Interview: Franz Xaver Kroetz ~ theatre notes

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Interview: Franz Xaver Kroetz

On Saturday evening, Hoy Polloy Theatre is presenting what is, unbelievably, the Australian premiere of Franz Xaver Kroetz's 1978 play, Tom Fool (Mensch Meier). Not that Ms TN needs any excuse to leap at the chance of an interview with Kroetz, whose extraordinary hyper-realist plays exerted a profound influence on post-war theatre. He created, as the critic Richard Gilman said, "a theatre of the inarticulate", a profoundly political drama that perhaps has new purchase now, as the excesses of capitalism fall about our ears.

First, a brief introduction. Kroetz was born in Munich in 1946. He first attracted public attention in 1970, when two one-act plays premiered at the Munich Kammerspiele. Their subject matter - masturbation, abortion, child murder - aroused such a violent public response from extremist Catholic groups and others that the theatre had to be put under police protection. This didn't stop the theatre journal Theater Heute claiming that Homeworker was the "most important new play of 1971". Subsequently Kroetz wrote a number of one-act, super-naturalist plays, of which the best known is probably Farmyard, the story of a love affair between a retarded teenage girl and a farm worker four times her age.

Kroetz joined the German Communist Party in 1972 and remained a member until he quit in 1980. Tom Fool (Mensch Meier) is a family drama written shortly before he broke with the Party. It was his first popular and financial success when it premiered in 1978, and marked a return to the techniques of his earlier plays, with brutally frank depictions of sex, nudity and violence. In 1988 Kroetz, who has also worked as an actor all his life, was cast as the sleazy gossip columnist Baby Schimmerlos in the popular television mini-series, Kir Royale (which was shown on SBS), and became a media celebrity.

In Melbourne, La Mama has been a champion of Kroetz's work: Farmyard was produced by La Mama in a memorable production directed by Ariette Taylor in the late 90s, and Kroetz's Request Concert was also given a beautiful production by Wendy Joseph. But until now, we haven't had a chance to see Mensch Meier, which is arguably his most significant play.

And now followeth the interview:

The conversation took place in Franz Xaver Kroetz' parental home in the rather petty bourgeois, quiet suburb of Obermenzing in Munich. He calls it "the innermost of the Kroetz dramatics".

TN: It's a long time since you wrote Mensch Meier. What do you think of that play now?

FXK: I think the whole trilogy, consisting of Upper Austria, The Nest and Mensch Meier, could have a chance at survival, despite the usual passing of contemporary art; I can tell from teaching materials and the replies from schools. The trilogy paints a reliable image of this anxious German post-war period into which I was born in 1946, of its fears, its worries and its hopes which might not be as clear in other literary forms. It is a petty bourgeois proletarian description by someone who knew it very well. I have also acted in Mensch Meier myself and produced it for Hessian Radio. I believe it is one my most beautiful and best plays, with this utopia of gliding, all those desires and this broken marriage. It describes a series of frail, poetic beginnings. It was in this house, my parents' house, that the words were spoken: "You cannot become a bricklayer! The neighbour has attended university, he's becoming a judge!" That was because I had a job in construction when I was 15. I have experienced, suffered, desired everything that is in these characters. It is at the centre of my writing.

Relatively few of your plays are translated into English, but I read that you've written about 50. This must give English speakers a skewed view of your work. What are we missing?

I don't think that there are few English translations. As far as I know, a little over half of my 60 works have been translated; only recently another volume containing about 10 plays was published. Since the 70s, the Rosica Colin Ltd agency in London has taken care of this very well, I feel I am in very good hands there. Of course I am happy if my plays are produced in foreign countries. And considering my small circumstances and that I am a German author it is actually quite a lot. The interest in my later work is generally rather low, it therefore receives little advertising and thus reaches foreign countries less often. On the other hand, my early work is probably more significant.

Plays like Mensch Meier or Michi’s Blood are powerful demonstrations of the power of silence, and seem driven by the desire to give voice to those people silenced or erased by articulate culture. What is the place of silence in writing? Did that desire to give voice to the voiceless stem from a personal sense of inarticulacy or disempowerment, or was it primarily fuelled by social anger?

In my petty bourgeois parental home there was a lot of talking, because my mother was an eloquent Tyrolean. I would almost say: Silence is the death of poetry. Apart from that, I went to drama school when I was 15. It is therefore not my own inarticulacy. But apparently I am the inventor of inarticulacy on stage; this stems from a kind of proletarian precision, because until I was 25, I worked in all sorts of jobs, as a gardener etc... Naturally, a divide opened up between the eloquence required for a highly intelligent Brecht text and the inarticulacy of real life. This stirred up a social anger inside me and I joined the Communist Party. Well, I was an active young man who wanted to change the world. And that is why I wanted to grab this bourgeois theatre by the head and dunk it into this wordless sauce, to make anti theatre. Even if Request Concert is a play without words, Michi's Blood is actually my most silent play. In it, inarticulacy is the social outcry of those to whom even language is denied. By the way, I have noticed self-critically that I have become more and more chatty over the years... But I am proud of my radical beginnings.

Language is obviously a deeply political phenomenon, but your plays have been more closely concerned with what happens beneath language in human consciousness. Is silence a political question for you? Or does it exist beneath/beyond politics?

Much has changed because of the new media, and all these possibilities like mobile phones probably achieve the opposite. In Bavaria, there is a beautiful saying: The most eloquent language of friendship is silence. This attitude no longer exists today, I believe it has volatilised. We have a conversational lower class culture today which I also notice in my children: Before they can find an attitude towards themselves, they are already being manipulated. In this regard, we shouldn't underestimate those casting shows. I like to travel on the S-Bahn and I observe a mashing up of public and private role model functions. These days, people are being language-cloned before they have found an original language.

That is pure politics: The individual is expected to be reachable at any time, to be disturbed in their own thoughts, to be a 100 per cent manipulable, controllable mass. Capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive anyway. Capitalism is a dogmatic and totalitarian ideology. This system is broken, that's how I see it. You see pathetic little humans wandering through department stores - I feel sorry for all of them, it cuts me to the quick. They have long since been cut off, from freedom for example - freedom begins with resistance. This destruction is deliberate and conscious. How to improve private television? Simple: Forbid any advertising on TV. If inarticulacy has become pointless garrulity today, this is the same or actually a worse form of paternalism. Recently, I saw a real-people format in which a female messie was asked to finally face up to the truth. And she asked: "Is what is true also important?" That could be a Kroetz sentence. Then again, I'm not that good.

What role does compassion play in your work?

Compassion is essentially unproductive, you cannot write with it. However, you can with empathy. And looking back, I had that to an almost pathological degree. This empathy, this putting yourself in someone else's shoes was the cornerstone of this writing. The empathic is something productive, is more than compassion. After all, I also acted in my own plays. I have killed, loved, impregnated in them. So Kroetz the actor was always used by Kroetz the playwright.

People have often said that your plays are too extreme to really reflect reality. Is this true? Or is life really that extreme?

It is the other way around: Reality is so perverted in its unbelievable mercilessness that I as a poet become silent. You cannot top reality anymore. You cannot exaggerate your point to such an extent that you won't lag behind reality. Shakespeare's most cruel plays are lame ducks when you listen to people who were traumatised during the Vietnam War or in Chechnya. I am a fan of the extreme. The more I have succeeded in pointed exaggerations, the larger the probability that there is some truth in them. It is the other way around: Reality is filthy, not us. And it is increasingly difficult for me to counter this or to add something to reality. I am glad that I have not stopped writing with implants and false teeth, but with a TV massacre, with lonely men masturbating in front of their TVs. No art without the extreme. It is the salt in the soup, especially for a playwright.

How has your politics changed over the years? What is your view now of your time as a member of the Communist Party in the 1970s, and how do you view the plays you wrote then? What about those notorious rewrites? How did/do you negotiate your political and literary selves? Are they different or contradictory beings?

(Note from the interviewer: Mr Kroetz wasn't sure what "famous adaptations" meant... Neither was I. – Translator's note: I suspect "notorious rewrites", which I translated literally, must have been changed afterwards (not sure by whom) into "famous adaptations" which of course was in no way part of the original question. TN's note: After he joined the Communist Party, Kroetz controversially rewrote an earlier play, Men's Business, to conform to his ideology and, as Richard Gilman claimed, his writing "changed radically". This was perhaps a rather sensitive question, and maybe it's not surprising it was lost in translation.)

I would need to answer this in an essay, the topic is too complex. As a matter of principle, I no longer comment on political events. In 1968, I was simply on the side of art, loved Mauricio Kagel, John Cage, György Ligeti. Back then, I was prepared for any change and any consequence of it. Even today, I prefer Ulrike Meinhof's backside to Angela Merkel's face. I thought the RAF was a grandiose, insane business, resistance was the order of the day, not just idle talk. I am still just as leftist as I was back then, perhaps even more radical, I have only grown older and more tired.

Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth about the Algerian War is my favourite book, with its famous preface by Sartre. After all, it was he who said that it is resistance which makes one a fully-fledged human being in the first place. These days, that is closer to my heart than anything else, because I am quite without illusions and worn out from growing old and used up. I have a lot of sympathy for everyone who moves. The way the world is today, it is – as far as progress is concerned - in the worst state imaginable, it is developing into the wrongest direction. People must be stirred up to disobedience. Unfortunately, I have never managed to do that. I was basically in the totally wrong party back then, because the Communist Party was already dead when I joined it.

Can you tell us a little about your writing for television and film? How does it differ from theatre? Do you prefer working for either, or is it a question of the interest of a particular project?

I do not write screenplays as a matter of principle, because I don't think they are literature. For the film version of "Brandner Kaspar", I changed some of the text for my role, or back when I made "Mensch Meier" into a movie, I edited the play. Maybe I wrote one or two screenplays right at the beginning. I regard it as an activity that does not befit my status. (Laughs heartily).

Could you briefly describe the literary and political context that prompted your early plays? How important were writers like Fassbinder and Ödön von Horvath to the development of your work? What was it like to work with Fassbinder?

I was not influenced by Fassbinder, he was working on other construction sites, was already making films back then which was something I was never interested in. Once, Fassbinder was allowed to do a production at a free theatre at which I was an actor because he and his troupe had been kicked out of another theatre. He didn't have enough actors and that's how I ended up playing a role in a play by Marieluise Fleißer. The critics treated me pretty well and Fassbinder berated me for that. I hadn't played the role the way he wanted me to. There was no further collaboration with him. Marieluise Fleißer, Horváth, the early Brecht, of course they were formative, but I cannot describe the literary context here. It would take too long.

Do you see your work as part of a wider German tradition, or as a reaction against German culture? Or perhaps both things?

Starting with drama school, I was innately interested in the whole Southern German popular theatre. From Ludwig Anzengruber to Felix Mitterer, that is my literary home. Among these I also count Brecht's early plays.

Is it possible to translate the implications of using Bavarian dialect into English? What is the cultural significance of using that speech in a play?

We were in Belgium recently for a theatre festival where I staged my very first play, Negress, in French. We spent the first four days revising the publisher's translation. Even though I hardly speak any French, my presence was very important, because there were a lot of Bavarian expressions that nobody understands and that keep being translated completely wrongly. It's not so much the translators' fault, it's more a matter of cultural policy. Coming back to the question: I believe it is difficult, almost impossible. There are things which already won't be understood in Berlin. I find an incredible delight in language, and for me that has always been dialect, patois, never anything else. I have therefore gladly relinquished general intelligibility in favour of my own pleasure. Oh, that is something glorious!

How important is it to your writing that you are also an actor?

Writing is completely under the influence of acting. I act out everything for myself, try it out. I have always needed the actor, it wouldn't have possible otherwise, I don't think. When staging a play, I also read or acted out some scenes at home with assigned roles, tried it out in my mind. After all, the mind is the most beautiful place for theatre.

Translated from German by Elisabeth Meister

To bring this interview to TN readers has been a major international operation, and here I wish to thank several people for their invaluable help: Ben Starick, who co-ordinated the exercise; Wolf Heidecker (Australian end); Christine Diller (Germany); Elizabeth Meister and the Goethe Institute.

Pictures: Top: Franz Xaver Kroetz. Bottom: Publicity shot for the Hoy Polloy production of Tom Fool, with Chris Bunworth, Liz McColl and Glenn van Oosterom.

Tom Fool premieres at the Brunswick Mechanic's Institute, Brunswick, this Saturday, translated by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, and directed by Beng Oh until May 23.


André Bastian said...

What a great interview! And what an incredible "international operation" for this blog. I too would like to thank all of you for giving me the opportunity to read this interview here -and for providing me with the delight of remembering a staging of Bauern sterben at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in the mid eighties. I was about 16 then and had come to the theater to see not only the play but also to witness and interfere actively in what I expected to occur and what indeed would happen just after the first scene into the play: I think it was the Association of Catholic Youths who jumped on stage, interrupted the function and unfurled a banner (this in Hamburg, one of the least religious cities I've ever known!) protesting against content, language, form and whatever you could protest against... well, it was actually in the moment where, at the deathwatch of her grandma, an utterly desolate and distraught granddaughter of the deep Bavarian province -correct me if the family ties are poorly remembered- started to masturbate herself with her grandma's beloved and revered crucifix. This poor old woman had died unnoticed in front of her TV weeks ago and had only now been detected for falling over and out of her rocking chair -I might add here unconsciously some contrived details: was it ONLY a chair?- being perforated and corroded by maggots. Not in the slightest a futile, cheap and self-indulgent provocation -and with this impossibly an irreverent profanation (if there can be such thing)- it was one of the most radical, revealing and at once touching images of human loneliness between the fronts of tradition and modernity I've ever seen. Having revised Calvino's Six Memos just recently I better leave the further exegesis of this image to the reader and finish emphasising on one last thing and with this, I'll get back to the interview: I think that the poetry in Kroetz most often appears exactly in the moments of radical -some think exaggerated- depiction of reality -or what we are used to label as such. And with this he's just in line with the most "traditional" proceedings of making poetry in a broader sense: looking for the quintessence of live. And this one is always personal, incredibly subjective and as extreme as one can feel and live it. Just Kroetz. Thanks again!

PS: We actually jumped too... from our seats in the gallery down to the stalls and onto stage, struggling with the religious warriors and forcing them down. Outcome: Political discussion afterwards.

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alison Croggon said...

Hi Michael; yes, I'm aware of your difficulties with Kroetz. And have the Urizen Books translations. I'm a little worried about the libellous nature of some of your comments, since as site owner I would be considered responsible, and may have to remove it.

In Kroetz's defence, it wasn't the playwright who claimed that he invented the "theatre of the inarticulate", but the critic Richard Gilman.

Alison Croggon said...

Comment removed, for legal reasons.


well, if kroetz objects let him sue me! [I hold you free and clear], the comment is really a footnote to Handke work at
the handke.discussion blog; I think I put it on the handke.trivia blog actually.

kroetz did interesting work at first, but with that greed and his disallowing the production of MEN'S BIZ + A MAN A DCTIONARY... I smelled a rat early on. He was brought to Suhrkamp's attention by none less than their author Martin Walser, and I translated the plays for Carl Weber because I couldn't give him a Peter Weiss play that was under option - all while I represented Suhrkamp through Lantz Donadio for a couple of years, because I couldn't give my then collaborator and friend Carl Weber [he had directed the US premieres of Handke's RIDE ACROSS LAKE CONSTANCE and KASPAR] and he did good work helping me with getting the text of THEY ARE DYING OUT into playing shape.

A very talented - especially when riding the horse - Aussie director/actor [Lindsay Smith, deceased last year] did the only performance of a merged
MENS BIZ + DICTIONARY with his troupe Nightshift while residing in my loft in the late 70s in New York.

Meanwhile I write plays myself. One play that has never been done in the Commonwealth is the extraordinary FERNANDO KRAPP WROTE ME THIS LETTER by
Tankred Dorst, based on Unamuno's novella NOTHING LESS THAN A MAN.

I''ll also post this in a moment. x Michael Roloff


and 13 sub-sites

the newest:
contains the psychoanalytic monograph [the drama lecture]

[dem handke auf die schliche/ prosa, a book of mine about Handke]
[the American Scholar caused controversy about Handke, reviews, detailed of Coury/ Pilipp's THE WORKS OF PETER HANDKE, the psycho-biological monograph]
with three photo albums, to wit:


[some handke material, too, the Milosevic controversy summarized]


Member Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society
this LYNX will LEAP you to all my HANDKE project sites and BLOGS:


"Sryde Lyde Myde Vorworde Vorhorde Vorborde" [von Alvensleben]

Born Dancin' said...

Goodness me.

Alison Croggon said...

Indeed! And Mr Roloff's voluminous posting distracted me from Andre's wonderful story. And his interesting points about extremity and poetry. Thanks Andre; and yes, I've sat on the train and heard dialogue unsettlingly not so far from Kroetz's... it's the theatrical framing that makes it seem unreal, rather than the circumstances he writes about (does no one read the paper?) - I've never understood why depictions of unpleasant realities are considered so much more offensive than the realities themselves - and it's that finely judged, very sure dramaturgical sense that works for me in his plays, a very pure poetic, I think...


well, if people are so easily distracted!
the depiction of miserable circumstances for public view and consumption and those they are based on are animals of two different species, no?
And they speak differently and have different receptions. There's the AHA effect: it sounds just like what I saw and heard in the railway
carriage the other day. Oh boy!
Handke addresses that problem in the central part of THE ARE DYING OUT, to reduce it to alternatives, as one of
generous poetic transfiguration [Stifter] or exploitive naturalism, which has a history going back to Buechner, via Hauptmann, Gorky, Zola,
to the micro-naturalism of Kroetz; Brecht took a very different tack since as an enlightenment writer he indicated alternatives,
makes you see different ways of being, possibilities.

Kroetz derives from a Bavarian middle class family; and is an entrepreneurial, exploitive capitalist;
Handke from a workers family that is of a kind [see Sorrow Beyond Dreams] that could be depicted
as a horror show by a Kroetz, and thus, in his great play about workers and their family constellation WALK ABOUT THE VILLAGES [the next
after DYING] had to diverge from his family circumstances because these were entirely ATYPICAL! That is the difference, crucial,
in depiction for public consumption, and took a somewhat transfiguring route by casting his worker people in a near socialist realist glow
affording them in this way, generously, what goodness there is in them, and not as victims, and doing so in a language that harked back
to the dramatic procedures of Euripedes, Goethe. The degrees of empathy between the two writers thus is striking.
However, I concede that, periodically, there is need for the kind of crass naturalism of a Kroetz, whose early Bajuvarian
work posed some knotty and unique and interesting translation problems. However, as Handke points out in DYING , the playing
on a stage, which is always just a stage, of these horror stories, to middle class audiences affords these audiences
a very cheap ride indeed.

Alison Croggon said...

No, it's not an AHA factor; it's a comment that the realities Kroetz depicts are real, not products of a hyperventilating imagination, as is sometimes claimed. As for the ethical question: exploitativeness is a real issue, and worth questioning. But I don't think that's anything to do with a writer's background, but a question of imaginative empathy. Otherwise you end up with the tired machismo of who has the best working class accent, who is personally more "authentic"; which generally has fuckall to do with the actual writing.


reality, say in an operating room where an abortion is performed, is real...
transfer that onto a stage and it can only be a staged performance,
and a performance for an audience,
with an entirely different set of signifiers...
thus all these [often praised ] attempts of this kind if mimicry...
which is effective because the audience, like the patient at an abortion, is anesthetized
and needs the shock of theatrical reality to discover that it is real!
The impoverishment of the real, thus "reality shows" on TV.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, theatre (and art of all kinds), even the most fantastic, is always reality reframed and reformed. Whether it's aneasthetising or not is nothing to do with the subject matter. I'm not sure what your problem is, aside from some kind of personal grudge. If you think Kroetz's plays are simply titillating, like tabloid magazines, I think you're dead wrong. (Certainly they bear no relationship to reality tv, which is all about "the journey", with "the winner" at the end of it.)

Jason Veers said...

Thank you for an excellent interview, Allison.


No,Alison, the discussion of what can be put on a stage has long gone beyond any feelings
i might have about kroetz who i think is a creep who did very interesting work at first,
but then there are lots of creeps in the arts.... In a recent FOCUS [German] interview
Kroetz says he wrote 60 plays and maybe 10 are any good. I would say, the original
four,...the "slice of life" becomes schtick, there are as many slices as there are atoms,
or since i once worked in the field of "quarks", as there are subatomic particles...
and only few of them are "charming" or maybe that particular one ought to have
been spelled "charmin", he also admits that his worst fault is his greed. you
seem to think that if i say as much on your blog it is actionable. the "koos" seem to have
become fussier than i remember the sometimes wonderfully wild and wooly bunch from new york.

You also seem to think that it's a variation of species of reality that are put on in theater.
Not if you look at the history of theater, deriving from sacrificial rites, and Greek tragedy in the West... or , say, No theater in Japan. Kroetz's kind of naturalism
entered theater with the advent of photography [see above paragrah]. You can do it
well or badly, Kroetz was first rate at first. But you can do anything well or badly,
from the building of gas chambers to putting victims on stage. my experience in a variety
of field has taught me the unhappy lessons that victims generally come out as
anything but pleasant beings, but that there exists a species of middle class being
that gets off on pitying them. it is to them that kroetz appeals. this kind of naturalism
or naturalism in general can serve a very useful purpose [ibsen, checkov at the great
end of the continuum] when theater has become a stuffy showcase full of lies.
that is the history of bourgeois theater. prior to that you had theater for kings,
whose conscience were meant to be awakened while they were being amused.
king demos generally prefers to be exclusively amused... and the ancient
greeks had to be paid to submit to those shows....
but then there are moments ...
Beckett had the fine artistic sense not to make a shtick of his plays, and
wrote only a few, which I would ban for a while since they serve a bourgeois
stasis for remaining absurdly apolitical.

my first real theater experience was the berliner ensemble, just after brecht died.
handke brought certain aspects of brecht's to completion: the non-aristotelean
theater that makes you see the world fresh [ride across lake constance; the hour
we knew nothing of each other], of renewal. cleansing without the blood and guts
of greek tragedy, the terror and the pity; and in his "play about the film about the war"
wrote the so far last installment of the great postwar not just german tradition [all out of brecht]
of theater that examine great social public political themes [e.g hochhut; kipphardt, grass's
the plebeians rehearse the uprising].... within that theater kroetz is an aberration.


I entirely forgot Peter Weiss at the list at the end: Marat/Sade; The Investigation... those are plays that address issues! don't exploit!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Jason -

Michael, whether or not Kroetz himself might take action, I prefer not to be a host for defamatory comments, for several reasons, one of which is that they are dull. You do have your own blogs if you wish to let off steam. And I've been sued twice, and I don't like it.

Yes, I admire all those other writers you mention, and yes, they are generally doing something different from Kroetz. I just can't see that Kroetz is apolitical (nor Beckett, while we're at it - but that's another argument altogether, and a complex one). I loathe theatre about "issues", that kind of crass politics misses so many points, and in the end I'm with Musil on that one: as he said under Nazi Germany, the real oppression is being forced to be "political". I think the plays you mention are much more than that, just as Kroetz is doing much more than exploiting middle class pity in his own work. Or at least, the work of his that I've read.

In your potted history of theatre, you're forgetting the vulgate, which equally factors into modern theatre. Even Shakespeare. It was never an art just for kings. And isn't the middle class currently in economic and social convulsions? The reverse of stasis, I'd say.

André Bastian said...

Dear Summa Politico, have you ever heard that quantity is not always a warrant for quality and that shouting in other peoples face might not always fascilitate the process of convincing them.

In diesem Sinne...


FOR ONE I am to long-winded, who himself seems to be, for the other too condensed.
Where did I even hint that I thought Kroetz was apolitical? Beckett certainly
is being used for that, not that he himself was. I think I indicated that
the "demos" can be king, that would seem to include what you call
the vulgate. What were you sued for? By folks in Australia?
I have a hunch that we use political in different senses, I mean in the
sense of the origin of the word in "polis." Not as in party, or ideology.
michael roloff