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Jewish Spaces in European Theatre

European Performing Arts Forum
Prague 14-16 June 2003



Session III: Europe's multicultural landscape: Where do
Jewish themes fit in?

Jewish culture in France today: aspirations of universality
and representations of identity

Pierre-Jerome Adjedj, playwright and director, Strasbourg


What does it mean to be a Jewish artist in France today? What is the mission of a Jewish artist? Is there a contemporary theatrical creation that can be identified as typically Jewish, beside the creations commonly known as community creations? Can this creation find its place somewhere?
I don't claim to answer all these questions in an exhaustive manner. Moreover, this question refers as always, to a more general question: What does it mean to be Jewish in the society in which we live?

As the purpose of this paper is centered around the question of the theatre, in particular, I organized my thoughts by starting at the end of the chain; namely, with the theatres that programme the shows. I restricted myself to an analysis of the so-called municipal structures, as they throw some immediate light on the relationship between institutions, population and culture.

The staging of live shows

France has a very large network of public municipal theatres, partly due to a massive investment by small and average size towns and municipalities over the last twenty years. These theatres, for the most part, are sponsored by local authorities, or sometimes work in association with them and they are therefore an important political pawn for the parties in office. In fact, these theatres are used as a tool to create social links with the local population, as much as a showcase for the outside. For the theatre managers, appointed by the political party in power, there is virtually no room to make mistakes.

The first consequence of these high stakes is that often, the programming fits into a standard format that you see repeated from north to south and from east to west. The programme planners are under pressure from the politicians, who require them to respond to the public's expectations: expectations that they think have been clearly identified; therefore, most of them provide a so-called balanced programming that we might call eclectic, which is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. But what we have here is only a veneer of eclecticism, an assembly of fashionable trends, a synthesis of what comes out every year of the fringe festival of Avignon. Basically, a condensed form of what "works''. Therefore, the element of risk-taking is reduced over the years almost to nothing. Instead of eclecticism, which would open up to possibilities for all kinds of shows, we are actually dealing with standardized programmes. Shows must match precise criteria concerning duration, subject and style. This requirement is not explicitly formulated, but appears tacitly through the choices and rejections of the programmers.

As for the plays that can be identified as being Jewish cultural in nature, they are mostly of two kinds: either ''ethnic'' shows like Yiddish musicals, or plays about the Holocaust. The first category satisfies the trend for multiculturalism, the second one satisfies the need for political correctness and a clear conscience, independent of the quality of the shows. To this we can add the strong emergence of one-man shows. But here again, the phenomenon is due to a more general trend, that of ''ethnic'' stereotyping, with stand-up comedians (such as the Marseillais, Jews, French Arabs, etc…).

As we can see, things are indeed well ordered in theatrical programming. Let's say that they are made to conform, which brings us to another question: what future is there for anything 'outside of the box'? What place is there for the contemporary Jewish creation, outside of these two possibilities?

Being a Jewish artist in France

The relevant question that we should ask ourselves is: what is a Jewish play? What defines it as one? Is it linked to the Judaism of its makers (authors and directors), to the themes it approaches, or to the public targeted by the play? To phrase the question differently, is a Jewish play a play written by a Jew, who talks about Jews to Jews, or all of these factors put together?

Since I limited my analysis to contemporary creations which are not created by the community, let's start with the most simple assumption: a Jewish play is the making of a Jewish artist. But what is a Jewish artist? For the artist, answering this question means having already answered it for himself, as an individual: What makes me Jewish? The answer will vary, depending on the country in which he lives, and depending on the size and the reality of the Jewish community.

In France, Jews don't really suffer from problems of integration. Therefore the question of the artist's relationship to Judaism comes more from an individual questioning, from a personal choice influenced by age, family environment, and one's relationship to the religion. In any case there exists a "right'', or let's say a possibility, not to claim one's Judaism.

Nevertheless, the supposedly serene context and the freedom of choice on which the French Republic is based, remains at the mercy of the fluctuations of the international situation. We have seen how current events, such as the war in Iraq, or in a more permanent manner, events in Israel, can provoke in French society, relayed by the French media, a hardening of attitude towards the Jews. In some cases, this automatically transforms, by ricochet effect, the artist into a Jewish artist, and the thinker into a Jewish thinker. At this stage the personal definition that each person makes about his or her own Judaism is thwarted by pressure from the gaze of society. As for the artist, these outside pressures have an influence on his work and his thinking, preventing an objective look at the work itself.

Basically, we are asked to explain ourselves as Jewish artists, and no longer simply as artists. This creates a gulf that becomes very difficult to overcome. And the problem for the artist, whatever he is, is to find his space. This is even more true in times of crisis, when he must go beyond the dominating discourse, and overcome it, without which art can no longer exist and becomes propaganda.

Trying to define the place and the role of the Jewish artist in France

If we try to define the place and the role of the Jewish artist in France, we come up against a difficulty that goes beyond the artist's own position: in France, the integration of the Jewish population creates a perception in the majority of the population that Jews are linked to the religion. We are supposed to be Jewish just as Catholics are supposed to be Catholic; the notion of a Jewish people is often misunderstood, or seen merely as a desire to be different from others.

Therefore, leaving aside performances linked to our cultural heritage such as Yiddish plays, what are the elements which can clearly define the artist's work as being linked to Jewish culture?

Actually, the most important question should be asked from the point-of-view of the artist - about the specific problems that he comes across, rather than the question of typecasting imposed upon him by the public or by professionals. In fact, we should ask ourselves if there is a specific ''mission'' that is incumbent upon Jewish artists, or specific themes they should approach?

There is, of course, an immense and obvious theme, one in which Jewish artists have an essential role to play: the theme of the Shoah. Of course, this crucial period in Jewish history has been covered over and over again, but most of the time it has been viewed through the prism of memory, which is important. But if the mission of the artist is to give a universal reach to the problems he is treating, then one essential mission clearly stands out: to write and interpret plays that aim to go beyond the principle of the uniqueness of the Shoah, analysing the foundations of barbarism by going beyond the strict limits of commemoration. Such plays should attain a universal vision, which should constantly stress that, on the one hand, the capacity to become a barbarian is within each man, independent of his nationality, and on the other hand, that being a victim is not determined by fate. You probably have to be Jewish to do this work, to avoid the accusation of minimising, excusing or even worse, questioning what happened.

On this theme, we enjoy a freedom of speech that we alone possess, and this puts us in a unique position, presenting us at the same time with a challenge and a duty to be a Jewish artist. There probably are other areas of expression as well where this specificity can be applied, and it is our job to explore them.

In any case, this is the personal conclusion that I have reached about my role as a French artist, that I should seek to penetrate the gaps in established thinking, and to enlarge them in order to attract attention. This might be the opportunism of people who have, at the same time, a firm footing in the temporal reality of the country in which they live and/ or were born, and who bear in their flesh the wounds of a long wandering.