The palimpsest house and its three winters

Skådespelarna Göran Engman och Natalie Sundelin står på scenen. Natalie är iklädd brudklänning och moppar ett jordigt golv.

»3 vintrar« väcker reflektioner. Nico Carpentier är professor i informatik och media, med fokus på frågor som rör representation, idelogi och sociala konstruktioner. Inför Sverigepremiären gästade han ett publikgenomdrag och skriver här om den betydelse som huset har i »3 vintrar«. Ett hus som står för många olika saker. För de enskilda familjemedlemmarna såväl som för hela familjen Kos, färgat också av de historiska nedslagen: 1945, 1991 och 2011. Gestaltat i vår föreställning för att reflektera det mänskliga och det sköra i att minnas och att glömma.

Gästbloggare Nico Carpentier

3 winters is a play, authored by Tena Štivičić, that is often interpreted from a generational perspective, as a reflection on the cultural changes in Yugoslavia through a focus on family interactions at three particular moments: 1945, 1990 and 2011. The King/Kos family are seen to gain access to a Zagreb house in 1945, after the end of the German occupation, and their descendants live through the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the ascension of Croatia into the European Union.

Arguably, apart from the family members and their friends, there is one more key actor in the play, and that is the house itself. The entire play is situated in the house, which at first sight appears to be the one stable factor in an intensively turbulent world, where the family is repeatedly shaken to its foundations. Even more so, family members die and—even when they are affectionally remembered—disappear, while the house remains.

The meaning of...
» a manuscript page from which the text has been washed off or scraped off, so that it could be re-used and new text can be added.«

But the house is not as stable as it might appear. Its role in the play is much more that of a palimpsest, an object of continuous resignification, which results from endless struggles over its meaning. A palimpsest is a manuscript page from which the text has been washed off or scraped off, so that it could be re-used and new text can be added. In the Middle Ages, when pergamene (parchment) was expensive and hard to come by, this was a more efficient way of using this resource. But—importantly—especially the washing operation was never perfect, and some of the old text(s) reappeared, shining through underneath the superimposed newer text(s). More broadly speaking, the palimpsest is a metaphor for the impossibility to stabilize and fixate meaning, but also for the complex ways that present meanings relate to the(ir) past.

The palimpsest metaphor is a good way to understand the role of the house in the 3 winter’s play. The house’s meaning structurally changes through the different eras covered in the play, through the different ideological projects that characterize these different periods. In 1945, when Yugoslavia became a socialist state, the house is signified through the collectivist ideology, rendering it a collective property, taken away from the bourgeois politician Theodor Amruš because he had sided with the Nazis. The house is partitioned and offered to several families to live in. One part went to Rosa King, to reward her for her role in the Partisan movement (although her relationship with a Yugoslav general might have helped a bit as well). But the aristocratic traces remain, as Karolina, the daughter of the owner is hiding in the house, and eventually allowed to stay. Also—and this only becomes clear at the very end of the play—the Amruš and King/Kos families turn out to be more related than most of the members know.

Later, in the 1990s scenes, when antagonist nationalism is rearing its ugly head, the house becomes a Croatian house, inhabited and owned by Croatians, even if some family members resist this resignification. The two husbands, Karl and Vlado—part of the second generation of the King/Kos family—have, for instance, the following exchange about the ownership rights of the aristocratic Amruš family, where the nationalist Karl says: Private property should belong to the person, regardless of character or political views, which leads Vlado to protest, with the words that This is a moral and political fallacy.

In the third era, when capitalism and the resulting ideology of privilege (not to mention the corruption it brings) have settled in Croatia, the house gains another meaning. It becomes the exclusive asset of a capitalist entrepreneur, a trophy to symbolize his economic success. The house is bought by Damjan, the future husband of Lucija—who is part of the third generation of the King/Kos family—and placed in her name. The other families that live in the house, such as the Horaks, are »persuaded« (aka threatened) to give up their parts of the house. Here too, these new meanings are not taken for granted, but fiercely resisted. It is here where the confrontation between the two sisters, Lucija and Alisa, over the ownership issue, is at its most intense, with Alisa arguing that Grandma Rose sure as hell would not stand for buying properties and turning people out and It was never even a value to… value, while Lucija, the new owner, argues that she is not letting this place go. Because of our history and our life here. Lucija even expresses her difficulty to understand the resistance: How can you possibly be so opposed to us owning what belongs to us, something we have been a part of for a hundred years? Eventually, Alisa’s resistance will be overcome, and the care for the collective good is replaced by an ethics of entitlement, through the force of the capitalist purchase by someone who stands above the law.

The meanings of the house are even more hybrid than those triggered by the changing ideologies, and the resulting tension between the collective and the private. We tend to see houses as safe spaces, to which we can retire in order to protect us from a potentially threatening »outside« world. Houses produce »insides« where people can be truly themselves, feel safe from outside interventions, and develop affective bonds with these places. Houses then become homes. But 3 winters shows the complexity of this construction (or, one might say, fantasy). Still, there is a dangerous world out there. Rose’s feet have suffered permanent damage because of frost-bite, after she was expelled from the house, as a child. Another inhabitant, Marko—at that time Alisa’s boyfriend—leaves the house in 1990, to become traumatized in the Yugoslav secession war. Igor, a family friend, never returns from the same war.

The house
The meaning of...
»...a protective force against the outside world is dismantled, in a variety of ways.«

In 3 winters, this construction of the house as a protective force against the outside world is dismantled, in a variety of ways. The play shows that a house can change and stop being a home. Sometimes, this can be found in the details, for instance, when a series of photographs of Aleksandar (Rosa’s husband, and an inhabitant of the first generation) posing in the uniform of the Croatian Home Guard—are burned, because it is not considered desirable to keep them in the house (in the era of socialist Yugoslavia). Sometimes the house’s inability to protect become dramatically and painfully clear. This is when the house becomes articulated as a location of abuse. In the play, we see Dunja tell her husband Karl—both second generation—that she wants to divorce him. He beats her up so hard that she ends up in hospital. But also simply remaining in the safe space of the house is not guaranteed, something that is omnipresent throughout the entire play. Before 1945, and before Rose secured the house as their accommodation, Rose’s mother (Monika) was a servant in the house, working for the Amruš family. When Monika became pregnant, and Rose was born, they were told to leave, by Karolina Amruš. Also later, in 2011, we witness Marko, his seventy-two-year-old mother and the Horaks being forced out of the house. In a conversation with Alisa, Marko explains: Our flat is seriously run-down and I’d never get the money to fix it. So I rolled over really quite promptly after he [Damjan, Lucija’s future husband] explained to me that refusing the offer would not be an option. The hateful Horaks, they at least put up a little of a fight. I have more respect for them than I have for myself right now. Houses become homes through the safety they offer, but also through the bodily comfort and the affects they generate. Again, all this is not to be taken for granted, and as the play shows, things are much more hybrid and complex. In the 1945 era, the play articulates the house as a place of discomfort, where people live as sardines in a tin. Many of the discussions between the family members—in the later eras—can only be described as uncomfortable, often irritating and frustrating the inhabitants. In particular Alice, who has left the house to do her PhD in the UK, signifies the discomfort of living in a house whose inhabitants she considered old-fashioned and backward (as she describes her father in a conversation with him). Even if she might be contemplating a return to Croatia, she then communicates her preference to go and live on the countryside.

The home
The meaning of...
»Houses become homes through the safety they offer, but also through the bodily comfort and the affects they generate.«

In the 2019 Swedish version of the play, 3 vintrar, directed by Anja Suša at the Uppsala stadsteater, this hybridity is made visible with even more force, by avoiding an on-stage reconstruction of the bourgeois house. It is a decision which adds a whole new dimension to the original play. 3 vintrar, in Anja Suša’s words, plays with the idea of museum and theatre, and how they work and how they are juxtaposed. The main set—the house—is one large white sheet, which fills the entire space of the stage, and keeps it simultaneously empty. It is also something that people leave marks on, something that takes in people’s traces, as Anja Suša puts it.

3 vintrar scengolv

The main stage of »3 vintrar«. Photo: Micke Sandström

This happens in a variety of ways, from the very beginning of the play, when Rosa’s footprints leave the first marks on the sheet, signifying her return from the woods where she was fighting as a Partisan. After the interlude, organic waste fills the space, sticking to the bodies of the inhabitants, and mixing with their blood when they are being abused. When Lucija—in her wedding dress—motivates the purchase of the house, and defends her future husband’s actions in securing it, she mops up the dirt, working around the feet of her family members, heralding the new era and leaving her bewildered family members on little islands. The dirt is resistant, though, and unavoidably leaves its traces on the floor, despite her efforts.

Skådespelarna Göran Engman och Natalie Sundelin står på scenen. Natalie är iklädd brudklänning och moppar ett jordigt golv.

Lucija cleaning the dirt. Photo: Micke Sandström

Before reaching the main stage and taking to their seats, the spectators have to go through a corridor with the three rooms of the house, one for each era. Within these three rooms, a whole range of objects are stored. It is a reminder that a house is also an archival machine, containing private collections of objects, with memories embedded in them. There, we can find there the baby doll Rosa in a cradle, with next to her a bucket with the traces of the burned photographs of her father, Aleksandar, dressed up in the wrong uniform.

3 vintrar. Del av muséet. foto Nico Carpentier

The 1945 room, with a baby, a suitcase, a blanket and burned photographs in a bucket. Photo: Nico Carpentier

Simultaneously, the Singer sewing machine, which can also be found in the 1945 room— combined with Aleksandar’s enthusiasm about the opportunity to earn an income when he discovers the machine—is a reminder that the home is place of labour. The 1990s room is much more a place of leisure, with a large couch, and travel post cards lying on the salon table in front of it. The television set is playing, showing images of the Dinamo Zagreb–Red Star Belgrade football riot, which took place in May 1990, and which announced the violence that was about to come. Finally, the 2011 room is a room of celebration, with the table set for the marriage festivities, including a large wedding cake. Also this room has a television screen, showing images related to Croatia’s ascension into the EU.

3 vintrar. Del av muséet. Foto Nico Carpentier

The wedding table in the 2011 room. Photo: Nico Carpentier

Through the set-up of these three rooms, Suša emphasizes the idea of the house as museum—and how the house, through these objects with their emotional value, becomes transformed into a home—by turning the rooms into places of display and contextualization. Visitors enter and walk through these spaces, rendering them public and accessible to the visitors’ gaze. The three rooms contain little ensembles of buttons, »press here« labels and loudspeakers, inviting the visitors to listen to short texts that contextualize the rooms and the objects, asking them to remember particular objects when entering the main stage. This focus on (remembering) particular but apparently unrelated objects, only to be given meaning through the play’s narratives, is connected with the row of objects, lying on the edge of the white sheet on the main stage. During the play, these lined-up objects in little plastic bags are described—almost inventoried—by the family members. These objects are part of Suša’s main addition to the play’s text, as they refer to the contents that was found in the stomach of Roland the Walrus, described in Dubravka Ugrešić’s book, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. This book, as Dragana Obradović writes in her article The ironic eternity of objects, is a reflection about discontinuities and disruptions, but also raises questions about the value of objects, and their inclusion (or exclusion) in the archive, which adds yet another reference to resignification and hybridity.

The three rooms and the main theatre stage are connected in a second way—not only through these object-installations—as during key scenes of the play, the family members leave the main stage, and move into ‘their’ rooms. For instance, when the family is watching the news coverage of the collapse of the negotiations at the 14th congress of the Central Committee of the Communist Union of Yugoslavia, initiated by the departure of the Slovene delegation, they are positioned in the 1990 room, which is located behind the spectators.

Through a video projection the family members’ responses to this political crisis are then brought onto the main stage. This strategy of displacement, emptying the house on the main stage and placing the family in their ‘real’ room, only visible through the mediation of a video camera, again shows the hybridity and complexity of the meanings of the house, where even the direct access to the house (through observation) becomes unstable and frustrated.

3 vintrar/3 winters indeed is a reflection on memory and forgetting, on people caught in the storm of times, with its destructive forces. When watching it, it is hard to escape from a sense of loss. But arguably, it is also a play about contingency, with the house as one of its locations. Little is left of the epitome of stability once the house’s complexity and hybridity is unpacked and deconstructed. The play positions the house as a floating signifier, dragged into a diversity of directions by always different ideological projects, by always different human practices that produce novel and sometimes contradictory meanings, written on the house as a palimpsest. What is made of stone turns out to be more mobile than any family member in the play, signifying that even the most rigid material constructions cannot escape the workings of discursive hybridity.

»3 vintrar/3 winters indeed is a reflection on memory and forgetting, on people caught in the storm of times, with its destructive forces.« Nico Carpentier

Nico Carpentier is Senior Researcher at the Department of Informatics and Media of Uppsala University. In addition, he is a Docent at Charles University in Prague, and holds a part-time position as Associate Professor at the Communication Studies Department of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at Loughborough University and Cyprus University of Technology. Link for Nico Carpentier’s biography, publications and contact details.

References and material

Dubravka Ugrešić (1998) The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. London: Phoenix House.

Dragana Obradović (2011) “The ironic eternity of objects in Dubravka Ugrešić’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender”, Russian Literature, LXX(III): 415-441.

Tena Štivičić (2014) 3 Winters. London: Nick Hern Books.

Interview with Anja Suša, on 17 September 2019, at the Uppsala stadsteater.

Photographs 1 and 2 by Micke Sandström. Photographs 3 and 4 by Nico Carpentier, made during general rehearsal on 17 September 2019, at the Uppsala stadsteater.

»3 vintrar« väcker reflektioner. Professor Nico Carpentier gästbloggar om husets betydelse. Ett hus som står för många olika saker.

3 vintrar

Minnen och relationer sätts på prov i ett episkt familjedrama av Tena Štivičić

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