IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE
Why would we care about a play dealing with some vicious Balkan kids? What do we have to do with it and how to relate to such a story? How to understand the violence which has entered the world dictionaries as an extremely specific geographic term - Balkanization?
The dystopian world is unfortunately what we all have in common; the same way and for the same reasons the rest of the world recognized itself in It Can't Happen Hereby Sinclair Lewis, Iron Heel by Jack London, or A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. The only difference is that the young Serbian playwright Milena Markovic writes here and now and doesn't need to go into the future to face the certainty of crumbling humanity and dysfunctional society - she actually takes us for a ride through our most recent past.
The protagonists of the play, as well as the playwright herself, belong to the same generation born in the 70s, time of relative prosperity of what was once known as Yugoslavia, and universal hope against hope for a brighter future. After all, the baby boomers had their say in the global events of 1968 and we were all promised that flower-power kind of Disneyland.
For two decades prior to1980 Yugoslavia's annual GDP averaged 6.1%. Healthcare was free, literacy 91%, life expectancy 72 years. In 1980, following the death of Tito, the country built primarily on Western loans, had to enter debt restructuring program with the IMF which even more increased the foreign debt. Industrial production declined to a negative 10%. Revenues, which would go back to the republics, went to service the debts of the federation. In 1990 US Congress passed the Foreign Operations Appropriations Law 101-513 which, without warning, cut off all US aid, credits, and loans within six months. The law also demanded separate elections in all republics and State Department approval of election procedures and results, before aid to the country is resumed. Three weeks later a CIA report predicted that Yugoslavia would disintegrate into civil war within the next year. By 1991 the debt grew to $31 billion, with over a million unemployed, and 200% inflation.
These are the decisive years in which Milena's generation is growing up, remembering nothing of the promises, be it of Eastern communist or Western baby-boom origin, and witnessing first hand the utopian downfall, even taking an active role itself in the 90s. During that time underground is slowly inhabiting the aboveground, society and politics evenly; the socio-psychosis in which the government denies that anything bad is happening reaches its maximum; an upside down, fake system of values establishes itself as the only system and makes people fight for survival by any means possible. Tracks are nothing else but a succession of well-rounded dramatic fragments capturing these key moments in the history of a generation caught in a global political and social time warp, and as such being considered lost, sacrificed, and impregnated by violence.
It is a generation predispositioned and trained for suffering, a generation that manages to fail in all manifestations of social and communal life - in high school equally as in involuntary military service, in love equally as in war. Or to paraphrase Burgess, it's a generation that exemplifies societal application of Pavlovian, mechanical, laws to an organism which, like a fruit, is capable of being colorful and sweet. And no wonder that this generation is not capable of fighting for their own first names, as they enter and leave the world marked only by their nicknames. It is not capable of creating a bright colored home, not even for a stray cat, let alone themselves. The full color awaits only in fictional paradise, a rainbow colored cosmic house, the only place in which they can survive, since the yo-yo of unhappy events has stretched so far, that it leaves us only with a feeling of morbidity and stomachache.
And as much as we have all become damaged goods by the time we entered the new century, victims and victimizers ourselves, those whose life is degraded to the most primal function are women. If the criminals as antiheroes have been brought to the pedestal of heroes in the male world, what is left for the women are ideals of pole dancers and silent mannequins, without any power of their own. Globally speaking, the fascination with Paris Hilton is not the only trait the Balkans and the rest of the world have in common.
All of the above would make for a very appropriate Leherstücke of Brechtian kind. Milena Markovic, however, approaches the issues from its black humorous, tragicomic, not to say farcical side. This point of view, as well as the line she draws between the male and female principle, is the major point of departure from Tarantino's movies or Kubrick's version of A Clockwork Orange. This approach comes as both surprise and warning at once - surprise for us as audience as we catch ourselves laughing at exaggerated violence; warning that the characters in whose lives we are getting involved are not asevil as they might appear at first sight. There's a little bit of us in all of them and a little bit of them in all of us. Previous productions of Tracks, whether in Serbia, Poland, or Germany, have become cult shows for younger audiences, for those older it's a question that doesn't go away - what did we do in our past and what we didn't do to make this world of ours a better place.
The source of humor in the Tracks is the source of the demise as well. It is the primal world of the play, where everything is reduced to its basic ecliptic function - from the names of the characters, to their actions, reactions, emotions, their life after all. Milena's language sounds as a poetry of the banal, it is fragmented, missing parts, somewhat mechanical, and very, let's be honest, American. In everyday Serbian (previously Serbo-Croatian) language, it is hard to find two-syllable words, almost everything consists of three or more syllables. Yet Milena's choice of words resembles very much an Anglo-Saxon syntax - something very specific in communication of the characters that separates their language from both the slang and literature.
Finally, let's not forget that this play owes its title to Gary Neuman's Tracks, first released with the British punk band Tubeway Army in 1979 (album The Pleasure Principle), then re-released in different incarnations throughout the 80s. The lines of this punk hit are as basic, as right into the middle, as hard-hitting and poetic at the same time, as lines of Tracks, the play:
Where are the tracks?
Where are the lines?
Where are the tracks, dear?
Where is the time?
Milena Markovic is a playwright, poet, and screenwriter from Belgrade, whose international career took off five years ago, following her graduation from the University of the Arts. During this time four of her plays received world premieres in Belgrade and Zurich, garnering success across Europe. Her play Pavilions was also seen in Macedonia and Austria. Her second play Tracks earned her a Royal Court Summer Residency for Emerging Playwrights in London, was also published in Theater Heute, and staged in Poland and Germany. Her latest play A Doll Boat won the major Serbian playwriting award and recently received its world premieree at Yugoslav Drama Theatre in Belgrade. Her first feature screenwriting credit is for film Tomorrow Morning, recently opened in Belgrade and European theatres.
Milena's two published books of poetry are A Dog Who Had Eaten the Sun and The Truth Is in Heat.