Academic journal article Liminalities

I Was Hamlet-Cunning Scenes and Family Albums

Academic journal article Liminalities

I Was Hamlet-Cunning Scenes and Family Albums

Article excerpt

(In Memory of My Father, 1936-2010)


In 1982 and 1983, while studying at the University of Ljubljana's theatre academy, I attended two events performed by the art and music group Laibach.1 More than 30 years later I would like to revisit this experience to explain how I have come to understand what I witnessed as a contemporary example of the "mousetrap"-the "cunning scene" invented by Shakespeare and enacted by his character Hamlet in the early 17th century play of the same title.2

The trick of challenging and undoing the hidden theatre of political power and intrigues through the art of theatre-which is how we, rather romantically, interpreted the "mousetrap" motif as students-resurfaced in my contemporary social and political consciousness when during the 1980s Yugoslavia's own version of socialism (self-managed socialism) was falling apart. Seeing Laibach's performance was empowering for my generation, one still in our early twenties at the time. If we could challenge the dominant ideology of a socialist state that-so we felt-oppressed us with its militaristic rhetoric and behavior we might yet have a chance. Various types of real socialist states in Eastern Europe built on the Soviet model of the USSR-the mother country that once represented a monumental alternative to imperialism and capitalism as epitomized by the 1917 proletarian revolution-began to deteriorate between 1965 and 1985. Shortly thereafter, the majority of the real socialist states in Europe, in something of a rather unexpected development, collapsed.

What fascinated me about the early Laibach performances I attended in the early 1980s was not so much the "political unconscious" of the late socialist Yugoslavia that they exposed, but the fact that they constituted a play-within-aplay (a mousetrap), which managed to completely elude the very form and idea of the canonic European theatre with which Shakespeare and Hamlet are usually associated-and which I was in the process of embracing as a professional dramaturge. As a consequence of the experience and ensuing contemplation these two performances made me question not only the authority of the political system of the socialist country in which I was born (and which Laibach's "cunning scenes" presumably critiqued), but also the institutionalized canonic European theater whose conventions I was learning to master.

Following a chain of events and upheavals that began in the 1980s, socialist Yugoslavia fell apart amidst a particularly violent war. By 1991, my country of birth-Yugoslavia-was gone. I never pursued my career in the institutional / national theatre, but instead took part in its deconstruction as a member of an art collective called NSK. In the two-part essay that follows, I reflect upon certain dramaturgical themes connecting the historic context and structure of Shakespeare's play Hamlet (Part I) and the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe, as viewed through the decline of drama theatre as a literary genre and a canonic European art form (Part II). In the first part I discuss the play-within-a-play as an early modern dramaturgical or narrative "device"-referred to as the "mousetrap" in Hamlet but used also by Thomas More in Utopia and by Shakespeare and other authors elsewhere-and its relation to the historical rise of the capitalist mode of production in late 16th and early 17th century England. In the second part I examine the transformations of this "device" in modern and contemporary dramaturgy and performance art-from Bertolt Brecht to Samuel Beckett to Hainer Müller to Laibach-in close relation to the historic disintegration of the Marxist-Communist alternative and the current world order, where the capitalist mode of production is never very far from the neoliberal dogma of TINA (There Is No Alternative).

Part I.

1. Play Within a Play

The play's the thing/Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king. (WS, Hamlet)

In Capital Vol. …

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