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Hysteria, Histrionics, Hypocrisy: The Theater of Thomas Bernhard Comes to New York City

Filed under: On the Spot   Tagged: , , , , , ,

Jonathan Taylor writes:

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I've traveled to Thomas Bernhard's house and met his half-brother, and organized a reading and a panel discussion on him. But I, like most readers of Bernhard on this side of the Atlantic, have never seen any of his plays performed. However, in his native Austria, Bernhard's status derived at least as much from his theatrical work (and behavior) as it did on his novels and other prose. As a young man, he himself trained as an actor, and his assaults on the Austrian state and cultural overclass were primarily acted out, as it were, on the stage, culminating in the 1988 furor over his "Heldenplatz" at Vienna's Burgtheater.

I'll be seeing my first Bernhard play in a couple weeks, when the Toronto-based One Little Goat theater company, directed by Adam Seelig, brings its production of Bernhard's 1986 play "Ritter, Dene, Voss," to New York's La MaMa E.T.C., from September 23 to October 10 (tickets here). I spoke with Seelig recently about "Ritter, Dene, Voss," and how this play's metatheatrical twist is the perfect vehicle for One Little Goat's mission of developing what it calls a "poetic theater."

The play is set in the Viennese mansion where the two Worringer sisters, wealthy dilettante actresses, live, and where they have brought home their brother Ludwig from the Steinhof mental hospital. The title of the play is composed of the names of the prominent German actors who are specified in the text as the players of the three roles: Ilse Ritter, Kirsten Dene and Gert Voss.

The character Ludwig is, not for the first time in Bernhard's oeuvre, loosely based on characteristics of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his brother Paul. It's a bit as if, say, Harold Pinter had written a play called, I don't know, "Gielgud, Ashcroft, Redgrave," with Gielgud playing the part of, who—Bertrand Russell maybe?

The One Little Goat production, which has been seen in Toronto and Chicago, does not star Ritter, Dene, or Voss, and avoids any futile attempt to incorporate or transmit the associations they would carry to Austrians. (Seelig notes that he has avoided seeing any rendition of the original production, directed by Bernhard's frequent collaborator, Claus Peymann.) The La MaMa production stars Maev Beaty, Shannon Perreault and Jordan Pettle, and Seelig says he would willingly retitle the play in his production after them, if it were permitted.

JT: How did you first become aware of Bernhard and "Ritter, Dene, Voss"?

AS: I knew Bernhard the way you and so many others know Bernhard, as a novelist. I was familiar with some of the novels, I admired the writing, [and learned that] he was equally a playwright, that he virtually alternated between novels and plays. And as someone who directs plays, I started to examine them. What caught my attention immediately is the unpunctuated text, and the lack of, or at least the sparse, stage directions. In other words, this is a perfect fit for the kind of work I'm developing with One Little Goat, which we're calling poetic theater. And what that means is, text that can be treated as a score, highly interpretive plays—plays that actors can seriously dig into and make choices, while still holding on to the possibility for multiple interpretation, and the ambiguity that poetry is capable of, and theater so often is not.

JT: Does your poetic theater approach depend on producing plays that lend themselves to it in the way they are written, or can it be a way of approaching just any old play?

AS: That's a good question. The honest answer is, I don't know. A better effort at the answer is that, to begin with, it's wonderful to work with texts where the writer places a great deal of trust in the performers.... This is the perfect play for it, right? As you know, from the note Bernhard wrote [at the end of the play]: "Ritter, Dene, Voss intelligent actors." So this is a play that writes up to the actors, as it were, as opposed to one that traps them in a kind of hard mask. If you will, the mask here is a soft mask.

And I think it would be a bit of a battle to take one of those, any old play as you say, and try to tone down the character in order for the actor to come through a little more. It would be more of a challenge, although, hey, it would be fantastic to try that.

JT: That's interesting what you say about the respect for the actor, because there's also a way that it struck me that Bernhard, by naming the actors, is kind of singling them out and toying with them. It certainly highlights the relationship of the author to the actors and the characters, alongside that between the actors and the characters.

AS: On the one hand, it's extraordinarily respectful of the actors....he's giving them a great deal of freedom. On the other hand, I think he is deliberately challenging them to negotiate an extraordinarily challenging text. It has, believe me, we're finding a great deal of pleasure doing it, but yes, there are moments when you say, "Fuck you, Thomas Bernhard! You've deliberately made that hard on us." And that is a form of—it's not just a hagiography of the actors, it's a form of tough love, and it hurts some times.

The whole premise of the play is a deliberate challenge. On the one hand, this play is seriously "entertaining." This is the thing that Bernhard really understood. He uses it pejoratively in the play, but the phrase "world of entertainment" comes out; he understood that this is a world of entertainment, and so the play, he writes it with some very high stakes. In that sense it's really Drama 101: What's going to happen? There is suspense in terms of what's going to happen, how is the brother, if at all, going to be reintegrated into the family, and what's that going to cause? So you have the standard, someone-is-going-to-come plot scenario. You have the status quo, the two sisters live together, and the brother comes in and upsets it.... But in Bernhard's case it's also anti-theater, because there's a reference in the play to this maybe being the 18th or 19th time that they've tried to do this!

JT: Are there particular junctures of the play that illustrate how you carry out your approach in this particular production?

AS: There are a few key moments, that I don't want to reveal, to be honest. But generally speaking, it's not so much a matter of our method. It's much more a matter of casting. If you switch out one actor in this play, it will be an entirely different play. And that's the kind of play that this is. Even if these actors tried to put up the most farcical of masks, the hardest of masks, the most ironclad of characters as it were, it would still be a totally different play every time you change the actors. So it's a much more global thing, it's not like, moment to moment we have a certain method.... And so I do want to turn attention to these actors, I mean I have three phenomenal actors, whose play it is—it's their play.

That may not be such huge news, but I think a lot of people have been treating theater as if the play is distinct from the people who perform it. And I think that Bernhard is really clearly calling our attention to it by naming the actors for whom he wrote.

JT: You've written that this play's "central subject, ultimately, is the art of acting. The two Worringer sisters, after all, are actresses, making Bernhard's play a meta-play that simultaneously shows and addresses the machinations of theatremaking." Can you tell me a little more about how Bernhard treats the theater as his subject?

AS: With Bernhard, one of the biggest words across the board, in both novels and plays, is "hypocrisy," and theater is—and I mean this in the most loving way—a hypocritical art form. Every fiction that we create has its share of hypocrisy, because we are taking sincere feelings, sincere emotions, sincere actions, between each other on stage, and we're manipulating them and tweaking them for dramatic purposes. So we're taking our truth, an we're messing with it. So I think that Bernhard, he understands how performers operate, how the theater operates, so brilliantly, so clearly, that he calls out that very hypocrisy, and that kind of covenant that's sealed between the actors and the audience—that we all buy into the fiction.

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