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Dagmar Reichardt (Universität Bremen)

The King Tumbles. Power and Violence in Cultural Conflicts


Samuel Huntingon's book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) predicted global cultural conflict, thus identifying in advance the ethnic and cultural thrust behind the attacks of 11 September 2001. Hardt/Negri's book Empire followed in 2000; like The Clash of Civilizations it demonstrated conclusively that global capitalism is generating conflicts that are bound to destroy it (cf. Hardt/Negri 2001: 149). But unlike Huntington, Hardt and Negri emphasize post-Marxist, base-democratic possibilities that a 'multitude' with potential political power might emerge under globalization, a "multiplicity of individuals and individualities" (Siemons 2004). The Clash of Civilizations and Empire agree about two things: 1.) "Power is shifting from the long predominant West to non-Western civilizations" (Huntington 1996, 29), and 2.) "the causes […] thus lie in fundamental questions of power and culture" (Huntington 1996: 212).

As culture or "cultural identity is what is most meaningful to most people, […] symbols of cultural identity" Huntington mentions "crosses, crescents and even head coverings" as current examples become particularly significant (Huntington 1996: 20). I intend to use early francophone post-colonial theatre to show how the figure of a king, or paradigmatic theatrical hero, can assume the significance of such a politically charged 'symbol' in the cultural field of international theatre. Six stage plays from different cultures provide evidence. The hero-figure or king will always stand out as representing power and violence (both inflicted and suffered), often as an instrument of more or less obvious political criticism. In this way it will be possible to draw Huntington's and Hardt/Negri's theses together, revealing the outlines of a power discourse that emerged from the 1950s to the 1970s in the theatres of France's former colonies. It was written in the language of the colonizer (French) but differently impelled within the indigenous national traditions. It continued to make an impact into the 1980s, as a critical contemporary literization of power and violence.

A distinction has to be made within the examples cited here between violence narratives, as described in detail by Walter Benjamin (Benjamin 1977), Frantz Fanon (Fanon 1981: 29-91) and Jean-Paul Sartre (Sartre 1981), and power narratives, as analysed by Machiavelli and – very much later – Michel Foucault (Foucault 1978) and Edward Said (Said 1993). Norbert Elias speculates on power as a necessary condition for a civilizing process, whereas Michel Foucault persistently deconstructs the order of social systems by showing that all discourses of difference can be defined as discourses of power.

My textual analysis focuses on these two discursive and epistemic formations violence and power. I shall gradually direct the comparatistic view away from the periphery towards the former ruling centre, namely Europe and France. Finally, conclusions resulting from a socio-political, cultural and historical view of the metaphorical representations of heroes and kings in the chosen plays will be briefly summarized and their significance drawn out within the Post-colonial critique, which is power theory per se.

In the following six examples, let us focus on the function allotted to a stage character based on a king or tragic hero, starting with North Africa. In his complex colonial drama Le cadavre encerclé (The Encircled Corpse) (PE = Princeps edition 1954), the Algerian writer Kateb Yacine (1929-1989) presents Algeria's situation and the condition of French-colonial Maghrebian culture a few years before Algerian independence (1962). Le cadavre encerclé is steeped in violent action, partly expressed in the mythical, partly surrealistic settings, illustrating the Algerians' alienation from the values of Arab civilization. The repression the play describes is a historical reminder of the retaliatory measures taken in Western Algeria in 1945. Yacine himself was involved, hence imprisoned in Algeria and exiled to France for a time.

In his foreword to Le cadavre encerlé, the Caribbean author and literary theorist Édouard Glissant identifies an astonishing dramaturgical parallel between Kateb Yacine's play and Aimé Césaire's (* 1913) tragedy Et les chiens se taisent (FP 1946) (cf. Yacine 1998: 11), which is about de-colonization in the West Indies. Yacine's and Césaire's works are both demonstrative re-assessments of the African cultural heritage. Césaire is a Haitian: in the three-act play premièred in 1962 La Tragédie du Roi Christophe (The Tragedy of King Christopher) (FP = First Performance 1962) he is working towards a linguistic counterhegemonic discourse directed against the French colonists and their ideas. But in this play Césaire reverses Yacine's narrative perspective of an exemplary individual victim drawn from the crowd and presents the story of the early 19th century Haitians from the point of view of their leader, King Christopher. He started as a kitchen slave but became a successful general in the struggle for independence from the French, then finally king of Haiti.

While La Tragédie du Roi Christophe can be seen as a "royal drama in Shakespearean format" (Heymann 2000), the drama Hamlet, Prince du Québec (Hamlet, Prince of Quebec) (FP 1968) by the French Canadian author Robert Gurik (* 1932) turns out to be a 'key political satire' (cf. Grimm 1999: 408). Hamlet, Prince du Québec sticks remarkably closely to Shakespeare (cf. Gurik 1977: 14 and 142), who in his 1602 play Hamlet was writing less about people than about the balance of power (cf. Gurik 1977: 14/15). Gurik's play combines two theatrical tendencies from the Franco-Canadian area; the théâtre pasticheur et parodique, and the Brechtian théâtre engagé (cf. Gurik 1977: 11).

Crossing the border between what is one's own and what is alien, and the question of violence among neighbours, are ideas that permeate Hamlet, Prince du Québec. They are further heightened in two views of the balance of power also dating from the 1960s, from Belgium and French-speaking Switzerland. Hamlet, Prince du Québec is a political allegory showing Quebec torn between federalism and independence; Paul Willems' (1912-1997) Ville à Voile (Sailing City) (PE and FP 1967) condenses the clash of two cultures – Flemish and Francophone culture –, poetically and linguistically. Willems wants to show the conflicts between questions of language, bilingualism, ambiguities, splits, reality collisions and tendencies to fragmentation that still dominate the Belgian state. His théâtre poétique operates with cover-up strategies to portray both town and characters. The plot is built around the owners of a junk shop. They are eloquently called Monsieur and Madame "Roi", and are ambivalent, masked creatures who sell their shop in Antwerp harbour, the "Magazin Roi" to a returning sailor against abstruse communication commitments. The worn-out, second-hand junk in their shop comes to stand for ruin and imperfection, but also for truth, what cannot be said, the unrepeatable past, and illusion.

Violence and power, the undeniable cultural dominance of the neighbouring country and 'big brother' France, and also assimilation and acculturalization processes in 60s Belgium, are interiorized in Willems' work, and no longer expressed through physical characters. They are psychologized. The only resistance the figures in La Ville à voile can offer against death and nothingness is creative handling of language. Willems is an intellectual border commuter; he reveals the demarcation problems faced by dramatists from countries that have not been violently colonized but still were or are subject to French cultural hegemony.

Another literary border-crosser is Geneva-born Robert Pinget (1919-1997). He appears in French anthologies and works of literary history as a matter of course, so is thus much more an example of historical cultural defection than someone trying to push Swiss identification processes forward on a literary and cultural plane.

In his stage play Architruc (Architruc) (PE 1963) Pinget uses 'impotent poetry' –  similarly to Williams – to address abstract concepts like memory and repetition, alienation, reconstruction, gaps, dissolution, disappearance and death as central absence metaphors. In Pinget's chamber-like 'theatre of the Nouveau Roman' (cf. Grimm 1999: 376) the king, the main character, is a ridiculous, down-and-out, sad anti-hero suffering from his own senselessness, stagnation and lack of drive, who dies at the end of this four-hander. Here Pinget is continuing the theatrical topos of the tumbling king dedicated to his own end. This starts with Oedipus Rex (first performed circa 428 BC) and continues via Shakespeare's Elizabethan histories to the line of French drama that started with the Modern theatre. It includes various portraits of kings from Alfred Jarry's Ubu roi (WP 1896) to Eugène Ionesco's Le Roi se meurt (FP 1962). In these cases the king personifies life and/or death, and stands for the whole of humanity.

Kateb Yacine's and Aimé Césaire's plays largely show strategies for coming to terms with colonial trauma, deconstructing colonial lies and recovering autochtonous history, while Gurik uses comedy and subversive parody to verbalize cultural strivings for autonomy aimed at protecting the French heritage from US-anglophone monopolization. Then Willems' and Pinget's plays are concerned with demarcation from France's cultural superiority and with an explicitly literary emancipation discourse. Helène Cixous (* 1937) was born in Algeria as the daughter of Jewish parents. She deploys a fourth, quite different strategy to apply theatrical imagination to power and violence from a French point of view, turning a critical eye on a former French colonial territory: Cixous speeds up time to narrate what befell Cambodia from 1955 to 1979 (invasion by the Vietnamese) in L'histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk Roi du Cambodge (The terrible but incomplete history of Norodom Sihanouk King of Cambodia) (FP 1985).

On the threshold of the postmodern era Cixous' monumental play identifies the possibilities and limitations of intercultural understanding in an exemplary fashion. It is based on elementary rites and their politicization, recalling parallels between Indochina as a colonial administration unit and European feudal tragedies. The unction of power reveals transcultural views taken by élites about language, power and emotions. Cixous' late œuvre from the eighties devises a new technique for presenting discursive power strategies dramatically: like Jean Genet in Les nègres (PE 1958), Cixous successfully gives new meaning to values in a stage power discourse. She causes the action to take place 'at locations of the Other' (cf. Osten 2001: 50) and in the text dreams up 'ways out to the Other that always cross borders and move into the unknown' so that they can 'reveal their astonishing thinking' (cf. Osten 2001: 49). Cixous is not writing primarily for and about her kind, but for and about cultural 'Others' (here: Cambodians), to whom she lends her voice. With this Franco-critical practice, the author creates an empathetic counter-culture beyond the dominant discourse, in order to make the 'strangulation of Cambodia […] and Shihanouk's fall' (cf. Cixous 1988: 209) seem so particularly cruel and profound 'because king and kingdom were once part of South East Asia's most dominant powers' (cf. Cixous 1988: 210).

It remains to be stated in conclusion that ever since classical drama at the court of the Sun King Louis XIV (Molière, Corneille, Racine), the theatre has had a long political tradition in France. From this point of view, theatre may become a space for negotiation (Greenblatt), but also for the exclusiveness of an intellectual, i.e. elitist discourse. Outside France, in the former French colonies, artists wrestle with the historical past of their suffering and oppression. Instead of conveying the paternal French myth of a glamorous king, they create their own strategies to deconstruct the 'lies' of the Western civilization by unmasking the constructions and projections which had been forced on them and which Edward Said has conceptualized with the idea of Orientalism.

We have seen the colonialization emanating from France, imposed through violence, as a cultural conflict par excellence here, while Samuel Huntington refers more to themes like the universality of culture, being indigenous and to global phenomena like the "fault line conflicts along the boundary looping across Eurasia and Africa that separates Muslims from non-Muslims" (Huntington 1996: 255). The comparatistic analysis of culturally different francophone authors has shown that, and how, the 'oppressed' liberate themselves by devising counter-strategies and thus finding their 'own' language. These authors' writing back (Rushdie) had already taken place before Huntington diagnosed a cultural conflict when reducing his principal statement to the following formula: "culture and cultural identities [...] are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world" (Huntington 1996: 20). Even before the Cold War, dramatists were in revolt and engaging in a number of ways against the 'alien' power. They showed that for them this power represented an ultimately metaphysical entity that with Foucault governs the will to truth (cf. Foucault 2000), and forms the core of their thinking.