The comedy, One Flew over the Kosovo Theater, is based largely on my own experiences in the years that I was the artistic director of the National Theater of Kosovo, from 2008 to 2011. Some of the characters (such as James Tafilaj and Rosie) are inspired by real people from the political and artistic life of that time. But although the comedy is set in a precise geographic location (Kosovo in this case), the problems that are addressed prevail in other countries and societies as well. The threat of political control over art is universal, and attempts of this sort emerge and re-emerge in different forms, sometimes as blatant censorship and sometimes as something more sophisticated.

Both productions of One Flew faced overt political censorship. And so the problems that accompanied the staging of the comedy were almost identical to those that were addressed in the comedy itself. It was as if the content of the play poured out into real life and interfered with it.

This first happened in late 2012 when political influence almost canceled the world premiere in Prishtina at the National Theater of Kosovo. It happened again about two years later when it was staged in Istanbul by the State Theater of Turkey, where it caused a political stir that resulted in the resignation of the director general.

When the play opened in Prishtina at the National Theater of Kosovo, a police presence was required. The same was true when it was performed in Serbia. During one performance in Prishtina, officers responded to a bomb scare in the theater; in the course of another, someone from the audience strode onto the stage and began to shout “this is an anti-national play,” and “this is national treachery.” But despite these “external tensions,” the play was extremely well-received wherever it was performed in Europe: in Skopje, Tirana, Ljubljana, Bern, Belgrade, Modena, etc.

When One Flew was staged in Istanbul by the State Theater of Turkey, there were political complications. After the premiere there, a state commission (which seems to have the responsibility of reviewing every play put on by a public theater) concluded that the text, “in various parts contains erotic and abusive language.” They recommended that the director general remove those “various parts” of the play. As he would not agree to do so, after a few days — likely under pressure — he resigned. But, according to my translator and publisher, there was also a broad debate among the public about this arbitrary intervention by the state. I do not know all the details, but I do know that the play continued to be staged, and that, within the year, there were 100 successful performances in Istanbul and the surrounding area.

Of course, in both cases, I think the debates were essential. In societies with fragile democracies (but not only in these, as I believe that censorship of this sort and the heated debate that a play can trigger occur in “consolidated” democracies as well), such polemics and controversies can have the direct effect of expanding the borders of artistic freedom and expression. They contribute to the pluralism of ideas and so create, in the long run, a more tolerant society.

~Jeton Neziraj

Translated by Alexandra Channer

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