Combining 'Universal' Languages: Esperanto and the Performing Arts

Combining 'Universal' Languages: Esperanto and the Performing Arts

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As a Modern History student and theatre enthusiast, I have always been drawn to the intersection of the two disciplines – how history informs theatre and how theatre embodies history. My Laidlaw Summer 1 Research project introduces a third component to this interdisciplinary convergence: language, more specifically, the planned language of Esperanto.

Before my Laidlaw application, I was only familiar with Esperanto through its Duolingo course – something I glanced at in passing but never seriously investigated. However, Dr. Bernhard Struck’s endeavors in the history of Esperanto intrigued me and inspired an interest in how the performing arts played a role in the story of Esperanto. How have two (wildly different) devised mediums of communication and expression historically intersected? Planned languages – such as Esperanto – are often critiqued for their lack of ‘organic’ culture compared to ethnic languages. How have the performing arts in Esperanto – in addition to Esperanto’s rich literary culture – challenged this notion? How have the performing arts grown or changed the Esperantujo movement? And how have the performing arts changed under the Esperantujo movement?

 These inquiries drive my research under a broader umbrella of performing arts in Esperanto, including theatre and play texts, opera, music, cabaret, and dance.

  1. What is Esperanto?

Today, Esperanto is largely considered a niche, dying language movement. But throughout the twentieth century, not only was it regarded as ‘more than a language’ by its supporters, but many believed it to be a vehicle to promote and fulfill millenarian ideals. Ludwik L. Zamenhof devised Esperanto, and the language was officially 'born' in 1887 with the publishing of Zamenhof’s Lingvo Internacia.[2] Zamenhof, from a multilingual city in northeastern Poland, believed Esperanto could foster greater intercultural understanding in an increasingly globalized world and would make multilingualism more accessible.[3] To make language learning as easy as possible, Zamenhof devised only 16 grammar rules for the language (with no exceptions) and made its vocabulary mostly ‘European’.[4]  

Despite growing momentum for the movement throughout the early twentieth century, the interwar period in Europe – riddled with rising fascism and Stalinist influence – decreased global numbers.[5] But out of over one thousand planned languages, Esperanto has been by far the most successful in the history of planned and artificial languages.[6] Russian Esperantist Lev Zhirkov argued in 1931 that the relative success of Esperanto was not because it was linguistically superior to other planned languages, but because it was already a ‘living language’, with a community of speakers who used the language in various contexts – from stamp collecting to the performing arts.[7]

  1. Interesting findings from my research thus far

Given that the research period has not yet ended, instead of summarizing my findings, I will share examples/points I have found most interesting.

  • Many of the Esperanto literary greats wrote play texts. I anticipated it would be difficult to find Esperanto play texts to include in my research, but some of the most prolific Esperantist writers – Julio Baghy, William Auld, Marjorie Boulton – dabbled in playwrighting. From what I can understand, only a handful of their play texts were ever brought to the stage.[8]
  • Oddly enough, poetry set to music was also popular within the Esperanto literary tradition. Although I could include examples of this in my report as a part of music in Esperanto, I don’t think it best serves my research purposes. Nevertheless, it is interesting.
  • I am most intrigued by cabaret in Esperanto, particularly ‘La Verda Kato’ in 1920s Paris founded by Raymond Schwartz (poster below). In my view, cabaret such as ‘La Verda’, as well as ‘La Bolanta Kaldrono’ and ‘La Tri Koboldoj’, epitomize the value of the performing arts within planned language communities.[9] Play texts do demonstrate the significance of theatre in Esperanto’s literary tradition, but evidence of cabaret – as well as operas, concerts, and even puppet theatre – better demonstrate the ability of the performing arts to build community involvement in Esperanto.

 ‘Esperanto #FG34983 Esperantista Kabaresto Verda Kato Cat Katzen Cabaret Pa’, poster, Paris, Gueshton,

  • Surprisingly, I have also found examples of current Esperanto speakers who were initially attracted to the language through the performing arts. For instance, Martine and Daniel – a French couple from outside of La Roche – began learning Esperanto in 2004 after listening to a rock singer who played Esperanto songs.[10] Moreover, the popularity of the music group Esperanto Desperanto also serves as an important, more contemporary example of music as an effective medium to continue the growth and development of Esperanto.[11] The performing arts remain a potent stimulus to expose individuals to the language.

I am certainly enjoying my research and look forward to finishing my report on this topic!

[1] Peter G. Forster, The Esperanto Movement (The Hague, 1982), p. 1.

[2] Arika Orkent, ‘A Visit to Esperantoland: The natives want you to learn their invented language as a step toward world harmony. Who are these people?’, The American Scholar, 75:1 (2006), p. 98.

[3] Ludwik Lejzer, ‘What Is Esperanto?’, The North American Review, 184: 606 (1907), p. 16.

[4] Sara Su Jones, ‘The Power of Babel: The Struggle to Balance Linguistic Unity and Diversity’, Harvard International Review, 15: 4 (Summer 1993), pp. 46-47.

[5] Forster, The Esperanto, p. 28.

[6] Orkent, ‘A Visit’, p. 96.

[7] Roberto Garvía, Esperanto and Its Rivals: The Struggle for an International Language (Philadelphia, 2015, p. 155).

[8] Geoffrey Sutton, Concise Encyclopaedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto 1887-2007 (New York, 2008

[9] Sutton, Concise, p. 130.

[10] Guilherme Fians, Esperanto Revolutionaries and Geeks: Language Politics, Digital Media and the Making of an International Community (Cham, 2021), p. 209.

[11] Orkent, ‘A Visit’, p. 93.

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