Last month the Comedie Francaise, France’s sole state theater, made a momentous decision. “Voyage to the Sonorous Land, or the Art of Asking” by Austrian playwright Peter Handke had been scheduled for production in January 2007 at their second venue in the Latin Quarter. But in early May, theater administrator Marcel Bozonnet canceled the production.

Handke is known as an outspoken supporter of Slobodan Milosevic, the recently deceased former Serbian president. In fact, Handke was one of around 20,000 people who attended Milosevic’s funeral on March 18.

He spoke to the crowd.

“I don’t know the truth,” he declared on that occasion. “But I look. I listen and I feel. I remember. This is why I am here today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milosevic.”

That wasn’t the first time that Handke had expressed his positive sentiments about Serbia. In his 1996 travelogue, “A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia,” he presented the Serbs not as victimizers, but as victims of the war in the Balkans.

For his part, Comedie Francaise’s Bozonnet was adamant. “The theater is a tribune. . . . Even if this play by Handke is not a piece of propaganda, mounting a production of it gives the playwright public visibility.”

The play itself has nothing whatsoever to do with Serbia. It is a humanitarian study of language and how humans use it. (The play is available in English translation, by Gitta Honegger, from Yale University Press.)

Handke, playwright, novelist, essayist and film scriptwriter, has, in many works, addressed himself to this very issue of language.

I first encountered his work in “Offending the Audience,” a 1966 drama in which actors attack the audience with vituperative insults. His masterpiece, to my mind, is his 1967 play “Kaspar.” In that, Handke explores the mind of Kaspar Hauser, who, in the 19th century, was imprisoned in a cellar for the first 17 years of his life. Once released, Kaspar had to learn the very meaning of words and their relation to objects. (In the early ’70s I produced the play in Canberra. The actors bashed away at a Volkswagen on stage with sledgehammers while Kaspar spoke. A representative of the German embassy in Australia who was in the audience was so enraged that he stomped out during the performance. Some people actually thought that this was part of the play.)

But back to the cancellation.

It caused an uproar, because Handke was being judged not on the merit of his art, but for the slant of his opinions. Milosevic died with the jury — in his case, the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague — still out on his alleged crimes. But would doing a play by a Milosevic supporter send a message to the world that the Comedie Francaise was condoning the genocide in the former Yugoslavia of which Milosevic had stood accused?

Some European intellectuals came to Handke’s immediate defense. Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek, a fellow Austrian, stated, “I am horrified that the Comedie Francaise functions today like a censor. . . . By not putting on the play, they are following the world tradition of cultural institutions under dictatorships, who throw out artists who cause trouble and condemn them to silence.”

The play’s German publisher, Suhrkamp Verlag, was equally incensed.

“This is an attack on the foundations of a free society: the right to freedom of expression and the independence of art,” said a spokesperson.

What is at stake in this incident?

Were Handke’s play to go on next January, would people in the audience or in the wider community interpret it as an endorsement of Milosevic’s policies?

Is the work of artists inseparable from their personal opinions?

The Norwegian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Knut Hamsun was an out-and-out Nazi sympathizer. He even went so far as to give his Nobel medal to Joseph Goebbels. A photograph of Hamsun shaking hands with Hitler appeared in the Norwegian press during the Nazi occupation of that country. Should this affect our view of his masterpieces such as “Hunger,” “Victoria” and “Pan”?

When, in 1967, John Steinbeck went to Vietnam and returned to sing the praises of the heroic accomplishments of American soldiers, did that take the shine off “The Grapes of Wrath”?

And what of the opposite scenario?

What would be the result of an American or British theater accepting and then refusing to stage a production of a play by Harold Pinter because the playwright has denounced George W. Bush and Tony Blair as war criminals for their prosecution of the war in Iraq? Would performing a Pinter play indicate tacit approval of his political views?

August Strindberg the avowed sexist, Ezra Pound the fascist sympathizer, Louis Ferdinand Celine the unbridled anti-Semite . . . the list is long and, perhaps, not very pretty. But these artists’ works are perfectly awesome. Condemn, if you will, their stance on their times; but judge the works on their own merits. Connect the two, and what we know as freedom of expression on our stages and screens, in our museums and libraries, may well become, at best, tenuous and, at worst, irretrievable.

There are, of course, circumstances which may warrant such decisions as the cancellation of a play. A theater may be forced to take such an action if the physical safety of individuals connected with the production is seriously endangered. But no one has suggested that prospect was facing the Comedie Francaise.

French playwright and theater director Olivier Py, writing in Le Monde on May 10, defended the theater’s decision. In addition, the article was co-signed by as many as 150 notables, including Chinese Nobel Prize laureate Gao Xianjian and French director Ariane Mnouchkine.

However, in a move that could only be seen as a solid defense of Handke and his art, the city of Dusseldorf last month awarded him their prestigious Heinrich Heine Prize. But just last week, after much controversy, the same august burghers flip-flopped and revoked their award of the prize to Handke.

So the polemic continues. These issues must be discussed openly in public, for better or worse. Even if Bush, Blair and Milosevic are war criminals, it doesn’t follow that the art created by people who support them is as repulsive or reprehensible as they themselves are.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.