Fringe Festival: Telefunken ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Fringe Festival: Telefunken

Telefunken written and performed by Stuart Orr, directed by Barry Laing. Table 9 Productions @ the Tower Theatre, Malthouse, until September 25.

"Art, like suicide," says Ralph Manheim Mann blackly during the course of this fascinating show, "is very, very personal."

It's an illuminating analogy. Suicide is at once the ultimate assertion of self - the conscious decision to override even the deepest survival instinct, a blasphemous refusal of life - and the self's ultimate erasure. And if art, as Freud argued, is the sublimation of certain instincts towards death and sex, it is not a sublimation which yields gratification but is peculiarly circular. It is, in fact, a masochistic sublimation, erasing rather than aggrandising the self.

Stuart Orr's anti-Fascist aria Telefunken is art of this kind. Orr's electrifying physical presence is at the centre of the show, but all our attention is splintered and diverted from Orr himself by his very expressiveness. Personal this show may be, but it is the antithesis of confessional.

It's a bit of a challenge to describe its complexities. Telefunken works on several levels, and in reflecting on it, all of them seem to metastasise uncontrollably, creating dense clusters of allusion and metaphor which themselves collect more allusions, more metaphors...and it is no accident that one of the presiding gods in this piece is Loki, the trickster. I fear that one viewing is not nearly enough to absorb all of its implications.

It is, first of all, a riveting one-man show, a tour de force of performative and directorial skill, combining projected images and performance in continually inventive ways, so the eye and ear never know what to expect. It's deeply intelligent, in the anarchic fashion peculiar to art, which is disrespectful to everything except imagination, revealing truths through shiftings veils of deception and illusion.

As one reviewer said, less than euphoniously, Orr has a lot of accents. He does them all faultlessly, at least to my ear; I spent half the show convinced he really was German. He moves with the precision and speed of a dancer, and performs with a charismatic, even Mephistophelean, self-mockery. And often he is very, very funny, if in a rather apocalyptic fashion.

Telefunken is narrated by a character called Ralph Mannheim Mann, a propagandist for the Nazi regime, who is welcoming some American soldiers into the bunker as muffled explosions outside signal the fall of Berlin. Hitler's suicide is, he tells us, an hour away. In this time, he will reveal to us his unmade and clearly autobiographical masterpiece, a film called Cry of the Wolf, which follows the story of Erasmus, propagandist and werwolf, from bullied child to Fascist television producer, the major source of political influence in our contemporary world.

The thesis behind this show is somewhat unhistorical: Ralph Mann claims that television was a military invention used by the Nazis crucially to assist the rise of Fascism in Germany. While Telefunken advertised televisions for sale in 1936, it's a dubious proposition in itself; what is indisputable is that with films like Triumph of the Will, later called the most successful propaganda film ever made, the Nazi film maker Leni Riefenstahl was one of the seminal figures of modern propaganda.

Ralph Mann is her equivalent in the world of television; but again, he is trans-historical: he can, by putting on an instrument like the phylactery that pious Jews wear at prayer, channel all of Western television culture. And he foresees the monstrousness and power of television as a medium, how it projects its hypnotic images into the domestic space of every home. Orr's argument parallels the televisual culture of FOX and CNN with Nazi film propaganda, as is clear from the opening montage, which juxtaposes images of the Third Reich, George W. Bush speaking of weapons of mass destruction and Oprah Winfrey. However, as should already be clear, this is no simplistic parallel, but rather a darkly funny and dizzying exploration of the irrationalities inherent in Fascist power. Ralph Mann is the unacknowledged ghost in the machine, the personification of the incipient Fascism of the image.

The stage is like an extension of Ralph Mann's mind. The floor is littered with paper, the pages of his film script. In front is an old television set, topped by a gramophone and a set of wires, some connected to a ghastly looking machine which looks like something out of Frankenstein, the phylactery/headset which locks Mann in agonised torment to the demons of television. It's an idea which irresistibly recalls the Heathcote Williams of AC/DC, without the revolutionary optimism. Strapped to the side of the tv are sticks of dynamite, and on top is a plunger. Mann's suicidal trajectory is clear from the start.

On one side of the stage is an old fashioned pump organ, and at the back a scrim which can be lit from behind and which functions as a screen for projections of various kinds - drawings, extracts from films. This is topped by some old books. The images of books, of literary culture, recur obsessively through this show: books are what is destroyed in the translation to a culture of image, just as the tv propagandist Ralph Mannheim Mann and his werwolf creation Erasmus are the translation of that towering figure of German literary culture, Thomas Mann.

Some clues to Orr's complex system of metaphor and allusion can in fact be untangled from Mann's name. Ralph Mannheim is the name of Thomas Mann's most prominent English translator. The novelist Thomas Mann, writer of Death in Venice and - (here most pertinently) the masterpiece Dr Faustus - was the most famous patriarch of a famous artistic family, most of whom fled Germany in the 1930s as Hitler tightened his strangleghold on German society. (As Mann points out, before the Jews were persecuted, the Nazis came for the avant gardists and the socialists; what he doesn't say is that many of these people were Jewish, and that avant garde culture was denounced by the Nazis as Jewish decadence.)

Thomas Mann's son Klaus Mann wrote Mephisto, a novel about an actor called Hendrik Höfgen who colluded with the Nazi powers, betraying his left-wing friends and rising with the regime. This novel is based on Klaus' brother-in-law, Gustaf Gründgens, who became the director of Berlin State Theatre in 1934.

The character of Ralph Mannheim Mann (if he can indeed be called a character - he is not that in any conventional sense, but more a kind of occasion for performance) bears more than a little resemblance to Gustaf Gründgens. He speaks of staying in Nazi Germany while other artists fled, and clearly has reached a position of huge cultural influence, as chief propagandist for the Nazis, a lesser Leni Riefenstahl. He even travels to Paris to make tv shows with French actors, prompting some scathing cabaret parodies.

In both Mann's Dr Faustus and Mephisto, the legend of Faust - the consummate man of culture who is tempted by the devil and sells his soul - is an informing metaphor. In Telefunken, by contrast, Orr invokes the demons within the self, the transformative werwolf which emerges, like madness, with the full moon. The Mephisto figure might be television itself, which demonically possesses Ralph Mann every time he put on his phylactery/headset.

But it is of course perilous to take these allusions too literally. Orr works by bringing together constellations of association - and a wide ranging set they are, from South Park to Courbet's L'Origine du Monde, from the Norse myth of the trickster Loki to Michael Caine, from Bob Brown to Sesame Street - and imploding them in performance. It's blackly pessimistic - the Fascist propagandist's inevitable suicide releases on the world the demon of television, a new and monstrous culture of social manipulation, which Orr makes clear reaches its apotheosis in contemporary America.

The great achievement of Telefunken is that the centre holds, despite the incredible centrifugal force brought to bear upon it by Orr's imagination. This must be a tribute to Barry Laing's direction as much as to Orr's talent. It's a show of considerable class, rich with ideas and the immediate pleasures of performance, which means it repays both watching and later reflection. And that it is probably worth seeing twice.


stuart orr said...

great to receive such an enthusiastic response from such an eloquent and well-read observer, however, the main character's name is Ralph Gerhardt Mann. I like the name Ralph because it is somewhat childlike and sounds like dog-speak. Mann I chose because it means "one" in German, as in "One probably should not correct enthusiastic reviews about one's play." And Gerhardt just has a nice ring to it.
But most importantly, there is nothing ahistorical about the Nazi's uses of and intentions for television discussed in Telefunken. They were developing guided missile technology. They were broadcasting nationwide and when they occupied Paris they did indeed take over the Frech experimental station in the Eiffel Tower and broadcast to greater Paris from there.
Other than that I agree wholeheartedly with Alisson's gracious account, especially her suggestion that people see the show a second or third time.
stuart orr.

Alison Croggon said...

Dang - that puts me in my place. So why the hell did I hear "Mannheim"? I would have sworn to it on my life... Nice theory, tho -even if shot down in flames... Though the point probably holds on the books. I was going to say something about Everyman, but didn't: ironically, as it would have been the only accurate speculation. Thanks too for the pointer on German tv propaganda. I just couldn't find out anything about it, so thought it a little safer to treat it as fiction. Wrong again.

But thanks for visiting the blog, and for putting me and its readers straight. And yes, hurry to see the amazing Mr Orr before it closes...

stu said...

check out "Television under the Swastika", a documentary produced in Germany a few years back. eye-poppin craziness.