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special editor: intro Arrow vol 2 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 2 number 2, 2003

Dramaturgies of Violence in International Relations

Christine Sylvester
Special Editor

"…in the performing arts…genuine achievement is unattainable without
exhaustive training and daily practice" (Sontag, 2003: 25)

1. Dramatic achievement abounds in daily international relations. Always has; and those practised arts are often violent. Generations of statesmen, soldiers, and ordinary people exhaustively rehearse scenes of assault, flight, of children hiding in cellars, then in baggage compartments of 747s, and often in guerrilla movements that place guns in their little hands. Buildings topple. Politicians are shot. It seems that playwrights of international relations are rarely satisfied with the quality of the violence and pain in the worlds they represent. More bodies must endure heart-pounding escapes, terrifying captures, and daily training sessions. We wonder where all the dramaturgs have gone—those literary advisors to playwrights and actors, whose job it is "to examine the reality represented in the play" (Pavis, 1998: 122).

2. Theatre troupes abound too, their large fluid casts moving stealthily from one scene to another and one global capital to the next. The repertoire changes and does not change. The royalty of Europe manoeuvres, knives each other, or becomes barking mad together. Sets of city walls fall or the Wall falls or Sarajevo is shelled. The mis-en-scene can be the streets of Tel Aviv, the claustrophobic subways of Tokyo, or agit prop around farms of Zimbabwe. Various dramaturgs may try to eliminate the bomb-making sequences, but often they cannot catch up with eager casts racing to mountainous Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq with explosives in their packs. The many theatres of war grow tatty from overuse. The audiences keep coming in, sometimes with bombs under their evening dress. Watch. Write. Act. Die. A chorus sings minor-key laments. Pit orchestras play dirges in the dark.

3. The past few seasons of international theatre have placed heavy demands on the backstage boys. They drag old props out of pret-a-porter warehouses and rework them (quickly now—hurry!) for the latest revival. Once-were-Vietnam-bound B 52s go out to war today. Massive sets designed for one play ("Twin Towers of New York" or "Nightclubs of Bali") are suddenly used (up) in ways an earlier playwright (or a worried dramaturg) did not intend. Playwrights of limited talent, but with full-throttle pyrotechnic skills, fall all over each other to write spectacular death scenes, the latest vehicle for achieving fifteen minutes of fame in the world. A new generation of actors gives coarse but contemporary performances that rush past us. We are breathless. Exhaustive training and rehearsing go into these international performances. We are not talking about amateurs here: the dramatic timing and the delivery can be impeccable.

4. Pity about the scripts, though. The actors are made to recite soliloquies so badly written they would make Shakespeare’s teeth squeak. The words are made on the hoof, suggesting that dramaturgs have no time now to advise playwrights on the impossibilities of their plots or the clumsiness of the acting. Lines—war against terror, war against terror—repeat from troupe to troupe (a remarkable comeback for chant), but the plots they're attached to either lack credibility or are soppy and sentimental. Cheers, moans from the dress circle: audiences have learned their lines as designated supporters within the over-the-top dramas. (Or is it that we do the writing, egging playwrights on, encouraging them to sex it up, to play it again, George?)

5. Here, on your screen, four "dramaturgs" analyse violent and tragic performances in international relations. Asylum seekers off Australia travel endlessly in search of new homes while men of similar backgrounds contribute death to societies that let them wander in and out freely; the dramaturg is Christine Sylvester. Oppression under modes of authoritarianism is the topic of the second analysis. It features plays full of gruelling gendered interrogations of threatened people and of viewers made complicit with tortures of international relations; Vivienne Jabri analyses Pinter. A melancholy profusion of identity challenges, contentious voices, and repetitive moments of voicelessness make up one mobile life within international relations; Naeem Inayatullah remembers the scenes. At the end, a subtle play of international and other relations stars a samurai writer building up to a complex, ritual, suicidal climax that Stephen Chan evaluates.

6. These presentations compose international relations through considered ambiguities in plot lines, odd intersections of time, space, and trend, and characters that do/do not exist for many of us. Tragedy is the leading image, urge, and motif compelling the pieces. It is not the only mode or principle of dramaturgy in international relations. There is much comedic material in the world, especially in quarters of globalised pop culture. Watch David Beckham swamped by adoring girls in Asian airports after being cut dead by celebrities during his self-staged US tour. Laugh out loud at John Howard’s amateurish performance of a US toady, a role he offers up to audiences again and again (he can’t get enough lines). Alternatively, serious but not necessarily tragic drama plays out in diplomatic talks over North Korea or in daily discussions within UNIFEM.

7. Tragedy may not be everything in international relations, but it is exquisitely, seductively complex. There is a reason for this: tragedy is staged violence to oneself when delivered to others. Recognisable acts of ignorance, jealousy, and narcissism orchestrate into haunting calamities that need not have been. Lovers kill the beloved and then suffer forever. A coup d'etat gets rid of one tyrant—the people cheer!—and brings in another. One person is at the wrong place at the right time and what happens affects an entire society’s history. Antigone acts and pays and teaches long beyond her playwright’s brief (Butler, 2000: 1). Sometimes the lessons show folly: a rescue attempt kills the rescuers and those to be rescued. Sometimes the good die young and the misguided burn up in front of their mothers' eyes.

8. Audiences can feel close to such troubling actions yet safely removed from them, too. In contrast to characters that may perish, we live; but we feel maudlin, fragile. The more intense the dramaturgies of tragedy the more the fullness of fear, pleasure, entertainment, and sorrow. Schadenfreude plus empathy plus issues of ethics: Good show! The applause can be explicit. Dread of the consequences that can attend passionate acts is more implicit and ongoing. Should there be a lapse in memory, should the tragic images cloud over, endless texts, monuments, and chat sites proliferate remembrance.

9. Although we remember the complex art of tragic dramaturgy from our school days with "the" classics, entering fields of International Relations (IR) usually meant leaving the literary and its dramaturgical modes of analysis behind. Those became someone else’s explicit scholarly turfs rather than ours. Of course, there have been exceptions, ranging from recent dramaturgical possibilities sighted in the prisoner's dilemma (Alker, 2003) to cameos on peace, democracy and comic narrative (Odysseos, 2001). Earlier on, James Rosenau (1993) staged a drama of international relations with a cast (James Der Derian, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Steve Smith, Christine Sylvester) representing different voices of IR brought into a dramatic dialogue. Script one moment, life narrative another.

10. Repeatedly, though, the field has used dramaturgical language out of context by referring to the various entities it studies as "actors." That type of borrowing persists in the tendency to write of "dramatic" suicide bombings, a "cast" of refugees, cities as "props;" or we pronounce certain types of events as "surreal" without linking that term to the Surrealist movement in the arts (Sylvester, forthcoming; 2002). Such throw away attempts to jazz up stodgy monologues gesture to a certain je ne sais quoi dynamic that the usual methods and language of International Relations cannot capture. Opportunities to make serious corrective turns towards dramaturgical analysis, however, can go ungrapsed. One example is the trend to explore culture in international relations in ways that can sideline visual, literary, and/or performing arts—despite criss-crosses of ethnic violence and fictional slaughters, glittering opening nights and the bright lights of cruise missiles hitting Arab targets, queues to get into a West End theatre and queues to get out of communal theatres of war. Violence in international relations might make sense within usual principles of International Relations, but the ongoing tragedy of international relations does not. Is that why Zaki Laidi (1998) claims that today's world has power but no meaning?

11. As part of re-tooling efforts in the field, no less than in the larger globalised spaces of the world, we might analyse dramas of the past and present as dramaturgs. Ask a novelist why this is a good idea and Jeanette Winterson (2003) smartly says: "While science polices its objectivity, art has none. Art is a dialogue, sometimes a shouting match, always an exchange… Art is the original interactive pursuit." (2003) Tragedy is one of our earliest and most persistent artistic modes of interactive relations international. It highlights the recurrent rough bits of life and the strategies people use to live through, subvert, ruin and improve those exchanges, dialogues, and shouting matches that we call international politics.

12. As the dramas of international relations unfold, repeat, and fly about, dramaturgs will query the plays in and through artistic motifs. We will throw critiques and questions at playwrights, actors, choruses, theatre directors, audiences, and critics: Can the scripts be improved? Can the dramaturgical repertoires and acting methods broaden? Is it possible to update some of the bleak old theatres? And, as a matter of some urgency, can someone please get more light down into the pits?

Christine Sylvester is a Professor at the Institute of Social Studies and a Leverhulme Fellow at the University of London SOAS (from November 2003 until August 2004). Among her writings are Feminist International Relations: An Unfinished Journey (Cambridge University Press, 2002), Feminist Theory and International Relations in a Postmodern Era (Cambridge University Press, 1994), Producing Women and Progress in Zimbabwe: Narratives of Identity and Work in the 1980s (Heinemann, 2000), and Zimbabwe: The Terrain of Contradictory Development (Westview, 1991). Email:


Alker, Hayward (2003), draft paper, "On Curricular Perestroika: Seven Principles of
Methodological Pluralism, " February 9.

Butler, Judith (2003), Antigone's Claim: Kinship between Life and Death, Welleck
Library Lecture
(New York: Columbia University Press).

Laidi, Zaki (1998), A World Without Meaning: The Crisis of Meaning in
International Relations,
trans. June Burnham and Jenny Coulon (London: Routledge, 1998).

Odysseos, Louiza (2001), "Laughing Matters: Peace, Democracy and the Challenge
of the Comic Narrative," Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 30, 3, 2001:709-732.

Pavis, Patricia (1998), Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis,
trans. Christine Shantz (Toronto: University of Toronto Press).

Rosenau, James (1993), Global Voices: Dialogues in International Relations
(Boulder: Westview Press).

Sontag, Susan (2003), Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Hamish Hamilton

Sylvester, Christine (forthcoming), "Postmodern Feminist Methodology and
International Relations: Learning from the Arts," Austrian Journal of Political Science, special issue on feminist international relations.

Sylvester, Christine (2002), Feminist International Relations: An Unfinished Journey
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Winterson, Jeanette (2003), "Wendy Steiner : The Trouble With Beauty," excerpt of book review published in The Times (London, no date), reprinted at Jeanette Winterson: The Official Site, Accessed September 7 2003. URL:

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