Performing the Revolution

The Greek Left failed in governance because of its poor performance. It is important to insist that the Left did not fail because it was defeated by enemy forces (like neoliberal austerity, insatiable creditors, brutal institutions, corporate capital, global finance, or oligarchic politics, ruthlessly as they all worked to undermine it). The Left failed because it did not rehearse adequately for its biggest production and gave a disappointing performance that was severely criticized by audience and team members alike.

From Romanticism (Goethe and Byron) to Postmodernism (Weiss and Genet), modern theater has been dramatizing the internal contradictions of epochal events in world history. Adopting such a dramatic view of historical upheaval, Karl Marx famously proposed in the opening of “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (1852) a theatrical understanding of history: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

New revolutions draw on the characters, costumes, and speeches of past revolutions, which constitute their dramatic repertoire. Though they present themselves as radical beginnings, such productions of the new rely on the codes of past performances: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” French radicalism provided ample evidence of that approach: “Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, St. Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time – that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society – in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases.”

Here is a major performance by Robespierre, from Andrzej Wajda’s film Danton (1983), that draws on the glorious tradition of Roman oratory:

More than in any other recent Greek administration, in the 2015 Left government  several members were distinguished by a heightened sense of theatricality – its occasions and opportunities. However, they had an astute flair but lacked sufficient preparation; they had interpretive enthusiasm but lacked appropriate training. Unaware of the “natural history of theater,” they often played to the wrong audience, as they realized too late. They participated in international festivals playing themselves, not major roles, and soon ended up stock characters.

Every time we find ourselves together in an auditorium, Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self, and I talk about our place in the social architecture of the place, which begins to emerge long before we buy our tickets. Thinking about the theater as an institution and focusing on the spatial arrangement of its public, Theodor Adorno reflected on social architecture and came up with an approach to cultural phenomena which he called “natural history.”  In an essay written in 1931-33 and published in 1958, he mapped the hierarchy of the auditorium in sections with subtitles like “The Gallery,” “The Stalls,” “Boxes,” and “Upper Circle, First Row, Middle.”

The “Natural History of Theatres in Verse” (2013), a Greek collection by poet Stergios Mitas (1980), works as a commentary on Adorno’s essay. Its short cycle “What Karl Marx Really Said” includes a poem with the Marxian title (in quotes) “The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”  Its rolling rhymes (which may well have been composed first, before the rest of the poem) echo a historical drama of eternal return in which the Revolution, like the Greek Left government in 2015, is at the same time a hero destined for tragic defeat and an actor bound for comic failure.

Πρώτα σαν τραγωδία, έπειτα σαν φάρσα»

Ήρωας τραγικός: σαν Περ-

σεφόνη, μες στη σκάρτη

αγκαλιά ενός φαρσέρ.

Κάθε χρόνο, κάθε Μάρτη,

ξαναπαίρνει το ασανσέρ.

Κι όπως στη 18η Μπρυμαίρ

του Λουδοβίκου Βοναπάρτη:

η τραγωδία τον χτυπάει στο στέρ-

νο και η κωμωδία στην πλάτη.

(Στέργιος Μήτας: Έμμετρη φυσική ιστορία των θεάτρων, p. 25)

September 6, 2015

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