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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 365-387

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Performing Europe:
Identity Formation for a "New" Europe

Janelle Reinelt


"Something unique is afoot in Europe, in what is still called 'Europe' even if we no longer know very well what or who goes by this name."

--Jacques Derrida, The Other Heading

"The case against 'Europe' is not the same as a case against Europe."

--Noel Malcolm, political columnist, The Daily Telegraph

In this essay, I will take up a kind of national formation, but one which is itself troubled when subject to scrutiny: the idea of a "New Europe." The quotation marks indicate the imagination of an entity that might become, replace, or perhaps parasitically inhabit the older Europe. This "Europe" is in the process of emerging--some think sufficient momentum now makes it inevitable--but it is to date an unfilled signifier, an almost-empty term capable of endless mutations and transformations, an open and elusive term of great/little significance and power. Sometimes described as a supranation, 1 and often gathering definition only in opposition to the separate nation states which comprise it, the idea of Europe has become a liminal concept, fluid and indeterminate, and most importantly, a site of possible struggle. Following the work of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclou on radical democracy, a "New Europe" could signal a call for an inclusive, socially responsible, super-democracy. 2 [End Page 365]

As an American scholar of theatre, my interest in the "New Europe" is not directed toward any replication of the United States, or of positing a United States of Europe. Indeed, the significant differences between the US and EU structures and institutions--not to mention histories--make such comparisons far-fetched. Rather, the open-ended challenge of creating a European entity with significant possibilities for improving the sociality of human beings intrigues me for the contrast it might offer to my own nation. The phrase, "New Europe," gestures to both a concrete entity not yet fully defined and also to a horizon of open possibility, what Derrida might term its "undecidability," as the potential site of novel, even radical imaginings. Not only are such issues as immigration, social welfare, workers' rights, and environmental protection at the forefront of negotiations over EU policy, in addition to these internal social issues, Europe's place vis à vis the global marketplace is also an open question. Is developing a strong EU mostly a financial strategy for competing with the United States and gaining a transnational presence in foreign, often developing countries? If regressive nationalism (often taking the form of xenophobia and anti-immigrant stances in the nationalist politics of France's Le Pen or Austria's Haider) is worthy of pan-European rejection, how is the structure significantly better if it produces a "Fortress Europe" mentality with policed borders and its own definitions of insiders and outsiders? While there is no guarantee that a "New Europe" will transcend these dangers, neither are these dangers guaranteed to actualize. In fact, these are the very terms of struggle involved in identity formation.

Europe's current instability, together with its immense social stage, makes it ripe for theatrical representation to play a role among other cultural practices in determining its future. While theatre is often circumscribed by institutional structures and limited audiences, it has a unique and powerful role to play when seen in concert with other social practices such as public discourse in print and media, ceremonies, festivals, sports, and the other performing arts. In periods of crisis or flux, theatre is especially well-suited to influence as well as to reflect the course of history by providing imaginative mimesis, transformative models, and observant critique. Whether we reference playwrights of the Black Arts Movement in the US of the 1960s, or eastern European theatres' political double-codings during an era of closed regimes, or South African performances fighting apartheid, history points out the progressive role theatrical performances have played in contributing to both new ideas and material social change. 3 Theatre cannot change the world by itself, but it can contribute its unique...


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