Over the past decade, playwright David Edgar has become one of the region’s most frequently produced British playwrights. Only Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard come to mind as having had more shows mounted in that period—and of the three, Edgar’s the only one to have actually come around for a visit.
Years before PlayMakers Rep’s abridged 2009 version of Edgar’s two-part adaptation of
NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, Raleigh’s Burning Coal Theatre introduced us to the playwright in its audacious first-season production of PENTECOST. In that gripping political drama, the meaning of an ancient fresco in an abandoned Eastern European church becomes intertwined with the fate of a group of refugees who take several art historians and the artwork itself hostage in their desperate bid for freedom.
Following a 2008 production of THE PRISONER’S DILEMMA, this week Burning Coal completes what Edgar calls his Iron Curtain Trilogy by presenting the American premiere of the first play in the series, THE SHAPE OF THE TABLE, a 1998 work based on the fall of Communist governments in several Soviet-bloc countries of the time. (Edgar will speak about his works during a talkback after its opening night performance on Thursday, Apr. 7.)
The Shape of the Table takes us into the rooms where an Eastern European country’s present government and its opposition ultimately decide whether an historic transfer of power will be a monument to peace or an all but unimaginable bloodbath. Given present developments in Northern Africa and the Middle East, the issues in Edgar’s work remain decidedly of the moment.
We spoke with him at his home by phone on Sunday, April 3.

INDEPENDENT: As I look across the works that make up your Iron Curtain Trilogy, I’m struck repeatedly by the primacy of language. The specific words are so crucial in the negotiations between the leaders of the protest movement and the rulers of the composite Soviet-bloc country depicted in The Shape of the Table.
In my review of
The Prisoner’s Dilemma I noted as well the difficulty of building a bridge of words while you’re standing on it at the same time, as the UN representative in that play strives to do with violent ethnic faction leaders in a country similar to the post-liberation Czech Republic.
In both cases, they’re venturing out into untested territory, almost solely on the strength of the discourse they are trying to create—one that tries to forge a common understanding.

I think that’s true, and it’s a good observation. Of course, the plays are obviously different in some ways. In The Shape of the Table we imagine that all characters are speaking the same language. It isn’t English, but it is the common language of fictional country. What we hear has the same relationship to what they’re saying that our listening to a translation of Chekhov play would have.
On the other hand, in [Pentecost and The Prisoner’s Dilemma], they don’t all speak the same language. The people are saying what they’d be saying if you simply walked into the room; the different languages are what you’d hear.
I bring that up because all three plays are about translation. Even The Shape of the Table, in the sense that I was fascinated by the nature of this Communist language that everybody would have grown up understanding and speaking, whether they were Communists or dissidents.
Not the literal language, in the sense of French or German, of course. But it was a kind of international Communist language. If you read [Gustáv] Husák, the leader of Czechoslovakia and [Romania’s Nikolae] Ceausescu, and [Erich] Honecker, the head of the Community Party in Eastern Germany, essentially they’re speaking the same jargon, just in different languages. And it’s a jargon that has a very particular character.
All jargons have a kind of purpose. Often, in bureaucratic jargon, the purpose is euphemism. One of the things I heard first in America—it’s now very common here as well—is the use of the word “challenge” to mean a problem. I did hear in a theater company once, “We have a challenge with the lighting,” (laughs) which meant that the lighting had failed.

The word softens the edge a bit, doesn’t it? (laughs)

It does. It also always makes it sounds solvable. Because if it’s a challenge, well, you meet it. If it’s a problem, it may be insoluble. (laughs)

In this Eastern European-speak, “fraternal international assistance” became a way by which you jokily referred to being invaded by the Soviet Union, or by your neighbors. It ceased to mean what the words mean.
In The Shape of the Table we’re talking about a group of people who are almost incapable of saying “The Soviet Union.” They have to say “our great neighbor to the East” or “our great ally.”

Shades of Voldemort, nearly, in a different universe.

Absolutely right. That interests me a lot. Then one of the characters in The Shape of the Table is revolting against the language. He’s quite aggressive and militant, but in that way he’s very much reflecting what Vaclav Havel wrote in his letters from prison.
He keeps saying, “No, we need just to say what the truth is; we should be saying the true words.”
What happens in that play, I hope, is that a false language, a language of euphemism, gives way to a language of truth. Even though there may be problems which start emerging in the play with the new regime, nonetheless people are at least saying how it all really is.

A similar tug of war continues throughout Pentecost. Characters insist: no, the word is this, not that. Not parasite, but dissident. Prisoner, not involuntary guest. Not illegal alien but refugee. It’s a dance of definition and correction, and it’s ongoing through the play, as euphemisms give way to terms that are more direct.

David Sweeney, Peter Tedeschi and John Allore in The Shape of the Table
  • Right Image Photography, Inc
  • David Sweeney, Peter Tedeschi and John Allore in The Shape of the Table

I think that’s absolutely right. In the struggle [with a peace treaty] in The Prisoner’s Dilemma, the difference between the words “renounce” and “relinquish” becomes very crucial. And, of course, they’re deliberately chosen to be words that are, at a casual glance, pretty much synonymous. But then they become…defined.
And it is true that wars start and finish on the basis of such expressions.

One of the things I read a lot about for The Prisoner’s Dilemma was the Northern Ireland peace process. There were documents there in which the presence or the absence of a comma made a crucial difference to how an agreement was viewed by either side.
That’s a classic example of a conflict which was eventually resolved by documents—indeed, some of which were deliberately ambiguous, in order to get them through, and which then produced all kinds of problems later on as a result.

There’s a sense of that at the end of the first act of The Shape of the Table. It’s clear that there’s some “wiggle room” in a preliminary agreement between the protestors and the government, and Prus, one of the leaders of the protest movement, is going back and forth with Kaplan, the prime minister, on the implications of certain terms. At times, Kaplan clarifies things; elsewhere, he says nothing whatsoever. Apparently, the points must remain ambiguous so the process can move forward—

—and at one point, another character, Professor Matkovic, spots that two documents which look very similar have actually been changed.
That fascinates me and it always has, and it’s something the three plays have in common in different ways.

I think most Americans tend to be pretty careless with language. But here, what perhaps we tend to think of as the abstraction of language is so immediately grounded in the starkest of realities. Precision is absolutely crucial; the choice of words determines if there is going to be violence, if people are going to be killed.
For want of nail; for want of a comma. The mind fairly reels.

If you’ve read Kissinger’s description of the negotiations over Nixon’s China trip, you find a very elaborate formulation. The Americans didn’t want to say, “We’d like to be invited,” and the Chinese didn’t want to say, “We’re inviting you.” Neither wanted to sound like the initiator.
So a very complicated form of words was developed in order to avoid either occurring.
It was something like, “The Chinese are mindful of the fact that, were they to initiate an invitation, it would be gratefully accepted.”
That trip would not have happened had it not been for that language. And obviously, a negotiation over the language is also a real negotiation over the terms.

In all of these works, we see the more that language is used as a conduit for deliberate falsehoods, the more degraded it becomes. To some extent, that’s the condition at the start of all three works in your trilogy. But there are snags, in Pentecost and The Prisoner’s Dilemma, where it’s clear that one character or another has lied.
We see the bridge of understanding that the characters have tried to construct become shakier, or fail completely, with all hands on board.

I think that’s true. I also think that in the first act of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, through language, through wit, and humor and jokes, what happens is a group of people discover a sort of fellow feeling, and that allows them to reach an agreement.
But actually, on both sides, outside, there are others who are not a part of this new group. That’s always the problem—I think it’s a line in the play. You bring together the people who share a liking for the same sorts of food and conversation, and they discover, “Ooh, look, we’ve got lots in common with each other.”
But by discovering that, they find that they’re excluding people on either side who don’t have that kind of thing in common with each other.
Part of the skill of such peace processes is to make sure you don’t leave those people behind.
Today, very chillingly, there’s been the killing of a Catholic policeman in Omagh in Northern Ireland.
It would have been unthinkable, twenty years ago, that there would be a Catholic policeman in Northern Ireland. Omagh is symbolic as the scene of the worst atrocity in the Troubles. Both of these atrocities were committed by members of the so-called Real I.R.A. who are claiming the peace process is a sellout.
The leadership of the Republican movement has been really clever, by and large, in that it has managed to take the vast majority of the Republican community with them. But what’s often happened in the Protestant community is that the leaders have gone too far and too fast, and ended up being overthrown by people who feel that they’ve sold out.

I’m struck in some ways by the almost journalistic qualities of The Shape of the Table. You were writing the work within the same year that the Communist regimes in Poland and Czechoslovakia fell. I also note that as the trilogy progresses, the problems in Pentecost and The Prisoner’s Dilemma become increasingly complex. Is that a point you were deliberately trying to make over these three plays?

I think it’s important to say one thing: I didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write a trilogy of plays about Eastern Europe.” (laughs) The Shape of the Table was written as a play that tried to respond, more or less instantly, to the events that were taking place.
It said, six months later when I was writing it, I think the way we look back on these events is like this: Some things would be lost, and certainly some people would be losers. A particular way of thinking about the world—perhaps rightly, perhaps with some regret—has been removed from the table. And when it was actually happening, people didn’t quite realize the extent of what was going on, which often is the case, even among the central actors.
The Shape of the Table opened a year—minus a day—after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, as proven by the fact that Burning Coal is doing it 21 years later, the play, as it turned out, had a lot more resonance.
But it was intended to be a play shortly after the events that occurred, saying this was what was happening underneath it all.

Stephen LeTrent and the cast of The Shape of the Table

What I’ve done with both The Prisoner’s Dilemma and The Shape of the Table—and I’ve done it elsewhere with a British play—is, as it were, to take something that happens, and has happened a number of times, and create a generic version of it.
For the peace processes in The Prisoner’s Dilemma, I looked at Bosnia, Northern Ireland and the Middle East, and created a sort of generic peace process, cannibalized from the body parts of all of the real ones.
The same thing is true for The Shape of the Table. Luckily, there were six East European revolutions. One of them—Romania—was rather different, but the other five followed a pretty common course. So I was able to create an imaginary Eastern European county which was able to draw on all of them to create a story.
You know the saying about journalism being the first draft of history? Well, I think this is the second draft.
If I put it in a sort of aphoristic sense, I think that journalism tells you what’s happening. History tells you what’s happened. And the kind of play I’m talking about tells you what happens in these types of cases. It’s describing an overall syndrome.
It’s also very interesting what the present Arab revolutions have in common—though there are some things they don’t—with the East European revolutions of 1989. I think they make The Shape of the Table a particularly topical play to be presented now.

What sort of parallels are you finding between the two?

Once crucial issue is the level of the use of force. The crucial moment in the East German revolution and the revolution in The Shape of the Table was when the ruling group realized that they could not order their soldiers to fire on their own people. That certainly happened in Egypt.
There’s also the issue of a set of compromises. Clearly with Mubarak, I think in Egypt more than Tunisia, because Egypt went on longer—but it’s also beginning to happen in Syria and Bahrain—is a series of compromises being offered which might have been acceptable on the streets a week ago, but aren’t anymore.
There was a recognizable syndrome in Eastern Europe where most of the Communist parties thought they’d done a deal which would keep them in power in a reformed manner, and it didn’t work. The world had moved on, in a matter of days.
In The Shape of the Table, Prus, a character sort of based on Vaclav Havel, says, “If they give into our demands, it proves our demands aren’t strong enough and we’ll be strung up by a vengeful populace.”
Outside, the demands are increasing as the demonstrators become more and more confident.
There was a wonderful expression during the Czech, and I think East German, revolutions: “Fear changed sides.”
That’s obviously what happened, and what’s happened more recently in some but not all the North African countries.
In these very fast-changing situations, what seems like an inconceivably extreme demand on Monday may seem like an overmodest request on Tuesday.

And in that moving on, new dilemmas inevitably unfold. Given our discussion of recent Eastern European history, it’s probably no spoiler here to say that the protest leaders in The Shape of the Table ultimately achieve control of the government.
But in a scene toward the end of the play, a troupe of activists—and, apparently, performance artists—interrupts a meeting of the new regime. They conduct a satirical ceremony and present small mirrors to each of the committee’s members, so they could “watch out for the tell-tale signs that We were turning into Them” — the previous rulers of the country.
This takes place in an historic room in the seat of power that, we are told, was itself once lined with mirrors—mirrors apparently that were removed after the country’s one-time leaders lost their ability to reflect, as it were, on their relationship with their citizens.
Both refer to a dilemma you pointed out in an earlier interview. In it, you noted one of the key dilemmas that the new ruling class faces is, “How do you keep from turning into the people you’ve replaced?”

I think that is a revolutionary dilemma. How do you stop? Perhaps the epigram is slightly oversimplified but still you can see the argument: the idea that the revolution in the Soviet Union ultimately turned into a new form of czardom, with a new imperial czar under Stalin. That was obviously the dilemma with the French Revolution ending up with Napoleon: you end up with another dictatorial autocrat.
I wrote my play only a year after the events had happened, but I think it’s fair to say it hasn’t turned out that way in Eastern Europe. It’s happened in other places, and in other bits of the former Soviet empire, but it hasn’t happened in Eastern Europe.

Nick Berg Barnes in The Shape of the Table

But if that outcome hasn’t occurred, other undesirable outcomes have. In reading this trilogy, comparing the negotiations in The Shape of the Table to those going on in Pentecost and The Prisoner’s Dilemma, it’s fairly clear: these negotiations are becoming increasingly complex. As events proceed, so much more has to be put on the table.
Which is actually saying quite a lot, given the multiple demands and counter-demands going back and forth during
The Shape of the Table. There’s already a lot of contested ground in the first play. And, if anything, what’s contested becomes more intricate and takes on added dimensions through Pentecost and The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Yes. Pentecost is a different kind of play. There’s negotiation in it, but apart from the character Czaba [the country’s Minister of Culture], it’s not about governmental figures or seeking to change a regime. Both The Prisoner’s Dilemma and The Shape of the Table are about regime change—

—whereas in Pentecost there is, if anything, a more fundamental negotiation by a broad spectrum of refugees who are trying to negotiate what we might call the first freedoms: freedom from hunger, freedom from fear, freedom to reside and work—

—yes, but they’re negotiating in a quite extreme way. I mean, they are hostage-takers.

But even as that’s happening, there’s another, possibly even larger negotiation in process in Pentecost, from the first scene forward. An Eastern European country is trying to negotiate its standing vis a vis the rest of Europe, and perhaps Western Civilization.
Yasmin, a Palestinian refugee, says to a native at one point, “Your country wants to join the Western Club.” A country and culture that has long felt—and been—marginalized, “on the battlements of Europe” in your words, is now attempting to negotiate its own integration.

Yes. And that echoes, unconsciously, a line in The Shape of the Table, where Prus mentions ”the ancient urge to want to be in Europe once again.”
I traveled a lot in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, and I heard that again and again and again. “We want to be Europeans. The Soviet Union made us a sub-branch of Asia; we want to be a sub-branch of Europe.”
But Pentecost is partially a debate about what Europe is.
Is it the Europe of the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo and Beethoven’s Ninth? Or is it the Europe of Nazi Germany?
Is it the current attitude in European countries to keep people out, or is it the Europe of immigration and change?
I think Europe is, in a way, the central character in Pentecost.
And obviously the fresco in the play, which, in my imagination, is the foundation of modern European art is a kind of contested symbol as well. In Act One, the question is who owns it; and in Act Two the more profound question is about what it means.

I think it’s quite gratifying, looking back on [the three plays] now, as a trio—an accidental trio. Because they weren’t conceived in relation one to another.

When did you realize it was a trilogy?

It was partially because I wrote The Prisoner’s Dilemma for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the same company that had done Pentecost.
But I think it was sort of play by play, really. I do think each play probably answered a question posed by the previous one.
The first play said, “We want to be Europe once again.” Eastern Europe had been detached, as it were, by the Iron Curtain, cut off from a Central European heritage.
But that begs the question of what Central Europe was like. And Pentecost addresses that question.
Actually, that question’s not just about Europe. It’s America as well. What is the identity of a place which has that amount of diversity, and has millions of people all over the world wanting to come and live and work in it?
Then that question begs the question: What happens to the people who think there should be an exclusiveness to their country? What happens to the people who might be excluded from those countries—even if they currently live inside them?
In that sense, you can see one play leading to another.

As we move through the last two plays of the trilogy, Pentecost and The Prisoner’s Dilemma, another question arises, more than once. This European—or perhaps even Western—ideal, that these groups are striving toward, might merely be a chimera.

I’m not sure. It might not be a chimera, but it might be very different from how people think about it.
I was in Yugoslavia in 1990, the year that The Shape of the Table takes place, and it was clear: there was this rather fantastical view of what Western European cities were like, particularly in the Western European countries which were quite close to Yugoslavia.
I think there was a view, a sort of very idealistic, contemporary version of what Europe was like before the First World War and, of course, in terms of the ethnic makeup of such places.
Obviously, it’s extremely different from how it was before; it’s much more diverse, it’s more of a lot of things.
But I think there is a kind of illusion which is reflected in a lot of the characters in The Prisoner’s Dilemma—and, in a way, in all three plays: the myth of Western Europe, and what it’s like now.

Another troubling question that arises increasingly through the last two plays is the notion that common ground might not be ultimately achievable among people who differ. It’s a fear that one character raises in The Prisoner’s Dilemma, that common ground isn’t big enough for everyone, and that, in some cases, self-segregating, separatist states may be the only solution.

Yes, and again, my God, we’re now seeing that impetus in Libya. Obviously, one of the features of The Prisoner’s Dilemma is that — I hope in a considered way — it is calling into question some of the things the West has done. Some of its presumptions around diplomacy: particularly the idea that the diplomats themselves don’t have a vested interest in what’s going on; that they’re not just there to facilitate other people to shout at each other and achieve agreement; that they don’t have their own agenda.
I’m not talking about an agenda about oil or natural resources, but an emotional agenda that’s involved in peacemaking. At least some of the central characters in The Prisoner’s Agenda have to come to terms with that agenda, and what they are—what’s the kind of Europe they want, even they’re not actually European themselves.

It’s a question one of the negotiators makes in The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Is stopping the fighting always the rational thing to want to do? Or, if the choice is between peace and justice, might it be better if peace waits awhile?

I think that was a very strong feeling in the Balkans, despite the fact that clearly there were horrible things happening, and it was excellent that they were stopped.

And there is a point here that war is not always the least desirable of outcomes.

I think The Prisoner’s Dilemma—which, oddly enough, was probably the first of a very considerable canon of British plays, which have come out even more since the invasion of Iraq—questions the West’s feeling that they always have the answer to how countries should run themselves.
And of course it’s painful. It’s not simple. Because often the West is right.
I mean, it would be lovely if women didn’t have to wear the burqa in Afghanistan and could go, uncomplicatedly, to school. It would be splendid if every North African country had a functioning parliamentary democracy. And it would be obviously marvelous if people in these countries didn’t, when dictators fall, immediately fall to attacking each other. These would be splendid things.
However, there are reasons why those things don’t happen. And from time to time, you might feel that the West doesn’t think strongly enough about those reasons.

The cast of The Shape of the Table

So it goes, from “How wonderful that this country has overthrown its dictator. Now there’ll be parliamentary democracy, and everything will be splendid and old ethnic divisions and religious fundamentalism will disappear.”
It goes from that to a sort of despair, without really understanding how complicated the process necessarily has to be—or how the outcome may not look quite like the ideals of Western democracy.
Actually, it might look like something quite a bit different: something which might have a value that Western democracy doesn’t necessarily have.

That’s not to say that neither my play or the many, many plays that have followed it haven’t absolutely wrestled with the fact that I, like everybody else, would like countries to have sexual equality, free speech, for religion to be a private matter, for people to be able to get rid of their governments peaceably and for political parties to operate. I’m extremely in favor of all those things.
But it’s a real, dramatic necessity to challenge, from time to time, the ways the West seeks to bring those good ends about, and to question some of its motivations for those actions.

After the election of Ronald Reagan, an American songwriter, Gil Scott-Heron, wrote a spoken-word piece, “B Movie.” There’s a line in it: “First one wants freedom, then the whole damn world wants freedom.” The problem becomes increasingly pressing in Pentecost and Prisoner’s Dilemma: What happens when someone else’s idea of freedom isn’t the same idea as yours?

I think it’s also present in The Shape of the Table. One of the quandaries toward the end of the play is what about the people left behind, the people who aren’t going to fully embrace the market economy? What about the old people in District 7, with their fading party cards?
I think the failure of Communism was that, actually, you were better off being an old person in West Germany or Scandinavia than you were in Poland or Czechoslovakia. That was the great failure—that it didn’t deliver. It was a more equal society, but a much poorer society.
In absolute terms, you were much better off when you were surrounded by much richer people than you, as a poor person in West Germany.
That’s why Communism fell. It really hadn’t delivered on that promise, that the people at the bottom of society, in absolute terms, would be better off than they were in capitalist countries.

And then, just across different borders, we encounter the notion that another person’s freedom is the freedom to live in an ethnically cleansed society.

Absolutely. So that becomes a later play.

What does a completed production of the Iron Curtain Trilogy — in North Carolina — give you at this juncture? What does the trilogy do in the world in this time?

It’s certainly made me think about the comparisons and common factors between them, and feel more secure about them as a trilogy.
Also, I think, there’s the striking fact of how The Shape of the Table provides a view of events in North Africa—which is something I think was completely unpredictable. It’s also very exciting and quite frightening, and it is leading to the revelation of ethnic divisions that have to some extent been obscured by the dictatorship in Libya.
In some ways, North Africa has gone from The Shape of the Table to The Prisoner’s Dilemma with alarming speed.

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The Shape of the Table runs at Burning Coal Theatre through Apr. 24.