- National Theatres in a Changing Europe
On the very last page of National Theatres in a Changing Europe, Janelle Reinelt poses the question that haunts the volume it crowns: “How can a productive tension between past and present create a theatre that provokes the social imagination to posit a viable future?” (236–37). This is the challenge facing Europe’s contemporary national theatres. It’s a heady one for, as Dragan Klaic notes in his chapter: “Today, it is difficult to imagine how any National Theatre can pretend to represent the spirit of the nation, construct and enhance national identity and stress the distinctions of national character. . . . All those notions—spirit of the nation, national identity, and national character—have become worn out and deprived of consensual meaning” (217). On a continent once battered by destructive nationalisms and now working overtime to integrate ethnic differences while celebrating them within a pan-European economic and political union, is national theatre any longer possible? How do we reconcile the European Union (EU), the “global” metropolis, and the national stage? In this freighted triumvirate, is the latter an anachronism, ridiculous, a shell of a tourist attraction, or can it, as Reinelt provocatively suggests, become “in the right circumstances . . . a radical democratic institution” (235)?
At its best, these are the kinds of questions National Theatres in a Changing Europe raises. The strength of this volume—which is based on a symposium held at Trinity College, Dublin, in March 2005—lies in its comprehensive coverage of the field it surveys, bookended by several outstanding chapters (by Loren Kruger, Klaic, and Reinelt) that take a wider view and offer theoretical insights as well as cultural and political analysis in order to set the book’s other essays into a broader context. Through the middle, National Theatres offers a wide range of perspectives on an astonishing number of national theatres: in Russia (Julia Listengarten and Laurence Senelick), Ireland (Ben Levitas), Norway (Kirsten Shepherd-Barr), Finland (Pirkko Koski), Belgium (Frank Peeters), Italy (Patricia Gaborik), France (David Whitton), Sweden (Rikard Hoogland and Willmar Sauter), Germany (Thomas Irmer), the United Kingdom (Michael Coveney), Bulgaria (Kalina Stefanova), the Balkans (Barbara Susec Michieli), and the Baltic countries (Edgaras Klivis). While the vast majority of these chapters are narrative histories, and fairly short ones at that (averaging around ten pages each), together they offer a compelling picture of a Europe still struggling with the place and meaning of the “national” in the arguably post-national EU; they also provide somewhat ironic snapshots of just how similar the historical struggle for what Kruger calls “theatrical nationhood” has been across the region’s ethnically and politically diverse states.
The breadth and comprehensiveness of National Theatres are also, however, its primary weakness. After a strong beginning—featuring historical overviews by Wilmer, Marvin Carlson, and Bruce Mc-Conachie, as well as a benchmark text by Kruger that theorizes “theatrical nationhood” and argues for the inherently transnational status of “national” theatre—the book bogs down in very particular theatre histories from specific nation-states. As a consequence, the kinds of questions with which I began this review are only fully taken up in its final section. While the histories included here are, of course, enlightening for scholars (like me) with limited European theatre experience, they are too brief and cursory to be of much interest to specialists, and yet often too detailed to be all that helpful for generalists (I confess that I often found myself skimming, looking for a “take away” point or two from each chapter). There are some key exceptions—Ben Levitas’s review of the Abbey Theatre’s opening night and Laurence Senelick’s sensitive exploration of the Moscow Art Theatre as a national stage-by-coercion [End Page 121] are both standout essays—but for the most part, the historical chapters included here are about dates, names, and places, rather than about transnational connections and contemporary political resonances.
In criticizing National Theatres for its historical focus I am, of course, being somewhat unfair: as...