Conference Report CDE 2004

13th Annual CDE Conference at Vierzehnheiligen, Germany
June 3-6, 2004
„Staging Displacement, Exile and Diaspora in Contemporary Drama in English“

In June, the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English held its 13th annual conference at Vierzehnheiligen, a baroque monastery near Bamberg. Sponsored by the DFG, the Bavarian Ministery of Research, the University of Bamberg, the General Consulate of the U.S. at Munich, and the British Council, the symposium was superbly organised by Christoph Houswitschka, Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Language and Literatures, Anja Müller-Muth, and their team from Otto-Friedrich-University, Bamberg. For four days (June 3-6, 2004), playwrights, academics, theatre practitioners, and students exchanged their views and experiences on „Staging Displacement, Exile and Diaspora“ – in the form of panel discussions, academic paper presentations, workshops, playwrights‘ and staged readings, and, of course, theatre performances.

At Vierzehnheiligen, CDE board and members were proud to present Anette Pankratz with the biannual CDE Award for Outstanding Research in the Field of Contemporary Theatre and Drama for her distinguished work of scholarly analysis on representations of death and dying in contemporary British drama (to be published in the CDE Studies-series as Repräsentationen von Tod und Sterben im zeitgenössischen britischen Drama). With Baudrillard, Pankratz sees in the stage a means to give a physical reality to things otherwise invisible and tries to give answers to the question whether, and if so how, artistic representations can grasp the uncanny and the unknown. As Martin Middeke observed in his laudatory speech, with her habilitation, Annette Pankratz presents an essential work for the study of the last four decades of British contemporary drama, covering some 150 individual plays. The laureate thanked CDE for their continual academic support and stressed the importance of CDE conferences for direct contacts with playwrights and their respective work.

Fatima Dike, Jorge Huerta, Carlos Morton, Julia Pascal, and Michelene Wandor not only kindled discussions with keynote lectures and readings from their work, they also provided an ideal kick-off for the conference in an introductory panel discussion hosted by Heiner Bus, Christoph Houswitschka, Christiane Schlote, and Kathleen Starck. Fatima Dike (Cape Town, South Africa) emphasised physical and mental displacement in apartheid-ridden South Africa, where she and her family, along with the overwhelming majority of the population experienced displacement on their own soil – and eventually liberation through free elections in 1994. Jorge Huerta (San Diego, USA) stressed the effects of marginalisation in the experience of Chicanos living in the south-west of the United States and gave a different spin to the concept of displacement by pointing out that, „we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.“ Carlos Morton (Santa Barbara, USA), on the other hand, reflected on the apparent paradox for transnational citizens of feeling at home on precisely that border. Julia Pascal (London) emphasised her situation in Britain today as being exiled from the rest of Europe, rather than being a Jew exiled from the Holy Land. Michelene Wandor (London) raised the question of coercive assimilation, and rejected the term ‚diaspora‘ as an appropriate description of the situation of Jews in Britain, because it lacked the quality of enforced physical exile. She experienced triple marginalisation in terms of gender, religion and class. The class-issue was picked up by Huerta, who drew a line to the fields of politics and economics, while Dike stressed the growing importance of the gender perspective for her present work in South African theatre.

In his keynote lecture, „Comedy in Chicano Theatre: Dealing with Displacement,“ Jorge Huerta spoke about the various stages in the development of Chicano and Latino theatre in the United States. With roots in Spanish religious folk plays and travelling shows in the Vaudeville tradition, Luiz Valdez founded the Teatro Campesino in 1965, with a view to educating farm labourers, and Huerta himself founded one of the first Chicano theatres in the U.S. (Teatro de la Esperanza) in 1971, to be followed by many others who then formed the theatre organisation TENAZ – El Teatro Nacional de Aztlan. Huerta described Carlos Morton as a representative of the next stage, when Chicana/o troupes moved onto the campuses and into community centres. Morton himself in his reading stressed that his aim was to educate as well as to entertain, and to inject the comical with a serious undertone. He read and sang passages from his plays El Jardin, Rancho Hollywood, Johnny Tenorio and The Miser of Mexico, which often mix English and Spanish words in one sentence and thus make otherwise marginalised bilingual audiences feel superior to those who cannot understand Spanish.

Fatima Dike, the ‚mother of South African Theatre,‘ is not only a playwright and poet, but also a story-teller, director, teacher and political activist. In her keynote lecture, „Displacement, Exile and Diaspora on the Old and New South African Stages,“ Dike introduced her play The Middle Passage, in which she tries to break the silence on the history of slavery in Africa, but she also makes a connection between slavery and South Africa during and after apartheid. The history of slavery needs a cleansing ritual very much like the Truth and Reconciliation Committee provided for present-day South Africa. The topic of memory and ancestry, combined with the HIV-AIDS problem in South Africa, was taken up again in the performance of Ancestors in a War Zone (dir. Stuart Marlow) by The Anglophone Collaborative Theatre Stuttgart (ACTS) and The Forgotten Angle Theatre Company of Witwatersrand at the E.T.A.-Hoffmann Theatre Bamberg.

Michelene Wandor, scholar, poet, dramatist, and musical performer, explored exile and displacement intertextually in her reading from The Marriage of True Minds: Shakespeare and the Dark (Jewish) Lady of the Sonnets, in which she created a fictional connection between the bard and Emilia Bassano Lanier, the first woman writer in England. Writing Salomone Rossi tells the story of a Jewish composer in Mantua at the time of Monteverdi, who asks: „How does a song take care of its own exile?“

With her Pascal Theatre Company, Julia Pascal produces new plays, but also works educationally in schools and community centres. At this conference, Pascal’s acting workshop „Staging Jewish Exile in War-Time Britain (Theresa)“ made the participants literally experience Pascal’s own writing. Scenes from Theresa, a play inspired by the story of Theresa Steiner, a Viennese Jew, and the Nazi-occupation of the Channel Islands, were performed as staged readings resulting from the workshop. While this workshop stressed the performance aspects, the second workshop by Jan Hollm (Ludwigsburg) concentrated on the educational side of drama: „Pity and Fear for the Average Student? How to Teach Plays of Displacement, Exile and Diaspora,“ with the example of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horsemen.

In the first panel on Jewish/German Émigrés in the U.S.A., Rudolf Weiss (Vienna) stressed the distinctions between exile, émigré, and enemy alien. His presentation, „‚Me Johnny Weissmuller, you Thomas Mann‘: German Émigré Writers in Christopher Hampton’s Tales from Hollywood,“ illustrated the helplessness of émigrés in antihuman, antidemocratic environments. Further socio-psychological aspects of exile were the focus of Guy Stern’s (Detroit) „The Theme of Exile in Sybille Pearson’s Drama Unfinished Stories.“ This play highlights a paradigmatic change in the literature of exile away from its preoccupation with Nazi-Germany towards a universal phenomenon, crossing borders and time periods. This paradigm shift, distinguishing between specific and universal oppression, was also central in Ricarda Klüßendorf’s (Heidelberg) paper, „Negotiating Politics, Religion and Identity: Tony Kushner’s Jews in ‚The land behind the Statue of Liberty.'“ The question of ’negotiating identities‘ was analysed for a British context in „The State of the Nation: Taking Drama Further: Contemporary Black British Theatre and the Staging of the UK,“ when Deirdre Osborne (London) illustrated in how far the ’sinister homogenising‘ of the 1970s has made room for a theatre emphasising cultural specificity and difference. A different angle, namely constructions of hybrid colonial identities and authenticities, featured in Franz Meier’s (München) „‚Stop being Indian!‘: Identity, Hybridity and the Dis/Misplacement of (Post-) Colonial Images in Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink.

Leading up to ‚European Displacements,‘ Ulrike Behlau (Mainz) provided answers to „Questions of Memory in Plays by Julia Pascal, Harold Pinter, and Diane Samuels,“ and explored the powerful paradigm of a collective memory-scape, which stretches beyond the generation of eye-witnesses. Anna Suga’s (Lodz) „‚Caliban of us all‘: Polish Eminent Interpretations of Caliban in Theatre“ explained the change in Polish interpretations of The Tempest – from subversive criticism of the Communist regime before 1989 to current issues of multiculturalism in the so-called ’new Europe,‘ a concept taken up by Anja Müller-Muth (Bamberg) in „‚We are also Europe‘: Staging Displacement in David Greig’s Europe.“ Displacement needs, dialectically speaking, an implacement of sorts, and Greig not only thematises xenophobes and refugees, but also shows possibilities and potentials for a different future. Issues of violence, memory, and reconciliation resurfaced in Markus Wessendorf’s (Manoa) presentation of „Representations of Displacement and Diaspora in Contemporary Hawaiian Drama,“ in which he pointed out elements of the uncanny in local (indigenous) Hawaiian and local (immigrant) Asian plays.

Pia Thielmann (Malawi) demonstrated coping mechanisms for traumas connected to displacement – „Playing Pains: Three Malawian Performances about Politics, Abuse, and Inter-Ethnic Tensions,“ while Henning Schäfer (Erlangen) spoke about similar functions of Canadian First Nations theatre and drama: „Counteracting Displacement: Native Theatre as a Tool for Healing the Wounds of the Residential School System.“ Annette Kern-Stähler (Düsseldorf) underscored drama’s function of re-enacting the past and thus linking it to the present: „The Presentness of the Past: The Prosecution and Staging of Displaced War Criminals in Britain“ in plays by Peter Flannery and Ronald Harwood.

For the first time at a CDE conference, academic lectures were supported by staged readings from the lesser known plays in order to enhance the possibility of a joint discussion afterwards. These readings were organised by Christine Matheis and presented by students from Mainz University’s drama group. CDE’s chair, Werner Huber, was pleased to point out that many other paper presentations, in the true spirit of a theatre and drama conference, were enriched with lively performance aspects, which contributed to the congenial atmosphere of this year’s residential conference.

Heiko Stahl (Mainz)