had been even used earlier through dramatists  or television-film producers. So when these topics became again a device of historical-artisitical creation, this means that in a reality of communication dominated by media (the present situation of the executors and spectators) theater defends itself by the directness of influence on the spectator and makes him a participant of the operations made with historical materials. In the area of theater remixed history exists in a different way than in the sphere of cyberculture, referring to this Andrzej Radomski writes: “The object of the historiography’s researches vanishes – the world of history. There are just constructions left in the database, which could be understood as informations at the same time“. In theater this world of history still is omnipresent.