The Party Pooper

When Peter Zadek skipped the ceremony where he was due to receive the Europe Theater Prize, all hell broke loose.

The directorate of the Europe Theater Prize evinced an unusual degree of humor and self-irony and enabled the International Association of Theater Critics to hold a discussion under the heading "Prizes - who needs them?" on the very day the awards ceremonies opened in Saloniki, Greece.

The Europe Theater Prize was founded in 1987 in the context of European cooperation on cultural matters. Among the active bodies is the European Theater Union, which brings together 17 national or major theaters (Habima was accepted for membership last year). Another partner is the European Theater Convention, which brings together 33 other European theaters (the Cameri theater became a member last year). The International Association of Theater Critics is an associate member. These details provide some notion of the degree of institutional bureaucracy that is entailed in this cultural project, paved as it is with good intentions.

Since its founding, the Europe Theater Prize (60,000 euros, a symposium on the winner's works and their performance) has been won by theater greats like Peter Brook, Lev Dodin, Heiner Mueller, Ariane Mnouchkine, Bob Wilson, Michel Piccoli and, last year, Harold Pinter, who honored the event with his presence despite the shaky state of his health (it should be recalled that he did not come to receive the Nobel Prize because of an injury).

This background is necessary in order to understand the drama that took place around the awarding of the prizes this year in Saloniki. Apart from prizes for New Theater Realities, it was decided to award the first prize this year ex equo to two artists, Canadian playwright, actor and director Robert Lepage and German director Peter Zadek. The play "Peer Gynt," directed by Zadek and performed by the Berliner Ensemble, was supposed to have been the climax and finale of the events in Saloniki.

On the day of the "Who Needs Prizes?" discussion, all of the truths on this subject were spoken: that prize juries sometimes tend to award them to mediocre compromise candidates; that the larger the group making the selection is (as in the case of the Theater Prize in Israel), the more it tends to choose safe candidates; and that prizes swell the egos of the artists. But altogether, there was agreement that prizes are a complicated but necessary thing.

In dictatorial regimes, a prize on behalf of the regime is given to the artist as a carrot, and the giver expects gratitude and loyalty. In democratic regimes, the prize mechanism is an admission that despite human equality, in the field of the arts there are those who are more equal than others, and it is necessary to formulate ways that are as fair and as just as possible to note this by means of prizes. This was put best by the vice president of the International Association of Theater Critics, Yun-Cheol Kim of Korea, who answered the question of "who needs prizes" with praiseworthy frankness and said: "We, those who bestow them."

This is the truth: Artists love prizes and need them (they too are human), but they always have their art. The prize bestowers, in contrast, have money and prestige. They need the recipient of the prize to give meaning to their cultural activity (which after all is positive).

During the awards events in Saloniki, this issue was exemplified well (Saloniki and Greece as a whole is the best place for dealing with theater prizes, because after all, the fathers of the theater won prizes: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides). More than two weeks ago, after the winners had agreed to accept the prizes and the symposia on their works were organized, Peter Zadek announced that one of the actors in his production of "Twelfth Night," on which he is now working, had come down with cancer, and the need to replace him had created tension in the company that would prevent him from coming.

It is necessary to understand who he is: Zadek, 81, was born in Germany and raised in England, and since the 1950s, he has been considered one of the outstanding directors in Europe. The judges' reasons for awarding the prize noted that Zadek deals over and over again with arbitrariness, the unexpected and the inscrutable in our lives and that he has often been called a "provocateur," a "troublemaker" and a "joy-killer." This time, he defiantly justified these epithets.

Zadek proposed that someone else accept the award on his behalf, or that a television interview with him be held. The Europe Theater Prize directorate informed him that if he did not come, he would not get the prize. This became known to all the theater people who came to Saloniki, and the symposium that was supposed to have been held in his honor was also canceled.

The date of the awards ceremony arrived. On the stage sat the 12 members of the presidium. Nine of them delivered short greetings, but no one mentioned Zadek's name, even though it was up there on the banner above their heads. Then prizes were awarded to the other winners (who had come, made an effort, given of their time, smiled and said thank you). It was already 9:30 P.M. and the performance of "Peer Gynt" (three and a half hours long) was supposed to have begun half an hour earlier. The tension in the air was palpable.

And then, at long last, the president of the International Association of Theater Critics, Ian Herbert, was delegated to read aloud the letter that Zadek had sent two weeks earlier, after he was informed that if he did not attend the ceremony, he would not get the prize. He explained why he had to be absent and wrote: "After all, I am getting the prize for my life's work and not for using Olympic Airways. I should have thought that you would realize how ridiculous this makes you and your committee look."

Before Herbert managed to even start reading the long--winded and insulted letter in reply from the prize directorate, which thundered against the arrogant tone of Zadek's letter and expressed doubts about the reasons that had caused him to cancel his coming (copies of the letter were handed out to those present afterward), Angela Winkler, an actress from the Berliner Ensemble, burst onto the stage. "I am here," she said. "We have been behind this curtain for the past hour ready to go on stage and you talk and talk and talk. The performance was supposed to have started more than half an hour ago. It is long. We cannot perform like that." She laid her hands on the shoulders of two of the seated members of the presidium as if to say: "Nu, what do you intend to do?"

It was indeed a "coup de theatre," which made the event memorable, indeed upstaging the artists who did show up to receive their prizes. The audience applauded her, which was also interpreted as applause for the absent Zadek, stripped of his prize. The Europe Theater Prize directorate was spared the reading of its long, puffed-up letter. Even Zadek could not have staged it better.