By Valerie Jean Johnson
The plays of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) have been widely produced to great acclaim throughout Europe; and yet, his work has had minimal attention in North America. But that’s changing, in large part due to the efforts of Adam Seelig, artistic director of Toronto’s One Little Goat Theatre. The company (which was founded by Seelig in New York City in 2002), in conjunction with the Goethe Institute Chicago, brings their production—the North American premiere—of Bernhard’s “Ritter, Dene, Voss” to Chicago’s Trap Door Theatre this week.
“Bernhard is a perfect fit for One Little Goat in the sense that [our] mandate is to…work towards what I call ‘poetic’ theater,” says Seelig, from his home in Toronto. “And ‘poetic’ theater is not poems that are adapted to the stage, they are plays that are capable of multiple meanings, they are plays that require major interpretation on the part of the actors, the director and, of course, the audience… They are plays that pay close attention to the rhythm of speech and text, so what could be a better [match] than Bernhard?”
Bernhard’s “misanthropic, psychosexual comedy” centers around three siblings—two actress sisters awaiting the return home of their troubled philosopher brother, who has just been released from a mental institution. (The title refers to the last names of three actors who originated the roles.) The troubled clan’s struggles to reintegrate themselves into normal daily family life amid deep-seated resentment, regret and misplaced desires is fugue-like in its caustic and often hilarious exploration of upper-class entitlement and the universally contentious nature of family. “Bernhard is obsessed with obsessive characters, and he’s obsessed with characters…who strive for perfection and are aware that it’s ultimately impossible, so they are tragic characters, but their awareness of the impossibility of perfection makes them comical as well. Especially the character in this play, he is constantly aware of the meaninglessness of life. But where that could create a despairing and dark universe, in Bernhard he turns it into, what he calls, ‘a world of entertainment.’”
Bernhard’s inspiration for the brother character was, in fact, real-life philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Austrian-born Wittgenstein, considered by many to be one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century, continues to have a strong impact on contemporary philosophical thought and global aesthetics. Though Seelig assures that one not need know about Wittgenstein in order to understand and appreciate the themes of the play. “The principle theme that we work at in our play…is that this is a play that involves siblings. The philosophy, the cultural background, that’s part of the furniture, so to speak. The more important aspects here are the desires, the love and hatred between these characters.”
But rest assured that this is no typical, kitchen-sink realism; Bernhard’s text is written in short, clipped lines, almost stanza-like on the page, entirely without punctuation and with minimal stage directions. The action of the play is guided by what Seelig identifies as games, almost ritual structures, which offer the director, the actors and the audience a myriad of possible meanings; precisely what the director finds so compelling. “What is important to me, in what I’m calling ‘poetic’ theater, is the ability to…create multiple meanings—what in poetry people will call ambiguity—for an audience, so that if something is said onstage it can hold two, three, four possible meanings…so it becomes interpretive for an audience as well.”
Seelig’s approach to mining these ambiguities is to look at the play not only as a thing in itself, but as action, play as verb. “There are two words that capture our entire approach: histrionics perversity. Histrionics, once upon a time, was the definition of the art of acting. Today it’s become synonymous with overacting, melodrama, scene-making. In Bernhard’s world, histrionics are essential in both senses. And perversity, this is a perfect definition of what we do in the play, but it’s also an incredible definition for what happens in the theater. What actors do, and what these characters do in the play, is the same thing; they take sincere emotions and they pervert them…for the purposes of power and of influencing the audience. That’s the whole world of Bernhard, and, in large part, the world of theater as well. Actors really feel what they’re going through onstage, but they’re also perfectly aware that those feelings have an impact on the people watching. That’s histrionics perversity.”
“Ritter, Dene, Voss” at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 West Cortland, (312)263-0472. This production is now closed.