Review: Princess Dramas ~ theatre notes

Friday, June 17, 2011

Review: Princess Dramas

Princess Dramas, now playing at Red Stitch, is the first play by Elfriede Jelinek ever to have been produced in Australia. And massive kudos to Red Stitch for finally giving us a chance to see her work. Jelinek - probably best known for her novel The Piano Teacher, which was adapted into a film by Michael Haneke - is an Austrian writer and intellectual, and a major contemporary German dramatist. She has won, for what it's worth, the Nobel Prize for Literature. She's a Marxist feminist whose work is underlaid by a continuing critique of Austrian fascism, and by extension, of the fascism which underlies western capitalism.

However, none of these things means that Jelinek is without humour or a wicked wit: and director Andre Bastian gives Princess Dramas a grunge production that is often hilarious and always surprising. But it does ask that its audience listen in a way in which we are not often asked: here language is an autonomous entity, not an expression of character nor even of the author. What struck me first was the freedom of the writing. It's as exhilarating as reading Hélène Cixous's prose, which runs without inhibition, intelligence leaping wherever it likes, untrammeled by rule or convention. Here is a writer who feels no need to pander to anything except the imperatives of the work she is writing.

Jelinek is a bit of a leap for audiences used to the idea of theatre as an empathy machine, by which its success is measured by how much one identifies with characters. Jelinek doesn't play for feeling. Although she deals profoundly with narrative, she is not especially interested in plot, which is the least interesting aspect, after all, of story-telling. What's impossible to ignore in this is the influence of Brecht, who perhaps did more than any modern writer, through the utopia of the collective, to redefine the notion of the individual in art.

Jelinek's interrogation of language and her nearly absolute refusal of the empathically-imagined subjective self is the source of much discomfort in the English speaking world. When she won the Nobel, outraged editorials demanded to know why an obscure Austrian had been chosen over manifestly more worthy candidates, such as Philip Roth (to be fair, Jelinek was as surprised as anyone). There's a typical 2007 response in the New York Review of Books (called, ironically enough, How To Read Elfriede Jelinek), in which translator Tim Parks castigates her novels for their lack of authentic subjectivity.

He seems to read her novels as direct expressions of ideas or experiences, which is perilously close to assuming that Hamlet is Shakespeare. He begins the review with a conflation of the author and her narrators, and discusses her work consistently throughout the review through the lens of autobiography. (This is difficult: Jelinek herself exploits autobiography in her work, but it is surely a mistake to use it as a reference for authenticity.) At one point, he says a particular book "might just have worked had Jelinek dedicated any energy at all to creating the dramatic encounters and characterizations that make The Piano Teacher such a strong novel, or alternatively if her ruminations were sufficiently coherent and convincing for us to take them seriously." It's hard not to conclude that he has almost completely missed the point.

When Jelinek's translator, Gitta Honneger, takes him to task for ignoring all Jelinek's dramatic work, at least half her output and the source of a great deal of her fame, Parks claims that her plays - which he claims feature "unnuanced denunciation" - are only applicable to certain very localised political struggles in Austria, disclaims any literary prejudice against drama per se (Beckett! Shakespeare!) and finally suggests that she is ultimately untranslatable. It's possible to argue that every writer, embedded deeply as she is in her own language or locale, is untranslateable; it seems absurd to single out Jelinek as especially untranslatable.

But it does expose a stubborn, even wilful, refusal to accept a central tenet of her writing; in particular, it suggests a misread theatricality in her prose. Speaking of her plays, Jelinek describes how she uses "language surfaces" ("Sprachflächen") in juxtaposition, in place of dialogue. Language here is a behaviour, from which meaning might be discerned only through the fractures where its tyrannies collide and break. The idea of "language surfaces" actively refuses the depth that Parks claims is a crucially missing aspect of her writing, and suggests a more supple, less literal and crucially ironic reading of her work.

The autonomy of language is a commonplace in any engagement with modern poetry, and hardly unknown in English plays: Martin Crimp exploits the same ideas, but in a far less spiky fashion. It is an approach particularly suited to theatre, where performance is already a metaphor, where language is already a mask, already ironic, already a supple and elusive thing. What seems complex in description is, when enacted, made manifest. This doesn't mean it is necessarily simple: it forbids transparency, focusing on speech as an act rather than an expression. In Princess Dramas, Jelinek is especially interested in language as an imprisonment, exploring the creation of the feminine and its relationship to death in the communal psyche. She uses every linguistic resource she can, from fairytales to soap opera to philosophy, as weapons to break the prison open.

The result is an avalanche of text, dizzying, fracturing, impossible to pin down. I thought of hunting down the text before writing this review; but on reflection, I decided to attempt to think about it as I experienced it in performance, with much of it simply flying past my ears, experienced as texture as much as meaning. Inevitably, I am merely scratching the surface.

These texts, first performed in 2002, use a commonplace of feminist writing: the reworking of myth or folklore to subvert common ideas of the feminine in popular culture. Jelinek, however, is not so much rewriting the myths as empowerment, as demonstrating how profoundly their cliches infect every aspect of self. Princess Dramas consists of three short plays. The first two concern themselves with fairytales, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty: the final work is an extraordinary monologue by a modern-day princess, Jackie Kennedy.

All three are conversations with death. In the first two, the Princess is talking to the Prince who rescues both from sleep: the princesses here exist in a blackly ironic gap between sleep, death's counterfeit, and a waking into the happily-ever-after marriage with the Prince, which is also represented here as death. Jackie Kennedy Onassis - aristocratic, tragic, chillingly tough - compares herself to Marilyn Monroe, in whose image sex and death unite in all their seduction: Monroe is the ultimate sexualised flesh, to be inevitably consumed and discarded into her self-destruction.

Jackie escapes this fate by becoming her image: she is her clothes, impeccable, untouchable, icily self-controlled. Here fashion is not imagined as a symptom of the male domination of women, but as a weapon of survival. (This becomes most chilling in meditations on Kennedy's assassination, where his exposed brain is compared to fabric.) Its price is the dissolving of self into the abstraction of image, narcissism as brutal survival technique, that scorns the women who permit themselves to be merely victims by remaining flesh, and ultimately scorns her own body.

This suggestion of complicity makes Jelinek's feminism deeply complicated, and situates it in a much larger political argument. Rather than simply outlining the inequalities of gender, she is interested in how, as the critic Helga Kraft puts it, to "unmask social practices as they influence the body, and by doing so... illuminate the artificiality and brutality of this process". The yearning for power "leads to dehumanisation against the body, against the other and the self", in both men and women.

The multiplicity of referents and the shifting vectors of the text create constant small collapses of cognition. It's text working most closely as a kind of collage, a complex tessellation of meaning that is constantly calling itself into question. As Bastian says in his director's note, the complexity of this text puts "our relationship with language into crisis". Language no longer behaves as a vehicle for expression, but as a kind of kind of neuroticised symptom of national (here both Australian and Austrian), ideological and personal crisis. The polarities of gender buckle under the weight of its dizzying representations: as irony piles on irony, the vacuum at its centre - the absence of a feminine self free of prior definition - becomes more and more evident. This is how Woman becomes Sartre's "hole", the very definition of absence.

Bastian and his performers give us a suitably unreverential production which is often, as I said, very funny. Peter Mumford's design exploits every kind of kitsch, creating a picket fenced backyard that ends up festooned with washing, backed by a garage door painted with some sort of tourism ad for Austria. The casting is deliberately cross-grained and the costumes absurd. The first Prince (Andrea Swifte) is in lederhosen and an over-the-top Tyrolean uniform, while Snow White (Dion Mills) is dressed in a Disney dirndl skirt embroidered with swastikas. Genders are conventionally assigned in the Sleeping Beauty play, where the Prince is sulking in a lycra Rabobank cycling top and the be-wigged Princess gasps out her monologue between sudden collapses into catatonia.

Jackie is played by Indigenous actor Melodie Reynolds; at first we only hear her miked voice, as she stand behind a projected, shifting image of Jackie, then we see her silhouette, apparently reading from a lectern; finally we see the performer herself, but then, at various points, the text is distributed between the three performers, and the performer herself is replicated in projected images. The production alienates and overstimulates in ways analogous to the text: we are literally swamped with semiotics.

I'm not sure the production is entirely successful, although the second half is riveting: you feel at times the actors are still finding a way to deal with this language, and, as I have found in this review, there is no doubt more to be said and done. But it is certainly impressive, and it's a welcome introduction to a writer who should be better known here, if only for all those uncompromising gauntlets thrown down in the face of our expectations.

Princess Dramas, by Elfriede Jelinek translated by Gitta Honneger, directed by André Bastian. Designed by Peter Mumford, costumes by Olga Makeeva, lighting by Stelios Karagiannis. With Dion Mills, Andrea Swifte and Melodie Reynolds. Red Stitch until July 2.


Borbs said...

Thanks for such an in-depth analysis, Alison. Your previous post and your deconstruction of the play raise the interesting dilemma of aesthetic predisposition in criticism. I’m particularly interested in your opening statements:

"I've often thought that the major weakness in Australian theatre is its writing. We have an astonishing design culture, an embarrassment of talented actors, and directors, young and established, aplenty. But while our theatre artists can work as if they live in the 21st century, writers are trammelled in expectations and conventions that seem to belong in the Menzies imaginary. This struck me forcibly while watching André Bastian's fascinating production of Elfriede Jelinek's 2002 plays, Princess Dramas, at Red Stitch last week."

I agree with you in your broad statement that audiences need to be stimulated and educated to broaden their aesthetic blinkers. On the other hand, I don’t think that the “conventions” of experimentalism, auteurism, Brecht-ism, Artaudian-ism, Grotowskian-ism, or xyz-ism are in themselves virtues, and that they are the necessary evolution of modern theatre - any more than 19th century Russian Naturalism was the necessary trajectory and aesthetic yard-stick of its time. There is a kind of aesthetic snobbery creeping into the scene, which asserts that art should be evaluated on how far it can push non-naturalism, on how ‘creative’ it can be with visual metaphor, textual gymnastics, atmospherics, etc.

Art doesn’t die. Impressionism is not dead. Absurdism is not dead. Rich Theatre is not dead. Naturalism is not dead. Text isn’t dead. Don’s Party isn’t dead. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not dead. If art is a gift to the audience, it should be judged according to its content, not what colour packaging happens to be in vogue. The moment we start worshipping style over substance, that’s what we’re going to get.

I agree with you, Alison, that a lot of Australian writing for the theatre is unadventurous – even frivolous, but I don’t think it’s because writers are afraid to break free of the conventions of Naturalism. It’s not because they stubbornly refuse to abandon plot, character development and a neat resolution. I think it’s deeper than that. You see it in the work of a lot of young directors (of my generation) – we’re angry. We’re angry, but we don’t know why. We want to say something with such passion – something that will shock, that will astound, that will announce our arrival to the world – to the universe – something ugly and beautiful and murderous and as far removed from the comfortable suburban vacuum as we can – a Greek tragedy where God’s feast on human bodies, a world of the young mind where apathy rages and ambition burns for something – anything – because deep inside we can’t deal with the awful reality that it has all been said before – that the DJs are making remixes with samples of 80s riffs and the guitarist in the new-hit rock band is using blues licks that the Stones stole from Howlin’ Wolf, and between Shakespeare and Seinfeld nothing of the human condition is left unexposed, and we haven’t fought wars, and we haven’t been through the Depression, and we have never starved, and we have lost all faith in God, and we don’t believe in the Left, and we don’t trust the Right, and we – tragically, have nothing to say.

I think I just have an idea for my new play :)

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Borbs - thanks for your comment (and good luck with your play). How do you judge an art work on its "content" and not its "style"? Aren't they, if not the same thing, so deeply related as to be inseparable, one being the expression of the other?

Those kinds of content/style, naturalism/everything else, either/or binary divisions are exactly what I suggest is a problem in my earlier polemic. I don't believe in "progress", but I do wish we could have more than two ways of thinking about stuff. Snobbery? In what way?

Borbs said...

Thanks for replying, Alison. You're right, my statement about style/content was a little unclear. I don't mean to imply that a critic should not evaluate how successfully a style and its conventions were employed by a writer, but that art is not immune to fashion and that a certain style is not valuable by virtue of its form. By snobbery I mean, that just like in fashion, things go in and out of style, and if you wear an outdated dress to the ball, you will be considered a fashion disaster. Does that make the dress any less well made? Any less valid as ‘beautiful’ clothing?

To get back to theatre, just because the times have moved on and Cate and Andrew are taking the STC in a different direction and will most likely not be commissioning a David Williamson play any time soon, does that mean that we're 'just so over that kind of theatre - it's so last season'? Of course I'm not accusing you of such snobbery, but some of the young theatre makers and students that I interact with certainly feel this or at least a pressure to fit in with the new aesthetic, because you don’t have a prayer to be showcased at the MTC until you are established and you know that the Malthouse wants the new wave – where in-your-face style is very much the order of the day.

Back to style/content. I think we can make a distinction between the two, even though they are closely connected. I could write a play about violence and choose to communicate my ideas through physical theatre, Epic Theatre, musical theatre, Noh theatre, etc. Regardless of the style, I can make it with sophisticated ideas and insights, clever juxtapositions, with honesty and emotional power, surprising comedy – or I can write it with superficial insights, pointless repetition, preachy dialogue, etc. Obviously the content will be moulded by the form, but I think that art is about ideas and honesty – and no matter what performance style is chosen – sophisticated art is sophisticated art – even if performance styles go in and out of fashion.

jean said...

The three parts of the play performed by Red Stitch are available in translation on Jelinek's website ( I can't link the actual location. Go to 'Theater' on left of the main page; then the three acts "Sleeping Beauty", "Snow White" and "Jackie" are listed separately. There are also translation of "The Wall" and "Rosamunde", the two other Princess Dramas, by another translator - Lilian Friedberg.

jean said...

Correction to the above - the Honegger translations are not on the site in full . . . Sorry . . .

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks so much, Jean. I've ordered the book, but it seems it won't arrive for a while. And reading those extracts prompts a whole lot of other thoughts - as I said, I can only scratch the surface. I've wandered about that site (some deeply interesting meditations on Brecht there too, though how I wish I could read German!) but I didn't spot the plays. I was curious in any case to think about this production without textual prompts, since their effect in performance is so fracturing and overwhelming...

Andre said...

Dear Alison,

First: thanks a lot for your thorough review. It is always a pleasure to read your carefully weighed considerations and I would love to discuss the issues a bit further, but won't be able to do so this week. Hopefully later. Anyway, the three translations by Gitta Honegger were published in Theater (Duke University Press):
It needs an access code, but they are also available at a lot of university libraries in Melbourne, in print or online with the respective access code.
Thanks again for your invaluable efforts of reviewing day after day and creating a real hub for Melbourne theatre arts.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Andre - that's what I've ordered, and with any luck might actually possess within the next three months or so... it seems it is presently out of stock and being ordered in. I guess I need a university access code.

I look forward to anything you have to contribute. I certainly didn't chew over your production enough, Jelenik herself being a big bite...

George Hunka said...

If you want those texts sooner, Alison, I can probably get them for you this weekend as .pdfs. Just let me know.

Alison Croggon said...

George, thank you! But somehow my inbox is full of Jelinek! I wish it worked like that with, say, gold dubloons...

Alison Croggon said...

Sorry Borbs - somehow missed you there. It sounds to me very much as if you think of style as a kind of supermarket - you pick your theme and go shopping for ways to dress it. I don't think representation is anything like as easy at that, because form has its own meanings, its own histories of ideas. I suspect with most artists, the "form", or at least a formal idea, comes way before any "content". I'm not denying that it's not difficult to speak about work without teasing out these differences (I find it near impossible), but it is a separation made for convenience, and at best a temporary forensic exercise (as of a corpse, which such discussions so easily can be); the life, meaning and ideas of the artwork is in its material shape. And surely this is no more apparent than in theatre. Honesty, truthfulness and so on, are crucial: but they are not transparent, nor easy, nor possible to evoke in art - a secondary reality, surely - in any stable sense that can be meaningful, except as contingent process, what Heidegger called "intimate struggle". (No, I'm not hauling in a bunch of degraded pomo ideas about the relative here - I suspect most artists know this instinctively). By which I mean, partly, that as soon as you make art out of truth, it becomes false. (This is what Wilde means in saying that sincerity is the death of art). And that as soon as you ignore the artwork itself in favour of its "content", you're no longer talking about it at all.

Theatre is of course vulnerable to superficial fads (like every other human activity). But an immediate responsiveness to the world we live in isn't necessarily the same thing.

Borbs said...

Well argued Alison. As an experienced writer in many 'forms' I'm sure you have your own approaches, but I'm not sure I conform to that methodology. As a writer, my work is inspired by ideas, by events, stories, history, wars, the death of a loved one, the relationship that didn't work out ... then I think about what form that idea will be communicated through. Would it be farce, would it be a tragedy, would it be a musical. I don't say to myself, I'm going to write a great farce, and then search around for an idea to fulfil my ambition.

I had a great idea that I tried to make into a musical, but the form did not allow enough depth for the subject matter, so it's now a play. But I guess there are many ways of working. I look at it like sculpture, first you need the clay before you can mould it into a form.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Borbs - the last thing I'd want to be is prescriptive! There's no "ought" and no right way. And of course everyone has his or her own process. The danger of talking about such a vague and inarticulate thing as the beginning of a work is that it falsifies and simplifies something that is actually almost impossible to communicate. I think "formal intuition" may be closer to what I mean than "formal idea" - I was thinking of something like Flaubert saying that he could hear the steps of the words "for pages ahead". Or how a poem begins with a line, which begets another line... a sensed rhythm, maybe, that demands some kind of articulation, that is simultaneously a feeling and an idea. It always seems deeply mysterious... Form to me seems far from a fixed intention, which is why I have such problems with the style/content dichotomy. Even when writing a genre book - where you'd think that form was a given - the intended form, if you like, has been for me only the beginning of a formal/imaginative/emotional essaying into the unknown.

I'm not sure clay is "content" so much as material. Surely content is usually thought of as subject matter? - ie, the content of Rodin's The Burghers of Calais wouldn't be the bronze, but the story that inspired it?

Borbs said...

I think you're right Alison ... and thank you for persevering with me; I hope I’m not boring you to death. I thank you for being both thought provoking and patient :)

I agree that the words 'content' and 'form' may not be the clearest choices as they are too broad and too open for misinterpretation. I guess by form I mean ‘style’, and by ‘content’ I mean ‘the very expression of ideas’ (in words and/or movements and/or sounds and/or smells and/or whatever), to put it another way: ‘the rendering of ideas into perceivable existence’ – there is no allusion to artistic providence or a need to strictly categorise.

Now I know that style is very hard to define, as it is fluid and unique to every piece of art - but we sometimes need to be able to define a thing in this world of flux beyond Platonic forms, otherwise, how are we to make sense of anything? So I guess I’m saying, we all have stylistic preferences, but I believe art should be judged not by style, but by the sophistication with which ideas have been rendered into perceivable existence by the artist(s). I think if we judge art according to style, we will always be victims of fashion.

Thanks for putting up with my ramblings!

Chris Summers said...

Interesting, Alison.

I had never read, studied or even heard of Jelinek before seeing 'Princess Dramas'. I was completely engrossed, at least initially, with the 'avalanche' of language, even if I was caught in the onslaught rather than able to make sense of it while it engulfed me. I also really appreciated the humour, particularly in the second fragment (I'd hesitate to call them 'plays'), where I was reminded of an almost Churchill-esque take on feminist politics, Brechtian alienation and sharp-tongued, declamatory wit.

What I was far less sure of was the production. The first thing I wanted to do, immediately after seeing it, was read the script. I haven't done that yet but look forward to it; if only to catch-up on the glaciers of text which floated right by. The reason I'm not sure about the production is that I don't feel the layer upon layer of image, performance mode and design did the text, or whatever the text and director might have been attempting to say, any favours. Aside from Heiner Muller (and I'm very interested to see how Jelinek writes on the page in comparison) I actually thought of the plays of Richard Foreman at one point - not post-dramatic per se, but full of incomprehensible symbols, iconography and outrageous imagery which essentially build to nothing (which is, I think, their point - I may be butchering Foreman's intentions here, I apologise). I thought this production of 'Princess Dramas' was far too considered and academic (I'll return to that) in its direction - the barrage of images to do with nationalism / fascist identities, the intermingling of pop culture and ideology a-la Marx, the meta-theatrical movements and actor modes etc. - without really treating the text as anything more than 'words that need to be said'. The two should have complimented each other, but I kept finding myself thinking they instead complicated each other, further reducing my capacity to really engage with either. This disjuncture was frustrating to me and eventually, let me to shut down.

I can understand why some have used 'Princess Dramas' to critique a culture of elitism and intellectualism in aspects of Australian theatre. I can understand it, for example, because I saw more than half the audience not return after interval – though simultaneously, I’d applaud Red Stitch for such a brave programming decision. But I can also understand it because this is a piece of theatre about 'ideas'. That is not a problem and it should never be a problem in theatre - audiences should embrace performance that encourages them to critically engage. But the methodology by which ideas are discussed and communicated to an audience is an interesting consideration. I do think people should go to the theatre to have their ideas and notions of 'theatre' challenged. But I also think, like any piece of theatre, one of the most important challenges is figuring out what ideas work and what don't in that attempt. This is something I've recently been coming to grips with in my own work, as you’ve pointed out too!

Chris Summers said...

For my mind, I felt like many of the decisions in the production were academic because I could see the seams of thought and discourse and intent, but couldn't feel them or attached to their importance. Some of the best post-dramatic theatre - Kane, Crimp, von Mayenburg, Muller to name a few - can, in effective productions, make us think but also make us feel things. I appreciated many of the individual elements of the production, but in the end, I felt that I was being argued 'at' from a variety of angles (a babble of indistinguishable voices, perhaps – which occurred quite often in the production), not really engaged 'with'. And it is this that I believe draws people to make a distinction between elitist work / high-art wank and ‘real’ theatre: they haven't become invested or involved themselves because, for whatever reason, they haven’t found themselves let in.

The prerequisites for ‘feeling’ and ‘involvement’ in the theatre are not necessarily character or plot or drama. But, in post-dramatic theatre, especially in such a loaded, complex and intellectually rigorous text, the choices that are made in any given production must be done so knowing those things aren’t there to fall back on.

P.S. Despite my perceived shortcomings, I'd really recommend everyone go see this show. It's a fascinating piece of theatre and there are definitely things to enjoy.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Chris - many thanks for those thoughtful reflections. The production often felt more like exploration than accomplishment to me, but I didn't have an argument with the thrust of it: those seams of thought and decision, if you like, were certainly exposed, but that made sense to me. I guess it depends on the angle of engagement: for my part, it wound me in, partly because of those refusals.

I wouldn't put Martin Crimp in that company! He's certainly drawing on the same ideas, but Muller and Kane seem to me to be another plane altogether. (And von Mayenburg is doing something else, I think.)

J-Lo said...

This was a real tough one for me; I consider myself pretty theatre-literate, and at the same time not-unfamiliar with language-as-subject-of-itself ideas, and yet I'm afraid I certainly struggled with the show.

I'd second Chris' observations, re: the extent of audience engagement possible given the at/with nature of this performance-text; but then, I guess that just means that this wasn't my kind of thing (as opposed to being 'beyond my comfort zone)!