By Elfriede Jelinek
Directed by Andre Bastian
With Dion Mills, Andrea Swifte & Melodie Rose Reynolds
Set: Peter Mumford
Lighting: Stelios Karagiannis
Costumes: Olga Makeeva
Choreography: Peta Coy
Stage Manager: Pippa Russell
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.