TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 1.1. Europäische Identitäten, Europäische Realitäten
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Christoph Parry (University of Vaasa)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Public issues, private tensions:
envisaging European ethos in David Edgar's
Pentecost (1)

Eman El Attar (Kuwait) [BIO]




When David Edgar decided to give up the long established pattern of his “State of the Nation” plays – deploring the national state of England –in 1990, his new emblem was to embark on writings for the new era’s most perceptible quest: the integration of the new Europe, and the articulation of unified European identity. With an overflowing tide of globalization and its cultural demands, different dimensions of “identity” politics have – undeniably- imposed themselves onto the continental scenery.  

First, as a preliminary step for integration, there was a strong claim for the need to democratize the whole of the post-cold war Europe, and to spread the codifying Western model to the Eastern boundaries, or rather to set a new European Frontier”; eastward. The task was no easy business:

The difficulties faced by advocates of a New Europe begin with the tension between national and supranational interests,… Another major block to a dynamic new Europe is the legitimation deficit facing the EU. This concept, widely discussed in foreign affairs and political theory literature, …means that a gap exists between the legitimation …needed for a healthy institution, and the actual state of affairs. Legitimation  can come from high performance…, from democratic procedures…, and from acknowledged support of the membership… The EU suffers from problems in all three areas.(2)

Secondly, the claim for a unified European identity was countered, or rather shaken, by the lack of cohesion in identifying the “Eastern” vs. “Western” model of the “European”, or what Reinlett coins as “an identity deficit.(3). The assumption that the fall of the Berlin Wall was paralleled by the collapse of an eastern alter ego of the solidified European identity per se, proved to be unfounded. And while the “cultural industry(4) of globalization stressed “the cultural dimension”(5)of a common history and shared dreams as base for “the invocation of identity”(6). Europeans “(have) almost pushed (culture) off the agenda, or at least eroded its claim to primacy”(7). Furthermore, Europeans’ repeated rephrasing of the improbability of the oneness of a European cultural heritage presented an ultimate negation. On the one hand, Western Europeans used to look down upon the multiculturalism of the East, and regard it as a cornerstone for “identity disintegration.” On the other, Easterners behold their cultural diversity as root for an enriched “identity.” And while the West regarded the complacent democracy of its segment as a solid fence of integration, the East does still lament the lost potential for a sense of security and stability of long decades under socialism, albeit of equal regression. European premises have thus been reduced into mere criteria for measuring, or rather deciding on, a political as well as national categorization of identity, a practice that fostered “in central and Eastern Europe … deeply rooted suspicions toward Western Europe,(and) skepticism about European integration (that) gets enmeshed with what (we) would call the globalization panic”(8).

Such an avalanche of concepts, images, and ideas inspired the talented Edgar to compose his challenging, controversial, and polemical Pentecost in such an unmatched contrivance. He sets his stage as a forum so as to state his long held ideologies regarding minority rights, ethnic dilemmas, and the curse of politics in the lives of peoples. In the play, Edgar seems to be the critic of the “identity obsessed Europeans”(9),the European cultural milieu that sways in the contradictions of decades-long cultural detachment between East and West on the one hand, and the defender of the culturally marginalized people of the East who – for him – symbolize the last remains of the now dead spirit of “revolutionary socialism on the other. He relates back in 2004: “When the wall came down, I did feel it was the death of ideals that I had a relationship with”(10) ( O’Mahony, 18)

The mainstream of his ideas evolves out of the core domain of the formation of the new “European” cultural identity, and the new concept of “European” nationalism in the age of globalization.  

The play simply displays its author’s conception that the main clash between the East and West of Europe is not so much political and economic, but mainly cultural and ideological. This is visible, firstly, in the West’s attempts at the cultural dispossession and displacement(11) as well as the ethnic marginalization of the East:  

Gabrella: You think we don’t know what you say? East Europe, where even crooks don’t know what icons worth.Where you pickup masterpiece for string of beads. Where everything is ugly and pathetic. Where they botch up socialism and make even bigger botch of market system too (Edgar, Pentecost, Act One, Scene 1).

And secondly, it can be seen in the endeavors to enforce its ideological patterns onto the cultural conceptualization of the East. Especially in “a ruined economy and pauperized society”(12), such as in the neglected border-town of the play’s setting, submission becomes a high possibility. In order to guarantee cultural sanction and political recognition, the East almost always reverts to the Western Pattern, as expressed by one of the characters in The Shape of The Table (1990), a play by Edgar that also belongs to his “state of Europe” category:

Let’s just get back to the normal way of things, the way they do them in the West (The Shape of The Table, Act One)        

>From the very outset of the play, we have a display of a miscellaneous cultural parade: the East of Europe, as represented by the native art curator of the national museum, Gabrella Pecs, and the West, represented by the British art historian Oliver Davenport. The fact that Oliver is invited by the native artist is rather significant, and the tone is set for an initial cultural engagement:

Oliver: Presumably that’s “forward- looking.”
Gabrella: Towards radiant future in which everybody’s quite as primitive and backwards clods as everybody else (Edgar,Pentecost, Act One, Scene 1)

After a while, the cultural parade is joined by people who represent the two far poles of religious hierarchy: Father Sergei Bojovic (Orthodox), and Father Petr Karolyi (Catholic), others who represent the national dynasty of the state, Mikhail Czaba (minister), Pusbas (Leader of the heritage), and Leo Katz (Art historian), an outsider who represents the challenge coming to Europe from “America’s pop- cultural hegemony”(13). America’s intervening with Europe’s internal affairs- as here represented by the relationship between east and west - is quite patronizing on the part of Edgar. He uses this episode as to pinpoint the urgency of European integration and coherence in the face of the outsider who acts as a threat to its national history and art, the shared civilization that is deeply engraved in the crypts of the renaissance.

Outsiders and passers-by of the new European frontier are also introduced to the cultural scene. First, we have the Swedish tourist who shows no reverence to the sanctity of the place. His daring practices go so far as to as perform illicit acts by having all- positions sex with the local young prostitute inside the church. Later, the situation gains a new political perspective when a group of refugees invade the stage, and join the host; Europe is the mosaic disparity of cultural diversity, and thus, it shall be.


Structural layers of the play

The main issue of the play emerges on five structural layers; language, religion, art, ethnicity, and history:

1. Language

The Tower of Babel, a biblical story that relates how the inhabitants of Babel, at the very start of humanity, were united because they used to speak the same language. In their unity, they decided to build a tower, so high that its top was to reach heaven. God felt the challenge that their unity could do to His will and glory. He decided to deprive mankind of the source of their strength, and stimulus to their unity: speaking a unified universal language. He ordered them to descend the tower, separated and scattered them throughout the whole earth by diffusing their language into many different tongues and speech communities.

In Pentecost, the legend of the inhabitants of the Tower of Babel comes back to life in the guise of more than thirty characters who speak in different tongues, represent different linguistic nations and can hardly communicate. The group represents the people of Babel after the descent. English is here suggested to be the language of Babel in that each of the characters tries to use or develop a form of it. English – as Edgar suggests in the play – will act as the new Lingua franca in the era of globalization:

Czaba:…does anyone has problem that we speak in English? (Edgar,Pentecost, Act One, Scene Two)

All through the 105 pages of the play, Edgar gives us a really hard time trying to follow up the many different languages that the characters speak (about seven different tongues), not to mention the linguistic games that many of the characters exercise, especially the highly intellectual amongst them, like Gabrella and Oliver,

Gabrella: … Unfortunately villagers cannot agree new name. Historic name, for Hungarians is Cholovac, for Saxons Klozendorf, for rest of people Clop.
Oliver:No.No, I was only thinking :just one vowel shift, and I’d be stranded miles from anywhere,…Clap….”Clap” means VD. Venereal, - …”clop” means a – the sound of the horse’s hooves (Edgar,Pentecost, Act One, Scene One).

Even the English language itself is used in a rather confused way, with some of the characters speaking broken English that is sometimes reduced to a pidgin, and other times even to idiomatic paradigms. The bluff that Edgar is after shows clearly in the linguistic juxtaposition of the only three characters in the play who use English as their native tongue. First, Oliver Davenport, the sophisticated art historian who speaks standardized English, the way perhaps Shaw would recommend, and William Wordsworth would speak. Second, Toni, flashy, showy television hostess, who uses such a low standard of English that Gabrella astutely comments:

Gabrella:You know, sometimes it quite hard to believe you two (Oliver and Toni) coming from same country. (Edgar,Pentecost, Act Two, Scene Five).

Leo speaks American English; yet another variant of the same language, which represents a challenge to the assumption that a unified tongue is all that people need. In a hasty flavour of “the American way” of doing things, and the spirit of the “stock culture” that he represents, Leo uses a shorthand English and crude statements to issue immature judgments and offer readymade solutions:

Leo: “Cos that’s what happens, Gabriella. That’s what paintings are. They’re stars, of the Hollywood variety. With tours and fans. And franchised merchandise. And – entourage. And as such, they are, they must be, universal and eternal (Edgar, Pentecost, Act One, Scene Four).

Oliver’s grim remark to the notion is quite patronizing:

Oliver: Two nations divided by a common language (Edgar, Pentecost, Act Two, Scene Five).

Edgar is deliberate in his thorough investigation of the use of language to emphasize the linguistic superiority of the East over the West (The people of the Tower of Babel who used a unified language, also, came from the East). Whenever Gabrella and Oliver communicate – despite it being Oliver’s own native language, he is inarticulate, sunk in his thoughts, and troubled with finding words that would convey his meanings,

Oliver: … this does appear- thus far at least- to be, well, shall we say, akin, to Giotto’s Lamentation in the Arena Chapel, Padua (Edgar, Pentecost, Act One, Scene One).

Gabrella, on the other hand, is highly eloquent, articulate, and fluent,

Gabrella: Because if I am right, that painting with perspective even kind of painted before Giotto born, then I think I make pretty damned substantial finding here. ( Edgar, Act One, Scene One).  

But the most crucial and cynical, part of Edgar’s approach to the use of language in the play comes with the Minister for Conservation of the National Monument’s grotesque call to the other characters: “We can all be good Europeans, speaking in American” (Edgar Pentecost, Act One, Scene Two)

In the main, despite the linguistic relativity that the characters demonstrate every now and then {Davenport tells us that in Hindi, they use the same word to refer to both ”yesterday” and  “tomorrow”-(Edgar,Petecost, Act One, Scene One)}, as well as snappish jargons {Gabrella reveals the fact that, in her native language, there is no difference between “to” and “from,” to which Oliver soon responds:  “This would explain the taxis” (Edgar, Petecost, Act One, Scene One)}, the play still “celebrates language as a precious instrument of mobility in our world”(Chamberlain, 21).

2. Religion

The religious aspect of the play starts with the title of the play itself, a witty parable on the possibility of cultural regeneration of Europe. In Christianity “Pentecost” commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and denotes redemption, salvation, and the promise that mankind be united by the gift of tongues. The action of the play is set in a Romanesque church near the border of this Eastern European country, or rather located “on the pivot between east and west(14). The church, we come to know, was once an orthodox church, a mosque, a catholic church, a stable for Napoleon’s horses, a torture chamber for the Nazis, and a museum of the Soviet proletariat. The confused origin of the church, while it represents the muddle of cultural intervention and political ambivalence, adds to the historical sense and cultural involvement of the place.

3. Art

Art plays the major part in Edgar’s fivefold cultural identity equation. The country itself where the events of the play take place is an “epicenter…(of ) art and history”: “On the one hand, the Illyrian fields of art and music. On the other, the bog of late- capitalism and ex- communism. Hence the fresco: an icon of the Renaissance moment – the beginning of “civilization.”(15) The episode about the fresco stresses the cultural engagement of art. The play opens against an artistic background of a historical fresco which initiates the whole stream of “such cultural conundrums”(16) that lasts till its very end, when the fresco is destroyed. The fresco is discovered in our Romanesque church, with all the confused history, and blurred heritage it represents. The undecided identity of the setting foreshadows the controversy over the origin of the piece of art. The game of possession and ownership that ran before with the church, starts now with the fresco by representatives from religious groups; both Orthodox and Catholic, of state, and of art. On the other hand, conflict also ensues over what could be the best way to handle the fresco. Parties differ as whether it should be left it in its own place, or rather to be moved to the national museum which might be a better home for it or maybe to have it tour the lands as a blockbuster.

The fresco turns out to resemble in so many ways the Italian Giotto’s famous painting: the lamentation, and to predate it, too. To the Western European retrospective mind, Giotto represented the “spark” that “ignited”(17) the Western Renaissance. Gabrella insists that the fresco is original, and that it possibly predates Giotto’s lamentation. Oliver expresses incredulity and confusion, while he is rather dazzled by the perfection of the piece. He sums up his perception of art and the painting by simply referring to it as “the starting pistol for the next 600 years” (Pentecost, Act One, Scene 1). He continues:

Here of all places, the frontier between the medieval and the modern world (Pentecost, Act One, Scene 1).

To accept such an intellect shattering assumption amounts to nothing less than venturing to re-write European history itself. If it proved true, it would turn out that the real spark of the European renaissance started in the East, “cultural credit”(18) will befall the East rather than the West. The East will then profess a better claim and a more solid background for being truly “European,”

To a people who have played unwilling host for centuries – to the Communists, the Nazis, the Turks- an authenticated discovery would do more than galvanize their shattered national pride. It would show the rest of Europe, which has balked at letting them join the economic club, that they have contributed something more to Western culture, as Gabriella wryly notes, than the proletarian quilts and painted carts that now stock her State Museum(19).

The cultural intricacy the playwright creates by indicating the delicacy and fragility of the piece does not go without noticing. It imposes the postulation that the human civilization and the history of the mankind, albeit great and potential, its delicacy and fragile nature needs careful mustering and better handling in order to be protected from the hostile forces of time and kept from decay(20).

In the second act of the play, the fresco gains more value than merely being a piece of art when it is held “hostage “ together with the art historians and other art fans by the group of refugees. The refugees, apparently realize the artistic and historic value of the   piece, they use it as pawn in their negotiations with the political authorities of the country.         

4. Ethnicity

While the debate over the origin of the fresco and what is to be its destiny reaches its zenith in the near the end of Act One, a group of refugees who belong to different ethnicities, and speak in different languages, burst onto the stage, and “the play is on its next big agenda, can the community of Man ultimately transcend national borders”(21). The refugees demand asylum and work-permits: a demand so basic that it subsides the sophisticated claims over the fresco. This scene forms the climatic height of the play. The positive statement that Edgar poses here, is that when human destiny itself is at stake, all talk about art, history, culture, language, and even religion seems to be out of context. The group of multiple ethnicities who are now undesired and almost outcasts is meant to highlight the crisis of some Eastern European countries, especially Yugoslavia, and the West’s indifference and reluctance to interfere.

Just as the true identity of the fresco is now called into question, the quest for identity of those refugees probes itself as a possible paradigm. In a sense, the confused interaction of the group of refugees, their lack of self-esteem and national affiliation endorses them in a framework of seekers of identity rather than of asylum,

Yasmin: … You are 300 million people in the European community. I think you can squeeze in a dozen more. (Pentecost, Act Two, Scene Five)

It is both satiric and pathetic that the only identity Europe is willing to bestow upon members of this group is that of “terrorists”(!) who are eventually sentenced to death and killed. In his scholarly analysis of the play, “Competing Ideas” Robert L. King recalls what used to recur in the media during the Yugoslavian civil war, “They say they Bosnia and ethnic cleaned by Serb.”(22) By the end of the play, all eleven refugees are “ethnicly cleansed,” and this - Edgar alludes- is European reality!

The way that Edgar represents this unique host of different ethnic and cultural background, is really amazingly. Around sixteen different ethnic origins are brought together in the same restricted hall of the church; maximum diversity in a minimal space. The church hall itself, changed cultural identity six times along its history. The hilarious interaction moves from tension to tonic amongst the individuals of the diverse group, and a sense of communality and commitment replaced the cultural detachment, albeit reserving their cultural integrities. Each of the character gets more insighted into the others’ different cultural experiences, and a cultural dialogue is about to be established, unless for their “ inability to develop trust for each other, to set aside the grievances of their historic memory of traumatization and injustice, real and imaginary, even under the so- called international community.(23)

5. History
History as a component of culture, permeates the infrastructure of the play, and is felt as an important factor that decides on the making of cultural integrity as well as integration. Eastern and Western Europe, have much history in common, no matter how much their presents seem to negate this reality. This includes the past wars they fought together against the Turks, the high civilization they made, and the great enlightenment they presented to the whole world. Again, the” shared history of twentieth century wars can still be as much of a source of national antagonism as of a common determination to avoid their recurrence”(24),. In the play, the sense of history is both critical and confused. It is critical because it marks “the passing of old Europe”(25), and the making of a new one. And confused, as history now is marginalized and subdued in the face of modernist perspective that favours the “here” and “now” over the “there” and “then”. Edgar gives us the prospectus of a new epoch of history in the making with the advancement of the momentum age of globalization, and yet warns his readers that, “At the end of an era, at the hinge of historical change, we encounter not utopian offerings of a better life, but cynicism and violation at every turn”(26) (Lavender,34) ( Edgar, Act One, Scene).

In the play, history is referred to through two main characters who represent two different approaches to history: Oliver Davenport, a British art historian, and Leo Katz, his American counterpart. While Oliver demonstrates a keen regard to historical values, and recognition of historical continuity, Leo displays the arrogance of the American modernist perspective that devalues history and scrutinizes its enterprises. His encounter with Oliver over the real origin of the fresco and its authenticity is based on the recurrence of the fresco in one of the country’s national poems. The irony of it did not only stem from the fact that the poem passed on from one generation to the other- not in the form of a written text- but rather as an oral folklore, but also that it was uncertain whether the fresco mentioned in the national poem is the same one at hand.



The promising tone of the play that starts with its title” Pentecost,” never lets go until the very end that entails no less optimism.

Not that Pentecost depicts modern Europe exclusively as a site of moral emptiness. For all the cynicism of many of the characters, others display unmissable signs of passion and, in peculiar ways, integrity.(27)

By introducing both biblical stories of the Tower of Babel and the Pentecost, as one redeeming the others, Edgar asserts his optimism:

My idea was that the first act of the play would be like the  Tower of Babel, and the second act like the Pentecost- an attempt by different cultures to speak to one another. Which they do…(28)

In the play, Edgar reveals his perception that the curse of the New Babel is not a matter of different tongues as much as one of lack of human understanding. After reading the whole piece, one recalls the emotional bearings and humanistic passion endowed in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

Son of Man, you cannot say, or guess,
For you know only a heap of broken images,(29)

Although different cultures most often encounter problems in their endeavours to communicate, a human understanding on the basis of empathy and recognition is always reached(30). This takes place between Oliver and Gabrella in the first act of the play, and even between hostages and refugees in the other. And through this understanding, they gain richness of perception and aptitude of human solidarity they would never reach any where else. Lesley Chamberlaine was right when he stated,

This effective piece of theatre is a heartfelt reposte to the cold relativism of the cultural theorists. That cultures intermingle and communicate does not reduce their individual strength. They renew themselves in recognizing other ways of seeing.” We are all each other’s guests,” the characters explain.(31)



1 David, Edgar: Pentecost. London (Nick Hern) 2003.
2 Reinelt, Janelle: Performing Europe: Identity Formation for a New Europe, Theatre Journal , Vol.53, Issue 3, October 2001, The John Hopkins UP, pp.365- 387, 368
3 Ibid., 368.
4 Klaic, Dragan: Restaging Europe (A Critical Diary), Theatre, Vol. 32- No.3, Fall 2002- Duke UP, pp.69-85. P. 72
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.,71
7 Filewod, Alan, and Watt, David: Workers Playtime: Theatre and The Labour Movement since 1970, Sydney quoted in D’Cruz Glenn, Class and Political Theatre,The Case of Melbournev Workers Theatre. New Theatre Quarterly, August 2005, Vol.21, Issue 3, pp.207- 217.P.  207
8 Klaic, 78
9 Ibid., 85
10 O’Mahony, John: Enter, Stage Left, Guardian Unlimited, Saturday, March 20,2004, pp.7-20, 18
11 Glenn, Class and Political Theatre,The Case of Melbournev Workers Theatre. New Theatre Quarterly, August 2005, Vol.21, Issue 3, pp.207- 217. P. 207
12 Klaic, 69
13 Hoban, Phoebe: Connecting the Politics of Art and Nationalism, New York Times, 3/8/2005,Vol.154, Issue 53,147, p.E3
14 Lavender, Andy: New Pastures Green, New Statesman&Society, 10/21/94, Vol.7, Issue 325, pp.34,35, 34
15 Ibid.,35
16 Hoban, E3
17 Kramm, Maggi: The Perspective Puzzle, American Theatre; Nov.95, Vol.12. Issue 9, p.8-9, 8
18 King,Robert L.: Competing Ideas, North American Review, Nov/Dec95, Vol.280, Issue 6,p.39,p.5
19 Kramm, 8
20 Ibid.,9
21 Hoban,E3
22 King, 40
23 Klaic,69
24 Beetham, David& Lord, Christopher: Legitimacy and The European Union. London: Longman,1998, p.29 quoted in Reinelt, 369
25 Lavender, 34
26 Ibid, 34.
27 Ibid., 35
28 Edgar, quoted in Kramm 9
29 Eliot, First Stanza, The Burial of The Dead
30 Kramm,9
31 Chamberlain, Lesley: A World Where We Are Each Other’s guests, TLS,6/30/95.Issue 4813, p.21

1.1. Europäische Identitäten, Europäische Realitäten

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For quotation purposes:
Eman El Attar (Kuwait): Public issues, private tensions: envisaging European ethos in David Edgar's Pentecost - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW: attar17.htm

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