Sunday, December 18, 2011

Václav Havel: Power and Legacy

On my last trip to Prague in September 2010, I spent a good deal of time visiting places associated with Czech playwright, dissident and President Václav Havel – who died earlier today. I was fortunate enough on this journey to end up seeing Havel up close as I had coffee in the tiny café at Divadlo na zabradli ("Theatre on the Balustrade") – the small playhouse where Havel started his career and found fame as a writer.  


Looking dapper in a suit and tie, Havel was arriving to do a television interview in the theatre. He walked through the café with a wry smile and a slight stoop, nodding to patrons (including me) and exchanging greetings with us as he made his way into the theatre’s lobby.


It was a perfect way to end a trip in which I’d been thinking a lot about Havel, visiting a presidential museum dedicated to his life and some of the cafes and pubs most associated with his career. I ended up pitching an essay for The New Republic about Havel’s post-presidency (which is indeed a fascinating topic), but abandoned it because of other projects.


There will be many overviews of Havel’s life and work in the next few days – and you can start with this simply brilliant Guardian obituary, brimming with wit and knowing, written by WL Webb. But on hearing the sad news of his death this morning, I went back and found the torso of that abandoned piece and have reworked it and expanded it slightly.

* * * * * *

“Being in power makes me permanently suspicious of myself.” – Václav Havel

The Prague castle is the city’s crowning glory and classic postcard image. Hapsburg emperors ruled by fiat from its imposing perch above the city. Totalitarians – both fascist and communist – ruled by terror from its heights.

So when revolution swept through Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in 1989, it was in Prague castle that Václav Havel, the nation’s most prominent –and oft-jailed – dissident, was installed as president on the voices of crowds chanting a three word slogan: “Havel na hrad” (“Havel to the castle”).

Even Havel himself called the story of his rise from censored playwright to imprisoned dissident to president in a castle a “fairy tale” in a 2002 speech given at CUNY. But in that same speech, published in the New York Review of Books as “A Farewell to Politics,” Havel spoke not only of the “hard fall to earth” involved in governing, but also reflected on his legacy and the opportunities that leaving politics might offer to him to regain some of that lost magic.

“I cannot help feeling that at the end of my long fall from a fairy-tale world onto the hard earth,” Havel said, “I suddenly find myself once more inside a fairy tale.”

So what did Havel do in that new fairy tale that ended with his death on December 18, 2011? I thought a lot about this question on a 2010 trip to Prague, poking into various haunts associated with Havel and visiting his new presidential library in Old Town Prague.

Havel had been back in international headlines as I visited in 2010 because one of his activist protégés – Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo – was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Havel was among those who nominated Xiaobo for the prize, and Xiaobo’s Charter 08 takes both its name and its tactic of a forthright demand for human rights for the Chinese people from Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77.

Freed from self-suspicion, Havel spent as much or more time in his post- presidency revitalizing the activities of dissidence and drama that launched him to power as he did engaging in the usual tasks of an ex-presidency – burnishing and self-justification.

Whether it was writing a new play and a presidential memoir that trafficked in the political absurdism of his early work or making efforts to export the success of his mix of human rights and civil disobedience beyond Eastern Europe, Havel did something more honest than recapture a fairy tale. He found innovative ways not only to recount the fall, but also sow the seeds that might sprout new Havels elsewhere in the world

* * * * *

Almost nine years after the end of Havel’s final term as Czech president in February, 2003, the Prague castle is still no place to look for his legacy. There is no monument to him there. No Havel museum. Indeed, Havel’s greatest post-1989 political enemy, Thatcherite and climate change denier Václav Klaus, is the current president and resident of the castle.

In the warm glow of international acclaim, it’s easy to forget that Havel’s domestic profile had shrunken greatly after thirteen years in office. Havel left Prague Castle to indifference from many quarters and jeers about his personal peccadilloes from his critics. Mutual exasperation and exhaustion between Havel and his countrymen muted his departure, and his leavetaking was soured further by the signal indignity of Klaus being installed as his successor.

There were failures as well as successes in his term as president. Havel presided over the break-up of Czechoslovakia into two nations (a move he opposed but did not effectively combat).  He then served two terms as president of a newly-created Czech Republic, during which his greatest accomplishments were cementing the new state successfully into NATO and the European Union.

Havel created a presidential library (Knihova Václava Havla) with a small exhibit of his life and times in Prague’s Old Town.  That exhibit is a better place to get a sense of the man, largely because it keenly reflects Havel’s own desire to highlight the aspects of his life and work that he labeled as a “fairy tale.

The pamphlet that advertises its location of the presidential library on the small and largely untouristed Retezova street also weaves Havel as writer and politician into a dense web of literary connections in the surrounding area.

For instance, the famous Golden Tiger (U Zlateho Tygra) pub, where Havel took President Bill Clinton for a beer on his visit in 1994, is just a few steps away from the library. The Golden Tiger has been the haunt of many intellectuals and writers, but is most identified with the raffish prose raconteur Bohumil Hrabal, whom Havel introduced to Clinton at the pub during his visit. (There’s still a picture of that moment on the wall of the pub.)

The building in which the library is housed is redolent with literary history. The ground floor houses the Cabaret Montmartre – a loving recreation of an early 20th Century café at the same address where members of Prague’s dueling literary tribes of that era (Czech and German) would collide to take in a new-fashioned dance called the tango. (The pamphlet points out that Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek – author of The Good Soldier Svejk – both frequented the place.)

The exhibit was empty on the day I visited, save for the attendant who took my 50 crowns ($2.50) entrance fee. There were numerous walls with photos of Havel’s childhood, life as a playwright and his dissident days. (The Obies that Havel won in the 1960s for New York productions of his plays The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration are on display.)

A much smaller proportion of the exhibit devoted to his presidency, with academic gowns for various degrees and quotes on the walls that fixate on the problem of čecháčkovství – or “Czech small-mindedness – and Havel’s striking insistence that Czechs rise to their potential on the world stage.

The exhibit is a terrific education for the tourist audiences which will now likely flock to it. Havel is best known to most people as an unlikely politician, but the emphasis of the exhibit on other facets of his career  demonstrates how deeply rooted his politics was in his literate and comprehensive humanism.

Havel’s early plays siphoned energy and inspiration from earlier playwrights of the absurd such as Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, but his genius as a playwright was to bend the genre to his own political uses by pitting the individual against the totalitarian state. In his breakthrough play The Garden Party (1963), young Hugo Pludek’s joyous entanglement with and rapid rise within a soulless bureaucracy of “liquidation” and “inauguration” leaves him so completely effaced that his own family does not recognize him at the end of the play. And in his next play, The Memorandum (1965), the ambitious rivals of a slightly oblivious director in a large enterprise outmaneuver him (and then, ultimately, themselves) by introducing a nonsense language for corporate communications.

What made Havel’s early plays so striking – as I alluded to above – was their transmutation of the theatre of the absurd into a rhetorical scalpel, cutting cleanly and sharply through the communist state. The individuals in these plays are dehumanized by not by the absurdity of existence but rather the inhuman and absurd demands of the state. The state can make such irrational and absurd metaphysical demands on humanity because it has the absolute power to do so.

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 drove Havel into the active dissidence for which he is still best known. Havel’s playwriting was transformed as well – from the comic assault against totalitarianism and party hackery of his early work into plays that starkly and simply evoked the pitched moral battles of dissidence. The three Vanek plays (Audience, Unveiling and Protest) are the best-known of these plays. The ironic distance of the early work is erased, and the character of Vanek (a stand-in for the author himself, with wrinkles and creases and self-critique) forcibly confronts the psychology of collaboration – and its infection of every element of society – workplace, social life, friendship.

Much of Havel’s work written in the few years before the Velvet Revolution was a synthesis of two earlier styles. The best known of these plays – Temptation and Redevelopment – evoke the absurdities of totalitarian life and its warping of reality that was the engine of his earlier work, yet manages to frame these conflicts in the more starkly moral terms of the Vanek plays– to the point of retelling the Faust legend in Temptation. These are plays of great complexity and humanity which have yet to receive their due.

* * * * *

Havel’s plunge into outright political dissidence after the violent repression of the Prague Spring – and his repeated incarcerations by the Czechoslovak state – reduced his theatrical output and yielded the great political essays and correspondence ("The Power of the Powerless," Letters to Olga) that made his name as a philosopher and political thinker.

Then, Havel’s fairy tale ascent to the presidencies – first of Czechoslovakia and then of the newly-created Czech Republic – almost completely channeled his literary output into speechmaking and other political writing.

At this point, his fierce jousts with Václav Klaus over the nature of the post-communist state not only wore down Havel, but also dragged him into the muck and mire of modern quotidian politics – including the requisite manufactured scandals. As a young writer and teacher of ESL in Prague and its environs in 1991and 1992, it was impossible for me not to see the emergence of what would be a grim two-decade struggle between the two men.

Havel’s intellectual brilliance and moral courage in the 20 years leading up to 1989 was a magnet, attracting the wide range of support needed to wage a peaceful and successful revolution. But those skills were not the ones required in the immediate aftermath of the revolution he helped to create. It was Klaus who seized that post-revolutionary moment, organizing his political party (ODS, or Občanská demokratická strana)  and creating a politics of faction: first in helping, with the connivance of Slovak politicians, to end the joint Czechoslovak state, and then in polarizing the Czech electorate with his intransigent crusade to install free market radicalism in the formerly socialist state.

Klaus’ message had fertile soil in post-communism, and many of the students in the little petrochemical town north of Prague where I taught English were involved in the grassroots party efforts that Klaus so skillfully engineered. There was clearly a lot of money and skilled organization behind Klaus’ efforts, even in 1991 and 1992. The forces of social democracy – perhaps exhausted by their central role in theorizing and creating revolution? – simply couldn’t keep up in those early years.

The ramifications of Klaus’ initial success for Havel’s presidencies were dire. Eventually, Havel became a man more revered outside the Czech Republic than inside it. Yet as many observers have pointed out, Havel also chafed against much of the pettiness and pomp of modern politics.

The battles against Klaus and the oddness of his presidential style dominate his post-presidential literary output, most notably his presidential memoir, To The Castle and Back and his play, Leaving.

To the Castle and Back is a synthetic work, blending a diary, an extended interview and a flood of presidential memos (many of them trivial) It’s an almost dadist, and thoroughly warts and all look at his own presidency that reflects Havel’s deep unease about the snares of power.

The play, Leaving, also possesses a synthetic feel, blending elements of King Lear and The Cherry Orchard to illuminate Havel’s own ambiguous responses to his own political life. The Shakespeare and Chekhov plays that Havel draws upon both deal with human failings of blindness, delusion and loss, and it is hard not to see Leaving as Havel’s harsh verdict on his own political impotence. The wicked inherit the future in Havel’s political universe.

Both To the Castle and Back and Leaving indulge in sharp self-mockery, not at the ideals that Havel espoused in creating revolution, but his own effectiveness in the post-revolutionary state. It’s less a burnishing of his legacy then a questioning of what he was able to accomplish with his hands on the levers of power.

Perhaps that is why Havel turned once again to literature – and to work through his foundation and other venues to encourage the Liu Xiaobos of the world to follow his dissident path – rather than his political path.

What remains so magical, and so much a fairy tale, in the life of Václav Havel, is that he was the most visible representative of that generation of playwrights, philosophers, labor organizers and clergymen who managed to destroy the walls erected by Central and Eastern Europe’s totalitarian regimes.

But Havel’s clarity in dissecting his achievements and his failures is also inspiring. Dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo do not draw inspiration from Havel’s presidency, but rather from the art and moral courage that remade his society.

Can one still remake a corrupt and repressive society with the weapons of the intellect and a fierce refusal to bend to untruth? Or was that a uniquely Bohemian fairy tale? The stakes remain high. And the answer, unclear.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Shaw's Balkans: Constellation's Arms and the Man

Arms and the Man might not be George Bernard Shaw's greatest play (that's Major Barbara), but it is his most entertaining and consistently playable from a theatrical point of view -- something proven once again by a new production by Washington DC's Constellation Theatre Company.

Constellation's version, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, is acted with bravado by a cast that loves Shaw's language, savors his ridiculous plot, and reveals the core of human feeling at its heart. Mark Krawcyzk's explosively comic take on the pompous accidental hero Sergius is spot on, as is M.J. Casey's wry and self-possessed take on the mercenary Bluntschli. And the topsy-turvy competition between mistress and servant at the heart of Arms and the Man is wonderfully enacyed by Amy Quiggins (Raina) and Brynn Tucker (Louka).

Indeed, the excellence of the production got me wondering all over again about the play's roots in the nasty, brutish and short war in 1885-86 between Bulgaria and Serbia that inspired the play's meditation on the follies of war and romantic love -- and just how Shaw employs the Balkans in the play.

The war was indeed a short one. Spurred on by its own feelings of political pique and lost influence in the region due to the unification of a former Ottoman province in (present day) Western Bulgaria with Bulgaria proper in September 1885, Serbia declared war on November 14 and immediately invaded the disputed province. (The Austrian-Hungarian Empire also opposed the Bulgarian move and dangled its support for Serbian annexation of some of the land in question as an inducement for the declaration of war.)

Only two days later, the Serbian army arrived on a battlefield near the Bulgarian town of Slivnitsa. A three-day battle in the vicinity ensued, with Serbians making initial advances and then being repulsed. On the third day (November 19), the Serbs retreated and were pursued all the way back into Serbia. Another battle was fought near the town of Pirot on November 27 and the Serbs again lost, retreating deeper into South Serbia. A ceasefire quickly followed and a treaty was signed in February ending the war and leaving the border unchanged.

The brevity and seeming frivolity of the war no doubt attracted Shaw to its potential as a platform for a comedy -- though Bluntschli's view of war as a terrible business best survived with a full belly and no glory wins our definitively in the end. But how does Shaw employ the Balkans in the play.

Even in 1894, a full 20 years before another violent act of nationalism in the Balkans set off a much more horrible world conflict, the region is depicted as a wild landscape in which nature dominates and broods ("a peak of the Balkans," he writes to set the scene, "wonderfully white and beautiful in the starlit snow, seems quite close at hand, though it is really miles away.") The otherness of Shaw's Bulgaria also extends to the culture -- largely unspoilt by civilization and in a state of emerging enlightenment that sees Bulgaria in the throes of a romanticism in vogue in England a full eight decades before. (One wonders if Rebecca West got her initial impressions of the place from Arms and the Man.)

As an example, take Shaw's introduction to Bulgarian officer Sergius Saranoff:

Major Sergius Saranoff, the original of the portrait in Raina's room, is a tall, romantically handsome man, with the physical hardihood, the high spirit, and the susceptible imagination of an untamed mountaineer chieftain. But his remarkable personal distinction is of a characteristically civilized type. The ridges of his eyebrows, curving with a ram's-horn twist round the marked projections at the outer corners; his jealously observant eye; his nose, thin, keen, and apprehensive in spite of the pugnacious high bridge and large nostril; his assertive chin, would not be out of place in a Parisian salon, shewing that the clever, imaginative barbarian has an acute critical faculty which has been thrown into intense activity by the arrival of western civilisation in the Balkans. The result is precisely what the advent of nineteenth century thought first produced in England: to wit, Byronism. By his brooding on the perpetual failure, not only of others, but of himself, to live up to his ideals; by his consequent cynical scorn for humanity; by his jejune credulity as to the absolute validity of his concepts and the unworthiness of the world in disregarding them; by his wincings and mockeries under the sting of the petty disillusions which every hour spent among men brings to his sensitive observation, he has acquired the half tragic, half ironic air, the mysterious moodiness, the suggestion of a strange and terrible history that has left nothing but undying remorse, by which Childe Harold fascinated the grandmothers of his English contemporaries.

There are other familiar notions of the Balkans here as well: the running joke about the Petkoff family library -- which Shaw notes in his stage directions, "is not much of a library" -- but does have an electric bell to summon the servants. And there is, too, the hint of senseless violence associated with honor that had also gone by the wayside in late Victorian England:

SERGIUS. You have deceived me. You are my rival. I brook no rivals. At six o'clock I shall be in the drilling-ground on the Klissoura road, alone, on horseback, with my sabre. Do you understand ?

BLUNTSCHLI [staring, but sitting quite at his ease] Oh, thank you : that's a cavalry man's proposal. I'm in the artillery ; and I have the choice of weapons. If I go, I shall take a machine gun. And there shall be no mistake about the cartridges this time.

SERGIUS [flushing, but with deadly coldness] Take care, sir. It is not our custom in Bulgaria to allow invitations of that kind to be trifled with.

BLUNTSCHLI [warmly] Pooh ! dont talk to me about Bulgaria. You don't know what fighting is. But have it your own way. Bring your sabre along. I'll meet you.

Shaw's Balkans aren't the Coast of Bohemia. Indeed, the continuing power of the image of the wild and black and backward Balkans that comes down even to this day lends it a certain power. Yet Shaw's Balkans in Arms and the Man come most powerfully alive when portrayed as region under the sway of large powers -- pawns, perhaps knights on a larger chessboard. That, too is an image closely associated with the Balkans -- yet one nearer to the mark from the First World War to the Second World War to the Cold War and into the battle of Kosovo's independence:

CATHERINE. A Swiss ? What was he doing in the Serbian army ?

PETKOFF. A volunteer, of course keen on picking up his profession. [Chuckling] We shouldnt have been able to begin fighting if these foreigners hadnt shewn us how to do it : we knew nothing about it ; and neither did the Serbians. Egad, there'd have been no war without them !

RAINA. Are there many Swiss officers in the Serbian Army ?

PETKOFF. No all Austrians, just as our officers were all Russians. This was the only Swiss I came across. I'll never trust a Swiss again. He cheated us humbugged us into giving him fifty able bodied men for two hundred confounded worn out chargers. They werent even eatable !

SERGIUS. We were two children in the hands of that consummate soldier, Major : simply two innocent little children.

More information about Constellation Theatre Company's production of Arms and the Man here.

(Brynn Tucker as Louka and Mark Krawcyzk as Sergius in Constellation Theatre Company's production of Arms and the Man. Photo by Scott Suchman.)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Exotic Medicine: The Music of Happy Clinic

The proprietor of Balkans via Bohemia has -- at various times in his life -- lived the expat life to the hilt.

One very rarely enters into that life with bad intentions. Indeed, one's good intentions are an almost necessary portal. Curiosity. Desire to help. The journalist's urge to tell a good story. These are often the first steps on a slippery slope. A road to excess that ends in a palace of wisdom.

Writer musician and philosopher Stefan Sullivan has taken a few rooms in this palace over the years -- from London to Paris to Moscow to Bangkok and on to Washington, D.C. Perhaps that's why I'm so taken with his collaboration with veteran Berlin drummer and Tiger Lillies soundman, Claus Buehler in the ensemble Happy Clinic. The duo's first record, Memory Mound, is a Baedeker to the dark underbelly of the expatriate life: the sex, the drugs, the alcohol, the hipsterish intellectual wisecracking and the deep loneliness.

That Happy Clinic transforms this familiar territory into terrain that is strange and dangerous is the magic of Memory Mound. The secret is the unflinching and uncompromising eye that Sullivan has for the ugliness and absurdities of the expat life -- married to a powerful and percussive sound built on beats and loops. It's a record that never stoops to sentimentalize. Just check out the way the derangement of the music hall player piano vibe on "Chickity Black" so perfectly aligns with the lyrics' celebration of a "joys of uncensored leisure." Or the way that the music of "Lokomotiv" lurches and grinds to Sullivan's spoken-sung scat of debauchery and a life in "liquid ruins." (And the video for "Lokomotiv" is a delirious and wonderful bit of animated naughtiness.")

There's a way in which the vision of the exile is privileged. Everything is strange and worthy of notice. Things taken for granted by natives grow outsized or even demonic. And the expat can also be a poison -- a species let loose in an ecosystem which chews up and destroys the native habitat. This double vision is the lens through which Happy Clinic sees the world -- the hideous Bangkok of "Belly x 2"(with a squonking harmonica by Scott Albert Johnson), the unspecified darkness of "Ocean Too Deep," in which sex is the spark that gives no warmth, or the punishing self-loathing of the record's title track.

In his poem "Skunk Hour," Robert Lowell wrote "I myself am hell/nobody's here..." It's a revelation that greets any exile in the mirror after a few months of the expat life. Exiles necessarily feed upon the richness or poverty of their own inner resources -- and seek sensation to distract and deny that loneliness. On Memory Mound, Sullivan and Buehler have created a rich portrait of that emotional poverty and the self-hustle that sin and stimulation can fill it up.

More about Happy Clinic and Memory Mound at the duo's website.
Buy Memory Mound here.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Dance and Drink the Mekons: Live in DC/VA on 10/6/2011

It doesn't happen very often that you get to see the legendary Mekons. But lucky folks in San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York have seen/will get to see the Mekons this week as they play some US shows behind their new record, Ancient and Modern 1911-2011 (Sin Records/Bloodshot). A slew of European cities -- including a very Balkans via Bohemia-esque run through Prague, Berlin and Vienna -- will get them next month.

Fortunately, the band will save me a trip to New York by playing at the Iota Club and Cafe in Alexandria Va tonight. (Thursday October 6, 2011) The show is acoustic, but it's a distinctly electric experience anyway.

The band is legendary on numerous counts: (a) its longevity (the first lineup emerged in the punk aftershocks of 1977); (b) its bitter futile jousts with the record industry (a road littered with hopes raised and dashed, and records languishing unreleased for years); (c) its boozy live shows with cracking witty and sometimes cruel banter between singer/guitarist Jon Langford and singer Sally Timms; and (d) the messianic fervor in which the band has been held by critics (Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus) and fellow artists (Jonathan Franzen) alike.

It's been fun to watch the reception for the new Mekons record. There's always something terrific about hearing any new Mekons record, but to my ears, Ancient and Modern is one of the band's strongest efforts post-Retreat From Memphis (1994). "Space in Your Face" is one of the band's strongest songs ever -- a roaring stomp sung by Jon Langford that mashes up the dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times Building in 1910 with some dark obsessive noirish romance. "Geeshi" is a complex, autumnal gem sung with a boozy world-weary ache by Sally Timms that wouldn't seem out of place with tunes like "Gin Palace" and "Prince of Darkness" on the band's 1987 classic The Mekons Honkytonkin'. The record moves from strength to strength -- the tender doom of "I Fall Asleep," with one of Tom Greenhalgh's best ever vocals; the sinister "Calling All Demons"; the shambolic pervy "Honey Bear" -- where sex and food and politics burst the song's seams.

So go see them tonight at the Iota Cafe. Or, as one of their early singles from 1978 so aptly put it, "I'll Have to Dance Then On My Own."

The Mekons show starts at 8 p.m. with opener Chris Mills. Tickets at the door are $16.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Jarett Kobek's ATTA

Jarett Kobek's ATTA is a curious book. And not "curious" as reviewer's code that stands in as a weirdly standoffish term for "strange" or "delightfully marginal."

Kobek is, quite literally, more curious in a useful way about terrorism, and its perpetrators, and the intersection of cultures (religious, popular, technical and academic) that could breed an exterminator such as 9/11 operational planner Mohamed Atta.

True curiosity means checking preconceptions at the door. It is being willing to spend time and talent to de-mine a topic so sensitive (and so brutally distorted and exploited for such evil ends by its perpetrators and the politicians of our own nation) that it explodes at a touch -- and then to reclaim it for the forces of art and imagination.

Kobek does all that and more. ATTA (semiotext(e): interventions series, distributed by The MIT Press) is simply the best fiction I have read about 9/11. And on this 10th anniversary, when our televisions are mindlessly pumping out image and anecdote about that awful day, Kobek's book is a triumph of reflection and renovation.

ATTA is a novella that juxtaposes a first person narration by Mohamed Atta with a third person observation that is more amplification and clarification than correction. The book is impeccably researched down to minute details about Atta's life and milieu, and yet it never seems bookish or forced. Kobek weaves the historical and biographical into a enthralling narrative in which Atta's journey from awkward adolescent to terrorist never seems predetermined. In Kobek's hands, this all-too-familiar story has terrific twists and turns, surprises and incredible tension.

Yet retelling the story of 9/11 from Atta's point of view is not Kobek's only -- or even primary -- objective. One of ATTA's most dazzling qualities is its amazing and thoroughly compelling (and simultaneous) transmogrification of familiar elements of Western culture -- Disney, slasher films -- and the critiques of it. I've read few other books that wade as deeply (or, at times, as mockingly) into the darker eddies of the superficialities and silliness of our culture -- yet also unmask the same qualities in our own critiques of it. One of the book's most brilliant moments is scene-by-scene deconstruction of Walt Disney's The Jungle Book in the voice of Atta; another is Atta's discovery of "secret meanings" in the holiday slasher film Silent Night, Deadly Night, as explained to one of his fellow hijackers who has asked why Atta watches such "decadent trash":

"Brother, says Atta, "The film functions on two metaphorical levels. The first is more obvious. It is a critique of Western commodity culture. Imagine a world in which Christmmas has nothing to do with Isa but rather the green flow of American dollars. We live in this world. The film takes this idea to its extreme, employing the icon of commercialization. Santa Claus murdering literally is only a poetic demonstration of the reality. Secondly, Silent Night, Deadly Night is a metaphor for the manner in which the West treats the Islamic world. Amreeka smiles like a friend, a trusted acquaintance, and then, after your back is turned, strikes you from behind. This film is very subversive, brother. It demolishes the myth of Santa Claus and uses the slasher genre to provide an explicit, angry critique of American foreign policy.

"Brother," says Marwan. "You can find the secret meaning of anything."

The spine of ATTA, however, is not cultural critique, but a deeply felt and poetic meditation on humanity through the mediation of architecture and its power to shape and to distort our lives. Mohamed Atta studied architecture, abhorred modernism as a dehumanizing force in architecture, and Kobek's work is at its most powerful when he unleashes prose torrents in the voice of the hijacker -- floods which sweep up the reader and confound with a nearly inextricable weave of truths and falsehoods, misprisions and mastery, dynamism and death-worship. At one point in the book, Atta meditates on the Syrian city of Aleppo and its history:

Aleppo is a Crusader name. The true name, lingering on tongues for 1000s of years, is Halab. Aleppo is one of the world's oldest cities. Before the Prophet (PBUH), before Isa, before Musa, there is Halab. The city sees the rise of every major civilization. It falls to the Hittites. Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, goes to the Abbasid, Salah ad Din and the Ayyubid, is domain of the Mongols, the Mamluks, Ottomans and the French.

More people die in Halab than you can imagine living, their bodies give the ground sediment of human clay, fertilize it for future growth. The city, like a seething tangle of green, erupts into being. A sudden explosion of life, small but crawls outward. Generations upon generations formicate, their lust births bodies that fornicate anew. The city's commerce attracts people from afar. A need for new homes. Always the need for new homes. The buildings move beyond their humble inner core, tumble outwards into new neighborhoods. Soon there are 1000s of structures. More people come, more civilization. They live and they laugh and they love and they die. Bodies go into the ground. The ground feeds the city, a stone harvest of raw materials for buildings the color of sand. The city is alive, an organic mass that can not stop its growth, building with the dead for the sake of the living.


ATTA revels in connecting disparate dots, but the most human and touching moment in Kobek's novella is not a moment of human connection but of a deep fear that leads to disconnection. Yet it is ATTA's deep curiosity that allows Kobek to place his readers in highly uncomfortable (and even dangerous) zones -- knowing evil, laughing at its misreadings and incomprehensions, recoiling at its horrors, and yet recognizing our own selves in it. Not ourselves as directly complicit in the terrible acts of September 11, 2001 (much too easy), but as fellow residents of the teeming city that trades on death to live, as fellow citizens of a place that understands and can even name its garbage -- and yet resolutely refuses to sweep it away. ATTA is a brave and brilliant book.



Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Berlin Reflections

I recently spent almost two weeks in Berlin. It was a largely-unplanned excursion (let's call it "show business sucks") but a long-awaited return all the same.

I was last in Berlin in 1994. Between 1991 and that year, I think I visited the city at least 5 times. The transformations going on in the city were so profound -- deaths and rebirths played out in front of your eyes. Somewhere in the Balkans via Bohemia archives I still have a small flyer protesting the removal of the statue of Vladimir Ilich Lenin in Friedrichshain. It's an event that also plays a big role in Yugoslav filmaker Dusan Makavejev's Gorilla Bathes at Noon -- his wildly underrated film about Berlin in that tumultuous era. (Here's YouTube clip of a key scene.)

Needless to say 17 years has seen an immense amount of change. The edgy Prenzlauer Berg I knew from the early 1990s is awash with moms and stollers and boasts a terrific farmer's market tucked amidst restored building facades. The best chance you have in the neighborhood to find that post-socialist moment is the delightfully dingy Klub der Republik -- a place that encourages flouting of Germany's smoking laws, demands a 1 euro tithe to the DJ, and is decorated with distinctive lights salvaged from Berlin's now-demolished East German government center and socialist playground Palast der Republik. (The couches were taken from the legendary -- and now rehabbed -- Cafe Moskau.)

Klub der Republik was a really funky place -- and like so much of that alternative Prenzlauer Berg I once knew -- it will disappear next year when the building is rehabbed.

Those looking to satisfy a case of Ostalgie on their own have increasingly little to get their hooks into. On Sunday, I hung out at the Arkonaplatz flea market, which specializes in wares from that era. There wasn't much on offer, though I did pick up a nifty book on East German fashion for a few euros.

The commodification of Ostalgie is felt most keenly at the actual DDR Museum located right in the city's main tourist drag in an underground museum. The place was jammed when I visited -- and every time I passed it, even -- so there was quite an interest. (It could use a bit more room in fact.) The idea of the place is that it is "interactive" -- you open drawers and see bits of speeches or hear music or see fashion or instruments of police persecution. One also couldn't help noticing that the tone of the exhibit was pitched at a sort of exquisite neutrality best summarized thus way: "The people of the former DDR were good. They had their own culture and some of it was even interesting and fun. But the state apparatus was bad, very bad. And you see the evidence here."

The DDR Museum is a balanced -- almost eerily balanced -- approach which is much preferable to Budapest's infamous House of Terror (which traffics in the worst sort of Hungarian nationalism and victimization in grappling with its socialist era), but it left me feeling a bit queasy all the same. History isn't meant to be this easy.

I spent some of the time poking around other bits of Berlin I knew in times past. In West Berlin, Charlottenburg (especially the area around the Schloss Charlottenburg) seems almost somnolent and sucked dry of interest -- as if nothing had happened in the city at all since my last visit.

The real revelation to me is what has filled some of the empty space of demolished Cold War Berlin. So much has been written about the new Potsdamerplatz that I was dreading seeing it and yet felt compelled to go. It was hideous. The mall ("Arkaden")was simultaneously dreadful and nondescript -- and the huge, empty, imperial spaces through which you enter the U-Bahn stations and Potsdamer's underground spaces reminded me keenly of the Death Star. It was chilling, actually, all the waste of space and imagination. A cathedral of commerce that seemed not to link up to any of the neighborhoods around it in any useful way. It seems to exist only to exude economic power and aesthetic sterility

On one of my last days, I wandered over to Ernst-Thälmann-Park (photo above) -- a slightly neglected and overgrown park in Prenzlauer Berg which has a sentimental attraction for me. It features in a bit of my unpublished novel about the early post-socialist 1990s, Luckyboys, because one of the characters is wandering around the wild and newly reopened East Berlin and keeps getting lost, doomed again and again to go past the head and raised fist of Thälmann.

Today, as I say, it's overrun by skate kids and weeds in the cracks of the plaza. The statue of Thälmann is tagged by Berlin's ubiquitous graffiti. It seemed as good a place as any to wind up a tour of a much-changed Berlin.

(Monument in Ernst-Thälmann-Park. Photo by Richard Byrne)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Permanent Tent? Another Take on Capital Fringe

I'm missing a lot of Capital Fringe Festival this year, but made it to a few shows (Happenstance Theater's Manifesto, Pinky Swear Productions' Cabaret XXX) and helped the gang doing Live Broadcast hype their show before travel beckoned me away for the balance of the festival.

But I still have access to Facebook on the road, so it was hard to miss many of my friends sharing Gwydion Suilebhan's blog post complaining about Capital Fringe ticket prices.

This complaint about Fringe prices is an annual thing. And I don't disagree with Gwydion that the pricing policy rewards those who go to a lot of Fringe shows and punishes those who want to dip a toe or foot into the festival.

Indeed, there's another strand of permanent grousing about Fringe as well, mainly from many local artistic directors, who really don't like the resources and attention that Capital Fringe Festival draws away from their own year-round endeavors. And they also have a point -- especially in the fervent wish that local media would cover local theater this way all year round.

Gwydion's post lays out an argument that Capital Fringe is too pricey and sets forth an opinion on what Fringe's true pricing point should be. Effective as the post is in making those points, however, the market seems to be singing a different tune. And it is singing that tune despite the considerable leverage that the consumers and performers have if they are dissatisfied. They can cast a ballot with their feet. If you don't like the pricing scheme, don't go to Fringe. If the performance situation isn't right, don't put on a show at Fringe.

But people do go. And there are many shows for them to see. So to my mind the more useful questions for local theater consumers and performers are (a) what is Capital Fringe doing right? and (b) how can that be replicated year round?

For me, Capital Fringe is like one of those old-timey revival tents. You know, the traveling salvation shows where indie gospel-slingers would roll into town, save a bunch of people and then pull up stakes and preach it in the next town. (Think Elmer Gantry.)

The argument that the revival preachers make to local churches (again, see Elmer Gantry) is straightforward. This is going to drive attendance in your churches after we leave town. That is a very debatable proposition for local theater, but that's the argument.

But what's beyond debate is the energy that the Capital Fringe infuses into the DC theater community for its three-week run. The atmosphere at the tent at Fort Fringe is pretty astonishing in its boozy, networky way. People are actually having fun seeing theater. Friends are being made. It's something that DC theater could use all year round. A permanent tent.

Instead, to pick on one particular instance, you have an awesome space like Artisphere with a cafe that doesn't stay open long enough to have a drink or kibbitz after a show. That's a lost opportunity. And a way we can learn from what Fringe does right. Not just creating art, but creating a fun and exciting and vital space around the art.

If the press reports are correct (Chris Klimek's masterful profile of Capital Fringe last year comes to mind), Capital Fringe is a pretty sustainable festival in the economic sense. I don't see anything wrong with that at all. It's what everybody in this game wants. Everyone knows that you won't get rich doing theater in DC, but much of what we do is not sustainable absent the intervention of rapidly-shrinking arts funding by government and donors. We need to make what we do more sustainable. Fringe proves that it can be done. Not without costs and controversy. But it can be done.

Truth be told, I can think of one company in town (Woolly Mammoth) that consistently tries to infuse that positive Fringey energy into all aspects of what they do -- from shows to marketing to excellent use/sharing of their ample space. Local companies need to do more of that -- and if they lack the resources to do it themselves, then they need to put aside some of their competitive axes and band together to make it happen.

For instance: What would a late fall or early spring festival put together by DC's best mid-sized nonprofit theaters look like? A festival held at one or two central locations and with a central meeting place with food and drink?

Or, to simplify, what would an expansion of the Source Festival look like -- an expansion that keeps the festival's present vision and inventive format but adds another layer of performances by local companies into the mix? (And, maybe, a move to a different time of year?)

Either one of these things could compel local media to pay the same sort of attention to local companies that they pay to Fringe. Both would infuse the local theater community with energy and shared enterprise. But it would take cooperation and coordination. Just the sort of thing that Capital Fringe has done successfully over the past few years.

Grousing about ticket prices feels good. Like everyone wrestling with this grim economy, I grouse about ticket prices all the time. But once the grousing's done, what actually changes? And what do we learn? And how do we make a more energetic local theater scene real (and sustainable) year round? How do we build a permanent tent for DC theatre?

Capital Fringe is giving us a lot of ideas that we can use to make a start. If we want to.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Da-Da-Delightful: Happenstance Theater's Manifesto!

In the early days of Balkans via Bohemia, I blogged about Happenstance Theater's Manifesto -- a really smart and hilarious take on the Dadaist movement. It remains one of the best things I've ever seen on a Washington, DC stage.

The good news for DC audiences is that Happenstance is reviving Manifesto for five performances at this year's Capital Fringe Festival. (See below for the dates and times.)

Here's a bit of what I wrote about the show during its first run:

So what does Happenstance do with Dada? Well, first, and best, they foreground the physical comedy of Dadaist performance -- the frenetic clowning, the farts, and the high-pitched exotic nonsense of it all. They remind the audience, even at a knowing remove, that Dada was meant to insult and offend and even physically repel those who were not in on its nihilistic joking.

Second, the company's mash-up of various texts reads Dada back into its particular milieu of contested avant-gardism. Sure, Dada was a revolt against the nationalism, capitalism and imperialism that created the First World War. But it was also a movement that bloodied the nose of other competing movements -- especially other artistic "isms" including the Futurism spearheaded by Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, which was co-opted and corroded by its adherents' preening, vulgar delight in war and destruction. It's no accident that Happenstance's production literally kills off and chalk marks the body of a Futurist, or that it presents capitalism and communism in a sado-masochistic tango that tickles, slaps and collapses in on itself.

It's a rare thing to see texts which are largely the province of art historians and literary critics brought to life and brought to laughter. Happenstance is to be congratulated for doing so.

This is really a must-see. Bonus: The performances are in the (blessedly, in Fringe terms) air-conditioned Mead Theatre at Studio Theatre. Read more about what Happenstance says about the show here. Performances are Friday July 8 @ 8:15pm; Sunday July 10 @ 4pm; Wednesday July 13 @ 7pm; Wednesday July 20 @ 6pm; Saturday July 23 @ 2:15pm. Go. Go. Go.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

First thoughts about the arrest of Ratko Mladic

The arrest of indicted Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic is a watershed moment in the region. But there are significant perils in it as well, and perhaps not where one might expect to find them.

First, it is a long overdue triumph for justice. The massacre at Srebrenica is a scar on Europe. During and after his trial, justice and closure will now be available to thousands who suffered by the atrocities and war crimes that he allegedly directed.

Second, the arrest is a triumph of patient diplomacy. Too patient, yes, and certainly encumbered by the obstruction and outright hostility of powerful figures within and without Serbian government. But the arrest came without violence and without a circus and with the clear intention of bringing Mladic to international justice. That is a winning combination.

Third, it is a triumph for the forces that want to weave Serbia into the larger European community. The arrest of Mladic was the last real hurdle to Serbian accession to European institutions -- and smart European politicians will rush to exploit the suddenly open path for Serbian accession to the European Union as quickly as possible. The establishment of European rights and European norms may not "solve" problems such as Bosnia and Kosovo overnight, but they will nudge the parties to serious negotiations and compromises with the safety net of the EU's charters on human and cultural rights.

So what can go wrong?

Yes there is the the potential for right-wing nationalist violence in Serbia. One imagines that the Serbian government is prepared for this and will meet such a challenge strongly. But the potential for a long hot summer in Serbia is a short term hit for the extraordinary long term advances now open to the country.

The greatest potential for mayhem actually comes from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. (ICTY). The trials there have been dilatory and fraught with all sorts of controversies. The trial of ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj has been a collaborative farce between the indicted party -- who bears the bulk of the responsibility for it --and the prosecution and the court.

I even read this morning in early coverage that there is a proposition brewing that prosecutors might stop the trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and try Mladic and Kradazic together.

This would be both a procedural circus and an huge error. If it is possible, the ICTY should appoint a distinguished non-European (and non-Canadian or American) judge to oversee the trial. The trial should be fair, transparent (so that it can be seen to be fair), and conducted with all dispatch. The prosecution should also eschew it its hamfisted attempts to gin up media coverage for the trial by unnecessarily calling journalists and celebrities to give evidence. The evidence of Srebrenica is there already -- dug out of painstaking exhumations and research into the massacre. The trial will receive intense media attention without a Naomi Campbell-like appearance.

The speedy, fair, professional and transparent trial of Ratko Mladic is the expressway to healing the Balkans. Now that Serbia has belatedly done its part, the ICTY must search its own failings and missteps thus far, regroup, and ensure that it is not a further hurdle to peace and justice in the region. The world is watching.

(Belgrade, 2007, photo by Andrej_Filev; shared with attribution from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Printer's Devils: WSC Tackles Stoppard's Night and Day

Balkans via Bohemia doesn't do theatre reviews. But I found Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC)'s new production of Tom Stoppard's 1978 play Night and Day (which runs in repertory with two Tennessee Williams one-acts at Rosslyn's Artisphere through July 3) to be a moving and wonderful evening of theatre that did precisely what one imagines one of the world's best playwrights of ideas would want. It gave this audience member a lot to chew on.

The WSC's Night and Day is a production that effectively pokes at deep questions of morality in journalism and love and politics, and deftly provokes with sharp and sometimes savage dialogue that captures (but never reconciles) sharp divides in power and class. It's a play that people who love that theatre of ideas -- as well as journalists and foreign policy types who don't normally go to theatre at all -- should see.

And with Stoppard being Czech by birth? Well, it's a play that's squarely in the Balkans via Bohemia sweet spot.

Night and Day is not by any means Stoppard's best play. Stoppard's use of hairpin switchbacks between the interior monologues and exterior dialogue of Ruth Carson -- the play's only female character -- is among the most awkward stage gambits that the playwright has ever attempted. (Director Kasi Campbell and Abby Wood, who plays Ruth in the WSC production, make this odd device work as well as anyone could expect.) And there are glitchy patches of dialogue, especially in Act One, as Stoppard attempts to set his characters in this particular postcolonial milieu, where the play trips over an utterly (and unnecessarily) false moment or two and seems strikingly dated. (And, oh, yeah, the characters still rely on a telex.)

Yet WSC artistic director Christopher Henley made a very wise choice in presenting this much-neglected Stoppard play -- which premiered between the more highly acclaimed plays Travesties (1974) and The Real Thing (1982) -- to audiences in a city obsessed with power and journalism and scandal. The play wrestles wittily with moral conflicts and conundrums of journalism and sex that seem as fresh (and as blackening) today as the newsprint on this morning's newspaper. When battered and embittered Australian reporter Dick Wagner (played by in this production by Jim Jorgensen) sums up his vocation:

I am not a foreign correspondent. A foreign correspondent is someone who lives in foreign parts and corresponds,usually in the form of essays containing no new facts. I am a fireman. I go to fires. Swindon or Kambawe -- they're both out-of-town stories and I cover them the same way. I don't file prose. I file facts.

or when Ruth tidily dissects her marriage and infidelity:

Of course I loved him--loved Africa. Just like Deborah Kerr in King Solomon's Mines before the tarantula got into her camiknickers. And I haven't been a tart with Geoffrey. Slipped once, but that was in a hotel room and hotel rooms shouldn't count as infidelity. They constitute a separate moral universe.

the audience gets a sense of the power and playfulness of Stoppard's art.

But the best thing about Night and Day is that the play's power accelerates and aggregates as it heightens the stakes from the quicksand of casual affairs in the bedroom and political manuevers in the newsroom to an examination of the precarious foundations of the press in its relationship with power. President Mageeba of the fictional African nation of Kambawe (played here with smiling malevolence by Chuck Young) is Stoppard's wily and brutal amalgam of popular leaders turned dictators on that continent (and everywhere) -- a creature of menace and charm in not so equal measure, whose rhetoric at moments expertly plucks strings of popular discontent with journalism that infect even the most open of societies:

I did not believe a newspaper should be part of the apparatus of the state; we are not a totalitarian society. But neither could I afford a return to the whims of private enterprise. I had the immense and delicate task of restoring confidence in Kambawe. I could afford the naked women but not the naked scepticism, the carping and sniping and public washing of dirty linen that represents freedom to an English editor.

As Night and Day speeds to its denouement of death and its untidy epilogue of moral despair, crusty war photographer George Guthrie (played by Daniel Flint -- lead of Taffety Punk's production of my play Burn Your Bookes last spring) is left bloodied and only slightly bowed to hold up a flickering candle of the potential of news for good:

I've been around a lot of places. People do awful things to each other. But it's worse in places where everyone is kept in the dark. It really is. Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light. That's all you can say, really.

The notion that vast moral darkness cannot entirely swallow up illumination is at the heart of Night and Day -- and also at the heart of the theatrical enterprise. It's wonderful that Washington Shakespeare Company is shining that light for the next few weeks.

Ticket information here.

(Photo of Abby Wood as Ruth Carson in Washington Shakespeare Company's Night and Day.)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Romanian Holiday? Lucian Blaga's Zalmoxis at Georgetown

Romania's contribution to 20th Century literature has been wildly undervalued, but there are signs that this is changing. Tomas Sandqvist's book, Dada East (MIT Press, 2006), for instance, was a remarkable excavation of Dada's roots in Romania that greatly expanded our understanding of artistic spheres of influence.

Ion Ratiu Post-Doctoral Fellow in Romanian Studies at Georgetown University Cristina Bejan is operating in that same spirit of reclamation and evangelization. She has directed a terrifically smart and spirited production of an early play by Lucian Blaga, one of the key writers and thinkers of 20th Century Romania. Her take on Blaga's 1921 work Zalmoxis -- produced by the Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies (CERES) and the Davis Performing Arts Center -- will be performed at the university's Devine Studio Theatre on Friday, April 29, Saturday, April 30 and Sunday, May 1.

I was fortunate enough to attend a special sneak preview of Zalmoxis at the Romanian Embassy last week, and even in the small and decidedly untheatrical space, Bejan's skills as a director and commitment to translating Blaga's language and vision shone through. Zalmoxis is a difficult play -- dense and mystical metaphysics studded with deployments (subversions, even?) of thorny proverbs and parables. Yet the play is also laced through with sharp political and spiritual confrontations that Bejan and a talented (and all-female) cast that includes Taffety Punk Theatre Company member (and Burn Your Bookes alumna!) Esther Williamson, Sarah Stephens, Carol Spring and Anika Harden identify and dramatize with energy and skill.

Blaga is a fascinating character -- a poet, philosopher, dramatist and diplomat who navigated the treacherous waters of interwar Romanian nationalism and fascism only to fall victim to persecution by the nation's communists until just before his death in 1961. A good introduction to some of Blaga's work is Andrei Codrescu's volume At the Court of Yearning: Poems, which was published by Ohio State University Press. (It's out of print but still widely available in libraries.)

As I mentioned, Zalmoxis is among Blaga's early works. It's wildly ambitious, encompassing Dacian myth, folklore, philosophy and politics. Its view of the latter is precociously cynical (which perhaps was a good thing in 1921 Romania), yet the play does have a fiercely spiritual core that also burns through. In her remarks at the embassy preview, Bejan also stressed the themes of exile that run so strongly and persistently through the play.

One of the persistent themes during the talkback at the Romanian Embassy event was the dearth of notable Romanian authors in translation, and the lack of opportunities for bringing their works to English-speaking audiences. In her production of Zalmoxis, however, Bejan has seized this particular opportunity and run with it. For anyone in the DC area who's interested in Central, Eastern and Southeastern European literature, Zalmoxis is a "must see" event.

Tickets for Zalmoxis at Georgetown University's Devine Drama Studio available here. Full press release about the production here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Chicago's Trap Door Theatre in DC: An Interview with Artistic Director Beata Pilch

In January, during a trip to Chicago to read an essay on Dubravka Ugresic at a celebration of The Common Review and pursue an exciting artistic collaboration that I'll be spilling the beans about soon, I had the privilege of seeing a production of Hamletmachine -- the best-known work (at least the United States) by Heiner Müller -- at Chicago's Trap Door Theatre.

Müller isn't performed much in the United States, and it's not hard to figure out why. He's thorny, uber-intellectual and obsessed with the most unAmerican of all disciplines: history.

Tony Kushner summed up why Müller is such a valuable (and yet undervalued) resource for American playwrights in his introduction to Carl Weber's translations -- The Heiner Müller Reader:

Americans are, famously, hope addicts, frantic for a fix to stave off the despair which, repressed, threatens always an explosive, destructive return. Müller says one must learn to live without hope or despair, and these extraordinary plays seem, as Beckett's do, to accomplish that: despair is made mock of in the vigorous beauty of the poetry, in the great diabolic fun of the dialectics, by means of which the drowning of hope in the blood of the culpable and of the innocent (often indistinguishable) is staged.

Though its garnered more attention than any of other works by Müller in the United States (Hamlet!), Hamletmachine is a very European play at its core. Indeed, to experience Müller at his most accessible for an American audience, I'd likely recommend Quartet, Müller's astonishing and visionary revision of Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses or The Task, his drama of the collision of revolution and colonialism. (All three texts are included in Carl Weber's translations Hamletmachine and Other Texts for the Stage.)

But that is where the miracle of Chicago's Trap Door Theatre -- a company that's dedicated to bringing some of the best European works of the last decades to America -- comes in. Their Hamletmachine was revelatory -- excavating all of the complexities of Müller's play but also weaving them together into cohesion and clarity. The production (directed by Max Truax) won a number of raves in Chicago, and I was determined to find a way to keep up with what they were doing.

Fortuitously, I did not have to wait for very long to have Trap Door land on my front door. The company will perform another work that they have presented in their current season -- French playwright Pierre Notte's Me, Too, I Am Catherine Deneuve -- for two nights later this month at Washington D.C.'s Source Theatre. (Friday, April 22 and Saturday, April 23 at 8 p.m.)

Me Too, I Am Catherine Deneuve is a terrific play -- a sharp, sassy, and wonderfully musical romp through the minefield of personal identity and the family romance. (Check out the trailer that Trap Door made for the production -- directed by Valery Warnotte -- to get a sense of the wicked fun.)

I wanted to find out more about Trap Door, and let Balkans via Bohemia readers in on what I discovered. Trap Door's artistic director, Beata Pilch (who appears as "Mother" in Deneuve) kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions via email.

Balkans via Bohemia: Washington, DC audiences may not be familiar with Trapdoor. Why do you focus on European theatre? How have you created the circumstances for your company to become a critical success in Chicago?

Beata Pilch: I have always had a fascination with the European avant-garde and felt that American theatre was lacking in spirit and innovation whereas Europe was continually seeking new styles of interpretation and creating "movements" in art. There are some U.S. artists I admire and have been greatly influenced by (Peter Sellars & Robert Wilson) and wanted to follow their lead by taking risks with bold concepts and a global vision. This type of mission is what has driven my passion and dedication to developing Trap Door Theatre as a leading force in contemporary theatre, not only in Chicago, but throughout the country and abroad.

Tell DC audiences a bit about Pierre Notte's Me Too, I Am Catherine Deneuve -- the collision of twisted family romance and cabaret that you're bringing to Source Theatre. How did you happen upon the play? What in Notte's play appealed to your sensibility?

For years I have traveled and researched foreign plays translated into English and have made many contacts that keep me updated with new material. When I was in need of finding my next French project, I was recommended to read this play by my contact at the SACD in Paris, Sandrine Grataloup. Trap Door often delves into dark themes with a sense of humor, mirroring the absurdity of our lives, in a tasteful and provocative style that strives to result in compelling and entertaining theatre. The violent themes of self-abuse and loss of identity are ones that we as a modern society can relate to and Mr. Notte's story is much too common today and therefore, our audience can feel compassion for these characters because they can see themselves in these modern day archetypal roles. I was also very much drawn to Notte's music and lyrics as well as the entire cabaret aspect of the production. I thought it supported the piece with a sensitive score in order to release the tension of the subject matter and enhanced the overall quality of the production with music and song.

Innovative and pervasive use of music seems to be a big part of Trap Door's aesthetic. (Much of your production of Hamletmachine was sung.) Why is that? What strengths in the company allow you do it so successfully?

Hamletmachine is a classic play that has been interpreted all over the world for several decades. The director's vision was to keep it true to its classical form by staging it as a German Opera. This vision for the production also allowed for the text to be manipulated in a specifuc manner which in turn inspired movement and choreography. Only a few of the actors in the cast were trained singers and the others had the music and text adapted to suit their voice. The strengths in our company lie in the open mindedness and trust within the ensemble and the strong vision of the director to allow such interpretations to develop.

Looking to the future, are there playwrights or works that you are interested in tackling next? How carefully do you monitor what's happening now in European theatre to decide what might appeal to Chicago -- and other -- audiences? Are there certain countries that are particularly vibrant at the moment?

I am open to reading all different types of plays. I like to educate myself with contemporary European writers to stay current with the times. For the future, we are looking at material from Werner Schwab, Howard Barker, Matei Visniec, Dario Fo, etcetera... We look for scripts that embrace profound global issues and are told in a simple and stylistic manner. We are always seeking to enlighten and educate our audiences with current topics and allow the audience to see themselves in the world and how important their role is in it. I believe that art keeps a society civilized.

Eastern European countries are currently coming out with lots of new work that is quickly spreading all over the world. Their material seems to be particularly vibrant at the moment. I believe it is due to the political turmoil they have had to overcome in the past and now are sensing a new-found freedom for expression and exploration. I have noticed a repetition of certain themes especially within the youth and their struggle for understanding their place in the "new" world.

Tickets for Me Too, I am Catherine Deneuve on April 22 and April 23 are available from the Alliance Francaise (which is sponsoring the DC production) or by calling 202 234 7911.

(Photo: Holly Thomas as Genevieve and Sadie Rogers as Marie in Trap Door Theatre's production of Me Too, I Am Catherine Deneuve.)

Friday, March 11, 2011

200 Years of Luddism

I have been researching a new play for the last year or so -- and am starting to write it. And today, oddly enough, is a highlight occasion for me in that process.

Two hundred years ago today, on March 11, 1811, a riot broke out in the marketplace of the Englich city of Nottingham. Later that evening, a group of men marched into a Nottingham suburb and smashed up machines that made stockings (so-called "stocking frames).

Little did those men know that they were commencing a movement -- which came to be known as "Luddism" -- that would be known to us today.

The word "Luddite" gets thrown around a lot these days, and it has come down to us as a term for those who actively oppose the advance of technology in human affairs.

Indeed, the first impulse that led me to the topic was my observation that the term "Luddite" -- like any other term that has wound its way from a specific historical moment into a mainstream term that resonates centuries later -- likely has a much corrupted modern meaning, and that even a cursory excavation of the term would yield up a story that was much more interesting than our contemporary notion of Luddism as a blindly anti-technological movement.

My hunch has not only been proven right -- but it has yielded up a treasure trove of material that will resonate in an America that is exhausted by war, outsourcing its jobs, cheapening and destroying its manufactures and busting its unions though political means.

Luddism had a number of regional strains -- most famously, the "croppers" of Yorkshire whose violence against the so-called "gig mills" that destroyed their trade is legendary for its stealth and its brutality. But as I shape the play, I have decided to focus on its origins in Nottingham -- where the issues were more complex and where the town's Luddite movement was highly selective and staggeringly effective in selecting its targets and isolating itself from detection.

I have also developed a great amount of material for the play about how the Romantic poets of the day --Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and George Gordon, Lord Byron -- reacted to the movement.

What I'm hoping to do over the next three or four months is let Balkans via Bohemia readers follow along as I finish my research and write the play. I am also going to follow along over the next few months as various Luddite anniversaries, ahem, crop up. I have also created an open Facebook group that will provide shorter updates and tidbits.

It all started 200 years ago today. I hope you'll follow along as I excavate what Luddism was all about and try to translate it into a dramatic work that will speak to a larger audience.

(Image is a poster of a reward offered by officials in Nottingham to apprehend Luddites in that city.)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Malefactors of Great Wealth

J.P. Olsen is one of those renaissance guys. He's been a journalist and a documentary filmmaker who wrote a well-received book -- and made a film -- with drug policy specialist Nancy Campbell called The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America's First Prison for Drug Addicts. (You can hear an NPR interview with Olsen and Campbell about that project.)

But I got to know Olsen as a musician about a decade when a record he made with members of The Haynes Boys as Burn Barrel landed in my "to be reviewed" pile.

The release was called Reviled! and it's a brilliant record that always had a place on my CD stand and then my iPod. It's full of twisted and heart-wrenching love songs ("Creep of Love" "Little Cowboys), sharp observations of the collision of journalism and the real world ("Andy Uzzle, "Mrs Tubbs") and a real nose for the what the socialists call class and the artistes call the "low life. ("Today is Champagne"). A number of singer-songwriters have traveled various parts of this territory, of course, but what makes Olsen so special are the surprises and twists in his craft -- crafting a chorus for a portrait of crime-scene photographer out of the words "Tagamet" and "no remorse," for instance. Or his description in ("Mrs Tubbs") of the mother of a larcenous daughter, confronted by the buzz of neighbors and reporters as "shaking like a rhesus monkey."

Olsen's newest record, Today Is the Best Day of My Life -- an EP recorded under the moniker "The Malefactors of Great Wealth -- doesn't exactly pick up where Reviled! leaves off. The new record not only has a cleaner sound (produced by Golden Palominos founder Anton Fier), but overall it's a more inward-looking record. (The great exception is the rollicking "Prisontown," where "some of the people... are dangerous" and "some of the people... are famous," would not have sounded at all out of place on Reviled!)

Though the sound on Today Is the Best Day of My Life may be cleaner than the raucous Reviled! (more the L.A. of the Association and Forever Changes Love than alt-country), the close observations of people and milieus on the latter record give way to something fiercely interior on the new collection. Songs such as "Clean," "True Ways" and "Today" have the mercurial feel of soliloquies -- associative and yet not arbitrary.

"I shaved all my hair off/Kissed my TV," sing Olsen on "Clean," sketching out a sodden landscape that traffics equally in whimsy and misery. The songs on Olsen's new record take you to a place that's worth the journey. Highly recommended record.

Get Today Is the Best Day of My Life and Reviled! at Other Music's digital shop.
Find out more about The Narcotic Farm.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Search and Nestroy: Constellation's On The Razzle

Weinberl: What is it after all that distinguishes man from beast?
Christopher: Not a lot, Mr. Weinberl.
Weinberl: Trade.
Christopher: I was thinking that.
Weinberl: What would we be without trade?
Christopher: Closed, Mr. Weinberl.
Weinberl: That's it. The shutters would go up on civilization as we know it.

(Tom Stoppard, On the Razzle)

This month, Washington DC's Constellation Theatre Company is tackling On The Razzle -- a play that bears Tom Stoppard's name. But the play is actually the Czech/English playwright's adaptation of a work by another comic genius: the 19th Century Viennese actor/playwright Johann Nepomuk Eduard Ambrosius Nestroy (1801-1862).

Nestroy is an immensely influential figure in German-speaking theatre (and especially in Austria), but his work has never been widely translated into English. Indeed, the only major American volume of Nestroy's work is a long out-of-print translation of three plays -- Johann Nestroy: Three Comedies -- published by Frederick Ungar Publishing in 1967.

That volume had an introduction by American dramatist and novelist Thornton Wilder. And, indeed, almost any knowledge that Americans possess about Nestroy comes from Wilder's two wildly popular adaptations of the same Nestroy play -- Einen Jux will er sich machen (He'll Go on a Spree)-- as The Merchant of Yonkers (1938) and a later revision, The Matchmaker (1955). (The latter play was reworked into Jerry Herman's 1964 musical, Hello Dolly.)

Stoppard's On the Razzle also takes Einen Jux will er sich machen as its foundation, and hews a bit closer to the original play than Wilder's versions. But though Wilder and Stoppard both delight in Nestroy's wildly farcical mistaken identities and sharp satire of sex and commerce, both English-language playwrights share a sense of sheer impossibility of actually reproducing Nestroy's language.

Max Knight and Joseph Fabry, the translators of the 1967 collection, make the best case they can for their efforts, while acknowledging the hurdles: "Nestroy has been imprisoned in his language, the Viennese dialect."

In his foreword, Wilder observes:

Nestroy avails himself of the German language's tendency to compound nouns, forcing adjectival forms from polysyllabic (and polyglot) substantives, wrenching startling associations of ideas from puns, and illuminating philosophical concepts by the use of droll mixed metaphors. Most jokes lose their savor in translation and perish in dissection.

Stoppard is even more blunt in his introduction to On the Razzle:

The text is not, and could not be labelled, "a translation." All the main characters and most of the plot come from Nestroy, but almost none of the dialogue attenpts to offer a translation of what Nestroy wrote.

So who was Nestroy? Why did two great playwrights find something in his "untranslatable" work?

Nestroy was born in Vienna and studied to be a lawyer before being lured into the theatre. He kicked around smaller metropolises in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Brno, Bratislava, Graz and Lviv among them), working as an actor and a singer before returning to Vienna. He began writing in the political ferment of the decade before the tumultuous revolutionary year of 1848 -- and evaded the theatrical censorship of the era with a mix of subtle wit and improvisation. Much of his efforts were in writing a series of bravura parts for himself, drawing on his own comic timing and skill with language.

The genius of Nestroy was balance his trenchant critique of Viennese society's hypocrisy -- the burgeoning capitalism and sexual license bubbling under a public facade of morality and order -- with a broad and humane delight in the comic fallibility and folly of human beings. He did so in a German that ranged from high to low, painting on the broadest possible canvas of Vienna.

Stoppard catches this aspect of Nestroy wonderfully in another exchange in Act One:

Christopher: Will there be women, Mr. Weinberl?
Weinberl: Beautiful women, Christopher.
Christopher: How old are the women in Vienna, Mr. Weinberl?
Weinberl: Twenty-two, Christopher.
Christopher: How does one meet them, Mr. Weinberl?
Weinberl: They promenade in packs, with parasols, and gloves up to here. They consort with cosmopolitan men-of-the-world in fashionable cafes.
Christopher: I have read that they are often kept, Mr. Weinberl.
Weinberl: Kept for what, Christopher?
Christopher: That's what always puzzled me.

It's no surprise that Constellation's artistic director Allison Arkell Stockman was drawn to Nestroy's mix of farce and ferment -- especially as interpreted by Stoppard. (In the past, Constellation has performed Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro and Vaclav Havel's humane and political Faustian farce Temptation.) It will be interesting to see how director Nick Olcott and the cast and creative team balance the sharpness of the satire and the humanity of the comedy in Stoppard's version -- which are rooted firmly in Nestroy's vision.

(Constellation Theatre Company's production of On the Razzle runs from February 3 through March 6 at Source Theatre -- 1835 14th Street NW. Tickets and more info here.)

(A drawing of Nestroy in the character of the student, Willibald, from his 1847 comedy, The Bad Boys in School, from Wikipedia Commons.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Little Bit About My New Play, Nero/Pseudo

The new play that I've been working on since July 2009 --called Nero/Pseudo -- is finally ready for people to read. Which is exciting. The first draft was finished this past summer, then it got a ruthless rewrite or two -- the last one thanks to some very perceptive comments by DC playwright Jim McNeill and actor/director Gwen Grastorf.

I went back into my notebooks to try and trace down just what the original impetus for Nero/Pseudo was. I remember it being a very hot summer day, and I sought refuge in the cool darkness of the bedroom and started reading a copy of Tacitus' Histories -- his account of 69 AD, the so-called "Year of Four Emperors" which kicked off with Nero's suicide and ended only with Vespasian's triumphant return to Rome.

I had only gotten to early in the second book of the volume when I came across this passage:

About this time Achaia and Asia were thrown into a groundless panic by a rumor that "Nero was at hand." The accounts of his death being many and various, people were all the more inclined to allege and to believe that he was still alive. I shall mention in the course of this work the attempts and the fate of the other pretenders. This time it was a slave from Pontus, or, according to other traditions, a freedman from Italy. His skill as a singer and harpist combined with his facial resemblance to Nero, gave him some credentials for imposture.

The passage startled me. It was a story only half-remembered. I recall thinking about it for a few minutes, getting up, Googling it a bit, finding out that there had been two or three such pretenders (scholars differ) and then grabbing my notebook and writing (as I look at it again now):

Play about first Pseudo-Nero.

A bunch of other thoughts flooded the page, and then the first title:

The Return of the Exalted Emperor Nero, Confounding Reports Erroneous of Unfortunate Demise

It took me five years to get the last play I wrote, Burn Your Bookes, from my head to the 2007 Prague Playwriting Festival to the Kennedy Center to Taffety Punk's amazing production at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop this past April. But I learned a lot from that experience, and I've accelerated my process of researching, outlining and writing. I've also become smarter about my own work habits as a playwright.

So now that it's done, I'm starting to look for a home for Nero/Pseudo. Getting in it the hands of various folks, trying to obtain opinions and critiques and (hopefully)to generate some interest in a production. Part of that process is writing a succinct synopsis, which I'm inserting at the end of this post. As you'll see, the play has its roots in history, but it's not a period piece.

Interested in reading it? Let me know in the comments or by email if the synopsis intrigues you:

Nero/Pseudo: A Synopsis

A naked fake emperor. Glam rock. A head in a box. That's Nero/Pseudo -- a new play by Richard Byrne.

Nero/Pseudo takes its inspiration from a passage in Tacitus' Histories, in which a man with an uncanny physical resemblance to the emperor Nero (and skill in playing the lyre) took Greece by storm a few months after the real Nero's suicide in 69 AD. Not only did the fake Nero cause mass tumult before he was captured and executed -- but the notion that Nero might actually return to rule again was fuel for apocalyptic writers in Jewish and Christian sects of that era (including The Book of Revelation).

But Nero/Pseudo isn't a period piece. Byrne mashes up classical literature with glam rock, political cults of celebrity, a healthy dollop of sex and a newly-imagined version of Nero's famous poem on the Fall of Troy. All but three lines of the original Nero poem have been lost, so the playwright's new version casts as much an eye on contemporary politics as it does on Trojans and Greeks.

Nero/Pseudo requires a minimum of six (6) actors.