by Marius Bogdan Tudor
[…] Interpretation is key to any historical narrative. This is because official records are both sufficient and insufficient. On the one hand, there are always more data in the records than the historian can include in his representation of a certain part of the historical process. The historian must therefore “interpret” the data by deeming some of the information irrelevant for his account and excluding them from the narrative. On the other hand, in his effort to reconstruct a certain historical period “as it was”, the historian cannot exclude from his narrative an account of an event or series of events for which there isn’t enough data to allow a plausible explanation. This means the historian has to “interpret” the material by filling the gaps in research through speculation and inference.
But on what criteria would such a selection be based? Don’t the ideological demands of the present have any say in it? Who benefits from such an interpretation? And how is this interpretation perceived by various social groups? As a follow-up on these research questions, I propose three ways of framing perspectives on the past, ways which are critically explored in certain theatrical practices in post-socialist Romania. The first of them is the so-called “usable past”, a set of historical references aimed at shaping contemporary attempts at social consensus. A “usable past” is an invention, or at least a retrospective reconstruction serving the needs of the present. For sure, perspectives on historical events have been constantly influenced by institutions and power structures which have legitimated certain official versions about the past according to certain interests (for instance, the heroization or demonization of certain historical periods in order to legitimize the dominant ideology which allowed the reproduction of those institutions). Hence, the life experience of certain social groups (women, slaves, industrial workers, immigrants, peasants etc.) have been “selected” and “interpreted” as irrelevant for historicization according to the dominant ideology of the respective period (the discipline of history serving the formation and evolution of the idea of nation-state throughout the 19th and 20th century more than any other).
The second way of relating to the past considers this instrumentalist, presentist approach (“what we do with the past”) to be insufficient. Collective memory, claim those who criticize this approach, has proven relatively immune to attempts at remaking it “from above.” Moreover, an exclusively presentist approach would explain where present interests come from. The instrumentalist approach is also not considered suitable to explain why the past functions so well as an instrument of present interests. Therefore, this second way of approaching the relation between past and present seeks to understand why the past would be usable at all. The question which the proponents of this model ask themselves is “what does the past do for us?” This type of conceptualizing doesn’t differ much from the first one, but its underlying principles are functionalist: history, a sense of the past, tradition, collective memory, all are used to define identities and instill morality in them. […]
Besides “what we do with the past” and “what the past does for us”, there is a third perspective which sees the relation past-present neither as instrumental, nor as functional. This perspective asks the question “what does the past do to us?” and aims to discuss the way certain communities and social groups refer to traumatic events in the past. The three approaches mentioned here are not mutually exclusive, but complementary […]
According to Henri Wald, ‘the theatre is faithful to its essence only if it is critical towards contemporary life. Photography, cinema and television have spared theatre the obligation of reflecting life and compensating it with stories. It can, at long last, become itself: the critical conscience of an era […].” Theatre artists in the 20th century begin using archival documents, oral history testimonies, newspaper articles or diaries to question – through performative means and from a socially engaged perspective – the politics of the present and to place ignored or neglected social issues on the public agenda.
Such a critical – and implicitly political – theatrical enterprise has gradually begun to be the hallmark of certain independent theatre practitioners in post-socialist Romania. My hypothesis is that such enterprises represent a theatre of social involvement, with an educational purpose and an assumed political dimension which is enhanced by the aesthetic aspects, even though they use different ways of understanding and performing archives. One of the main concerns of these theatre practitioners is the recovery of the critical – and implicitly political – function of the artistic act, in a local context where the idea of “art” is associated with imperviousness to everyday issues, apolitical behavior and “harmlessness” in shaping the public agenda. These productions do not necessarily represent an ethos of Romanian independent theatre as a whole, but I estimate they are a reaction to two post-socialist directions in the theatre which could hardly have occurred elsewhere.
First of all, “running away from the present” in state-funded theatres – meaning a rejection of contemporary texts and revolving around the same symbols of the classics – has facilitated the unproblematic reproduction of the institution and of the artists’ status, thus fueling the alienation of theatre practitioners who were aiming for “riskier”, more lively topics which reflected the present and the ways in which that present had come to be. Secondly, the unilateral and shallow approaches – in public discourse and institutional practice – of issues such as the social effects of privatization, migration to the West, daily life before 1990 or ethnic/social/sexual discrimination has augmented the desire of certain theatre artists to research such phenomena and subject them to debate in performances which bluntly raise socio-political concerns and question the discourse and practices which had portrayed those phenomena in one dominant way. Whether it’s a history lesson which reveals different gay lifestyles in Romania prior to 1989 (După Traian și Decebal – After Trajan and Deceballus), the various perspectives on the events which took place on June 13-15 1990 in Bucharest (Capete înfierbântate – Heated Minds), life-stories about the causes and effects of migration (Nu ne-am născut în locul potrivit – Born in the Wrong Place) or the life of mining communities in the Jiu Valley during post-socialism (SubPământ. Valea Jiului după 1989 – Underground. The Jiu Vally after 1989), these enterprises work with the past in order to challenge the common knowledge of the present, not reify elements which allow the perpetuation of the status quo. In this way, the question which informs the first mode if interpreting the past („what do we do with the past?”) becomes, by interrogating the homogeneity of the first person plural, „who does what to the past?” and additionally, „which past are we talking about?.” […]
 See Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse. Essays in Cultural Criticism, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 51.
 Using Jeffrey Olick’s analytical lens from Jeffrey Olick, Usable Pasts and the Return of the Repressed, in The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2007, p. 19-31.
 Olick, Usable…, p. 19-20.
 See Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power (London: Polity Press, 1991), esp. p. 43-66 and 107-163.
 Olick, Usable…, p. 20.
 Henri Wald, Luciditatea teatrului, in Teatrul azi #2, 1990, p. 10, quoted in Theodor-Cristian Popescu, Surplus de oameni sau surplus de idei. Pionierii mișcării independente în teatrul românesc post-1989, (Cluj: Editura Eikon, 2012), p. 176.
 See Veda Popovici, So You Think You’re Political?! Seven Notes on the Harmlessness of Art, in ArtLeaks Gazette, May 2013, p. 41-50.
 “We still believe today that being a classic of modernity […] becomes the attribute of performatively active modernism. And we forget or simply do not know it yet: in the theatrical concept of modern, the present of direct experience plays a meaningful role. But Romanian theatre nowadays is running away from this present!” Marian Popescu, Oglinda spartă. Teatrul românesc după 1989, (București: Unitext, 1997), quoted in T. C. Popescu, Surplus…, p. 35, footnote 63.