An interview with the Romanian film director on the need for Romania’s overcoming of national myths and for opening to the region and the wider world
Lucian Țion studied film and theater in the United States, the Netherlands, and Singapore, and has a wealth of experience as a teacher, author, and playwright. In 2019 he was part of the Drama 5 playwriting residency program coordinated by Reactor – a Place for Creative Experiments, based in Cluj-Napoca, Romania (more information at www.reactor-cluj.com). During the residency, he wrote “Steak and Cookies: an Evening with Decebalus and Trajan,” a playtext in which personal identity issues become the subject of debate for national identity, ideology, and political orientation.
Each year, Drama 5 selects five candidates for a residency in which the authors produce a play to be published online at www.liternet.ro.The original version of this interview can also be found online at Liternet.ro. This interview is realised by Şerban Pop. It was republished here with the permission of Liternet and Reactor.
Play Summary: “Steak and Cookies: an Evening with Decebalus and Trajan” is a realist drama in which what starts out as a banal dinner discussion on the topic of Romanian national identity between two couples slides into unexpected mutual aggression. The issues that are raised concern the current nationalistic discourse which obdurately insists on seeing the Romanian people and Romanian language as a direct product of an alleged osmosis between ancient Dacian tribes and the colonizing Romans in the first century AD. If we were to summarize the play in a sentence it would be: Two couples and a single common past which, instead of strengthening a 20 year-old friendship, drives a wedge between them. Aside from deeply-buried ideological convictions that rise to the surface in the style of a local rendition of “God of Carnage,” the play draws several parallels between the severe identity crisis that plagues post-socialist Romania and personal identities that appear to be as confused as the ethnogenesis of the Romanian people. (Author’s description)
Șerban Pop: Aside from Cluj, you have done extensive traveling throughout your life. Where would you rather return?
Lucian Țion: I was born in Cluj, where I graduated from “Gheorghe Șincai” high school in 1994. Shortly thereafter, I left for the US in order to continue my education by attending college there. I lived and worked in the US for eleven years; until 2005. Tired of the monotony of life in the US, I left and started teaching various subjects, theater, among others, at a high school in Cameroon, then in Hungary, Bangladesh, Egypt, and China. Currently, I am in Singapore on the last leg of completing my PhD. In my opinion, second- and third-world places are very difficult milieus to live in. The only places where one can lead a decent life are the capitals of former colonial powers, which have destroyed the rest of the world by ensuring their own material well-being, that is North America and Western Europe. Otherwise, life is similar throughout: Poverty intertwines with a race for resources, from which a fierce battle for wealth and status ensues, and is presently happening in Romania. This triggers a lack of respect towards fellow humans, and considerable malice. In Romania (and making a somewhat biased statement here), this meanness is far worse than in poorer countries such as Bangladesh.
S.P.: You have been a prolific writer throughout your life. Why do you write?
L.T.: The reasons why a writer writes are many. Sometimes I write just to vent. Other times, writing is a way of expressing what I cannot communicate in any other fashion. I am also interested in dramatic conflict and mise-en-scene, especially in playwriting, and in the manner in which the text affects the audience. That explains why I focus more on playwriting and screenwriting than on novels.
S.P.: One last question regarding your travels: In other interviews you mentioned that you perceive Romania as a “schizophrenic culture […], one that does not understand what is going on.” Where should Romania look for answers?
L.T.: Romania, just as other Eastern European, Balkan, and Central European countries—however you wish to label this region—is going through a prolonged identity crisis that has nothing to do with socialism, Communism, or the Ceaușescu era1. On the contrary, these historical facts are used as a scapegoat in order to mask our lengthy inability to contend with our lack of identity. Starting with the romantic nationalism of the 19th century (led by Eminescu)2, the country that became Romania, by way of astute lobbying done by Brătianu in Paris in 19193, is simply obsessed with the idea of becoming a state defined by differentiation from its more powerful and older neighboring powers such as Czarist Russia, Bulgaria and its imperial dreams based in medieval origins, and Austria-Hungary. In other words, in 1919 the newly-built Romania was surrounded by enemy powers which it had to keep down by any means in order to survive (see, in this respect, the 1919 incursion of the Romanian armed forces in Budapest, from where they only returned home with great difficulty, and that only at the insistence of the French and Americans).
Another piece of trivia is that Romania (which first consisted of just two regions sandwiched between the Ottoman Empire and an increasingly powerful Czarist Empire) tripled its territory with the help of its Paris friends and found itself, all of a sudden, having 30% more inhabitants, who did not speak a word of Romanian. Not to mention the fact that the interwar Romanian state (celebrated so much today) moved on to an excessively rough “Romanization” campaign affecting the non-Romanian ethnic population; the latter finding themselves labeled “Romanian” after the Paris decision, whether they resided in a Transylvania that had never been Romanian, or in a Bukovina that stopped being Romanian as early as Napoleon’s time. Finally, the much-vilified Romanian Communism was extremely advantageous for pre-existing Romanian nationalism: Isolating the state within (only slightly contracted) borders of a newly-redrawn country, the Communists’ agenda of proletarian brotherhood within the socialist camp fell apart after two decades, leaving a strengthened nationalism in its place. What is interesting is that neither the members of the Romanian Academy nor the intelligentsia ever criticized this fact. And they did so on purpose, fully knowing that the “opium” of the masses in the Carpathian Basin was nationalism and not, as other sources were stating, orthodox Christianity.
In other words, the schizophrenic identity I was mentioning is tied to this lengthy story of nationalism, which is perpetually ignored and covered up by the story of brotherhood among peoples (in the past), and as of late, our belonging to the grandiose Euro-Atlantic camp and the infallible European Union. Romania has an outstanding talent for self-deception and this could last centuries, but in the end, the truth always comes out. What a waste, trying to erase everything that we do not like and that belongs to our past: oriental influences, our status as a minor culture, Communism. These will catch up with us sooner than we will be able to catch up with the West. You are asking in which direction Romania should look? By no means to the West. I will be a little dramatic and say that if Romania is prepared for a major change, a change that could solve many of its national identity issues (which it presently is not prepared to do), it will have to look not only at its surrounding neighbors, but also at Russia and China.
S.P.: Your play effectively mixes personal history with so-called “Big History.” How do you perceive this relationship? What inspired you to look into it?
L.T.: My last play, “Steak and Cookies: an Evening with Decebalus and Trajan,” is meant to be an allegory demasking the schizophrenic identity to which I was referring. In other words, what I am trying to accomplish is an overlapping of personal identity with the national one in order to bring to the surface the dysfunctionality of both. My characters are picked out of our mundane environment, and there is nothing metaphorical or symbolic in this. On the other hand, given the characters’ vociferous stance, their “Romanianess,” and last but not least, the themes they skirt—the play is centered, for the most part, on an ideological conflict between nationalism and internationalism—the characters betray deep traumas that affect their lives in a manner that is unbeknownst to them. From here stems the interdependency between personal history and “Big History,” as you well put it. The question the play asks is how can we, the lay people who belong to a minor culture such as ours, come to terms with our own insignificance, with our self-delusions? It is true that these delusions stem from the socio-political discourse popularized within the past one hundred years, but what my characters ignore is the fact that they themselves cannot address this matter in a critical way. In the best sense of the word, the characters are subjects of a discourse which they do not know how to abandon, [but need to] in order to be able to find themselves, no matter how cliché this may sound. Hence the parallel between the two histories. You also asked me how my personal history intertwines with this “Big History.” Well, it does not; not much anyway. No matter how extensively I have traveled the world, my personal conflict focuses on the difference between my lived experience and those experiences passed down to me from Romanian dogmas. I am not saying that one is superior to the other. I simply try to differentiate the two critically.
S.P.: Why cookies and why steak?
L.T.: Do you recall the famous 70s TV sketch with Mircea Diaconu and Toma Caragiu4? I couldn’t find a better rhyme.
S.P.: Your text talks extensively about nationalism. Lately Europe has experienced a major increase in the percentage of those who support parties with nationalistic agendas. Opinions?
L.T.: As I stated in the beginning of the interview, Romania, despite the egocentrism that characterizes our discourse, is a country heavily anchored in surrounding realities. In spite of what someone defined as ‘our wish for Latinity’, we have more in common with the Slavs, the Russians, and the Bulgarians, without even mentioning the Poles or the Hungarians to whom I think you refer. These ties are stronger than those backed by our anemic chatter about Latinity. Once again, here is the clearest example through which our schizophrenia manifests itself: Instead of acknowledging our neighbors’ presence as real and the ties with them as based on a common cultural-ethnic heritage, we become as stubborn as children and look only towards mythical Rome. Whether we are Latin or not, we choose to isolate ourselves (as we have done for almost a century) from what is around us, so much so that we end up building an abstract identity, predicated on our alleged ‘membership’ in the Latin family. Such a thing not only pushes us farther away from those around us, making them treat us as enemies, but this pushes us further away from reality. And what if we are Latin? How is this helpful in the current geopolitical context? This only makes us appear pretentious; it forces us to turn down any form of dialogue with nations who are confronted with the same types of issues. And these nations also experienced imperialism (some from a dominant position, it is true) and socialism. They have it just as hard as we do. If for the Hungarians and Poles this type of inheritance manifests itself in strong nationalist political agendas, with a majority of support in their governments, this is happening because there too the historical issues are unresolved. They themselves cannot accept their status as minor cultures, and the statements made in recent years by the Polish Party of Law and Justice that Poland’s vote in the E.U. ought to weigh more, etc., only goes to prove this. Not to mention Orban: Nationalism is, afterall, a reaction to the deception of liberalism, and a reaction to political impotence to change one’s status. It is an understandable reaction, as is the one in Romania. However, it’s a long road from this reaction to our self-glorification as heirs of the Roman Empire (and our loud publicizing of this matter).However, going from this reaction here to our self-glorification as heirs of the Roman Empire, (and our loud publicizing of this matter), is a long roadway.
Thus, Romania finds itself in the same boat as Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, etc., but refuses to believe that this characterizes it, which considerably reduces its chances of ever being taken seriously. In my play, I did not want to warn against the type of blind nationalism that has conquered Eastern Europe. To me this seems cliché for a piece of art such as a theater play, no matter how intensely this is analyzedhard this is tried through postmodern and conceptual means. I do not deny the fact that this has to be done, but I am of the opinion that there is a certain abuse of the “political correctness” trend, which champions anti-nationalism and the (renewed) fight against the dangers of the East only to (re)allow the same values of the capitalist liberalism that we have grown accustomed to in the past thirty years to triumph. Let us understand that this does not only pertain to the East. This so-called anti-totalitarian reaction comes from the political-artistic West and it is nothing but a reaction of the West to its own fear of change. The West has been reaping the benefits of the Enlightenment (without ever mentioning the perfidy of colonialism) for centuries, but the possibility that change will come again from the East (as before) splits the artistic world into conservatives and avant-gardists. The interesting thing is that it was the Western avant-gardists who embraced Communist ideas during the two world wars, with a few exceptions. Nowadays a similar conflict has emerged, only this time Western conservatism (often sold as avant-gardism) has taken the artistic world in the East by storm as well. I am not denying that there are genuine artists who critically question the issue of what these waves mean, but oftentimes (and especially in Romania, where everything that originates in the West is polished in gold) they are marginalized in order to make room for the “political correctness” with which we try to catch up to the West.
S.P.: Do you consider our origins as a nation important to the people who we have become nowadays? How can they be of help in making us become better?
L.T.: I think it is very important that at a certain moment Romanian culture starts sincerely asking the question: Who are we? It is only when the answer goes beyond the Daco-Roman babble, and beyond solely belonging to the European cultural space set on the straightforward path of the European Union and capitalism, will I consider that we could finally shape a discourse with which we could accomplish something, and to which each and every one of us could contribute according to his or her ability. Until these clichés that have flooded the cultural space change, we will continue to self-delude, and turn our neighboring cultures into enemies, cultures which even now continue to extend a helping hand and invite us to dialogue.
S.P.: Considering the fact that you have extensive writing experience: What are your expectations from Drama 5? How did your residency fare in comparison to these expectations?
L.T.: Drama 5 is a very interesting playwright residency. Had we conducted this interview closer to my time of completion, I might have been a little more critical, but now, as time has passed, it seems like a very nice endeavor. Unfortunately, I only have knowledge of a few such workshops in Romania. I took part in a similar workshop in Bucharest many years ago. It was called “Secvențe” and it was geared towards film scriptwriting. I found it equally useful.
Drama 5 also proved to be a repetition of patterns that I have seen in other places. Given the fact that I have been involved in many programs for professional growth in a variety of places, I personally found it a little difficult to re-enter the “game” required by workshops of this type. However, I am convinced that this must have been super interesting for the younger playwrights.
Translated from Romanian into English by: Flavia E. Laun
1 The Communist leader that ruled Romania from 1965 to 1989, when he was shot by a firing squad.
2 Considered the national Romanian poet, Mihai Eminescu (1850-1889) was a major romantic figure who helped shape some of the nationalist thought of the country in the 19th century.
3 Ionel Brătianu (1864-1927) was a liberal Romanian politician who led the country’s delegation during the Paris Peace Conference that followed the end of WWI.
4 Iconic Romanian actors of the 1970s. The sketch in question concerns a satire about the ineffectiveness of a factory’s management.