We can’t be ourselves except in opposition. I came by this quote, by Alsatian playwright Gustave Stoskopf, when I was researching Arnika, two years ago. I was looking for words to put into the mouth of one of the characters, a young Alsatian haunted by his experiences as a forced conscript on the Russian front of WWII. The character is a highly intelligent, would-have-been intellectual, fond of quoting philosophers and artists as he makes his cynical, world-weary observations on the events unfolding around him. The quote would serve as a perfect precursor to one of this character’s meditations on the powerful, isolating bonds that can grow in a band of soldiers, sometimes with terrible consequences. The character disagrees with Stoskopf; no, he argues, when we define ourselves by that which is other, when we give ourselves over to the immutable internal logic of the group, we are actually in danger of losing ourselves. Tasked with writing this blog for Marchland, Stoskopf’s words immediately sprang to mind; because Marchland has its origins in our experience as British theatre makers in Alsace, and how our own ideas of identity have been challenged by living and working in a European border region.
From the apartment in Strasbourg where Théâtre Volière came into being, it’s a fifteen minute walk to Germany. A footbridge across the Rhine, constructed ten years ago and effectively making parks on the French and German banks into one park, have transformed what was once a bit of a slog through a busy port and industrial quarter into a pleasant stroll. People come and go as if the border never existed, and yet, though I’ve done the walk dozens of times, as soon as I set foot on the German side, things feel very different. I immediately feel as if I’m in the presence of an other. There’s much that’s familiar – it’s still Europe, of course – but enough, beyond the obvious change of language, that isn’t. Architecture, food, clothes, the people’s general appearance and behaviour, all, to a lesser or greater extent, make me feel disorientated, a little lonely. Where would I feel orientated? Where would I not feel alone? These are the questions the sensation always stirs in me.
Over the years we’ve spent working in Alsace, we’ve noticed how fiercely the people on both sides of the border, in Alsace and the Black Forest, guard their respective traditions, particularly in rural communities. And how similar many of these traditions are. We’ve been struck by the force of regionialist, and even nationalist, feeling in the banlieues and villages. And how many of those same places are staunch supporters of the European Union. We’ve seen how the cultural centre in our own quarter of Strasbourg is packed for performances of both traditional dance and experimental physical theatre or African drumming, with much the same members of the audience. We wondered if Europe’s other border regions shared this marriage of seemingly paradoxical traits; a cultural conservatism hitched to an often unacknowledged cross-cultural fertilisation. We wanted to see if exposure to the culture of other marchlands would also prompt us to ask, where would I feel orientated? Where would I not feel alone?
We can’t be ourselves except in opposition. Stoskopf was referring to the Alsatian character, formed by a long history of annexations, occupations and re-patriations visited on Alsace by powerful neighbouring states. He was expressing regret and frustration. He wanted the Alsatians to feel secure and confident in their culture. To define themselves by what they are, not by what they are not. His words encapsulate, for me, the great challenge we all face both as cultures and individuals; how to be rooted yet outward-looking, at once inclusive and unique, how to balance the rights of the individual with the needs of the group. All too often, this challenge has given rise to monstrous, simplistic, binary responses – ones that played out so disastrously in the 20th C, and must not be allowed to do so in our own.