THEATER BRINGS MEANING TO STRANGE DREAMS
The Demolition of the Eiffel Tower is one of those plays which was extremely torturous and complex to write. I couldn’t sleep; I scribbled while I was in bed; I wandered across parks and river bridges; I cried; I laughed – and who knows what else.
I wrote the greater part of this play in May of 2010 in Val-de-Reuil, not far from Paris, where I had been invited to be writer-in- residence by the Théâtre de L'Ephéméride. I stayed for one month, sometimes alone, and sometimes in the company of the different actors who came for rehearsals. But most of the time I was alone. The scenery of the area around the theater was bewitching, but somehow I had the sense that I was far from “civilization.”
The nearest houses were only a few meters away, but for the month that I stayed there I rarely saw a resident pass by. My days were fine, but the nights were hard. I stayed awake until late; I drank coffee; I listened to music; and I tried to write. And I wrote a lot. But at night I was troubled by a kind of fear. Somehow, I imagined that there might be ghosts. The conditions were right for them to appear: solitude, darkness, silence, being far from civilization, a bewildered author writing a bloody tale. . . .
As a child, I was always afraid of ghosts. And so I convinced myself that the ghosts from Kosovo were going to rise from their graves and come to France. I was certain they could come as I knew they didn’t need an entry visa. And so, to conquer my fear, I stayed awake at night and wrote until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore.
It was in this odd atmosphere that The Demolition of the Eiffel Tower was written. In the end, not a single ghost paid me a visit. Instead, they came to life in the play that I wrote.
At that time in France, there was a high-profile debate about the burka. French society was divided on the issue. In the end, the French Parliament had the final say, and its decision banned the wearing of it in public. It’s important for us to understand that this was not a simple debate, as it might have been, about the minor issue of the burka. Instead, it reflected the emerging conflict between the Orient and Occident. The debate was a sign of the growing fear in Europe of Islamic fundamentalism that now, as we can see, has become a serious threat – and not only to European values and civilization.
It is impossible for me not to be horrified by the recent tragic events in Paris and Brussels. All the blood and terror that is, to some degree, projected in my play is actually taking place in reality. Of course, the conflict and separation didn’t start suddenly. It developed over decades. But now the religious and cultural hatred and prejudice of earlier times has transmogrified into weapons – into bombs and Kalashnikov bullets emptied into the innocent.
I hope that this play will be lucky enough to be performed in America. I don’t have any specific advice for directors there, except perhaps for those who consider treating the play in a naturalistic manner. I would counsel them to think twice about doing that.
Intentionally, the play lacks didascalia and other technical explanations. In fact, in most of my plays I do not provide many explanations for directors and actors. To me, it seems inappropriate to burden the play with descriptive details on the stage set or the movements of characters in that space. I think directors should have total freedom in this respect. Actually, in most countries in Europe, directors do this anyway, regardless of what the author or others say. I think that this is fair. To me it seems that the nature of my plays, in particular, leaves room for different interpretations in different contexts.
I have been asked a number of times about the comical side and especially the “black humor” in this play and whether this is appropriate for such a “sensitive” topic. I believe black humor exists in every society, but in the Balkans it can be present in the most tragic of situations. Also, on top of this perhaps “cultural” inclination toward black humor, I tend to view most relations between religion and politics as completely comical. Take, for example, the absurd debate in Switzerland over permitting or prohibiting minarets, or the media storm a few years ago in America concerning that feckless clergyman who announced he was planning to burn the Koran in public, or the media circus started by Erdogan, the president of Turkey, on the prohibition of alcohol – and so many other cases like this – aren’t they perfect examples of comedy?
That’s why it was entirely natural for The Demolition . . . to contain black humor. Two of the characters in the play are incompetent terrorists. Jose, who is kidnapped by these two terrorists, is on the other hand a naïve street vendor who ends up in an absurd situation. To survive, he tells a story that is part truth and part fiction, becoming a sort of contemporary Scheherazade.
Now, something more “serious” that perhaps might be of interest to the American public: I belong to the Kosovar generation that was educated in the ‘90s. We are called the “parallel generation,” because we lived in a society that was parallel to the “official” one, and we were educated in a school system that was parallel to the official one.
The Albanians of Kosovo, during the period of violent repression under the Milŏsević regime, had created their own institutions as part of a peaceful resistance movement, and those institutions functioned apart from the “public” institutions which had been occupied by Milŏsević and his cronies. For example, they created parallel schools that taught in the Albanian language and operated separately from the public schools which only admitted Serbian students.
Now, let me give you the short version of the story: I went to high school and to university in improvised buildings – in the cellars of houses, garages, mosques, churches, abandoned rooms and so on. It was a type of educational illegality.
And the theater was also parallel. At that time, Albanians in Kosovo had only one theater where they could watch plays in their own language – a theater for children and youth called the Dodona Theater.
My relationship with the theater started as soon as I began to study dramaturgy in the parallel University of Prishtina in 1997. My passion grew from that time onwards, and it seems unlikely ever to be extinguished. The theater for me was – and remains – the freedom that was absent during that period of the ‘90s; it was the window that was missing in the cellars where we studied playwriting. The theater was the strength to combat the fear of being imprisoned or being beaten by Milŏsević’s Serbian police. It was, in truth, the dream that kept me alive during the war in Kosovo in 1999.
But let me not overdo it with melancholy and tears. Because really, these notes on the play should be more optimistic.
So, let me tell you about something else. Let me tell you about a strange dream that I had many years ago. I dreamt that in the attic of an old house I found some old plays, written by ancient authors; plays that were more ancient than all the other plays that civilization knows of today. The next morning, surprisingly, I remembered not just the dream, but also the exact names of the plays and of the various authors. But, stupidly, instead of writing it down, I trusted my memory. After a few days, I had of course lost every detail. Now, after all these years, all I can remember is the house that I saw in the dream, which is now in ruins, and myself leafing through those books. Now, I don’t want to play the “great writer” role and say that dream was a prophecy that one day I’d become an important writer and bla- bla-bla. Of course not. But I do like to believe that the dream is somehow linked to my clumsy dash as a writer and to my enduring passion for writing.
As I write my plays, perhaps I am struggling to discover the meaning of that dream and the meaning of the plays in that dream.
I think the theater is the struggle to bring meaning to strange dreams and to the unknown and mysterious substance that surrounds us, perhaps even within the space of our own dreams!
~ Jeton Neziraj
Translated by Alexandra Channer