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Theater, Memory, and an Istanbul Reunion

For graduates of Swarthmore College’s Department of Theater, Stephen Lang Professor of Performing Arts Allen Kuharski is the consummate mentor. As chair of the Department of Theater since 1997, Allen has advised countless undergraduates, overseeing students’ transition into careers in a variety of academic disciplines, as well as in professional theater, performance, and film.

What is unique about Allen’s mentorship, however, is that he views it as a long-term relationship, whether embodied in an email alerting graduates to a theater festival that would be of interest, or making sure that they drop by Swarthmore during their journeys through the Philadelphia area. Since our own graduations from the Theater Department in 2003, we have found ourselves appreciating this mentorship, and recognizing the many ways that it has prepared us for the varied stages of our professional as well as personal lives.

What a lovely coincidence it was for us, then, to be able to celebrate his mentorship, his scholarship, and his 60th birthday in Istanbul in May 2018. The occasion was a panel held at Boğaziçi University and entitled “Ruptures and Commemorations: Theatre and Memory in Poland and Turkey,” which focused on the ways that theater and performance artists have responded to the veritable explosion of memory that has characterized public cultures in Poland and Turkey in the new millennium.

In his paper entitled “Defenestration: The Interrupted Performances of Mickiewicz’s Forefather’s Eve,” based on his recent research as a Fulbright scholar in Warsaw, Allen argued that the history of intermittent censorship and resistance that has marked the performance of the classic Polish Romantic play Forefather’s Eve (known as Dziady in Polish) is a unique context through which to consider Poland’s political upheavals in the 20th and 21st centuries.

He was joined by Saygun Gökarıksel from Boğaziçi University’s Department of Sociology, whose “The Two Bodies of the Accused and the Politics of History in Postsocialist Poland” examined how the recent opening of Communist-era Secret Service archives and its accompanying culture of public accusation was being reframed through performance.

Finally, Emine’s “Palimpsests of Violence: Theatre and Gentrification in Istanbul,” looked at how the city’s alternative theaters have been chronicling histories of urban dispossession and political violence, even as they have negotiated their own relationship to the city’s gentrification. And Elizabeth, whose own research examines censorship and cultural production in contemporary Turkey, moderated the panel.

Why talk about Poland in Turkey, and why now? Indeed, over the course of our Istanbul meeting, we were struck by the parallel turns to populist authoritarianism in both states, as well as the ways that historical memory has been at stake in how recent political actors have framed their claims to national leadership.

During a visit to the Adam Mickiewicz Museum in Istanbul, which was built on the foundations of the small building where the Polish poet briefly resided until his death in 1855, we were struck by the political allegiances that connected the histories of these two nations: Mickiewicz had arrived in Constantinople in fall 1855, to rally a group of Jewish and Cossack fighters who he hoped would battle the Russian Empire in the Crimean War. Within months he succumbed to cholera, concluding a career rife with both political and artistic drama.

Upon returning to Warsaw in May, Allen was immediately confronted with posters for a Polish cabaret performance celebrating the life of Józef Bem, a 19th-century Polish convert to Islam who settled in Ottoman Aleppo, and whose memory now appears to be resuscitated for an alternative view of Polish history. In many ways, our Istanbul panel was a reminder of theater’s ability to pose the big questions: How, when, and by whom is history staged, both literally and figuratively, for public consumption? What might a focus on theatrical representation reveal about the workings of political power?

As we ponder our undergraduate training as actors, directors and dramaturges at the Department of Theater, we are not surprised to realize that our graduating class of theater majors and minors in 2003 ended up harboring a large group of Ph.D.s:

Swarthmore’s Department of Theater strongly shaped the way we think about the past as well as the present, and we continue to cherish the personal and academic connections that made our recent reunion possible.