Prince Claus

Magazine16 Dec 2009Frans Bieckmann

I promised three days ago to write a blog post about the late Dutch prince Claus.Today, the annual presentation of the Prince Claus Awards takes place. I won’t be there, but I do think that the Prince Claus Fund is a very valuable organization, which always surprises me with new, creative and innovative artists from all over the world. It represents a kind of cosmopolitanism that is also mine – an intellectual and liberating way of looking at the world.

However, I always feel a bit out of place at the annual Prince Claus Award ceremonies. They are always quite elitist; it is the place to be for the cultural elite. And even more so for the ‘would be’s’: those who only pay lip service to the cosmopolitan ideals of the late prince, those who are able to navigate in the surroundings of the royal family, and therefore always attend the award ceremony. The famous words of John Lennon, when the Beatles played a concert in the Royal Albert Hall in 1963, come to my mind: ‘The people in the cheap seats clap your hands, and the rest of you just rattle your jewellery.’

I have this same feeling about the one-off theatre performance that took place on December 6, in the famous Amsterdam Carre theatre. It was about Claus and his love for Africa. It was directed by John Leerdam, the Dutch parliamentarian and former director of the Cosmic theatre. Several Dutch ministers and other politicians played a part, like the social democrat leader Wouter Bos and minister for development cooperation Bert Koenders. The Queen and one of her sons (Constantijn, not crown prince Willem Alexander, who seems to prefer other branches of cosmopolitanism) were in the audience.

More than five years ago, I published a book about Claus and his love for Africa and for development cooperation. Claus, as a young German diplomat in the early 1960s in the Dominican Republic, supported the guerrillas that would finally blow away dictator Rafael Trujillo. Claus, as an intellectual and a free mind, was encapsulated and locked in the ‘cage’ of being the husband of the Queen, which did not allow him any political moving space.

My book was, above all, about a prince who had several advisory functions within the ministry of Foreign Affairs, always acting as a kind of counterbalance, an in-house critic. A person who would always critically examine and reflect on politics and policy. Who did not like people to give him the formal honours heads of state usually receive.

I cannot judge the play itself, because I was not there. I can only follow the reviews I read in the newspapers (read some reviews in Dutch). My impression is that it was a quite one-dimensional homage to the prince, and a non-critical plea for development aid.

Reading the reviews, I think that there is only one reason why Prince Claus would have appreciated it; because his wife and son were so emotional and grateful when the actor playing Claus directed a very personal message to them at the end of the play. But they themselves, of course, would know better if he would have liked the play or not.

We can see it just as entertainment, as one of the musicals (like ‘Mamma Mia’) that is usually played in the Carre theatre. But the fact that all these politicians uncritically praised development aid – as if Prince Claus ever did so – adds to the already quite common feeling that aid is something for the privileged, the happy few, an elitist, leftist hobby horse to which normal rules do not apply.

And although Claus would indeed not have liked development aid to be cut, he certainly would have criticized current aid practices much more than this Claus performance did.