Michelle Cheyne - Staging Europe Adrift: The Trope of “Europe” in Theatrical Representations of the Migrant Experience

Michelle Cheyne

University of Massachusetts Dartmouth


Theatrical works staging Europe through the prism of human trafficking and European-bound migration across the Mediterranean have situated the Italian island of Lampedusa in the public imagination as the geographic symbol of Europe's failure to respond adequately to humanitarian needs. A wide range of performance pieces on the subject of Lampedusa use different media to explore how migration and human trafficking call into question the authenticity of the European Union and European culture’s commitment to integration, human rights, and diversity. Engagement with what can arguably be termed the artistic trope of migration in the first decade of the 21st century, and notably those focused on Lampedusa, are key to understanding how the trope of Europe and its symbolic representations are constructed and deployed. This paper juxtaposes an analysis of a select corpus of theatrical works by Lina Prosa, Marco Martinelli, Anders Lustgarten, and Zentrum für Politische Schönheit with a selection of political cartoons in order to sketch the key tropes in the broader spectrum of symbolic figures of Europe in the early 21st century and to consider the stakes and consequences in how artists and artistic institutions engage with tropes of Europe and the political reality of Europe in the early 21st century.


Les œuvres dramatiques qui mobilisent la traite des êtres humains et la migration trans-méditerranéenne vers l'Europe comme éléments structurant pour une mise en scène de l'Europe ont réussi à fixer l'île italienne de Lampedusa dans l'imaginaire public comme symbole géographique de l'échec de l'Europe à tenir ses engagements humanitaires. Les praticiens des arts du spectacle vivant se servent de plusieurs médias pour créer des œuvres consacrées au sujet des naufrages au large de Lampedusa pour démontrer que la migration et la traite des humains remet en cause l'authenticité de l'engagement de l'Union européenne et de la culture européenne en matière d’intégration, de droits humains et de diversité. Analyser le trope esthétisé et esthétisant de la migration dans la première décennie de la XXIe siècle, notamment les figures qui se focalisent autour de Lampedusa, offre une clé importante pour mieux comprendre comment s’entend et se déploie le trope de l'Europe et ses représentations symboliques. Cet article juxtapose une analyse d'une sélection d'œuvres dramatiques de Lina Prosa, Marco Martinelli, Anders Lustgarten et Zentrum für Politische Schönheit avec une analyse de dessins satiriques tirés de la presse. Ainsi, il identifie les tropes fondamentaux dans l’éventail plus large des figures symboliques de l'Europe à l'aube du XXIe siècle et interroge les enjeux et les conséquences au cœur des représentations artistiques de l'Europe et de la réalité politique actuelle de l'Europe.

Mots clés : Crise, Représentation, Europe, Mise en scène de la migration
Key words : Crisis, Representation, Europe, Staging migration


In 1536, the geographer Sebastian Münster produced his now iconic Mappa Europae representing Europe as a sovereign. His portrayal of Europe imagines this entity as a queen, halfway between the Greek myth of Europa and the allegory of empire. This map provides a strong reminder of the interconnected nature of the three civilized continents that Münster and his contemporaries believed comprised the world: Europe, Africa, and Asia. While the new world of the Americas had been discovered by then, Münster’s map does not integrate it into the Renaissance political geography. Instead, in this 16th century representation, Europe as a human space stands between the other two continents. The borders and geological formations give this stately queen her form. If we fastforward to our present, what do we see? What does Europe look like on the world stage in the 21st century? Today, empire has become an economic supranational union. Given this change, how do the 21st-century visual representations of Europe compare to Münster’s map? What specifically are the visual and theatrical tropes used to represent Europe? How do theatre and art participate in the negotiation—both artistic and political—to define this “space” by confronting spectators with tropes of Europe and of its outer limits? 

This paper looks at how Europe is performed in an attempt to address these questions. By “performed”, I mean how the institution or entity of Europe is realized, that is to say rendered real, through symbolic public performance. Here, however, we will not examine the political performance like elections and other political rituals used to create and breathe life into Europe. Rather, our attention will focus on artistic performances through which Europe is represented, like political caricatures in the press and performance arts (arts du spectacle). A quick inventory of art representing Europe shows a daunting and ever-growing number of pieces of work. This current paper analyzes a representative sample in an effort to better understand the major trends and mechanisms at play. Thus, without pretending to provide an exhaustive analysis, this study seeks to elucidate how Europe is staged today and the stakes and consequences involved. It is sensitive to the fact that any representative sample is bound to the historical context. These findings must be framed within the broader over-reaching narrative of the evolution of tropes of Europe. Thus, this paper is one piece of a larger picture.

In fact, I would suggest that the second decade of the 21st century stages Europe as adrift, paradoxically imagining it a contrario, that is to say defining Europe by that which it is not, more specifically defining it through its failures. Arguably, migration, more than any other “policy failures” (agriculture, fishing, energy, bureaucracy, fiscal responsibility), appears intimately linked to what Europe is not in an ontological sense. In many respects, this is logical. If elections, diplomacy, legislation, and regulation articulate, on the one hand, what Europe is, then migration defines, on the other hand, what is not European. Such distinctions place great tension on the underlying principles that lie at the heart of the European project, namely human rights, democratic values, and liberalizing the movement of people, goods, and services. Migration, in concrete and human terms, stages Europe, even as it appears to call Europe and its self-proclaimed values into question. While political rhetoric and action highlight this tension with the aim of resolving it, artistic representations and productions highlight the tension and problematize it. Artistic representations, as I hope to show, play a key role in helping the public cope with this unresolved tension and ambiguity, shuttling spectators between ideals, failure, and hope, highlighting the active, creative search to find a way to introduce the human into Europe. Where political rhetoric promises solutions, artistic rhetoric raises questions. While artistic rhetoric, and theatrical rhetoric might sometimes, but not always, offer hope, it does not claim to have answers. Analyzing how artists using tropes of migration and tropes of failure to stage Europe helps better understand the mechanisms and power of such tropes as well as the distinction to be made between political and artistic rhetoric. This paper uses a small corpus of political cartoons, performance art, and theatrical pieces to trace this phenomenon. We begin by looking at how five political cartoons by Patrick Chappatte, Tasos Anastasiou, Emanuele Del Rosso, and Nicolas Lambert dramatize Europe as a failure, lampooning the modern face of Münster’s sovereign queen, in particular in relation to migration. Then, we turn to plays and performance art by Lina Prosa, Marco Martinelli, Anders Lustgarten and Philipp Ruch’s Zentrum für Politische Schönheit, as well as sculpture by Mimmo Palandino to examine how the dead bodies from the “migrant crisis” are mobilized as symptoms of Europe’s many failings. These failures are characterized as structural. These failures need to be considered critically to understand how they are articulated, their validity and to what end they are mobilized.
Mis à jour le 08 septembre 2020.