Turkey’s Artists at Risk: Dramaturgies of Resistance vs. Politics of Fear

I stand in the sweating masses and throw stones at the police soldiers tanks bulletproof glass. I glance through the double-door outfitted with bulletproof glass at the oncoming crowd and smell the perspiration of my fear.  I shake, choked with nausea, my fist against myself, standing behind the bulletproof glass. I see, choked by fear and loathing, myself in the oncoming crowd, foam licking at my lips, shaking my fist against myself.

Heiner Müller, Hamletmaschine (1977)

The latest Hamletmaschine production by The Exil Ensemble, which premiered at the Gorki Theatre on 24 February 2018, brought me back to a life shaping experience when I lived in Istanbul in 2013. Just like Müller’s protagonist, I lived within and between political crises while I was privileged, as foreigner, as white male, as theatre scholar, as somebody in-between. Ich bin ein Privilegierter, Hamlet gesticulates.

It was early Spring. On 7 April 2013, I had just participated in the protests against the closure of the historical Emek (i.e. Labour) Movie Theatre, one of the last remaining cosy cinema halls in Istanbul’s busiest shopping street, which was full of youth sentiment and not yet completely integrated in cheap modern-day commercialism. There I experienced my first confrontation with a heavy-handed police force1. After the Greek senior filmmaker Costa-Gavras made a speech, we tried to push through the police cordon around the ill-fated street. But that was not to the liking of the authorities. Our intentions to protect something that belongs to all of us were met with pepper gas and a pressured gush of water dispersing everybody in minutes. Costa-Gavras, another one of the privileged, had by that time already been brought to a safe place.

One month later, near the end of May, I see myself again in front of the police lines, getting chased by a helicopter and covered in scorching gas-water concoctions. The scene is now the Gezi Park, which is about to get bulldozed, right besides Taksim square, not very far away from the sealed Emek Cinema. Besides ecological and anti-capitalist reasons, which seemed the least significant in the end, the Gezi Park insurgency brought together thousands of citizens, of the disenfranchised middle classes, with diverse grudges against the current regime, among which also a group of artists, some of whom I saw at the Emek protest earlier.

What Heiner Müller expresses through the voice of his Hamlet, I experienced in that pivotal moment: I was there and yet I looked from a distance. I was occupying the park with many artist friends, but I had also a panoptic viewpoint from the rooftop of the Simit Sarayı where I went with a befriended foreign journalist when on the evening of 15 June 2013 the riot police emptied the park of all its occupiers. Like Hamlet who does not see his drama unfold any longer but instead lingers around, taking up different positions during what could be the Hungarian riots of October 1956 or any other post-War uprising, I was a participant and an observer to Gezi, a guest and a spectator, “at both sides of the front, between the fronts, over them” (Hamletmaschine). I too trusted my fists against myself behind a proverbial bulletproof window, when we could not prevent the riot police from killing about a dozen youth in the riots. I too felt foam on my lips while my body went limb for ten seconds, when dancing tear gas canisters seized me and then bystanders helped me reach a safe spot. My body was not my own any longer.

At times the glass was like a looking glass, in which I saw myself caring for my friends but not always knowing how to respond. The glass could have been the one of the double door to the Divan hotel right behind Gezi Park, which got penetrated on that dreaded night of June 15th by a tear gas canister, much similar to the one that killed fifteen-year old Berkin Elvan. The gas in the hotel lobby reportedly caused a pregnant woman to miscarry. It could equally have been the glass of the television sets, including that of my parents back home, that showed images of the ‘revolution’ flaring up the living rooms in Europe for the sole distraction of those who have already given up on the idea of revolution. ‘There is no alternative’, said Margaret Thatcher. ‘The End of History’, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed. And still, among all the clouds of tear gas that choked our ability to think straight, we smelled the scent of possible change in the air.

Today, the toxic fumes have been substituted by a chokehold. Hamlet’s ‘perspiration of fear’ is ubiquitous. His drama turned to farce, when the images of revolution were co-opted by pro-regime media while those who followed Erdoğan’s call to go into the streets put themselves at risk and suppressed the deadly coup attempt on 15th July 2016. Some say, particularly in Europe, that the coup was all ‘staged’. A true coup de theatre. Indeed, there was no lack of theatricality. For the first time, we saw the president through Face Time on television. This created the illusion of interaction, which stands in stark contrast with most of his orchestrated interviews and monologues on radio and TV. But the interaction was just a frame within another frame. Just like Walter Benjamin already realized about the limitations of radio, television never reached its potential, in a Brechtian sense, of a ‘two-way medium’.

After the coup was knocked down, drama unfolded on our television screens. We were bombarded with heroic images of citizens who following Erdoğan’s call railed against soldiers and tanks, while high-level militaries were being arrested and molested. While de Gezi protests of 2013 did not receive any airtime (since ‘the revolution will not be televised’), the coup today was a televised spectacle. For some time now, news channels use dramatic strategies and also politicians make good use of the media spectacle for mostly propagandistic goals, mostly for keeping the country in the enchantment of a Turkish nationalism, which comes along with a specific kind of spectatorship, a ‘society of the spectacle’ (Guy Debord) that supports a political agenda and identity. Turkey’s democracy has turned into a ‘theatrocracy’ (Samuel Weber): “The rise of theatrocracy subverts and perverts the unity of the theatron as a social and political site by introducing an irreducible and unpredictable heterogeneity, a multiplicity of perspectives and a cacophony of voices.”2. In my reading, Müller’s Hamlet wants to withdraw from this false (meta)theatricality and multi-positionality. In the end, he wants to be a machine that would make him immune for such intoxicating emotions.

In these turbulent times, it is significant to look at the role of theatre and the performing artists, particularly in a national context where the lines between politics and theatre are blurred. In the following, I propose to contextualize the current situation in Turkey to understand what and who is at risk. Apart from offering an overall picture of the milieu, I also intend to lay bare some of the mechanisms of the artist’s response-ability (Hans-Thies Lehmann) vis-à-vis the public and the State. I use the term slightly different than defined by Lehmann who places it within the realms of theatre perception. Theatricality in my essay spreads from across the theatre and pervades the public perception of a political reality that very much operates as spectacle; a society of spectacle (Debord), if you will.

Let’s first look behind the proverbial double-door. Enter the protagonists: Turkey’s resisting artists. Legt Maske und Kostüm ab.

  1. On April 7, 2013, thousands protested against the closing of Emek Movie Theater, including celebrated director Costa-Gavras. The protesters were refused permission to march to the site of the theatre and clashes broke out, that the police answered with water cannons and tear gas. https://humanrightsturkey.org/2013/04/08/protest-at-emek-theatre-amnesty-calls-for-investigation/ []
  2. Samuel Weber quoted in: Bleeker, Maaike. “The Theatre of/or Truth”. In: Performance Paradigm vol. 3: The End of Ethics? Performance, Politics and War (May 2007), http://www.performanceparadigm.net/index.php/journal/article/view/29 []