Belarus and Its Metaphors

wrote Aristotle, “consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something
else.” Intrinsic to our thoughts and how we organize the perceptions that
compose the stories of our lives, we describe the people, places, and subjects
in our world through metaphor and analogy, simile and symbol.

But are
these images accurate portrayals of the world around us? Do we sometimes
embellish, like the artist, and create subjective paintings instead of
documentary photographs? What is the interplay between reality and imagination?

how we tell stories, in addition to the story itself, is a recurring feature of
our modern times. For example, writers like Susan Sontag investigates the lens
through which we experience disease and terminal illness, and how such language
can victimize those afflicted. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger highlights some
of the contextual frameworks informing our perception of visual art, revealing
hidden ideologies. Critics like Camille Paglia, Michel Foucault, and Eve
Sedgwick rigorously re-examine many of our seemingly familiar literary texts,
cultural icons, and social phenomenon–from Madonna and Robert Mapplethorpe to
the literature of Hawthorne, Melville, and Oscar Wilde. Such insights reveal
just as much about us, as it does about the thing itself.

For the
artist and the writer, metaphors are one of the defining characteristics of
their work, regardless of genre. Some set out to create worlds which are
obviously fictitious, some attempt to be rigorous in their realism. A few
purposefully create imaginary places resembling their “real” counterparts,
challenging our ability to distinguish fact from fabrication. William Faulkner
́s “little postage stamp” of Yoknapatawpha County evokes rural
Mississippi, and Garrison Keillor ́s Lake Wobegon resembles a certain kind of
Minnesota; but neither will ever be found in North America. While not real,
this artistic geography sometimes can affect us in more compelling ways than
actual places.

Perhaps the
“reality” of a place does not matter, or is not of sole importance. Maybe
imaginary places can have tangible and valuable benefits in “real life”. Italo
Calvino ́s famous book Invisible Cities, while describing imaginary places
visited by Marco Polo, also inspires architects with fresh approaches to
contemporary urban theory. Separate from its actual geographic location in
Turkey, the events depicted in Homer ́s Iliad occupy a firm and distinct place
within our collective imagination.

In this
sense, the Republic of Belarus occupies an unusual territory. While
geographically landlocked by Russia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and the
Ukraine, many Europeans fail to locate Belarus on a map. Yet, as “the last
dictatorship of Europe,” its presence is distinctly known across international
borders. It has the strange distinction of being both widely known in terms of
metaphor, yet elusive in terms of its reality through direct knowledge. For
most of the world,

is a kind of Troy–existing both as fact as well as metaphor.

journalism is highly restricted in Lukashenko ́s Belarus today. When reports do
emerge to international news outlets, the stories can often be baffling, even
surreal in their narrative. Didn ́t the KGB end with the collapse of the Soviet
Union? An invasion by 800 teddy-bears with parachutes? Police in Minsk
tear-gassing protesters for clapping? News writing about Belarus depicts a
strange world, challenging our assumptions about contemporary Europe. We crave
a harmonious story which depicts a continent unified in freedom and democracy,
and grow uneasy with the dark and complex metaphors Belarus screams at us. Too
often, people simply stop listening; the truth is too painful, and too inconvenient.

Like the
“dictator novels” of Latin America which challenged the established (dis)order,
the plays and performances by the Belarus Free Theatre resist their government
́s attempts at censorsing and sanitizing contemporary art. Lead by Nicolai Khalezin
and Natalya Koliada, their Theatre aims to depict a more “real” Belarus through
dramatic storytelling and metaphor–a counterpoint to the peaceful narratives
told by Lukashenko authoritarian regime. The actors and the audiences who watch
them perform have frequently been arrested, and Belarus Free Theatre have been
in exile since 2011. They continue to write and perform their work around the
world, oftentimes inspiring international audiences into greater awareness
about the restrictions on freedom in today ́s Belarus.

Belarusian Dream Theater project hopes to stand in solidarity with artists like
Nicolai and Natalya, using the tools of metaphor and story to support freedom
of expression in Belarus much like journalists who use the veracity of concrete
facts. On 25 March 2014, seventeen partner-theatres across Europe, the United
States, and Australia will present–simultaneously –new plays about Belarus by
writers from Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States,
Australia, New Zealand, and Belarus itself. Playwrights are donating their
works free of any royalty, and staged by actors and directors working for free.
Seeking to place Belarus and its metaphors centerstage, the participating
international artists of Belarusian Dream Theater consciously planned the
project to occur on 25 March–Belarus ́ Freedom Day.

The 25
short plays comprising the project run the gamut of style, subject matter,
tone, and aesthetic. There are political dramas, like “Under Protest” by David
L. Williams and Aurin Squire ́s “Article 119-1”; as well as intimate family
dramas such as Vivienne Glance ́s “Draniki” and “In The Belarusian Kitchen” by
Nikolay Rudkovski. The humor in Rex McGregor ́s “Welcome to Belarus” is
absurdist, while “No One Gives a Clap” by Jake Rosenberg is straight-up comedy.
There ́s the abstract movement-theater of Laura Lynn MacDonald ́s “en dangerous
(part I and part II)”; “Battle in Babruysk” by Diane Rao Harman is a fable; and
“The Puppet of White Farm” is described as an 
́impossible musical, ́ by its author Richard Pettifer.

Some of the
plays in Belarusian Dream Theater stretch the bounds of imagination, portraying
private hopes and dreams, or enacting innermost fears too terrible to
contemplate. These stories push, poke, jab, and jolt. While in some cases a
dramatization of known facts within or about Belarus, these stories are not
bound by place or time, by the topography of facts. Entering a theater is
traveling within the realm of metaphor, where 2 + 2 does not always equal 4.
Sometimes we hunger more for Homer ́s poetry about the Trojan War, instead of
the historical account of the fall of Troy, as believeable characters move us
more often than statistical facts. Sometimes our imagination is the only way we
can comprehend a place so contradictory, so complicated, and so
uncompromisingly real as Belarus.

McCall, an American theater artist, conceived and produced the Belarusian Dream
Theater project. He is the Manager of the Cummins Theatre (Western Australia),
and the Artistic Director of Ensemble Free Theater Norway.

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