Last spring, I studied abroad in Berlin and had the opportunity to see a hilarious and thought-provoking piece of original theatre: Verrücktes Blut. The morally ambiguous play was, suffice to say, one of the most intelligent and funniest plays I’ve seen in a long time. I had the chance to see it as part of a ‘field trip’ with my class Migration, Gender, and Nationalism taught by the extraordinary professor Agata Lisiak. Shown at the powerhouse Gorki Theatre, the play forces the audience to confront nasty Islamophobic stereotypes inherent to the refugee debates. I particularly found the show engaging as an American who had limited familiarity with the so-called refugee crisis in Berlin. And, by the end of it, I learned a lot about how popular stereotypes become entrenched in German culture and just how hypocritical many of these stereotypes are.
In an interview with Exberliner, Turkish-German director and playwright Nurkan Erplaut claimed that “theatre supposedly holds up a mirror to society.” [*1] This old adage describes nearly all forms of art, yet few mediums so accurately capture the social sentiments of those consuming it. Be it through laughter or tears, our reaction to theatre can expose the cultural attitudes governing our collective imagination. Perhaps no contemporary play embodies this idea better than Verrücktes Blut, the side-splitting comedy by Erplaut and his dramaturg partner, Jens Hillje. Dark and politically incorrect, Erplaut and Hillje make funny what is not when a presumably German gymnasium teacher takes her “hooligan” immigrant students hostage. Frustrated at their inattentiveness and rejection of “Western values”, the teacher embarks on an absurdly hypocritical mission to indoctrinate them with the enlightenment philosophy of Friedrich Schiller – at gun point. In the riotous Verrücktes Blut – which literally translates to Crazy Blood – laughter becomes a political and ideological declaration. By spoofing the divisive political landscape of German “integration,” Erplaut and Hillje utilize humor as a device of self-reflection and cultural criticism. What is funny, what is not, what is satire, when to stop laughing, and when are we – the audience – implicated in it all?
The playwrights subvert femonationalist and homonationalist discourses that imagine Muslim immigrant communities as hypermasculine, irresponsible, homophobic – or, for Islamic women – unliberated. Erplaut and Hillje stage these stereotypes with comedic exaggeration, and, in doing so, satirize Western conceptualizations of Islam. Moreover, the satirical depictions expose the hypocrisy of those who force “enlightenment values” onto autonomously practicing Muslims.
The playwrights lampoon anti-Muslim rhetoric through the character of the teacher, a conservative and seemingly German woman that represents Western feminism and enlightenment values. Ironically, the teacher violates enlightenment principles of freedom as she attempts to liberate her students from a “backwards” lifestyle. Chiefly concerned with the victimhood of female Muslims, she points a gun at Mariam – a soft spoken student who willingly wears a headscarf – and demands that she remove it. She later points the gun at her terrified male peer but retracts this demand upon realizing that Mariam must liberate herself for personal reasons and not to save the life of a “sexist” Muslim man. [*2] This Western fantasy of oppressed Muslim women correlates to the framework described by Chandra Talpade Mohanty. In Under Western Eyes, Mohanty observes that non-Western women “are defined consistently as the victims of male control – the ‘sexually oppressed.’” [*3] Presumably cognizant of this analytic, Erplaut and Hillje employ humor to not only critique the stereotype of unliberated Muslim women but to underscore the hypocrisy of those who perpetuate the discourse. Mariam, for example, who rarely talked until this scene, hilariously unleashes her fury after getting called a slut by meekly stomping on her harasser. Some might criticize this scene for confirming the stereotypes of passive Muslim women in need of saving. The humor, however, stems from the ironic conditions that led to her inevitable outburst. The teacher, obsessed with the notion of personal liberty, hypocritically utilizes violence to force Mariam’s adoption of “Western” values. Buttressed with over-the-top humor, the scene exposes the hypocritical logic of integrationist arguments. By staging the scene comedically, the playwrights demonstrate the absurd irony of femonationalist rhetoric: how, indeed, can one be forced to internalize an ideology centered around freewill? Similarly, how can an ideology that valorizes liberty circumvent the agency of Muslim women?
Despite her initial protests, Mariam eventually removes the headscarf autonomously after her male peers invoke sexist language. Punctuated with dramatic music and intense red lighting, Mariam undergoes what the audience can only interpret as an out-of-body spiritual experience, complete with strange movements and laughter. [*4] Staged for comedic effect, the odd catharsis that Mariam experiences – as if she suddenly expels decades of internalized sexism wrought by Islamic patriarchy – comes straight from the imagination of “Western value” femonationalists. Indeed, in her discussion of the “Muslim Women as Synecdoche,” Sara Farris writes: “Muslim women personify the homogenizing figure of the non-western woman as the victim par-excellence of non-western male violence in the western European imaginary.” [*5] With this in mind, one begins to understand how Erplaut and Hillje utilize comedy as a theatrical device. They quite literally stage the foolish Western discourses of Islam and gender not to reinforce them, but to mock them. Thus, the laughter of the audience takes on a double meaning depending upon their preconceived political ideologies. Some, for example, see the live criticism of offensive stereotypes; others, see their ignorance validated. Of course, the show complicates the oversimplified binary of liberal/good and conservative/bad by forcing audience members (even those on the left) to question their laughter. The “disrobing” scene, for example, takes a comedic turn immediately after the teacher threatens Mariam with violence. Here, the audience must make an active decision to stop their laughter. As such, the audience undergoes a reflective process regarding their laughter and their own role within these femonationalist discourses.
The acerbic and ironic condemnation of “enlightenment values” crescendos in the final act, when the teacher stages a “democratic” tribunal to determine the fate of a student who bullied his shy peer. Supposedly, the bully assaulted the student for his assumed gay sexuality; in response, the teacher insists that his classmates will vote to either execute him or save his life. [*6] This moment comes several scenes after the teacher expresses her disgust regarding the homophobic monolith of Islam, a clear iteration of the homonationalist analytic described by scholar Jasbir Puar. [*7] Regarding the myth of Islamophobic backwardness and homophobia, Puar writes: “queer secularity most virulently surfaces in relation to Islam because Islam, the whole monolith of it, is often described as unyielding and less amenable to homosexuality than Christianity and Judaism.” [*8] The teacher, who employed religious homophobia as evidence for Muslim backwardness and Western superiority, now attempts to educate her pupils on the values of democracy. Much to her dismay, the students unanimously vote to spare the boy. In a ridiculous twist, the teacher ironically forgoes the very ideology she clings onto: she insists that she will ignore the voting and kill him anyway. [*9] Here, Erplaut and Hillje cleverly suggest that the teacher has unwittingly become the “undemocratic savage” that exists in the homonationalist and femonationalist imagination. In doing so, they underscore the hypocrisy of American/Western exceptionalism that Puar identifies. She writes, for example, that the West acts “as the arbiter of appropriate ethics, human rights, and democratic behavior while exempting itself from such universalizing madness.” [*10] By comedically turning this stereotype on its head, Erplaut and Hillje exposes the hypocrisy of “enlightenment value” integrationists who reproduce homonationalist discourses.
As mentioned, the comedy implicates the audience in discourses of power by forcing them to consider their own laughter and political beliefs. Perhaps no moment better encapsulates this than the end, when the bullied boy – unwilling to end the play – takes the other actors hostage. [*11] Not wanting to return to his “Kanake” typecast, the student begs the other actors to stay in character. By breaking the fourth wall in this way and by blurring the role between performer and actor, Erplaut and Hillje suddenly implicate the audience. Regardless of their political affiliation, the audience has – through their laughter – pigeonholed the performers into “ethnic” or “immigrant” roles. The liberal audience members, likely aware that the show criticizes femo/homonationalism, now must contend with their complicity in restricting the actors to the stereotypes described by Farris and Mohanty.
In his article on stereotyping and representation, the famed scholar Stuart Hall describes the innate evil of stereotyping: “stereotypes get hold of the few simple, vivid, memorable, easily grasped and widely recognized characteristics about a person, reduce everything about a person to those traits, exaggerate and simplify them… stereotyping reduces, essentializes, naturalizes and fixes distance.” [*12] Erplaut and Hillje reiterate this stereotype in the final moments of the show, when the “Kanake” student damns the audience with a gunshot. [*13] Their willingness to consume stereotypical depictions straight from the femo/homonationalist imagination – even if they understand the social commentary – suddenly becomes less funny. Erplaut and Hillje have tricked the audience into considering how their willing consumption of the show, even if only for ironic entertainment, solidifies the essentialization of Islamophobic stereotypes.
Few shows can so darkly tap into our current political landscape with as much humor as Verrücktes Blut. A hysterical tour-de-force, Verrücktes Blut stages the most popular stereotypes of Muslim immigrants for all to see – but with a satirical twist. Absurd and over-the-top, the playwrights Erplaut and Hillje acerbically spoof contemporary discourses that stereotype Islam as monolithically patriarchal, hypermasculine, and homophobic. These stereotypes of the femonationalist and homonationalist imagination – as described by scholars Jasbir Puar, Sara Farris, and Chandra Mohanty – are dissected with intelligent humor. Through a clever use of irony, Erplaut and Hillje demonstrate the hypocrisy of pro-Western integrationists. When the teacher utilizes violence and force to moralize about the exceptionalism of Western freedom – especially as it relates to gender – the irony is lost on (almost) no-one. By involving the audience and by forcing them to consider their own laughter, the show demonstrates how these stereotypes are constructed within popular narratives – and then demonstrates how and why these stereotypes should be deconstructed. More people, without a doubt, should see this play given the current political landscape of the “refugee debates.”
[*1] Rebecca Jacobson. “A Few Questions for Nurkan Erplaut.” EXBERLINER.com. May 05, 2015. Accessed April 29, 2018. http://www.exberliner.com/whats-on/stage/nurkan-erpulat-interview/
[*2] Verrücktes Blut. By Nurkan Erplaut and Jens Hillje. Directed by Nurkan Erplaut.
[*3] Chandra Talpade Mohanty. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” boundary 2, On Humanism and the University I: The Discourse of Humanism. 12, no. 3 (Spring-Autumn 1944). 339.
[*4] Verrücktes Blut. By Nurkan Erplaut and Jens Hillje. Directed by Nurkan Erplaut.
[*5] Farris, “Introduction: In The Name of Women’s Rights.” In In The Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism. 11.
[*6] Verrücktes Blut. By Nurkan Erplaut and Jens Hillje.
[*8] Jasbir Puar. “Homonationalism and Biopolitics.” In Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.) 13.
[*9] Verrücktes Blut. By Nurkan Erplaut and Jens Hillje. Directed by Nurkan Erplaut.
[*10] Jasbir Puar, “Homonationalism and Biopolitics.” 8.
[*11] Verrücktes Blut. By Nurkan Erplaut and Jens Hillje. Directed by Nurkan Erplaut.
[*12] Stuart Hall. “The Spectacle of the Other.” Edited by Jessica Evans and Sean Nixon. In Representation. 2nd ed. London: SAGE, 2013. 247.
[*13] Verrücktes Blut. By Nurkan Erplaut and Jens Hillje. Directed by Nurkan Erplaut.