KOSOVO THEATRE REVIEWS
The Return of Karl May, National Theatre of Kosovo - an academic analysis
Towards a minor theatre
Jeton Neziraj’s controversial and avant-garde text, The Return of Karl May sparked the notion of “the minor” in my mind. “The minor” is a concept coined by Gillez Deleuze, the French philosopher and thinker, and his friend and colleague Felix Guattari. It concerns social subjects who have been marginalized from the “major thinking and discourse”, and form a “Machine of Desires and Powers” so that they can make changes to the society in which they reside.
Director Blerta Neziraj has the capacity to charge every visual element, movement, and character in the play into a performance in which the spectators can feel the text, not only by listening to the dialogue, but also by seeing, smelling, touching and conceptually tasting the concepts which run through the play.
This text is an attempt to examine the correlation of some concepts in Deleuze’s thinking with the form, content, and structure of Jeton Neziraj’s work.
The Return of Karl May concerns the bigotry created in the West against the people, culture, and traditions in the East. This ever-present hostility comes from a framework within which western people have always considered themselves as being superior to others. The dichotomy is such that even many people from the East have imagined the West as their “land of dreams”. The sense of superiority results from a discourse that tries to convince the world that the superpowers of in the West can play the role of Messiah for the rest of the world whom they regard as being uncivilized and savage. This undoubtedly has roots in colonialism, bigotry, hegemony and racism.
The play portrays Kara Ben Nemsi, the protagonist of the works of German author Karl May. Along with a group of actors from Kosovo, he escapes from the east to the west on a journey to Germany. On his way, he runs into a number of figures - Slavoj Zizek, Peter Handke, a member of Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund - who have not only been satirized by Jeton Neziraj, but also deformed so that the reader, or spectator, is presented with new challenges related to their historic, philosophical and literary characters.
Karl May’s works are typical of those writers who, on one hand, paint the West as being intellectual, wise, and civilized and, on the other hand, describe the East as being ignorant, despotic, full of illegality and savageness. A simple search on Google confirms this. Racism, fascism, Hitler and so on. An article in the New Yorker magazine: “How American Racism Influenced Hitler” contains the eye-catching sentence: “From boyhood on, Hitler devoured the Westerns of the popular German novelist, Karl May.”
The satiric and critical language of Jeton Neziraj demonstrates that little has changed. There are still European intellectuals who a draw the line between the civilized and developed West and the poor East. According to Michel Foucault, the French 20th century post-structuralist philosopher, power throughout the past has changed its shape so that it can be revealed in much more civilized way. What these days is seen as the modern, developed Western culture and civilization propagates the idea that what emerges in the East needs to be eliminated in order for democracy, as defined by the West, to be exported. The West is still a role model for the rest of the world. A new racism is appearing. Umberto Eco was correct when stating that “Eternal Fascism” is still accompanying us, waiting for an opportunity to get back on track.
A performance of “the minor”: deterritorialization
The Return of Karl May exemplifies the concept of “deterritorialization” of the stage, a controversial and significant concept coined by Deleuze and Guattari. According to one of their most notable works, “Anti-Oedipus”, in the dominant regime, we face a fixed “Territory”. This territory represents the position which is allocated to each person in the machine of society. The regime assigns positions to social subjects from which they cannot deviate. Deleuze and Guattari believe that the social subjects need to deny this territory which has been imposed on them. In other words, they need to “DE- Territorialize” the position they have in this machine of society so that they can remake (reterritorialize) the position for which they have desire.
In the theatre, we can consider the traditional stage as being the “territory”, which has been defined by the dominant discourse to be the only place where performance can take place. In the new theories of performance, this idea has fallen away. According to Richard Schechner, performance can happen everywhere. That is to say, the people involved in the production of a performance must deterritorialize the stage as the fixed place where performance can happen. And then, they can use other places as being the stage such as on the street, among the spectators and also anywhere added to the stage. An example of this is seen in Blerta Neziraj’s performance, when we see one of the actors entering the performance from among the audience. This could be considered an example of “deterritorialization”. In this way, both Jeton Neziraj’s text, whose form has been emptied of the dominant structures of the signifying regimes (due to the manipulation of word-order in the dominant language), and also the performance have “political effectivity” as far as the “mis en scene” is concerned. Once all elements – set, props - were considered as being inferior to the text, while on the stage, these are different points in the “rhizomatic network” (another term of Deleuze and Guattari) of the performance. Here, according to Deleuze, the concrete concept of the collective creation takes place. What is seen on the stage is not a “text” to which all the agents of the performance (director, actors, stage designer) are committed, but a complete collective creation.
What is fascinating is that Jeton Neziraj has designed the deconstructed the structure of the play in a form which could be assimilated by any kind of society. This means that having a collective creation of the play, The Return of Karl May, is totally possible in any society. The Return of Karl May could be transformed into “the return of anybody else”. This is mainly because this play is moving, according to Deleuze and Guattari’s unorthodox reading of Kafka, towards “a theatre of the minor”. Deleuze insists that the concept of ‘the minor’ is not quantitative as the minor could be bigger than the major. ‘The minor’ could exist in any kind of ‘Machinic Society’ (a concept coined by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus).
What defines the society is the abstract machines of desire and power as it can clearly be seen in Blerta Neziraj’s performance. We see on stage a number of “nomads” whose aims are totally absurdist in a positive manner. All the actors employ abstract movements to form an image of thought before, behind and around the eyes of the spectators. They even neutralize the “dominating regime of signs existent in the dominating language”. This occurs when, for instance, one actor starts using some meaningless words (I call these words “neutralized and deterritorilised language”.) in Hungarian to satirize the ridiculous convention of “the angry police officer” and then, the second actor is persuaded to speak a language which nobody understands but sounds like Slovak. This is a characteristic of “the literature of the minor” conceptualized by Deleuze and Guattari in their reading on Kafka. According to this work, one of the most important features of “the minor literature” is that “that a minor literature should deterritorialize the major Language”
What they mean by deterritorialization is the neutralization of the sense, or the signifying aspects of language, and a foregrounding of the latter’s asignifying , intensive aspects. This involves a kind of stammering and stuttering or ‘becoming a stranger’ in one’s own tongue.
This neutralization is evident in some lines uttered by the actors. It can also be claimed that the satiric role of Rihi the frog is foregrounding the meaninglessness of the semantic which has dominated every context in which the language starts to perform. This notion of stuttering and stammering exists in the history of theatre, especially in the works of Carmelo Bene, the Italian actor, director, playwright and filmmaker. He, in particular, imposes this neutralization of the sense on the performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III by William Shakespeare (as described by Laura Cull in Deleuze and Performance).
In addition to the first approach, deterritorialization can happen beyond the linguistic and semantic level. The lack of coherence, pragmatically speaking, is more or less destroying the sense of being straightforward over the course of the text so that it is impossible for the viewers to follow a logical sequence throughout the play and the performance. In this way a force starts growing out of the events generated by the presence of the collective subject (the actors) whose leading role has disappeared due to the lack of the auteur’s commands. The actors seem to be disobeying the commands given by the director (that is the character of the director) and this way the traditional role of the director, is deterritorialized so that it can be reterritorialized into a new form.
The director “becomes” a part of the performance machine on a horizontal basis without enjoying any superiority over the other actors on the stage. He, the director, is trying to put the structure back into the text. However, he fails to monitor the process of “becoming.” In the case of this play, it “becoming” Slavoj Zizek, becoming Peter Handke, becoming Kara Ben Nemsi. In spite of the dialogue, thesy are not representing any particular sense that can exist in reality. This means that there is no typical signifier and signified relationship between the linguistic codes in the text and their reference in reality. The opposition of virtual (becoming animal, Rihi the Frog) and actual (the actors trying to put process into practice) creates multiplicities.
I believe that neither the text nor the performance is metaphoric. Metaphors are organized and coherent. They can be decoded. So I would like to call both the text and the performance “conceptual.” The difference between the concept and metaphor lies in the fact that metaphors exist “out there.” When something preexists in the world outside, what the author does is to bring about a representation of them on the stage or in the text. Nevertheless, the concept is invented, shaped and created. “Rihi the frog” is not symbolizing anything special. Why, the viewer and the reader might ask? Rihi the frog is a frog. There is no magic. In “Metamorphosis” by Kafka the beetle talks to the spectators while it is not comprehensible to the characters. Here, we encounter a new concept, which is “becoming animal”. Rihi is neither frog nor a human. It is the process of “becoming animal”. Rihi, ribbits while it speaking human language as well. Is this a metaphor? Of course not. 'Becoming' animal is not a representation. It is created on the stage. There is no messianic power inside Rihi. What we have on and off the stage is “the presence of some concepts” trying to cause multiplicities. All in all, what I have been trying to locate in this review is a new reading which could go beyond seeing the play which is performed as a text only. The ideas of Deleuze and Guattari provide the possibilities of coming up with new ideas which can trigger “thinking”. What I have thought up is the possibility of encounters and events. This way we can create forces through which the spectators encounter the new concepts. This requires going beyond the representation and looking at the performance in a totally novel approach. This way, any type of difference and hierarchical structure is eradicated so that a complete “Collective Creation” could emerge. Even the stage has been deterritorilaized. The eyes of the spectators are not fixed at a stage which is traditionally separated from the viewers. One actor crosses the spectators to join the other actors on stage. The nomadic actor (I would like to call it the “collective subject”) joins the collective subjectivity. There is a director, yet no hierarchical relationship has been represented on the stage. This is what Laura Cull calls the “theatre of immanence”, using Deleuze’s idea of “the plane of immanence: a life”.
The idea for “the theatre of immanence” insists on the “eradication of hierarchical system” from the theatre. Laura Cull is looking for a kind of theatre which is no longer representing reality. As with Deleuze, she tries to conceptualize a type of performance in which the immanence emerges so that the representation has to leave the performance and instead we have the presence, the presence of collective subjectivity”. This collective subjectivity owns “nomadic thought”. Nomads do not stay in one place. They enter a territory, and deterritorialize it so as to reside there. The actors (subjects) are nomads forming their territory while they have deterritorialized the streets and the viewers’ eyes. Here, there is no distinction between “on” and “off” the stage. So, according to Richard Schechner, the performance and life become one thing, and they fail to be distinguished in the eyes of the viewers. This is the realm of a new ontology which tries to create a “difference” in itself. There are many others. No superiority is witnessed on the stage because first of all there is no stage, where people can feel that they are different. No unique individual identity. What is performed is the collective creation of a performance to which even the spectators belong