Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

10.5. Forms of Life: Theatre Forms as an Articulated Way of Life
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Herbert Gantschacher (Klagenfurt)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Forms of Theatre in Ruins of War

Marjan Bevk (Bovec, Slovenia)


The ruins of wars in Soca valley are a never ending inspiration for cultural and especially theatre events. The River Soca was an very important commercial and cultural road from Aquilea through Forum Iulii (Cividale), Kobarid, Bovec,. Predil pass to Carinthia and from there to Germany, Vienna and Budapest. It is the water of different cultures . Soca is the valley of peace but it is also a tourist and commercial road and the heaven of mountaineers and alpinists, unfortunately it changed many times to a bloody battlefields. On May 23 1915 during World War I it turned overnight into one of the bloodiest battlefields in the world's history, it became the synonym for horror, fear and death.

Lovely daughter of Alps, oh, what pains you endure
In this sorrowful hour, a martyr tormented! -
As your maidenly waters once lively and pure
Come to standstill and falter all bloodied and tainted
(Silvin Sardenko, Ode to Soca)

Isonzo! The Slovenians called the river Soca (Socha). And much of their history and humanity is contained in that name. The Isonzo linked the lives of these people, and rendered the lands fertile during troubles and tragedies. The river populated its banks with mythic beings, with legends. It crisis-crossed the territory with bridges for its meetings and quarrels, and on the ancient crossroads it guarded rocks dedicated to the river deity: "Aesontio sacrum". Faith and poetry. One of the greatest poets in the medieval ages, Walther von der Vogelweide who was going from court to court as a poet of love hosted in Aquileia by the Patriarch Wolger, wrote that it was the color of the Isonzo giving the lyrics lightly the feminine eyes of the songs. About the Isonzo are beautiful legends existing. Epos were written here with an atavistic feeling and the soul of people. But history is more cruel. It has the acrid smell of war and blood of an era which saw the burning thirst of the people from the north and south for conquest. A river tells a story, a history of wars and love songs. This is the Isonzo.

"Questo e l'Isonzo
e qui meglio
mi sono riconosciuto
docile fibre
(The voice of Giuseppe Ungaretti)

Julius Kugy , the avantgarde mountaineer who discovered the Julian Alps around the Isonzo wrote that the Isonzo was the most beautiful river in Europe, "der schönste Fluss Europas".

So much history around the bridge on the narrows of Salcano near Gorica / Gorizia / Görz ; it is a small, but great history. Here the train for Vienna once passed, and the bridge and the rail line between the mountains was one of the most beautiful and bold works of that time. The Salcano bridge, the pride of Austrian engineering, an eighty - five meter arch in Carsican blocks, was the largest stone river passage in the world. On July 19th 1906 the bridge demonstrated it's strength. By train the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand arrived for the opening ceremony. He came up from the train admiring the Isonzo, shaking hands with the makers of the bridge, and meeting the people of Salcano. Destined for the throne of Austria-Hungary his life ended at Sarajevo eight years later. But the use of this great bridge was interrupted by the tragedy of war. The last passenger train from Vienna passed on May 25, 1915. In the following years only batteries and soldiers were transported there, until the Italian forces occupied the city of Gorica / Gorizia / Görz in the sixth battle at the Isonzo in 1916. now 930 kilos of explosive shot the stones off the bridge towards the sky offending the Isonzo. It was 2:40 am, August 9th 1916, the Austro-Hungarian army was in retreat, the Italian forces in Salcano. It was one episode of an endless war at the Isonzo.

At midnight of May 23th 1915 on the boarder between Austria-Hungary and Italy were two armies facing each other. Italy started the attacks on the strategic most important line crossing Soca. The Austro-Hungarian high command decided to stop the Italian forces right there - at Soca. The two former allies created a new European battlefield in The Great War - the South-Western Front. The front line between the Austro-Hungarian "Wehrmacht" and the Italian troops was 600 kilometers long, starting southwards from Stelvio Pass on the triple border between Switzerland, Italy and Austria-Hungary, crossing Tyrol, Carnia and the region of Soca to the Adriatic Sea. The most frequent area for combats between Italy and Austria-Hungary took place on the southern leg of the front crossing the Slovene ethnic territory with a length of 90 kilometers. Here was the so-called Soca - Front, the Austro-Hungarian defense line starting from the mountain Rombon (2208m), dipping into the valley at Bovec, climbing up again the mountains to Krn and then following the river Soca to Doberdob, Monfalcone and ending to the west at the mouth of Timav to the Adriatic Sea in the Gulf of Trst / Trieste / Triest. The front of Soca left a bloody scare on the Slovene lands.

But there were Slovenian poets and writers occupied by the front line, living the soldier's life under fire, behind the lines, in infirmaries, barracks, captivity, during leaves and on trains bringing them to the front. The words sprung from their sorrow when they had to leave their families and their beloved ones, going for war to the battles of no return.

We must remember the Slovenian poets and writers rethinking their feelings of Isonzo, the charm of its cliffs, the mysterious color of its water carried in the soul of its people and history. The so-called "sacred river" is memory, a remembrance of the blood that useless war of 28 months colored the beautiful Socha. The Slovenian paet France Bevk wrote his novel about the battlefield of San Gabriele, the story of two soldiers dying by embracing each other, the dagger of each one in the other's heart, and remaining there, their skeletons among the stones crusted with blood. And Bevk had envisioned the children of those soldiers departing from the point of a romantic interlude. The Italian Giulio Barni had entrusted to his "Buffa" the episode of an infantryman about his sought stopping the blood of a wounded soldier from Bosnia in the Austro-Hungarian army, "the enemy", a shepherd from Banja Luka, as strong as an oak, felt down by a small bullet. Dying, the Bosnian called him "brate", brother.

Renato Serra, who did not believe in war, wrote: " This moment which falls to us, will never return if we permit it to pass ... We shall grow old in failure. We shall be the people who failed their destiny. No one will need to say it, yet we will know it to become true; we shall think we have forgotten it, and yet we shall feel it always; one does not forget about destiny ... And it will be useless to blame others..."

Men died, but also the villages and the fields. Only Socha flew and never stopped. Alojzij Res noted in his diary on June 25th 1915: "Our houses ended in ruins under the rain of enormous iron shells. It is as if by mockery nature has exposed in this frame all of a paradise in the Gorizia Valley. In the narrow region of the Isonzo, an opalescent green, the nude fields lay under the sunset, luxuriant and inviolate, in a network of strong golden rays; the beauty of our land hurt more than the blows of Italian grenades". The tragic thrilling war, the glitter of bayonets, the collective drunkenness of war, the curse of the days; thousands and thousands of thoughts ended in note-books or lived on in song. The journalist Alice Schalek (became world famous by the play of Karl Kraus "The Last Days of Mankind") also stopped at a marvel of flowers that danced on the wind above the ruins and she wrote: "While death walks around Gorizia, the fields and the trees bloom everywhere with omnipotent exuberance. Roses, roses and still roses..."

"The first year of war introduced into Slovene poetry the motifs of Austro-Hungarian patriotism, heroism and sacrifice in the name of 'creed, home and emperor'; however, soon there were heard the first strains of sorrow for the fallen ones, fear of unknown, hope for a safe return, an expectation of letters from the loved ones. When in 1915 Italy entered the war, new motifs appeared in the contemporary Slovenian literature, among them a typical Slovenian figure of an exile." (J. Lovrencic "Fugitives"). Slovenian lands were drowning in blood: the fights on Soca found their way into verses of A. Miklavcic "Moon Shines on Soca". But the third year of war brought even more evil, and the life behind the frontline as well as in camps even more sorrows: A. Gradnik "The Song of an Old Refugee"; J. Lovrencic "Barracks: A Fugitive Mother beside a Craddle". In the last year of the Great War the motifs of rebellion, famine, strikes, poverty and, once more, the exile and decline of moral values appeared in the literature as in "On A March, The Soldier's Widow" by France Bevk.

The war also echoed in Slovenian narrative prose. The first Slovenian war novel DOBERDOB by Prezihov Voranc (1940) climbed most intensely into the themes of World War I and the Soca Front. The second part of the novel is set on the scene of the most atrocious combats on this battlefield, the bloodied plateau of Doberdob. The author himself called his novel "The War Novel of the Slovenian Nation." (More about are in the book of Petra Svoljsak "The Front of Socha", CZ 2002, p.101-102)

For our ideas of cultural-theatrical events on the ruins of wars drama is the most inspiring form. France Bevk wrote a one-act play "In Cavern". France Bevk participated in both wars in the 20th century at the Soca. Bevk confronted us with the mordacious psychology of a bunker in the rocks called the cavern. Many of the Slovenian poets and writers participated actively in World War I, some of them as Bevk in both. A lot of 20th century writers from the region of Soca used, at least for their early works, their experience from World War I and from 25 years of Italian occupation by the fascistic authority continuing to World War II.

Here now I am referring specially about the authors who were part of this dark era in Posocje. This kind of literature based on depositions and reminiscences talks critically about the moments of war. And at least later the discoveries of the original diaries or correspondences from World War I and the follow up of it or World War II: from people, who were imprisoned by the fascistic authority - some of them were sent to concentration camps of fascism, and from people who were kept in concentration camps during the nazi occupation. A lot of themes on high aesthetic level are presenting some kind of different heroic stories of individuals on the ruins of war; these stories are not heroic-military statistics. The destiny of mankind and his renewal is an important theme. Expressionism started to emerge in Germany before World War I. The influence of expressionism came to Slovenia with the massacre of the I. World War. In the time of the massacres of World War I expressionism started to influence Slovenian arts. At first it was an activism and the struggle for a new role of man. Not man - number; not man - obeying soldier; not man - without personality; not man in the service of the state's interest; not man in the service of peace and order, not the victory of people over people and also not a triumph of the machine that was invented by man. This general - basic view on man needs to be changed. This was the Slovenian expressionism's basic interest during the beginning of the World War I. However, when the war came also to the Slovenian territory in 1915 and Slovenian young men started to loose their lives almost on their own thresholds and most of the people in the area of the river Soca had to surrender their homes to the demolition ambitions of military planning and destructions by canons and bombs. They had to run away like a mass of fugitives. Also in the literature the wind of expressionistic rebellion against concrete - war started to blow. Art and specially theatre was a movement. The drama in the Slovenian culture remained most of the forms also for Slovenian expressionists (as well as for Germany the German ones). As an artistic way the dramatic situation was dominated only by man. And it was a unique form as "an event from a man", because the theatre is a live event of dramatic forms (drama, dramatic poetry, dramatic prose, dramatic music, dance ...). It is also the most appropriate form for the cultural contents in the ruins and their reconstruction in the area of the Soca front.

Why do I find it necessary to mention this and think about this? There are more reasons than one for that:

1. A few years ago feverish excavation of the memory of the Soca front started. People were gathering grenades, guns, the caverns were being excavated, trenches were being reconstructed, mule roads too. The wounds in the nature around emerald Soca were reopening. Some round tables discussions were organized with military analysts, some kind of historians were fighting about the numbers of dead corpses in the battles, who were the brave or braver one and who the coward ones; was the Herman Fort in Bovec hit by a grenade of this or that type of canon on this or that position. Every year exhibitions dealing with the events of war and even reconstructed sections of front line were opened. Many people attended these events. Speeches from politicians and "generals" ( highly ranked military representatives from today national armies that fought here) praised and self-praised the events of war with big words as we were and we are all against war even though we wear military uniforms. Or maybe this is the reason we wear them? The voice of a man who was taken by force to the military rags and pushed into a front against the enemies bayonets; a man who was suddenly over night deported from his home to far away landscape - these voices were kept silent. And they kept silent till today. Is this kind of relation toward history a cultural act? If the answer is yes, then it is not a cultural act.

2. Another reason is that the ruins of the Soca front and consequently also the ruins of World War II are the ideal natural scenery in which we can put the today's "ambiental" performances. In this way we are starting to re-establish the relation between present and history and consequently building a bridge between past and future. Theatre has the power to expose the tragic and absurd of blindness and hatred by researching the men's position in given situation and looking for the poetic moments of humanity of individual pushed in extreme situation.

3. At last but not least I am familiar with my heart and soul tied to the banks of Soca as a native from there. For me it is consequently normal, that an artist like me is moved by the research for the faith, love, fears, happiness of the anonymous individuals who were just numbers in military formations or camps.

These are the reasons why an idea about some kind of cultural caravan along the river Soca was born in me. On the ruins where two armies were positioned fighting each other and nearby monuments the performances of our cultural journey should be organized as some kind of stations. Monuments and ruins are silent witnesses of human tragedies. In trenches, caverns, forts, mule roads and in the river Soca crying, laughter, memories, fears and pains of individuals with no names are hidden. That is why I am developing some kind of a travelling "ambiental" theatre as the most appropriate form to express human fates, which are hiding behind horrible exhibited articles (grenades, caverns, trenches, graveyards) in the Soca front ruins. Fates who are speaking about devastated souls of individuals who were in the name of some higher purpose (there is always a higher purpose) thrown into the absurd situation when the death of the other human being is saving your own life. Relates to that kind of theatre is the so-called poor theatre, because such forms of theatres do not need buildings or modern technical equipment. However we have to have a good feeling for stories from the ruins of the wars. We have to let the stories to touch us. We have to have the ability to create the relation toward the stories from the past. We will see that the themes from the ordinary soldier's stories and people from the territory where war was present are similar or even identical for the situation through World War I, for the era of fascism, for World War II or now at the least for the last war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (this is true at least also for the experiences of my family).

This kind of theatre has to work with simple but effective forms and expressions. Here l'art pour l'art experiments could not come to their purpose. Only the most silent and deepest emotions can talk to the silence of the pain and suffering of millions. Here is no place for the spectacles in theatrical sense. Anyhow for the modern speakers about history who are interested only in personal profits the Soca front is a nicely archived and reconstructed boxing fight on the wonderful waves of emerald Soca with as much visitors as possible.

The purpose of this kind of "front theatre" is a voyage with spectators along the natural ruins of the Soca front (and too from World War II). At the appropriate places it is necessary listening together to the straits and fates of people who were dying here or just suffer terribly. That is why this is a cultural caravan. The Soca is not a long river. But with the lines of the river in serpentines, into canyons and gorges it looks like some kind of unhappy. On the short path the Soca changes the wild current into a peaceful one and vice versa so many times like a dramatic situation. And if we add the wild and at the same time the poetic landscape with wounds from war and natural disasters (earthquake, land slides) we have the perfect scenery. The effect of the weather that changes so fast from crystal clear sky to the roof of the dark widely dancing clouds with thunder echoing from the mounatins and lightning is and will be always better than any "Sony Echo" or "Reverb Machine". It is indeed the exiting and unexpected scenery of nature that brings us again and again into the event. We have only to add the tools of the actors with their articulated voices, cries, intonations and melodies and to translate straits of memories into words for a theatrical situation and offer them to the spectators. Acting with their bodies and gestures they are reviving the images of memories and dreams into pictures for the spectators. The song is sung live accompanied with real instruments. Different languages are not an obstacle here in such kind of theatre search and research. The diversity of languages gives universality to the themes of the performances, that unites the diversity.

Three years ago the first attempt of this kind of performance happened - "The Letters from the Front". It is based on the letters and diaries of soldiers. This project is still alive and is performed every summer on locations along the Soca river. The project opened the way for poetic rethinking about tragedies and heroism in World War I. It opened new locations for cultural gathering. It unites protagonists from different nationalities and the spectators - natives and tourists. It was the first project that united the themes of letters and diaries of soldiers of different nationalities in drama of love, expectations, fears - men's primal senses that come out in passionate drama when a man is send in front of the enemy's bayonet. In this drama there is necessarily no place for military heroism. We are not counting the dead and we are not preparing reports in statistics. It was also the first project to bring forward new places and sceneries for performances along the river Soca. It was performed under the reflector of the great sun or at the sunset in the dusk or in a combination of natural light like fire and theatre light. Performed in the Fort Kluze, in front of the ossuary in Kobarid, in trenches on Kolovrat, on the ruins of infirmaries near Gorizia, on the Carso plateau above Doberdob, close to Trieste bay. It was also performed on the ruins of the cultural home in Sarajevo. Only just there we felt the universality of the theme and the emotional relation between history and present. This gives us the power to persist and to enlarge the project and include in the performance now the character of an Austrian soldier just like we included for the occasion the person and the story of a Czech soldier. The ruins along Soca are waiting and offering new stories for international projects - small mobile "ambiental" performances of nationalities that fought here. And there are many of them - Italians, Slovenians, Croatians, Bosnians, Serbians, Czechs, Slovakians, Ukrainians, Polish, Rumanians, Hungarians, Germans, Austrians, and Russians. Let us sail with culture along the river Soca.

"What remains us of the war at the Soca? After more than 80 years, what is kept in the memories and imagination of the people, particularly those of us 'on whose threshold' the war was actually taking place and who continue to live with its signs? Every monument, cemetery and memorial plaque has its own story taking us to the time when it was erected; but the message they are carrying is timeless. They tell us about pain and death, hope and mercy. The war in the Soca Valley is still deeply embedded in the land's surface. All the relics of the war are documents speaking about the human will to survive. Trenches and strongholds, caverns, water holes, fortresses, loop-holes silently bear witnesses of the fights. They were there when it was necessary to hide, entrenched and kill so as to be killed." (Petra Svoljsak, The Front of Socha,CZ , p.19-20)

Let's give at the ruins of front the space to the culture to speak and not to politicians and generals. They have been a long time against us in the 20th century. The Isonzo landscape is one of the dead and forgotten names of the Great War - "... unbekannte ... nepoznani ... ignoto ... unknown". It is also the landscape of the fascistic occupation anxious years and later the grip of another great war.

War, evil war, fights, the front, imprisonment, houses destroyed. Obsessive tales without end, in the winter evenings, harvesting, husking corn that your grandmother had placed in your heart. Recounting fables were fantasizing in a world never seen before.

The Isonzo widens as nearer as coming to the sea, flowing slowly, the undulations are just shiver. It is an appointment that perhaps no river in the world experiences so intensely with mountains and valleys, like being born and becoming more and an adult. The alpine enclosure in all is present; from the Canin, settled in Friuli like an old ancestor, to the triangle of the Matajur, to the king, Tricorno, a solitary peak in the heavens, to the beak of the Krn with sides of white new snow, to Sabotino and through the dark barrier of the Tarnovo plateau until the gateway of the barbarians, to the mysterious mountains that was called King, to the cliffs of Duino and the white arch of the sea that attends Trieste. It is an immense stare, insatiable. Behind us, the Golf of Panzano seems to push the final bit of the Isonzo towards this protuberance called the Sdobba Promontory. In solitude does the river finish its day among men. The shipyard cranes seem like grey spiders on the beach, with their arched legs. Even the shipyards are history, the pride of the Isonzo.

"What dies, or seems to die, will be reborn tomorrow in the legends of Val Trenta, in the breath of the pastures of the Val Zadnjica, in the descent along the Alpine valley, the Carso and the Friulian plains. It will sing again, the Isonzo, its psalm to the greatness of God, the privilege of its colors, it will speak again with unrepeatable singularity of the polyphony that has inspired men and poets, it will renew the memory of blood and love, the admonition of history. It will pass over artificial borders placed by human illusions and will speak forever again of the indissolubility and completeness of nature in a land that in the great creative project had all the signs of benevolence and unity. It will remind men that that project requires response." (Macor Celso, Aesontius,B-V Editori 1991, p 194)

© Marjan Bevk (Bovec, Slovenia)


1. Simic, Marko (1996): Po sledeh Soske fronte, Mladinska knjiga Ljubljana

2. Dr. Svoljsak, Petra (2002): The Front on Soca, Cankarjeva zalozba

3. Macor, Celso (1991): Aesontuis, B&V Editori Gorizia

4. Dr. Kralj, Lado (1986): Ekspresionizem, SAZU Ljubljana

5. Vasja Klavora (1991): Plavi kriz, Zalozba Lipa Koper

6. Vasja Klavora (1993): Blaukreuz, Hermagoras / Mohorjeva Klagenfurt / Celovec

10.5. Forms of Life Theatre Forms as an Articulated Way of Life

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For quotation purposes:
Marjan Bevk (Bovec, Slovenia): Forms of Theatre in Ruins of War. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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