Aeschylus The Afrophobe?
A row over alleged racism and attacks on freedom of expression has erupted in France after students forced the Sorbonne to cancel a performance of a Greek tragedy featuring actors using black masks, claiming it was “Afrophobic, colonialist and racist”.
Protesters picketed the prestigious Paris university, stopping actors from entering the theatre and accusing them of using blackface for the play The Suppliants by Aeschylus.
A photograph on the Sorbonne’s website publicising the event showed one of the cast in dark makeup. Protesters said actors had blacked up in last year’s performances of the work, which features in the university’s annual ancient Greek theatre festival.
Here’s that photo:
In a joint statement Frédérique Vidal, the higher education and research minister, and Franck Riester, the culture minister, expressed their “stupefaction”. They said preventing the performance was “an unprecedented attack on freedom of expression and creation in a university, which is contrary to all academic values and republican principles”.
The Sorbonne said the play recounted the story of the Greek Argives and the Danaids – the 50 daughters of Danaus from Egypt – and was to be performed strictly according to ancient theatre practices “with actors wearing white masks and black masks as was done at the time”.
“Stopping by force and insulting the cast of a piece of theatre is a very serious and totally unjustified attack on artistic freedom,” it wrote in a statement.
It added that accusing the production of “racism or racialism” showed “a complete lack of understanding”. “Liberty, diversity, creativity, the rigour and openness are founding values of the Sorbonne University, which is profoundly humanist and anti-racist,” it wrote.
Yes, but notice: the radicals won that night. The play did not go on. The Sorbonne says it only postponed the play, that it will re-stage it.
Here’s a link to raw video of these large men intimidating theatergoers and not allowing them to pass. Below, a screenshot of this happening. Where were the police? Why were they not called? Thesethugs preventing the public from going to see a performance of an ancient Greek play should have been arrested. They interfered with the right of those theatergoers, as citizens of a free country, and refused to allow them to partake of their cultural patrimony?
UPDATE: Reader DB, who lives in Paris, writes:
Blackface, as an offense received, is rooted in American culture and history. It’s appearance in France is episodic and never took root as a cultural practice or artifact (the proverbial exception underlining the rule, for instance, the Dunkerque carnaval). There is no French word or equivalent term for it. People say “blackface” when talking about it in France and have to explain it, whereas in the US everybody knows what it is and what its connotations are meant to communicate.
The intruders instigating this incident last Monday night justify their actions by making reference to a cultural taboo whose origins are extraneous to the French context. They base their actions on a norm foreign to France in order to shut down a cultural practice taking place in France.
The gesture of the intruders actually makes sense when you look at it from the unitary context of the French state: one language, one culture. Formally, there should be a unified culture but the reality is that of a fragmented society divided into many groups according to class, territory, religion and ethnic origin. Vis-à-vis the French law and state, these different strata and communities all exist in one unified cultural matrix, in one world (and thankfully so). The reality is quite different, they exist in parallel universes, but that is still no reason to upset the civil peace.
But in these times of derelict cultural elites, the Monday-night intruders took it upon themselves to impose their version of the norm that concerns facial make-up. In very French fashion, the intruders decided there can be only one norm.
The Suppliants may be tragedy, but the incident itself is not itself without some farcical irony. It will be lost on few that an evening of French high culture in the heart of the Latin Quarter was shut down by the illegal imposition of American cultural norms. Think of it as the night BLM came to the Sorbonne. The presumed ringleader, despite making constant references to Africa and France, is proof positive of the global appeal of American culture, version 2019. Here is a person who has adopted a global luxury brand-name as his stage name when practicing that quintessential American art of hip-hop and has deftly exploited American-made technology, Youtube, to relay his American-inspired ideology, identity politics.
French authorities and denizens of French high culture can condemn all they want – they’re fighting last year’s battle.
What’s the use of enforcing blackface norms in immigrant communities where one is preaching to the choir? Or of enforcing pronoun norms within the LGBT community? The point of identity politics, as opposed to an idealized multiculturalism, is not to defend one’s norms but rather to have others adopt one’s own norms. The goal of the identitarian is to have others, really truly Others, adopt his norms.
Still, identity politics can’t escape inherent internal tensions: identitarians need a fragmented society and culture to grow and thrive, but at the same time, they need a united culture for them to exercise their power. In a country like France with its tradition of State-imposed cultural homogeneity, there can be only one king of the hill, only one cultural norm. This promises to be a very nasty struggle.
On the bright side, never has classical culture had so much publicity. I doubt that most critics of the Monday-night intruders have ever read let alone seen Aeschylus’s plays. But it’s still quite something to see so many people stress that ancient Greece is a part of French heritage and culture.