The Most Revolutionary Art Form

The Most Revolutionary Art Form

Can a vibrant and cosmopolitan artistic scene heal the wounds of Afghanistan’s traumatic past?


“Theater,” proclaimed the world-renowned French director Ariane Mnouchkine, in a lilting accent, “is more important, more revolutionary, than any other art form,” and–speaking of Afghanistan, a country ravaged by years of discord and strife–“priceless in a society based on the refusal of the Other.” Mnouchkine spoke on July 28 in New York City to an admiring audience in a conference room of the George Soros-funded Open Society Institute.

The event was a “conversation” with Mnouchkine about her attempts to revive theatre in Afghanistan, where she and forty-two members of her company, La Theatre du Soleil, spent three recent weeks under the behest of the Kabul-based and Soros-sponsored Foundation for Culture and Civil Society (FCCS). Daily workshops in the foundation’s walled garden saw French actors, directors, costumers and set designers teach and perform alongside nearly 100 students from Kabul University’s Fine Arts Department.

Mnouchkine was in New York to oversee La Theatre du Soleil’s US premier at Lincoln Center of its six-hour epic Le dernier caravanserail, which is drawn from letters written by Afghan and Kurdish asylum seekers held in detention camps in the Pacific.

FCCS’s executive director, Dutchman Robert Klyver, sat next to Mnouchkine at the OSI panel and placed La Theatre du Soleil’s Afghan sojourn in the context of a greater struggle over the war-torn nation’s image and identity. While development and aid experts abroad puzzle over Afghanistan’s infrastructure, economy and security, few, according to Klyver, recognize the importance of a dynamic cultural life. Much of the “international community’s efforts,” he lamented, “are based on a vision of an old-fashioned, rural Afghanistan…of long-bearded, deeply conservative men with Kalashnikovs.”

Following a slide show of images depicting the ghostly shells of Kabul’s devastated stages and movie halls, Mnouchkine mournfully noted that “whenever soldiers entered Kabul, the first buildings destroyed, the first things to be shot at, were the theaters.” Her hope is that a regenerated, vibrant and cosmopolitan artistic scene would go a long way in healing many of the wounds of Afghanistan’s traumatic past.

This resurrection, as far as Mnouchkine is concerned, begins, if not ends, with masks. She and her company made a very deliberate decision to tailor their workshops exclusively around forms of comedic theater–from Italian comedia dell’arte to Japanese kabuki. Comedy, she insisted, would “bring theater as quickly as possible” to Afghanistan; its irony and satire would open “a different perspective.” Masks, elemental pieces in most forms of comic art, would allow French and Afghan actors to inhabit the Other and celebrate the “universality” of their art.

When the Afghans attending the workshops were first exposed to these masks–most inspired by La Theatre du Soleil’s foray into Balinese folk art–they were said to be struck with wonder. Mnouchkine said that her Afghan students “had never seen masks before,” but “quickly became familiar with them.” The masks helped them rediscover “a very ignored ancient memory,” for theater, Mnouchkine reminded her listeners, was “the first art mankind practiced.”

During the three weeks, “theater happened everyday.” Mnouchkine brought with her a suitcase stuffed with plays by Shakespeare and Molière, but rarely used any of them. Instead, the workshops moved from costuming lessons to often chaotic improvisations. According to Mnouchkine, the most “cathartic” moment of drama during the three weeks involved a “frenetic” improvised pantomime that ended with the ritualistic beating of a character based on a Taliban caricature. The performers were outfitted with the aid of the French Army–Mnouchkine’s only real interaction with Western soldiers–who ferried in “300 costumes and red clown noses” in a transport designed for military equipment. (With a smile, she quipped, “we need more of one than the other.”)

Satisfied with her obvious commitment to human rights, none of the audience questioned Mnouchkine’s good intentions. But some did wonder if her company’s project was just that of another kind of Western troupe in Afghanistan. Was she not simply imposing a more benign, updated version of France’s self-indulgent mission civilisatrice?

In response, Mnouchkine doggedly rebuffed such criticism: She was not bringing theater writ large, “but our theatre”; she was not imposing Western ideas, but fostering “universal ones”; the theatrical practices taught during her workshops were not European inventions but, especially with stock comedic figures like the harlequin or the pantalone, drawn from a complex, interwoven history of European-Oriental encounters. Western empires cemented fault lines between indigenous ethnic groups, while Mnouchkine forced her Afghan students to leave their Uzbek, Tajik or Pashtun identities “at the door.”

Many of her Afghan students have now formed their own theater troupe, named Aftab, the Dari word for “sun”–a clear reference to Mnouchkine’s own company. Mnouchkine congratulated Aftab for electing its own director and expressed excitement about its upcoming performances at the Kabul Theater Festival in September. A brief video spotlighted Arif, one of Aftab’s most promising talents. Disowned by his family for pursuing the arts, Arif received the French director’s unwavering support. Though theatre in Afghanistan has many obstacles, Mnouchkine applauded the actor: “He is formidable. He is the future.”

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