A CENTURY OF INDIFFERENCE AND IGNORANCE
Department of Dreams was inspired by a well-known novel, The Palace of Dreams, written by the Albanian author, Ismail Kadare, but it also has the feel of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
The works of Ismail Kadare have been a constant source of inspiration for me. A few years ago, I dramatized his novel, The General of the Dead Army, for the stage, and I’ve met him on a few occasions. He is just as impressive and inspiring in conversation as he is in writing.
His novel, The Palace of Dreams, was published in 1981 in Albania, which was communist at that time. It’s about a totalitarian state in which an official institution, called the Tabir Saraj (the Tabir Palace), collects citizens’ dreams in order to analyze and interpret them. Many scholars of Kadare’s book have suggested that the Tabir Saraj alluded to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Albania during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.
I wrote Department of Dreams about two years ago – quite quickly and much faster than many of my other plays. A recently formed theater company (Intent New Theater) commissioned it as part of an effort to stimulate theatrical exchange and contact between Kosovar and British artists. They intended to host the premiere, but for various reasons, it never happened. Up to now, the play has had some stage readings (in full or as extracts) in Prishtina, London, and Athens, and it has also been published in Turkey. Skopje is going to mount the first full stage production this spring.
Although the play is a comedy, its “tone” is extremely pessimistic and “dark.” I wanted the structure, as well as the content, to feel dream-like – with fragments of images and content flowing in a “chaotic” rather than a “logical” manner. But there is a non-artistic element that I think influenced its pessimistic and dark nature. Before beginning it, I had a very difficult operation, which I was lucky enough to survive. But the post-operative period was a “battle with demons,” a struggle to return to normal life after the trauma. Its repercussions enveloped me in an endless variety of nightmares and dreams. So, as I was writing Department of Dreams, I was engaging in my own battle with an invisible enemy – almost like Dan, the main character of the play, who works hard and tries stubbornly to survive in that strange dream-world.
In her book, On Violence, Hannah Arendt gives a simple, but meaningful definition of the state and its structure. She writes “Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’ we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name.”
When totalitarian states and dictatorial regimes collapse, people often make artificial attempts to distance themselves, portraying it as an “isolated case of evil,” as if that state or regime functioned by itself and without the support of “a certain number of people.” Milosevic had a strong following in Serbia. But when he and his regime eventually surrendered, the majority – which had supported him – began to distance themselves, as if they had never had anything to do with him at all, and consequently, other people – his targets during those years – used to ask sarcastically: “If all of you were against him, who on earth was for him?” There’s a similar anecdote, which is now told as a joke. After the cruel war in Bosnia, most Serb soldiers answered “no” when asked if they had joined in the fighting, and they almost always said it was because, “they’d been working in the kitchens.” The punch line of the joke was: “Well, if so many of you were cooking, where are all the ones who did the eating?”
The point I’d like to make is that we need to take responsibility. If today, our government is bad, cruel, autocratic, or totalitarian, we are responsible, or it is the fault of the majority, or that “certain number of people” empowering the regime. “Taking responsibility” means the struggle “to be liberated” through such means as civil disobedience, revolution, coups, or democratic methods – including free elections where possible. Taking responsibility is an emancipating and democratic act, but in the times in which we live, in various parts of the world, with totalitarian and semi-totalitarian regimes, with gangster autocrats, taking responsibility can be a difficult mission.
This is because we live in a century of indifference and ignorance. The indifferent, who are in the majority, don’t want to know about anything happening around them. The ignorant, on the other hand, are content with limited freedom. They want ignorant and arrogant politicians because they speak their language, act like them, and mirror their convictions.
And so, when tomorrow, the ignorant are asked to deposit their dreams in a future “department of dreams,” they’ll do it happily, because it might seem to create an ideal world, one in which anyone different from them, any foreigners or refugees, will cease to exist. And I fear the indifferent will do it too. They’ll deposit their dreams with their eyes shut. Until something goes terribly wrong. Then, the indifferent will open their eyes and say: We were against it, we never supported what was going on. And the ignorant will dig their heels: They’ll say, “What you say happened, never really happened at all . . .”
Kadare, in The Palace of Dreams, transports us to a distant age, during the Ottoman Empire, while alluding to communist Albania in the years after World War II. In my play, I have tried to imagine a more contemporary world in which the autocrat of a country, caught up in nightmare and paranoia, orders the creation of a department of dreams. A few people who’ve read my play, or been to one of its stage readings, have asked if I wrote it thinking of Turkey, or Hungary, or Kosovo, or America . . . And this has encouraged me. But it is anxiety-making at the same time. Because it seems Department of Dreams is not just an ominous futuristic vision, but an ever-present threat, that is realizable . . . Is this not truly terrible?
The play is written for 6 actors; however, it can be performed with just four. With the exception of the actor who plays Dan, all the other actors can play two characters at the same time. A gender-switch can also work for some of the characters (except Dan and Night). I do not mind if the director dreams up any other combination on top of those I mentioned . . . Why destroy someone else’s imaginings?
P.S. If during the reading of this play, you fall asleep and dream, please urgently deposit it at the Department of Dreams. You don’t need to go there, just send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
January 2019, Prishtina
Translated by Alexandra Channer