For the future Kings of Denmark

by Hugo Hopping

(a national theatre) ’Must appeal to all sorts of people and every sort of taste – except bad taste—Granville Barker, English Actor and Playwright.

“Except bad taste is unnecessary, it’s obvious, plus who is to decide what is bad taste? Many would consider Ibsen’s, An Enemy of the People, bad taste”

– Antonio Bernal, American Teatro Campesino Actor.

Against what background in contemporary art and culture can we speak of a Temporary National Theatre, even one operating from a cultural center in Scandinavia? Not only do we have to be aware of the rise and fall of national theatres in terms of a comparative history of theatre, which reflects on national narratives and identity. But we have to also understand the origins of National Theatres defined in the 19th century, instituted and with an apogee in the 20th and through their current struggle with globalization, which threatens to dissolve National Theatres, as publicly funded institutions, and for that matter, as targets of economic downturns and neoliberal reforms.
However, what is being introduced with the idea of Temporary (as in ephemeral, nor permanent, nor fixed) National Theatre is a delicate confluence of two systems of cultural patronage for the theatre arts that are dialectically connected as part of the evolution of the State into modernity. Interestingly, both co-exist today with one another almost as artifacts of two political legacies. The program you are holding points to an idea where the national is temporarily installed within the royal. In other words, the Royal Danish Theatre is the stage for a National Theatre.

With this in mind, directors Anders Paulin, Mia Lipschitz and architect Tor Lindstrand formed Temporary National Theatre (TNT), with the intention of exploring (through a series of events, programs, and plays) the nature and identity of a ‘national’ theatre. This inquiry is quite idiosyncratic, and it has a specific presence and must be understood against a complex cultural heritage in Denmark and other countries that have a Royal decree for the organization of culture. Evidently, it would be redundantly absurd to have a temporary national theatre at a National Theatre, one solid structure eating the other, meaninglessly.

This inquiry, even if it started as an invitation from the Danish Royal Theatre, has produced an institutional challenge, touching upon a subtle political science that reveals the geopolitical and social realities of Denmark. The country has existed both as the longest uninterrupted kingdom in world history and as a modern state. Its political development and cultural disposition has placed Denmark, within modern statecraft, as producing and consuming a cultural “national” consciousness and a political, although procedural, royal heritage. On a separate note, we must keep in mind that models for organizing temporary theatre have also a complex history of social and political resistance, struggle, and pedagogy (esp. coming from Latin American, European, and Asian theater traditions), which have been operating outside of governmental order or royal decree, and quite often make an effort to challenge or contest one or the other. However, in Denmark, culture can be officiated either by the Cultural Ministry or by a Royal Heritage or tradition, some times indistinguishable, yet both can subtly compete, as well as mesh, in reproducing subjective arguments for taste and presentation.
TNT, within a Scandinavian context, in attempting to install a National Theatre, is both broadcasting and receiving as a transponder this delicate convergence of the royal and the national; where one is tacit and historically dormant (but open) and the other is active with an inherent tradition for exclusion (and closure). And as such, we must take into account how the Royal and National meet each other today as factors for how culture is developed, produced, and instituted—as both subject and history—with a relevant danger in one branding the other outside of each other’s own historical progression or as a favored product of the State’s own subjective notion of cultural exports.
In an effort to further exhume the historical progression of a national theatre and its eventual transformation as an aesthetic and collaborative production, one has to keep in mind that this project at the Danish Royal Theatre, has its own disenchantments with institutionalized avant-guard forms within theatre history. Instead, TNT reflects a condition for transforming the stage into an arena, as part of a civic investigation by which the art form is participation and its labor, where individuals invested can reproduce relational experiments as reports on the state of the nation—a new definition of a representational theatre.

Especially significant, within a major Northern European playhouse, where TNT (through its program instead of repertory) attempts to eject the artificial and suspended comfort between performance and audience in favor of a greater relationship with the world outside the stage, which may prove be less comfortable to the status quo. TNT sees that the “main objective…is to examine different potentials for a cultural arena; understood as a public space where the citizen and institution meet to define collective ideas of identity, ethics and social imagination”(TNT website). TNT is constructed on variables and imperfect categories of social matter, where relational and situational convergences of social experimentation provide the context for this inquiry into the national, while not falling short of its theoretical roots of both the theatrical happenings of Allan Kaprow or the theatrical equivalents given in Tadeusz Kantor’s Cricot 2 or the Wooster Group.

While certain aspects of the TNT’s program exhibit a correct political tendency within current strategies of representation in European contemporary art, there is an effort to connect the program back to experiments and traditions in theatre itself, that are not readily available in institutionalized contemporary theatre.

TNT, further generates a critical connection with the world, through a “co-operation with institutions as well as individuals from a number of different disciplines and fields”. Where “the more different perspectives and diversified expertise, experience and strategies that fill up the space, the more impossible it gets for one identity to claim power over the space and its representations of a dominant national narrative, thereby allowing a temporary transformation of a national stage into a public meeting room”(TNT website).

This preoccupation with that nature of a National Theatre, is built on an idea that the “impossible” fixation of one national narrative, for obvious historical reasons and dangers, makes it “possible” to install the project and distribute its ephemeral idealism for an operative version of a fluid nationalism, where participants, define the identity with a higher complexity than the designers of a nation. This version of the national is articulated in progression by which the State becomes responsible for its nationalisms and national narratives and consciousness, and thereby divests from having to invest in one version, which has in the construction of a national identity the intention and predicate to exclude the other.

TNT and Nationalism.

It is important to distinguish that TNT is participating (within and without) a historical discourse, which is searching for an identity for the national. However, TNT’s pattern of organization of the concept of the “national” reflects an open inquiry, as an open investigation on the subject, willing to absorb its ironies, and conscious that it is situated within a Scandinavian use of genuinely public institutions, which have a strong desire for active and productive uses of the stage, where participation in this sense, seems politically correct.

And in order not to fall into the trap of nationalism as a result of a fetish with this confluence between a social democratic national identity and royal heritage, TNT leaves it to its members and participants to define their projects along a structure that concretizes the coordination of identities as an illustration of a raw and purely democratic activity, which in the end, articulates the art form currently contested by TNT.

However, one cannot ignore the abundant arguments of the mid 19th century, which attempted with urgency to find a model and a national dramaturgical repertoire, for the nation. And more precisely, urgency still exists in developing a dramaturgical repertoire today—how indicative of a national search for identity it can be? Can only be said in terms of how successful the conversation is in creating difference of opinion and representation and allowing for the political spectrum to be represented within the stage. This is brought on, literally, by the use of public figures, artists, actors and private citizens who through TNT’s productions can openly interrogate exclusionary systems of representation. More or less opening the stage to an aesthetics of participation, where artistic and social energies shift the conversation from an external fear of brooding nationalisms on the rise in Europe over the an internal inquiry by its participants to divest the conversation from this fear and infuse it with ethical responsibility to participating stakeholders.

The dilemma is simple, whoever controls the definition of 21st century nationalism, will be in charge of a purely ideological albatross. The structures and technologies of globalization have assumed a greater power of intervention over the nation, where the romance of nationalism inspired by late Romantic Movement of the 19th century, has a hard time today attaching itself against the scientific and pragmatic movement of human resources between nation states. If a nationalism can be said to exist today, it only refers back to a political activity practiced by each nation, to contain its middle classes from having the mobility and fluidity of the upper classes, who more or less, do not see themselves tied to a national identity but as subjects of a global system.

A short history of a National Theatre

The edification of National Theatre venues in the late 18th and 19th centuries, assumed that art forms would conform to defining the national or better produce a national art, and this assertion depended on a more precise and clear emergence of a national repertoire and theatre that would be promoting national issues as a subject linked to the autonomy of the nation. This could be seen with the use of the term “national” to describe venues all over Europe which had been instigated by the rise of nations, fresh revolutions, and independence such as the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, 1840; or the Serbian National Theatre, 1868 or curiously by royal decree in 1836, as a dedication to the queen of Portugal, the D. Maria II National Theatre of 1846—all which are asserting the very independence of the new nation. Furthermore, in defining a National Theatre that is producing distinct repertoires without foreign influence, as the record shows in Poland from 1765–1830, Hungary from 1810–1838, Bohemia from 1784–1881, the search for a national identity became a fixed ideology and institution with its privileges for its member within the new system and prejudices for those excluded from the national imaginary.

The rapid progress made by cinema and other forms of mass media entertainment during the 20th century gave way to institutional state answers, formulated in the 19th century, for the construction of national theatres as arguments for the conservation of higher forms of art against this encroachment of kitsch and mass democratic taste. What had been a modernist project for independence and autonomy had now become a vessel for a fixed identity without much change in the repertoire. This was a response to a structuring of the arts according to a scale of high and low value, where a National Theatre would govern over the highest value of artistic merit and representation in its chosen repertory. These state institutions, would behave as conduits for a type of intellectual activity that would be very much controlled by a small minority of directors, actors and playwrights. In hope of bringing over, if not to the masses, at least to the middle-classes, a repertory of taste representative of the people forming part of the national body and identity.

Curiously this revision with a community-centered type of high art socialism is very well articulated by the English, who argued for a National Theatre, to canonize the English language against a perceived threat to the language by the numerous dialects of English existing in the colonies of the British Empire with an objective to place dramaturgical performances in English above popular entertainment. William Archer stated: “The acted drama of the English language ought to rank high among the intellectual glories, and among the instruments of culture, of the nation or rather of the race”.

Furthermore, the speculative aspect of private and entrepreneurial theatre was dismissed in favor of a state funded project, whose sole purpose is to allow freedom of artistic movement by its actors, playwrights and directors on a national stage: '…the National Theatre must be its own advertisement - must impose itself on public notice, not by posters or column advertisements in the newspapers, but by the very fact of its ample, dignified, and liberal existence. It must bulk large in the social and intellectual life of London...It must not even have the air of appealing to a specially literary and cultured class. It must be visibly and unmistakably a popular institution, making a large appeal to the whole community…It will be seen that the Theatre we propose would be a National Theatre in this sense, that it would be from the first conditionally – and, in the event of success, would become absolutely – the property of the nation.'?---(Preface (1904) to A National Theatre: Scheme and Estimates by William Archer and H. Granville Barker, London 1907.)

This National Theatre however contradicted the possibility for a modernist theatre keen on universality and innovation (especially since from the outset) was led by the conformation of a national repertoire, however active in its productive energy, in the end it is only favoring the ideology of nationalism. Perhaps it is wise to understand that we are look at various phases of development in the definition what constitutes National Theatre, which occupies both positive and negative form, and its more sinister projects have been contested and some are now indexed in history. One is not being naïve in understanding the physical structure of the theatre vs. that of a temporary activity that is in discourse with the other. But we also have to keep in mind that a national narrative from its inception builds unconsciously a system of exclusion; meaning the construction of a tale where the subject and her existence is consumed as an objective form, searching to make her a member of the nation, while at the same time excluding the other by not giving access to this narrative, but ironically defining and existing as a subject of negation.

This is perhaps why the reevaluation and new political thought in the 20th century saw an expansion of avant-guard theatre forms in retaliation to a conservative organization of culture, even if they were financed by national grants and support, their activity reflected a genealogy, which can be visibly understood within the activity embodied by TNT, that in itself cannot escape the confines of a national definition, since the national is a project as well built as such directly into its name as an organization.

The Assertion of Art over the State.

In 1931, Federico Garcia Lorca was appointed as director, of University Student Theatre Company, Teatro Universitario la Barraca (The Shack). Funded with public money by the Spanish Second Republic Ministry of Education, and he was given the task to tour Spain’s rural areas and give radical theatre performances and interpretations of classic Spanish Theatre. Almost 30 years later, in Delano, California, a similar strategy and form of presenting popular theatre to farm workers, was constructed by the Teatro Campesino “Farmworkers Theatre” led by Luis Valdez. Early performances were on he flatbeds of pick-ups or trucks and the theatre company would enact recent events in the Farmworkers Strikes and boycotts in the 1960’s California.

While, the former is taking pride in a national project for education, (and we have discussed that even the most productive aspects of a national project can exclude unsympathetically the other), and what is also fascinating in the latter example, is the temporary form suggested by a traveling shack of actors, installing themselves throughout remote parts of Spain and California. The outcomes of installing a Temporary National Theatre in conversation with a Royal Theatre tradition, is assumed in England and Portugal without much friction, but not with this clear challenge to the institution. For instance, The National Theatre in London, opened its first performance after almost a century of lobbying for a national theatre in 1963, with a production of Hamlet, and since 1988 it has been allowed to call itself the Royal National Theatre, but is commonly known as the National, without much discourse built around the anachronism occupied in its official name. The idea for a temporary theatre, installed in the country’s main dramaturgical venue, introduces a critical precedent reflecting on the earlier forms of temporary theatre promoted by Lorca and Valdez, which saw their own critical necessity to bring content to the illiterate and poor. However, TNT’s provisional theatre experiment, needs to be understood as an intervention of previous experiments in temporary theatre, which are now descending upon the royal institution, and where the symbolic meaning of a national identity is understood as temporary and ephemeral; and the use and abuse of memory and sentimentality is discouraged in favor of criticality and participation.

The art form on the other hand, does not ignore Denmark as a subject, and understands that the political development into modernity of the present State stands outside of the national; Denmark is remarkably not a nation. It is a constitutional monarchy, where the chief of state is the Danish monarch, and the head of government is the prime minister, and one would be naïve not to recognize that it continues to develop a royal cultural heritage for the country in general. TNT’s suggested installation instigates an inquiry, which is perhaps the best temporary social-political thermometer for gauging the junction concerning the Royal Kingdom and the symbolic Nation, in other words, a gauge, for determining the relationship between the two Denmarks.

In thinking only of a national theatre, has the dangers of falling into the early arguments of 20th century accepted by the British or for that matter ignoring the theatre of colonial resistance in places such as India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. So what stands as a challenge for this project investigating the nature of a national identity in a royal venue? What is it refereeing to and how is it working as a political anachronism? Or does it advance a dialectic between the royal and the national?
TNT’s three productions of Juan Mayorga’s ‘Himmelweg’; It’s all national; KAFAK (aka FAKAK, aka AKFAK) have to be understood as part of an advancement of a cultural political science for exposing deficits in the cultural arena if not of Denmark, for sure in Scandinavia. We must agree that culture has its politics both of production and representation and that society is constantly in crisis as governmental answers meet with civic opinion and tolerance.

To that end, a temporary national theatre is both revealing the conditions of the state but as well as challenging the process by which representation seems to be determined by the notion of a national or royal system of patronage. We find that TNT leaves no euphemism untouched, nor a stereotype unnoticed about the political realities of the two. The question is which system is more humanistic and allows for a diversity of thought, process and subjectivities. Which one reveals itself increasingly as our geopolitical reality and which one should we be supporting?

Diversity is more and more difficult for us as a people to embrace. So perhaps the function of a national theatre, under the current conditions, is to encourage the memory of the more open system which abides by courtly rules of conduct and respect—much clearer cannot be said; the task of intellectuals and artists in Demark is to use their production to appeal to the prince and create the conditions so he can become the philosopher king with the power to rule over the open system.

A National Theatre: Scheme and Estimates, William Archer and Granville Barker, (London: Duckworth, 1907)
Archer, ‘The case for National Theatres’ Archer and Barker, A National Theatre, 1907.
National Theatre in Northern and Eastern Europe, 1746–1900, Edited by Laurence Senelick, Tufts University, Massachusetts, 1991