Blesok no. 57, November-December, 2007
Darkness as National Drama
The renowned drama by Kole Čašule – organized in a fairly non-standard quadraphonic/four section form (in four parts, and not, as would have been customary, in four acts), entitled with quite the stigmatic and adequately connotative syntagm Darkness – is undoubtedly one of the key Macedonian dramas, and at the same time a drama that is laconically (“by automatism”) attributed with being a “national classic”, whatever this quite undetermined/undeterminable formulation means. The text that follows aims to study the potential meanings of this formulation, trying to argument them or raise them as problems with the help of exact and absolutely confirmable facts.
First, the apparently formal facts:
Written between 1956 and 1960, the drama was first published in parts or in fragments in the daily newspaper Nova Makedonija (1960) and in the magazine Razgledi (1960/61). Only later – when the whole text was published, meaning “checked” by the author – did its first performance take place, staged in the Macedonian Peoples Theatre (Makedonski naroden teatar) in Skopje, the then central (most prestigious/most representative/most influential…) theatre in the state, national in its nominal (onomastic), but also in its cultural/ideological importance. Directed by Ilija Milčin, the premiere took place on January 26, 1961, with the participation of the best actors that the ensemble had at that time: Peter Prličko as Fezliev, Ilija Džuvalekovski as Lukov, Vukan Dinevski as Ivan, Todorka Kondova-Zafirovska as Neda, Aco Jovanovski as the Youngster… The post-premiere success was decent (as befits a small environment) but also – evident. Only after the acknowledgements that this drama received outside Macedonia did its “value” in the domestic context “rise”.
In the course of the past 45 years, there have been as many as 26 new productions of Darkness (14 in Macedonia and 12 abroad), and it has thus become one of the five or six most frequently staged Macedonian plays in general. In the last two years, this drama has seen two exceptionally successful and apparently exceptional radical stageings, by the directors Dejan Projkovski (2004 in the Štip National Theatre) and Slobodan Unkovski (2005, in the Macedonian National Theatre in Skopje).
Incidentally, Darkness was the first Macedonian drama to gain awards at some of the respected and influential festivals held at the time in the former common state (Sterijno pozorje, 1961: the Special Sterija Award for a Dramatic Text, awarded to the author; the Sterija Award for Acting, awarded to Petre Prličko) and first to be translated and published in several foreign languages (Croatian, 1962; Czech, 1964; Polish, 1972; Serbian, 1975; English, 1977 – published in New York, in what was at the time the very important publication Five Modern Yugoslav Plays). One of the first Macedonian motion pictures (if I’ve counted accurately - the seventh, Days of Temptation, directed in 1965 by Branko Gapo) was based on motifs from Darkness.
What is it that makes Darkness so intriguing over so long a term?
Is it that, maybe, the theatres and their spectators are continuously interested by the so-called “drama story” (the plot) that the author, as an excellent craftsman of drama, so skilfully develops?
At first sight that “story” is organized/theatralised around the explosive theme of treason (national, of course), “combined” with the unavoidable and impudent (politicking) manipulation of men and their destinies, additionally garnished with violence and terrorism. Formally and only apparently, this “story” theatralises (refers to, recycles, comments on with/through theatrical means of expression…) an authentic historical event in 1921: the assassination of Gjorče Petrov, who was an ideologue of the Macedonian cause and, as is written in history and reference books, “one of the apostles of the revolutionary and national liberation movement of the Macedonian peoples” (Павловски, 2002:249). In the 1921 shown, the Macedonians are people without space, without their own state. Even rational (Hegelian) history (and not only fabulous and always poetic, even pathetic mythology), determines such a marked, Goran Stefanovski would say ‘tattooed’, national status as exceptionally contingent, that is, colloquially said, as curse(d). Čašule himself, but also his readers/interpreters, including the “most modern”, like to decode Darkness also as a paradigm of what happens to people without space throughout the long and uncertain process of painfully gaining territory. If there is any insistence at all on the eventual historicism of this drama, it should be looked for (and also found) mainly by following this contingent and thus quite seductive trail.
Nevertheless, some recent interpretations, especially those found in textbooks – since the mother tongue and literature curricula include Darkness in the compulsory reading assignments – tend to slip: not recognizing the “contigent” (as Paul Ricoeur says) trap, some interpreters of the drama not seldom automatically qualify it as historical (by genre) and, of course, as national (by topic, central idea, leit motiv, so-called content… and so on).
Does the notorious fact – that Darkness “touches” one authentic historical event (and it “touches” it by conditionally taking as theme and theatre act some dramatic situations conditionally linked to it) – does such an artificial/constructed fact appear worthy/valid as an argument for this drama to be determined as historical?
Which drama, in general, should/can/must be labelled as “historical”? That which takes place in some period that is not present/contemporary or is related to characters (dramatis personae) whose personality is authentic/witnessed historically? That which insists on spiritually “reviving” personalities and/or events from the past? Should dramaturgy deal with such obscure tasks? Could, in general, history and dramaturgy have totally identical goals – to witness to/affirm a historical truth? May we equalize historical and dramatic truth? Their tragic non-differentiation has always been, and remains today “the germ of all misunderstandings of realism in/of the theater performance” (Pavis, 2004:277). Luckily, every good playwright manages to neutralize this misunderstanding in an utterly simple manner: by treating the historical facts (events and personalities) as primary material, totally identical/equal with material of any other kind.
Choosing such an “unburdened”, utterly relaxed, and thus also quite creative attitude, the writer frees himself in advance from the eventual intent – in fact, utterly dangerous to his own self! – of witnessing or “illustrating” historic events or personalities in his works. Anyone who follows, even from time to time, recently-published works in history/historiography can confirm that today even historical science treats its own subject – history-as-such – almost in an equally “unburdened” manner. Even though the representatives of the “old school” of historians – those who treat history as a sacral holy magistra vitae! – have still not laid down their arms, the trend that was systematically being developed in the seventies in several European countries (France, England, Italy…) continuously imposes an essentially different approach in the practice of the craft of historiography. This influential trend that is usually named Scola Annales or, simply, new history (the Italians indicatively translate it as microstoria), introduces but also makes pragmatic the key idea: that historical processes cannot be interpreted within the frameworks of limited patterns, moulds or concepts (especially when these patterns/concepts are coloured with ideology, politics, doctrines… and almost never show themselves as such); that the past and the present represent complex occurrences that cannot be perceived only through research of those exclusive (important, great, “crucial”, representative, fatal…) events, facts and personalities – battles, wars, slaughters, political crashes…; that history should deal not only with the extreme, but also with the banal/trivial aspects of human lives…
Seen from the aspect of literary theory, such an eminent post modernistic turn-around (from “high”/”elite” to “low”/”popular” historicism), that quite dramatically marked, but also stirred the historical science of the 20th century, maybe could also be called a turning from big to small narrations. Be it as it may, in the last decades we have frequently seen the appearance of extremely intriguing books, with titles such as A History of Private Lives (vols. I-IV, ed. Georges Duby, Harvard University Press, 1998), An Intimate History of Mankind (Theodore Zeldin, 1994) and so on.
In order to practise this new history in a meritorious and adequate manner, historians should first become used to looking at their subject (the past) from some different perspective, and then enrich their craft with new methodological paradigms, new epistemological approaches, new “raw materials” of different origin, new research procedures… But also – and most importantly! – to redirecting every science towards a new and wider thematic that will additionally (and continuously) be expanded, aiming to become without limits.
For the historism/historicism of the 20th century, including at the current moment the very popular New Historicism that also seriously touches/intrigues literary science, giving it a new impulse, it is precisely the multiplicity/polysemy of the material (but not the exclusiveness/uniqueness of the event or the personality) that should be the subject of scientific interest.
Applied to the example of the drama Darkness, this maxim should mean that the concrete historical event of the year 1921 (the assassination of Gjorče Petrov) is no longer treated/understood/interpreted as the topic/motive for which Čašule makes his play, but – on the contrary – that Čašule’s play, written forty years after the concrete historical event, should be treated not only as an authentic (“independent”) literary/theatrical art work, but also as material that could be useful to historians in understanding/interpreting a political assassination of the past!
Or, more simply:
Writing the play that chooses as its formal grounds (“pre-text”, hypo-text), even as its leit-motiv, one concrete historic event, Čašule does not choose to write a historical drama (a “costume play”). On the contrary, his drama practically does not deal with the encompassed historic event, except “by the way” – in fact: tangentially! – it plays with its facts. The text of Čašule is an absolute meta-fiction, where the historical context serves only as a good starting-point (referential frame, point of attack) for the opening of some important, but still controversial, not-especially-pleasant (black!) issues that “touch” the key dramatic motif: the identity of the people without space that tries to anchor itself not only in the territorial, but also in every possible sense. This complex historical process of anchoring, a process through which the European nations had passed long before, but the Macedonian only managed to go through in the middle of the twentieth century, brings unavoidably serious risks. These risks are understood in advance. The play of Čašule strives (and manages) to effectively make these risks thematic, naming them with a collective attribution, made precise with the stigmatic noun written as its title: Darkness.
In order to check/make pragmatic his intent as author to “play” with the darkness of his people, Čašule opts for a specific genre – what is known as the drama of ideas (Engl. comedy of ideas), a dramaturgical matrix that is simply ideal for the research (experimentation) he decided to embark on. The drama of ideas (ideological drama) is quite a rigid type of drama form that the French existentialists (Camus/Sartre) took almost to a paroxysm, but some other lucid authors (“of the format” of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Jean Giradoux…) quite joyfully practiced with some apparently “more benign” goals: to “fight” with the society they lived in, to laugh cynically at their time and their tribe, to warn of the dangers of the moral and ethical erosion they witnessed, to put the “mirror pf the theatre” before what was called reality. The drama of ideas does not deal with theatralisation of events, nor retell the “stories” of certain characters, but uses the functional drama form as a model to debate (discuss, dramatise…) efficiently and effectively the status of some great/serious/respective postulates or concepts (ideas-as-such) it considers important for the community. Dramas of ideas are always also dramas with a thesis. Their tension, and also their relevance, should be assessed/derived precisely from their stressed/intentional engagement.
Writing Darkness, Čašule precisely expresses as a priority his engagement as author: existentialist (Sartre-like) by his own determination, realistic (Krleza-like) in the poetics he develops, left-oriented and radical in the goals he persues. These goals are not only aesthetic. On the contrary, they are preferentially ethical.
Those who read Darkness today should not look for, let alone triumphantly “discover”, sad Macedonian history. On the contrary, from the flawlessly developed texture of this drama that theater experts long ago defined as the texture of a “well-made play”/piece bien faite (Петковска, 1980/1996), they may – first at the level of dramaturgical craft! – recognize its pregnant and extremely intriguing/polysemic inter-textual relations with some of the most relevant dramas of the 20th century. More precisely: with the European tradition of modern/modernistic drama in general.
A small, marginalized and “stray” literature, that starts to build its own affirmation only after the foundation of a national state, after barely fifteen years from the codification of its literary language (meaning: at the end of modern culture!) manages – thus – to create a drama of the calibre of Darkness: a drama that corresponds with the best of European modernism as completely equal.
Nevertheless, the true relevance of this dramа – even its upturned role in the history of contemporary Macedonian dramatics – is undoubtedly contained in its authentic original modernistic mission. Of course, this is a mission that derives from the author’s engagement, existentialist (Sartre-like), belligerent, but at the same time idealistically hopeless. Literary!
Writing Darkness, this defeatist, in every sense claustrophobic drama, Čašule sincerely believes that he is doing it because he has to. At the time of Darkness he is still convinced that literature (especially drama) must function as the conscience of its own epoch, in order to maintain the moral vertical that the faltering times constantly undermine, threatening to bring it down. Precisely because of this great and responsible task, literature (especially drama) must open, even impose, great topics – those which significantly affect the very being of the nation.
In the case of this most famous and most frequently staged play of his, Čašule debates – efficiently and effectively dramatizes! – the still open (and painful!) issue of Macedonian national identity: decisively (not at all gently) researches the character of the “contemplative community” (Anderson, 1983) that we name as a nation, its status, emotional and mental capacity, its ability to transform from ethnos into demos, in a modern state association. Like every other engaged author, Čašule simultaneously researches the modalities/aspects of the patriotism that such a (modern) state should be able to develop, the capacity of that same state to enable, but also continuously to confirm not only the national (collective) freedom, but also stimulate individual freedoms of every type, including the freedom of artistic creation.
Why, how and when does Čašule do all this?
Written over a long period and in several versions, the play Darkness was finished in the middle of the year 1960. An interesting fact is that the first piece of the text was published in the Ilinden Festival triple issue of Nova Makedonija (31.07-1/2.08.1960). The integral text was subsequently printed in three issues of the magazine Razgledi, and the premiere took place by the end of the next January, 1961. The author – born in 1921, meaning the same year when the historic event, the assassination of Gjorče Petrov took place, but also the imaginary action of his play – ends maybe his most important play at the precise age of forty, at the threshold of his own intimate maturity and his maturity as an author, announcing himself as a writer with nerve (not only as a writer with passion and a gift).
“A writer with nerve is recognized both by the culture of his books’ titles, and also by the culture of giving names to the heroes of his texts” (Kovač, 2006:363). Almost immediately after its literary and theatrical promotion, the onomastics of Darkness entered in a grand manner into Macedonian modernistic discourse, but also into a cultural imaginative spectrum, growing to be a powerful symbolic topos, and gradually also a stereotype. The title of one of the important texts that thematically treats the works of Čašule, written six years later, confirms this explicitly. Namely, it is: Long Years of Darkness, by Mateja Matevski, and it is dated 1967 (Матевски: 1967).
The designated year of the appearance of Darkness, 1961, indicatively “overlapped” with two more anniversaries, extremely relevant for the then ideological (socialist/communist) imaginative spectrum, internationalist (and not national!) in their being: 20 years since the beginning of the anti-fascist uprising (1941-1961) and some 15 years from the constitution of the Macedonian state, ASNOM – Macedonia, that for people without space could not be only political constellations, but must also be an emanation of the long suppressed national nostalgia (or nostalgia for the national).
The author Čašule was a participant in that historic uprising from the very fist moment (since the famous October 11, 1941, even before it), but the national nostalgia – nostalgia for the national myths, for the national imaginative spectrum – essentially moderates not only his family origin (his grandfathers were Spiro Crne and Pere Tošev), but also his entire work. Beyond any doubt, in the name of that nostalgia, in the same euphoric jubilee year of 1961, the activist Čašule intensively participated in another truly cultural deed: with the architect Bogdan Bogdanovic, author of the memorial monument to the uprising in Prilep, he managed the construction of this cult location with a powerful symbolic charge, that he himself (finally) managed to name with the nostalgic/pathetic syntagm Mound of the Undefeated. (By the way, Čašule is considered to be a writer lastingly inclined towards “hard terminology”, imprinted in the titles of his books: Darkness, Whirl, Standing, Bitterness, Faint… are some of these titles). Nevertheless, the celebratory, euphoric, pompous, even grandiloquent socialist/communist zeitgeist greets this national pathos with approval. The sixties were good and liberal years, years of fat cows. Macedonia, like (in fact) the whole common state, was doing brilliantly, in all areas.
Precisely at such a moment of almost idyllic, liberal socialist stability, Čašule’s “negritude” storms in the Macedonian literature and theater. And, paradoxically, first through the fragment published in the Ilinden issue of Nova Makedonija! Drama that affirms an unusual and quite unexpected interaction between the artist and his time (Adorno), drama that makes pragmatic that ambitious and famous thesis of Sartre about art that it should be responsible for the awareness and conscience of the epoch (Sartre, 1981/3). Today this might seem like a provocation: at the time when Macedonia was doing better than well, one unpleasant drama persistently imposes/theatralizes the idea that such goodness stands on feet of clay and that, simply, the Macedonian metaphoric apple (of knowledge) is being hollowed by the fatalistic worm of doubt.
By the way, but not unimportantly: in the middle of these same liberal sixties, in the former Yugoslavia there flourished – in literature, and especially in motion pictures – the trend that aesthetics has called the “black wave”. The drama Darkness is undisputed proof of the thesis that a Macedonian author should also be considered as an authentic promoter, “partisan”, even herald of this enervated wave that the communist ideologists in the course of the seventies intensely blamed for “spreading hopelessness and destruction.”
It is interesting to note that communist romanticism, as named by Zika Pavlovic, a great film director, one of the most important “black wave” representatives in former Yugoslavia, never (except maybe a little, at the very beginning, between 1945 and 1949) managed to contaminate the works of Kole Čašule. On the contrary. An activist who intensively lived the historical moment and directly participated in the greatest social tasks – the formulation of the national programme, the affirmation/ “modernization” of the nation, the creation and fortification of the statе… – at the same time expressed himself as an author arduously burdened with an unclear/intuitive awareness of some inherited mistake, that had been built in as a “manufacturing defect” not only in the system, but also in the whole cause, in the nation itself. In one of his later books (published in 2000), Čašule determines his nation as a “sick tribe.”
In fact, all of Čašule’s books (classified according to individual titles, they amount to 53), continuously make variations – dramatise, include essays, raise problems… – on the fatalistic line of Lukov, the great manipulator of the great mechanism that moves not only the play entitled Darkness, but also all other Macedonian negritudes (one of the frequent syntagms of the author), but also “all the negritudes of this world” (Чашуле, 1980:254). This line is positioned at the very end of the fourth part of the play with the syntagmatic heading:
Macedonia is dead, dead a long time ago, first in our hearts and then where you are looking for it - in History. (Чашуле, 1980:346).
I know some cynics who consider that this line is more relevant today than when it was written.
Anderson, V.B. (1983), Imagined Comunities. London:Verso
Kovač, Mirko (2006), Povjerljivo. Zagreb:Meandar
Матевски, Матеја (1968), Долги години црнила. Скопје:Разгледи Х/1968/6, 733-738
Pavis, Patrice (2004), Pojmovnik teatra. Transl. Jelena Rajak. Zagreb:Antibarbarus
Павловски, Јован (ур.), 2002, Личности од Македонија. Скопје: МИ-АН
Петковска, Нада (1996), Драмското творештво на Коле Чашуле. Скопје:Детска радост
Sartre, Jean Paul (1961), Što je književnost?. In: Izabrana dela, tom 3, Beograd:Nolit
Стефановски, Горан (1985), Тетовирани души. In: Собрани Драми (2003),:Табернакул
Чашуле, Коле (1980), Црнила. In: Чашуле, Трилогија. Скопје:Мисла
Čašule, Kole (2000), Sick Tribe. Skopje: MI-AN
1. It is interesting to compare the critical accounts written and published immediately after the premiere, with those published after the first serious acknowledgements and awards that occurred after few months; the Macedonian theater critics seemed to be still “discovering” the meta-textual implications that the dramatic score entangles, recognizing their relevance.
2. If we “exempt” the highly rated and absolutely non-standard theater destiny of Powder Cage, by Dejan Dukovski (premiere 1995) – a play with only one production in Macedonia, but with around thirty abroad – the domestic theatre public has shown the most interest in drama of a stressed national type: The Eloped by Vasil Iljoski (since 1928, 24 productions to date), Master Teodos by the same author (since 1936, 23 productions to date), Migrant Workers by Anton Panov (since 1936, 23 stagings to date – 21 in Macedonia and 2 abroad) and Macedonian Blood Wedding by Vojdan Černodrinski (14 productions in Macedonia and 1 in Sofia – the legendary premiere in 1900, that was afterwards repeated several times, directed by the author himself).
3. See Goran Stefanovski, 1985, Tattooed Souls, stage play.
4. According to the French magazine Annales, which in the middle of the 20th century started systematically to affirm this approach to history._____________________________________
5. The drama Darkness is literally located in the “wasteland framed within four walls”, as its introductory didactics says (Čašule, 1980:247); undoubtedly it is a metaphor (of Macedonia) such that a more devastating would be difficult to find!
6. The author’s note, written at the beginning of the text, reads: The characters and events in this drama are fictitious. Any similarity with existing persons is accidental and unintentional. The Author. (Čašule, 1980:243).
7. The system of socialist values, as the one that was continuously propagated by the practical policy (in which, nota bene, the author himself participates quite actively, convinced he is helping its construction or, even, its salvation, of which a good – that is, bad – example is his appearance at the last Congress of Yugoslav Writers, 1986) that his literature permanently and mercilessly “undermines”, demystifies, perverts…