Review: Tom Fool, Leaves of Glass ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Review: Tom Fool, Leaves of Glass

I keep hearing, here and there, that these days "text-based theatre" (to you and me, "plays") is out of fashion. The contemporary stage, the whisper goes, is hostile to the writer: in these post-dramatic, post-structural, post-everything times, the director has seized the crown in the theatrical hierarchy and the playwright is out in the cold, shivering in his underpants.

The truth is, just as the masculine pronoun is no longer a default grammatical device, so theatre's practice has shifted to a broader consideration of the semiotics of the stage: meaning is expressed through movement, design, music and performance as much as through words. On the other hand, is that emphasis really new? Meaning is an unstable quiddity, sure, but it's been unstable since modernity began to erase the certainties of church and state (and reading Lucan can make you realise that such instabilities are about as ancient as human civilisation). And after all these years, I'm still not sure what a "linear narrative" really is: I'm not sure I've ever met one.


In any case, I see text everywhere. Even an exploration like 3xSisters (which must by now have generated the longest ever discussion on this blog) depends on a source text, however it spirals around it. And that old-fashioned concept, the play, is a hardy one. People keep writing them, and people keep putting them on stage. I saw two last weekend. They were definitely plays, done in the old-fashioned way of getting actors to remember the words and enact them on stage. They were even, in very different ways, naturalistic plays.

In fact, I think that the diversity of contemporary practice means that the grim days of default naturalism - the idea that theatre is divided into "accessible" (meaning televisual) "naturalism" and weird "non-naturalistic" experiment - are well and truly over. Instead, naturalism as a formal device has been injected with something like its original energy and urgency. Recently there have been some vivid reminders of how powerful - and how poetic - naturalism can be in the theatre - Peter Evans' brilliant production of David Harrower's Blackbird for the MTC, for example, or Duncan Graham's Ollie and the Minotaur.

Perhaps this is why Hoy Polloy's production of Tom Fool by Franz Xaver Kroetz seems so timely: Kroetz is one of the major invigorators of naturalism in post-war theatre. Although there are more obvious reasons for its aptness: Kroetz's portrayal of the alienating mechanisms of capitalism, of how human beings are reduced to disposable cogs in a gigantic economic machine, is as relevant in 2009 as it was in 1977, when it was first written. Beng Oh's exemplary production, directed with a profound and compassionate clarity, brings this home with devastating, painful emotional force.

Tom Fool (a loose and perhaps slightly judgmental translation of the more neutral Mensch Meier, which means, more or less, "Everyman Meier") is a fable of late 20th century capitalism. It's the story of Otto Meier (Chris Bunworth), a semi-skilled factory worker who lives in a tiny apartment with his wife, Martha (Liz McColl) and son Ludwig (Glenn van Oosterom), and is written in a series of short, titled scenes that focus on the banal domestic minutae of their lives. Kroetz is a master at digging the tragic meaning out of moments that appear on the surface to be trivial, and this production meets his demanding poetic with an admirable honesty.

Tom Fool would be very easy to get very wrong; so much depends on the play of the emotional subtext of each moment, and that in turn depends on a larger wisdom about human behaviour that must meet the playwright's. Every decision in this production hits the right note, neither overdone nor glossed. Beng Oh hasn't attempted to update or Australianise it: Chris Molyneux's stylisedly naturalistic set is a perfect simulacrum of late 70s decor, and the actors, speaking an unobtrusive lower-middle-class Australian, refer to German currency and social conditions.

The scenes are punctuated with a sure rhythmic hand: as the scene title is projected onto the wall, the actors and a couple of stage hands arrange the props, which becomes in itself part of the texture of domestic routine. Then there is a snap, the lights come up and the scene begins.
(Tim Bright's sound design and Ben Morris's lighting find a brilliant variousness in this stern aesthetic.) These structural decisions create a solid frame for the actors, which permits them to explore the emotional nakedness of the play. Bunworth, McColl and van Oosterom generate their characters with deft, accumulating touches, gradually excavating their extreme loneliness. This production is notable for its precise detail, which is particularly noticeable in Kroetz's long silent scenes - here the smallest gesture, a shrug, a glance, becomes pregnant with meaning.

They create unforgettable portraits of the fragmentation of the self in contemporary capitalist society. Otto Meier, the "human screw-driver", a "car-screw in-screwer, a screwologist", knows he is dehumanised by his work, but the knowledge doesn't help, as he sees no way out: it emerges in violent rages of frustration that only serve to further alienate his family. Each character becomes more alone, more isolated, although each deals with their alienation in a different way. What makes this play so painful is that their recognition of their isolation, their abandonment of their various dreams in the face of obdurate reality, collides with a heightened realisation of their yearning: the further the dream retreats, the more they desire. It is all the more painful for their inability to communicate their longings to each other.

It's a beautifully performed, tactfully produced realisation of a play that is, for all its apparent banality, a work of great poetic delicacy. The evening passes with astounding swiftness; for all its grim concerns, this production has a nicely judged lightness of touch, and is infused with moments of surprising comedy. It's a rare chance to see Kroetz done as he ought to be. Don't miss this one.

Inevitably, Philip Ridley's Leaves of Glass suffers by comparison to Tom Fool. It's another family drama, and again written in a series of naturalist scenes. Although it features some astounding writing, especially in the monologues, it's doesn't have anything like the imaginative sweep of Ridley's Mercury Fur, a dark fantasia about snuff parties which also centred on the relationship between two brothers. Put next to Kroetz's sparely judged writing it seems fussy and melodramatic, and its social commentary - an exploration of the human capacity for denial, of how we can erase reality with language - not nearly as deeply thought.

I suppose the title, Leaves of Glass, is an elliptical nod to Whitman's Leaves of Grass, though it's difficult to make the connection. There are certainly touches of Tenessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie in its exploration of human fragility and damage. It's a family drama with all the expected Ibsenite elements - dark secrets, deaths, dramatic revelations, murderous sibling rivalry - given a 21st century twist. Steve (Dan Frederiksen) is a picture of materialist Britain, a successful, emotionally stunted businessman married to a WAG-style shopaholic wife (Amelia Best). His younger brother Barry (Johnny Carr) is an artist, traumatically scarred by the suicide of his father, and both still live in the shadow of their mother, Liz (Jillian Murray). What makes it interesting how the writing turns on its cliches, especially in the climactic scene where language itself becomes a means for murder.

Simon Stone gives it a spare and well-judged production, with a design by Peter Mumford in which the stage is divided into parallel sections by clear plastic curtains, which are drawn back or closed to reflect the degrees of separation between the different characters. The performances are excellent; I especially liked Johnny Carr and Daniel Frederiksen as the two brothers. Although it's a bit of a disappointment after Mercury Fur, it's well worth seeing all the same. And certainly the best production at Red Stitch since Tom Holloway's Red Sky Morning.

Post script: my opening speculations are further illuminated by David Williamson's attack on "capital-T theatre" in today's Sydney Morning Herald.

Picture: Chris Bunworth as Otto in Tom Fool. Photo: Tim Williamson

Tom Fool by Franz Xaver Kroetz, translated by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, directed by Beng Oh. Design by Chris Molyneux, lighting design by Ben Morris, sound design by Tim Bright. With Chris Bunworth, Liz McColl and Glenn van Oosterom. Hoy Polloy, Brunswick Mechanics Institute until May 23.

Leaves of Glass by Philip Ridley, directed by Simon Stone. Design by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Kimberley Kaw. With Dan Frederiksen, Johnny Carr, Jillian Murray and Amelia Best. Red Stitch, until May 30.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

I felt terrible after Tom Fool and wondered what Herr Kroetz might have intended his audience to feel? The feelings of worthlessness I got was the worst I'd felt in a long time

Alison Croggon said...

Gosh, that's interesting. I'm sure that Kroetz wants his audience to understand what his characters are feeling, but beyond that it's impossible to speculate. And it does contain some searingly painful scenes. Fwiw: it didn't to me give a sense of worthlessness: the characters are not portrayed as worthless in themselves, rather the reverse I would have thought; it's more that the society they are part of counts them as (almost) worthless, and this inevitably enters into how they see themselves.

Anony-mouse said...

With the death of the author pronounced long ago, I suspect it won't be long before we announce the demise of the actor. Thereafter, both director and critic might well agree to extinguish each other, leaving only (at last) one long, uninhibited view of the freeway.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, it's very open to personal response I know. I didn't think that the characters were worthless in themselves, but the worthlessness of the situations and how they saw them - even with Ludwig, who said very little but observed a lot - was a bleak experience.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, I think that's true. If you have ever been in the cumulatively humiliating experience of having no purchase in a society - which in a society where success is measured by income, means having no money - it strikes home quite hard. I think it's deeply truthful work, which in its own perverse way is kind of comforting. One of the brilliances of the writing is how this tiny domestic drama opens out, seemingly effortlessly, into social critique - there is a larger context for understanding this family's difficulties than just individual affliction.

Anonymous said...

I know some directors who would gladly extinguish critics. But surely an unbroken view of a freeway littered with roadkill won't make very good theatre.

Alison Croggon said...

PS - Mouse, I suspect, as always, the death of all these artists is a premature announcement. Maybe they just keep being born.

Matthew said...

That SMH article is weird. Funny, isn't it, that Williamson claims to be getting the feeling that "Andrew and Cate want to move on to new writing and new theatre". To me, his mention of "new writing" is telling. An interest in "new writing" is not the same as a disinterest in writing generally. And I frankly think you'd be hard-pressed to accuse them of abandoning "old writing" either. (Already this year we've had The Removalists and Travesties, both over thirty years old, and we have A Streetcar Named Desire, which is over fifty, coming up. And didn't they do an eight-hour Shakespeare in January?) I think what Williamson means to say is that Andrew and Cate are moving away from Williamson's writing. A typical generalisation born of a typically petty complaint. (And one that, ironically, is not without its own internal contradictions. The STC produced The Removalists, after all, perhaps suggesting there is more interest in his old work than in his new work. Which means they're not necessarily moving towards new writing - or, at least, not his - at all.)

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Matthew. No, Williamson's argument doesn't make a great deal of sense. How is theatre as a whole not interested in stories? The last couple of things I saw by Kosky were The Tell-Tale Heart and The Women of Troy which are both, er, stories... quite good stories, too.

SUMMA POLITICO said...

1] WELL LET ME ENLIGHTEN YOU JUST A TAD,
a linear narrative is exactly like a line, one li'l ole footstep sylabable after the other, accumulating
or outlining a story, or singin' a merry melody
as compared to, say, Joycean vertical compound punning as in


"MAY THE FOGGY DEW BEDIAMONDIZE YOUR HOOSPRINGS!"

2] Pluralism reigns I suppose, theater is just another Wal-Mart of choices.
My own preference is for a theater that creates unique experiences, happening that cleanse,
which is the original purpose of theater.

3] Kroetz in a recent interviews said the following matters:

http://www.zeit.de/2006/24/Kroetz_xml

http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/literatur/Franz-Xaver-Kroetz;art138,2790075

http://www.focus.de/magazin/df_aid_22771.html

and claims that he never had political intentions
for his plays, but that they are meant to show people in existential situations in extremis.
An examination of how they got there might of course lead one into complicated political
and psychological consideration. And an author's own words about his own work should never be held against the work of course
Yours ever,

,MICHAEL ROLOFF Member Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society this LYNX will LEAP you to all my HANDKE project sites and BLOGS: http://www.roloff.freehosting.net/index.html "MAY THE FOGGY DEW BEDIAMONDIZE YOUR HOOSPRINGS!" {J. Joyce} "Sryde Lyde Myde Vorworde Vorhorde Vorborde" [von Alvensleben]

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for your enlightenment, Michael. I don't buy it; I've still never met a linear narrative. Or else I've met nothing else - even Joyce is one thing after another. All stories I've encountered go back and forth (except possibly Humpty Dumpty's story in Alice, "Once there was a boater", and even that is debatable). Narrative is about memory, and memory is odd that way.

Thanks for the links. Whether Kroetz intends it or not, which isn't for me to say, his work inevitably generates political speculations, but from that existential ground.

David - Red Stitch said...

I suspect we won’t be talking about the end of the conventional ‘play’ when Tracy Letts’ August - Osage County’ hits the MTC stage later this year. In any case, ‘Metatheatre’ has been around for decades – perhaps centuries. Insofar as the current crop of contemporary dramatists employ naturalistic conceits or other theatrical devices to describe a ‘world out there’ these days, they do so fully cognisant of their provisionality, and of course the problematic nature of language itself in describing anything at all; be that thought, psyche, conflict, love, death or plain whimsy. Ridley’s play – and Stone’s interpretation of the text – is an excellent demonstration of this tension in our attempts to recreate experience with words, words, words; one that evokes and underscores the unreliability of the characters’ snapshot memories of their father/husband – yet you seem to dismiss it as a contemporary rendering of Ibsen’s Ghosts. Not quite!

PS I’ve always felt that the term ‘Post dramatic theatre’ is a misnomer. You might as well talk about ‘Post humorous’ comedy – which must exist (pretty sure I’ve seen a bit) but few would pay to see it.

SUMMA POLITICO said...

I guess you don't accept the whole notion of linearity, Alison.

I gave it some thought when I came on Handke's saying, in his laconic fashion, that he was an especially linear writer.

Look at the notion in the following fashion:

You come on a text written in an alphabet that you do not understand, nor do you know whether it ought to be read from left to right, or vice versa. But you do know that it needs to be "read".... and in a linear fashion because of the manner in which the pretty but meaningless symbols are arranged, no matter what... except when the symbols are Chinese or Japanese or Korean characters: at that point you know that you are dealing with pictograms, and if you know just a bit about how these ideograms developed, you know that there are basics like the ideogram for mom and dad and house and water, fire... on which the other more complicated one were developed and the whole notion of putting them into sequence is a way of communicating, which in that form can only be done linearly... from very discrete element of a single letter to the word and the concept behind it... As compared to my vigorous Spring robin calling for a mate!

How is information taken in: the underlying images are still evident in ideograms but have gone underground in the words constructed of letters from the alphabet, and these images only reappear in dream syntax whose sequential language is images, and dreams of course have particular problems in representing
notions such as "since" "although" "if" , and the subjunctive, etc. but finds ingenious ways to do so anyhow.
from sequence, to syntactical order, always pushing forward, dragging the past meanings behind it as it implants itself in
the "reader" in our mind.... that out of that mass of information the brain picks out a story which goes humpty dumpty in the night and back and forth is really a matter of another kind.

Alison Croggon said...

Ideograms are another matter altogether, and how they're used in poetry puts the poem into a place that's like visual art, where something, its shape, can be comprehended in an immediate glance. Somewhere online is a fascinating documentation of the Chinese poet Yang Lian's exercise with a number of students in translating all the possibilities of a Li Po poem, which ends up being rather more multi-dimensional than the Poundian lyricism we're used to in translation. But if you're using alphabets, writing is one letter after another, one word after another. Handke is I think just pointing out, as he would, that obvious fact.

Whether that makes a a narrative "linear" in the popular understanding of the term is another question. Given the workings of the mind in even the simplest situation, leaping in any direction, bringing associative qualities, breaking aense etc (look at oral folk tales, or children's stories) I'll stick to my original premise: either every story is linear, in the word-by-word way that Handke suggests (poetry likes to pretend it isn't, but all poets working in alphabetic languages and in time know that it is, and not all poets are interested in narrative), or there is no such thing.

Alison Croggon said...

PS ... sorry David, missed you there. Dismiss Ridley's play as a version of Ibsen's Ghosts? By no means - though surely there's a relationship - I just preferred the more adventurous imaginings of Mercury Fur. And how reliable are Ibsen's garrulous characters?

SUMMA POLITICO said...

HERE'S A LINK to a first rate review by Adam Kirsch in the New Republic on Chinese poetry in translation
http://www.tnr.com/booksarts/story.html?id=cd5b73e0-bb67-4c8c-b986-14998b4382b9

we are prisoner's of language and we enter the prison with what is usually our first word "mom"... on baby feet, one by one, and all we can do is switch prisons.

Alison Croggon said...

The first word of two of my children was "shoe". Not sure what that means. In any case, language imprisons, sure, but it also liberates and opens doors. The central dynamic of poetry is the tussle between these two possibilities. Or so I believe.

Re translations of more contemporary (post-modern) Chinese poetry, you might like this essay I published in Masthead, on "Yang Lian's Concentric Circles. But now we're a long way from Kroetz...

Tobias Manderson-Galvin said...

Back on Kroetz for a sec,
Anonymous you are not alone, I too left the theatre feeling awful. Truly empty.
But not because of the characters or their situation. It was the pauses, pregnant with emotion or meaning, that did it. But not because I found them particularly effective. Most of the time I was astounded at how bizarre and unreal the interpretation of each line was. As though the actors were purposely delivering the most banal meaning to every line. Then the lines were unbearable because each one seemed to simply be milking what was evident the moment each line was finished. Same goes for the too long scene changes. It probably comes from being an MTV watching Gen Y kid but I wanted to yell "get on with it" through most of the show. And I don't think it was an issue of the text because i've seen pinter done with his trademark epic pauses, loved it and still related the whole thing. You know with pinter you get the underlying "pass the salt" means "let's get a divorce" and you feel like someone stabbed you. But all I was getting at Kroetz was "pass the salt" means "pass the salt, I really love salt so don't touch it again". There was something that felt thoroughly off about the whole production and perhaps both the actors and I had an off night. It's not that anyone acted poorly, they gave it there all, it was the choices not the quality of performance that numbed and astounded me into restless boredom. Perhaps I wanted something else entirely, having been to Sondheim the night before I was, guilty as charged, after entertainment, and this was excruciatingly lacking in Tom Fool. This all sounds awful I know.
Put me straight please, because the show felt like a torture rack and i feel like I'm missing something. What?

benjamin said...

well, life can be a torture rack...

Tobias Manderson-Galvin said...

then precluding any chance you are being facetious benjamin, it is as I feared.
the play was meant to grind the soul away.
Perhaps there is nothing wrong with a torture rack, but three hours on the rack is hard slog..and though admittedly they did give us about a minute or two on the tickle machine and a short burst in the iron maiden it didn't make life any easier to deal with when it was over

benjamin said...

only being slightly facetious, actually.

I certainly can't speak for the production or the playwright, but, as an admirer of the text, the play resonates with me far greater than any of Sondheim's showtunes.

A hard slog, if done right, can be the most rewarding experience in theatre as in life.

Loving the conversations the blog is generating and looking forward to seeing this production this week

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Tobias and Ben - glad to see the conversation has been twinkling away in my absence. Kroetz is certainly not Sondheim. Fortunately theatre has room for both of them.

I didn't find the Kroetz a "hard slog" (and neither, incidentally, did my famously impatient 19 year old daughter - this is clearly a question of sensibility rather than age). I'm thinking of the first time I read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, which I had to read for school. I resisted it all the way, loathing every word. I struggled through it, got to the end, something went "click", and I turned back to the first page and started again, and discovered that it was one of the greatest novels ever written (having read it about 20 times since, I see no reason to revise my second impression).

I've often wondered about that first experience. What Dostoevsky was writing was so painful, so confronting, I didn't want to know; I closed my mind. My boredom wasn't about the quality of the novel, which has given me some of my most profound literary experiences, but about my unwillingness to meet those difficult emotional realities.

There is no absolutely no compulsoriness in art, and it would have been wholly legitimate for me to throw the book away and never read it again. But I would have been immensely poorer for it. I still think about that initial meeting with Fyodor, and try to be conscious about what my boredom is when I encounter it. It might be an inner refusal, an inability, that betrays a lack of a generous engagement. Or it can just be boredom, in which a generous engagement still results in nothing. But I always have to ask.

André Bastian said...

Dear Alison,

As always, I've been enjoying a lot your very sound critical notes-even if this time I could agree less in some points than at other times. (Which should be normal anyway.) And I'm looking very forward to seeing Mensch Meier this Saturday. I admittedly "sprinted more over" your notes lately than reading them thoroughly (I always wonder where you get the heaps of time from... have you got a secret provider/dealer?) and would just like to add one tiny observation. You give a literal translation of Mensch Meier as Everyman Meier. This is tricky here, because "Mensch Meier" is a German saying which actually-as a saying it is- is suspending the "regular" linguistic (semantic) rules valid for non metaphoric language. Thus we should better not try to head for this specific path of literalness. I would here propose another literal translation: "What the hell have you done!" Or: "Jesus, what have you done!" Even if it does not look like a literal translation, I propose to still consider it as such. "Jesus, what have you done" is not as rooted in English culture as "Mensch Meier" is. Every child in the German-speaking context would immediately know what this saying would express: astonishment of the speaker combined with his strong morally charged judgment of culpability towards the "object of its commentary." Often there is an implicit question underlying this interjection: "Couldn't you have done different/been able to avoid this." Or a suggestion: "Come on, get awake and look where you put your feet!" Poring over dictionaries, I find "Jeepers creepers!", but they all say it is American. What would an ordinary Australian say in this context? This might bring us closer to a possible translation. And yet, Meier is a name too, the surname of Otto. We should not ignore this on the background of what I just have been describing. So, we definitely should-if we want to- find a combination of an Australian "Jeepers creepers!" and the typical surname of the Australian petit bourgeois, which is the meaning of Meier in German rhetoric. Well, this is more exciting than scrabble!

Another thing, even if I feel that, as an object of observation and criticism, I should try not to get involved too much. I've actually seen lately two results of an enormous hubris of a young and VERY promising director I have seen very adorable work from before. Rhythmical and acoustic roller coasters with a very talented hand for actors work, and, what is more, a sensibility for textual work: the the well-earned (and I prefer this to well-deserved) nomination for the Green Room award was a clear proof of this. So if I point out here some things I actually do this because I'm utterly fearful about loosing this great voice in Melbourne theatre because of narcissistic attitudes (seemingly required by modern marketing laws) and loosing his contact with the texts he's working with. I, actually, have lately seen a lot of big inflated images with a very big lack of vision. AND I REALLY DID NOT WANT TO. Again, please don't get me wrong. I want a strong and multifaceted, even very controversial, theatre scene. But I think we should not forget the lines of argumentation and sacrifice them for easy stagy images. However, I saw a very bad cheesy script which should have been-acoustically and visually- downgraded (and hell! I loved the stage design, don't get me wrong! But not for this one!), so we could have been able to-maybe by irony-digest this very childish and painful last scene, and I saw a very good script, with yeah, a lot of effects without affecting me (this is surely very personal). Well, I should stop here. But this comes from the heart! And, really, this is not against anybody; yes, it is maybe more against a very common attitude of these times I really would have liked to see not infected with some very good blokes. STOP! I've already said too much, but won't erase it this time-which I still could :-)

André Bastian said...

A last one: text based/ not text based: We should probably consider Goethe (yes, he again) as the first intelectual who with his Theatre Reform (late 18th century) for the first time raises the director (Spielleiter) on the top of any other person involved in the theatrical process. Now I jump and just name two other very interesting directors who-partly-a considered the (or one of the) inventors of modern Regietheater: Max Reinhard and Erwin Piscator. This was at the beginning of the last century. Really amazing things they did. So, but Regietheater (when it is sound) still cares for the text, but actually in DIALOGUE with it, not just spreading a thick sugary cream of own boring experiences and light, sound and other effects on it. This, unfortunately, happens often, and NO ONE is immune to it. It is SO easy the cheat the audience, I better don't tell you. So, the only thing against is always a profound attitude of personal doubt, I think. Thanks! And have a very good day!

André Bastian said...

Wow, one should revise first. Sorry for the amount of typos, "TO cheat the audience" is only one of them. Sorry again.

André Bastian said...

... and Max Reinhardt, obviously

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks for the etymology, Andre. As they say, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing... and I confess I'm rather charmed by the thought of Mensch Meier being called Jeepers Creepers!

And debate away. It's what this blog is for. I've just been thinking about the place of text in theatre for a (non-blog) article, and really it's one of the most contested issues in the theatre, and deserves a lot more thoughtful conversation than it generally gets.

André Bastian said...

Oh, no worries, Alison, I'm in your debt for giving me (and us) this great space for self-expression (beyond stage) and contact. Anyway, sayings are the nastiest thing you can find as a translator, I tell you! And it gets even worse when, as we could see, things get more complicated. That's "unfortunately" where literature only starts. Well, yes, text, texture, all this has been talked about for so long time now, and it is still exciting. Might be a reason why we're still doing this. Enjoy the evening...maybe some "theatrical nibbles" for this night? :-)

benjamin said...

André,

just going back to the title, when I directed a production of Mensch Meier back at uni, the translation we came up with was (if you'll excuse the french): For Fuck's Sake...

André Bastian said...

Was Otto called Otto Fuck in your version? Just kidding! Look, there are always as many viable decisions as potential paratextual implications might affect any title. This is at least my opinion. And titles are (as well, please excuse my French... I like this and just learned it from you) fuckin' difficult and so terrible impotant as commercial poster, possible key for the interpretation, etc.

SUMMA POLITICO said...

Let me weigh in with a couple of points:

1] The title MENSCH MEIR is indeed a great one, especially because it is so richly ambiguous.
In an odd way, in German, it harks back to the early 30s "Neue Sachlichkeit", say, Hans Fallada's "Kleiner Mann, was nun" just republished in the U.S. "Tom Fool" doesn't make it at all in the U.S. In California, " "Way to go, Dude."
might do the trick. In U.S. Jewish environs the word "Mensch" retains the sense of "have a heart" more so than
it does a German, a Mensch in German is a nearly neutral designation, not so in Jiddish.

2] As far as I am concerned, by the time Kroetz delivers MENSCH he is writing shtick... "La Methode" Kroetz.
Never has the been a playwright who has developed his formula less beyond its origins [think of David Mamet who also has also innovated in the naturalistic genre]: Kroetz takes a situation that elicits pity, microwaves it into bits as he slows the moments down, gives his characters bits of broken language.

Initially Kroetz wrote his plays in two versions, the first entirely in Bajuvarian, entirely incomprehensible
except in Bavaria, and even there better in rural than in city environs; and then in a hybrid of Bajuvarian and
regular German, comprehensible everywhere, but with the vestigial charm of dialect, that locates the characters
in his home province. He did sixty of these, until a few years ago he decided to hang it up; just couldn't do it anymore as he states in one of these recent interviews. Theoretically there is a near infinitude of situations and characters that you can apply "la Methode" Kroetz to. As I may have mentioned before.

It was interesting work to find a way to do this "broken" language in the U.S. where the only equivalent to rural Bavarian can be found among Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia hill folk, thus my initial thought of taking recourse to Cormac McCarthy, whose early work - the terrific ORCHARD KEEPER - uses his for him natural lingo, before he writes in, for me far less interesting standard discourse. You also find that kind of language in Faulkner, especially "The Farm"

I found equivalents for broken language in Black American ghetto, and playwright pal Jack Gelber, who'd also hung there, helped refine that a bit when we worked on it at Yale in 1974 on "Farmyard", which in the UK version uses the original German title "Stallerhof", whatever that word might mean to anyone there. # 3 + 4 below...

SUMMA POLITICO said...

3] It is left to the audience to fill in the feelings, to articulate what the characters are unable to articulate,
but which the audience presumes they feel. It is via that presumption, that projection, introjection of standard cliché feelings into the gaps in the minimalist texts that these plays work. The audience for these texts are not anything like the
characters on stage, whom it can pity and feel superior to. That is why I think these texts are ultimately exploitive.

I tend to agree with Kroetz that he is manifesting extreme existential situations; initially, during the late 60s early 70s his politics were communist, that was the swing of the times, then when it seemed more advantageous to swing to the right wing, so did Kroetz; as far as I am concerned, this says little about his plays. But something about him as a hustler, after all Kroetz is a pretty good actor too! He is what's called a "Schlitzohr" in German. As to someone who has real purchase on the dynamics of capitalism, that would be a great Marxist historical playwright like Heiner Mueller, who never repeated himself!

How Kroetz judges and ascertains the commercial "moment" however is revealed in the versions that he did of "Men's Businesss", where the two brutes are locked into interdependent brutality; a little less so in version two: "A Man a Dictionary," with the third and final version "Through the Leaves" arriving at the current p.c. status of "the man" realizing the brutality of his ways and no longer beating up his wife. One step away from the "humanitarian" intervention!

"Request Concert," the play of the suicidal secretary, and his first play to be done in the English speaking world, by Joanne Akalytis in the middle to late 70s in New York could as easily have one of those many upper middle class women for a protagonist as they tossed themselves out of windows especially during Thanksgiving when all the family skeletons had come back out of the closet, and instead of murdering the entire family she would murder her self and all those selves within her. That's why I used to give whenever I could post Thanksgiving evening bashes in New York. This has little to do with capitalism, but more with anthropology and repression. Capitalism functions even better, as it has discovered
in the last 50 years, in an unrepressed consuming environment. I gave Kroetz some thought in a footnote to a part of my Handke project, and this footnote can be found at the bin for footnotes:

http://www.handke-trivia.blogspot.com

4] I am puzzled why in Australia in 2008 a production would set Mensch Meier in 1970s Germany.
This makes no sense at all to me - it distances it, makes it museal, fails to relate it to whatever
might be analogous to the characters' Australian situation. Alison, you ought to go a bit easier
on those adjectives!

SUMMA POLITICO said...

While I am at it, let me mention some other German playtsthat might be of interest "down under."
Around 1970 I did an anthology called contemporary German plays for Peter Mayer at Avon Books.
It included Nelly Sachs' ELY, Martin Walser's ZIMMERSCHLACHT [right now I forget what
the British translator called this marriage battle], Handke's RIDE ACROSS LAKE CONSTANCE, and
the Martin Sperr's wonderful HUNTING SCENES FROM LOWER BAVARIA, I forget in whose
rendition, but it provides a different tack on some characters that also appear in Kroetz's work,
Sperr died young very unfortunately. Ariadne Books in Riverside California
http://www.ariadnebooks.com/
has published not only a lot of Austrian plays in translation, but also several anthologies of Austrian
so-called folk plays. Among others, I ventured into the manure smear pit of language of Werner Schwab's
My Liver is Sick but managed to recover without needing a transplant. Amazing what can be done with words!