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Godot Comes to Sarajevo

Nothing to be done.”
Nista ne moze da se uradi.”
—opening line of Waiting for Godot


I went to Sarajevo in mid-July to stage a production of Waiting for Godot not so much because I’d always wanted to direct Beckett’s play (although I had), as because it gave me a practical reason to return to Sarajevo and stay for a month or more. I had spent two weeks there in April, and had come to care intensely about the battered city and what it stands for; some of its citizens had become friends. But I couldn’t again be just a witness: that is, meet and visit, tremble with fear, feel brave, feel depressed, have heart-breaking conversations, grow ever more indignant, lose weight. If I went back, it would be to pitch in and do something.

No longer can a writer consider that the imperative task is to bring the news to the outside world. The news is out. Plenty of excellent foreign journalists (most of them in favor of intervention, as am I) have been reporting the lies and the slaughter since the beginning of the siege, while the decision of the western European powers and the United States not to intervene remains firm, thereby giving the victory to Serb fascism. I was not under the illusion that going to Sarajevo to direct a play would make me useful in the way I could be if I were a doctor or a water systems engineer. It would be a small contribution. But it was the only one of the three things I do—write, make films, and direct in the theater—which yields something that would exist only in Sarajevo, that would be made and consumed there.

Among the people I’d met in April was a young Sarajevo-born theater director, Haris Pasovic, who had left the city after he finished school and made his considerable reputation working mainly in Serbia. When the Serbs started the war in April 1992, Pasovic went abroad, but in the fall, while working on a spectacle called Sarajevo in Antwerp, he decided that he could no longer remain in safe exile, and at the end of the year managed to crawl back past UN patrols and under Serb gunfire into the freezing, besieged city. Pasovic invited me to see his Grad (“City”)—a collage, with music, of declamations, partly drawn from texts by Constantine Cavafy, Zbigniew Herbert, and Sylvia Plath, using a dozen actors—which he had put together in eight days. Now he was preparing a far more ambitious production, Euripides’ Alcestis, after which one of his students (Pasovic teaches at the still-functioning Academy of Drama) would be directing Sophocles’ Ajax. Realizing suddenly that I was talking to a producer as well as to a director, I asked Pasovic if he would be interested in my coming back in a few months to direct a play.

Of course,” he said.

Before I could add, “Then let me think for a while about what I might want to do,” he went on, “What play will you do?” And bravado, following the impulsiveness of my proposal, suggested to me in an instant what I might not have seen had I taken longer to reflect: there was one obvious play for me to direct. Beckett’s play, written over forty years ago, seems written for, and about, Sarajevo.

Having often been asked since my return from Sarajevo if I worked with professional actors, I’ve come to understand that many people find it surprising that theater goes on at all in the besieged city. In fact, of the five theaters in Sarajevo before the war, two are still, sporadically, in use: Chamber Theater 55 (Kamerni Teater 55), where in April I’d seen a charmless production of Hair as well as Pasovic’s Grad; and the Youth Theater (Pozoriste Mladih), where I decided to stage Godot. These are both small houses. The large house, closed since the beginning of the war, is the National Theater, which presented opera and the Sarajevo Ballet as well as plays. In front of the handsome ochre building (only lightly damaged by shelling), there is still a poster from early April 1992 announcing a new production of Rigoletto, which never opened. Most of the singers and musicians and ballet dancers left the city to seek work abroad soon after the Serbs attacked, but many of the most talented actors stayed, and want nothing more than to work.

Images of today’s shattered city must make it hard to grasp that Sarajevo was once an extremely lively and attractive provincial capital, with a cultural life comparable to that of other middle-sized old European cities, including an audience for theater. Theater in Sarajevo, as elsewhere in Central Europe, was largely repertory: masterpieces from the past and the most admired twentieth-century plays. Just as good actors still live in Sarajevo, so do members of this cultivated audience. The difference is that actors and spectators alike can be murdered or maimed by a sniper’s bullet or a mortar shell on their way to and from the theater; but then, that can happen to people in Sarajevo in their living rooms, while they sleep in their bedrooms, or fetch something from their kitchens, or go out their front doors.

But isn’t this play rather pessimistic, I’ve been asked. Meaning, wasn’t it depressing for an audience in Sarajevo; meaning, wasn’t it pretentious or insensitive to stage Godot there?—as if the representation of despair were redundant when people really are in despair; as if what people want to see in such a situation would be, say, The Odd Couple. But it’s not true that what everyone in Sarajevo wants is entertainment that offers them an escape from their own reality. In Sarajevo, as anywhere else, there are more than a few people who feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art. This is not to say that people in Sarajevo don’t miss being merely entertained. The dramaturge of the National Theater, who began sitting in on the rehearsals of Godot after the first week, and who had studied at Columbia University, asked me before I left to bring some copies of Vogue and Vanity Fair when I return later this month, so she could be reminded of all the things that had gone out of her life. Certainly there are more Sarajevans who would rather see a Harrison Ford movie or attend a Guns n’ Roses concert than watch Waiting for Godot. That was true before the war, too. It is, if anything, a little less true now.

And if one considers what plays were produced in Sarajevo before the siege began—as opposed to the movies shown, almost entirely the big Hollywood successes (the small cinémathèque was on the verge of closing just before the war, for lack of an audience, I was told)—there was nothing odd or gloomy for the Sarajevan audience in the choice of Waiting for Godot. The other productions currently in rehearsal or performance in Sarajevo are Alcestis (about the inevitability of death and the meaning of sacrifice); Ajax (about a warrior’s madness and suicide); and In Agony, the first play of the Croatian Miroslav Krleza, who is, with the Bosnian Ivo Andric, one of the two internationally celebrated writers of the first half of the century from former Yugoslavia (the play’s title speaks for itself). Compared with these, Waiting for Godot may have been the “lightest” entertainment of all.

Indeed, the question is not why there is any cultural activity in Sarajevo now after seventeen months of siege, but why there isn’t more. Outside a boarded-up movie theater next to the Chamber Theater is a sun-bleached poster for The Silence of the Lambs with a diagonal strip across it that says DANAS (today), which was April 6, 1992, the day movie-going stopped. Since the war began, all of the movie theaters in Sarajevo have stayed shut, even if not all have been severely damaged by shelling. A building in which people gather so predictably would be too tempting a target for the Serb guns; anyway, there is no electricity to run a projector. There are no concerts, except for those given by a lone string quartet that rehearses every morning and performs very occasionally in a small room seating forty people, which also doubles as an art gallery. (It’s in the same building on Marshal Tito Street that houses the Chamber Theater.) There is only one active space for painting and photography—the Obala Gallery, whose exhibits sometimes stay up only one day and never more than a week.

No one I talked to in Sarajevo disputes the sparseness of cultural life in this city where, after all, between 300,000 and 400,000 inhabitants still live. The majority of the city’s intellectuals and creative people, including most of the faculty of the University of Sarajevo, fled at the beginning of the war, before the city was completely encircled. Besides, many Sarajevans are reluctant to leave their apartments except when it is absolutely necessary, to collect water and their UNHCR rations; though no one is safe anywhere, they have more to fear when they are in the street. And beyond fear, there is depression—most Sarajevans are very depressed—which produces lethargy, exhaustion, apathy.

Moreover, Belgrade was the cultural capital of former Yugoslavia, and I have the impression that in Sarajevo the visual arts were derivative; that ballet, opera, and musical life were routine. Only film and theater were distinguished, so it is not surprising that these continue in Sarajevo under siege. A film production company, SAGA, makes both documentary and fiction films, and there are the two functioning theaters.

In fact, the audience for theater expects to see a play like Waiting for Godot. What my production of Godot signifies to them, apart from the fact that an eccentric American writer and part-time director volunteered to work in the theater as an expression of solidarity with the city (a fact inflated by the local press and radio as evidence that the rest of the world “does care”—when I knew, to my indignation and shame, that I represented nobody but myself), is that this is a great European play and that they are members of European culture. For all their attachment to American popular culture, which is as intense here as anywhere else, it is the high culture of Europe that represents for them their ideal, their passport to a European identity. People had told me again and again on my earlier visit in April: We’re part of Europe. We’re the people in former Yugoslavia who stand for European values: secularism, religious tolerance, and multi-ethnicity. How can the rest of Europe let this happen to us? When I replied that Europe is and always has been as much a place of barbarism as a place of civilization, they didn’t want to hear. Now, a few months later, no one would dispute such a statement.

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