- Shout Theater in a Crowded Fire: A Translator’s Note
Abbie Hoffman’s provocation to shout “theater” in a crowded fire echoes decades later and an ocean away in Belgrade, where playwright Biljana Srbljanovic’s Family Stories: Belgrade recently shouted “theater” in Serbia’s incendiary political and social situation. This violent slapstick tragedy—from a thirty-year-old playwright living in Belgrade—articulates a complex antinationalist Serbian politic. First produced in 1998 at the Atelje 212, a theater that has been presenting experimental and dissenting work since the 1960s, Family Stories: Belgrade then went to the Novi Sad Theatre Festival, where it won the award for best new play. It was translated into German by Mirjana and Klaus Wittman, and subsequently produced to critical acclaim at Hamburg’s Schauspielhaus (January 1999). Srbljanovic’s first and only other play Belgrade Trilogy (1995) dramatized three stories of her generation’s flight from Belgrade.
I read Family Stories: Belgrade in Theater heute in the spring of 1999, just as NATO began bombing Belgrade. I was concerned about translating a Serbian play from German into English (a double remove) but also felt an urgent need to bring this play to American and English-speaking audiences. Here is a forthrightly critical and oppositional voice coming out of the theater, a voice from a different Serbia than was being presented in the news, and a play that presented more complicated images of Serbs than CNN was providing. Translating Family Stories: Belgrade felt like shouting “theater” —the project was catalyzed by my need for an active political relation to the NATO bombing. What sustained the work, finally, was Srbljanovic’s theatrical craft and the play’s sophisticated dramaturgy.
The violence of Family Stories: Belgrade recalls Sarah Kane’s Blasted: a violence hard to be inside while translating, choosing between words like slap and punch. To be sure, harder still to have lived through and written; Srbljanovic’s characters kick and kill each other. At times I began to wonder if this kind of representation of a violent social situation verged on theatrical overkill. Almost like shouting “fire” in a crowded fire. [End Page 4] The play is saved from such obviousness by its theatricalism—the entire drama structured around a play within the play, requiring an extended experience of alienation on the part of the audience, who cannot be simply sympathetic to Srbljanovic’s characters.
In this once-removed mousetrap world, violence is so sharp, so quick and everyday, that there is no opportunity to sentimentalize it. The violence is not without effect, it’s just quotidian; there’s no climactic gunshot to end this play. Instead, the playwright offers parodic slapstick, calling on a long tradition of making politically radical theater within an oppressive regime through absurdism. By presenting violent material in this way, Srbljanovic makes political theater about a terribly harsh social situation without making an after-school television special out of it—a hard trick to pull off, especially considering that her characters are children. Srbljanovic avoids the trap of sentimentalism by triangulating age in the play, so that adult actors play children, who in turn play adults—an extended game of “house.”
Srbljanovic’s choice requires a double, and sometimes triple, vision from audiences, demanding thought as well as feeling in response to complex theatrical and political situations onstage. A similarly nuanced vision, this play implies, may be needed in reality: Americans take for granted a complicated, dissenting relationship to our democratic government, forgetting others elsewhere in the world have equally complex relationships with their own. For every Serb who doesn’t want to admit their complicity in the atrocities, there is an American who refuses to acknowledge the bombing of Cambodia. Theater can spark our imaginative growth; a play like Family Stories: Belgrade will ignite American imaginations of Belgrade’s political culture. Erasing journalism’s veneer of supposed “objectivity,” Srbljanovic allows multiple voices to shout and be heard, and her audience must answer with an alienated but utterly compassionate emotional response.
Rebecca Ann Rugg is a student in the dramaturgy and dramatic criticism program at the Yale School of Drama.