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Male Violence, God and the G20: Abraumhalde by Elfriede Jelinek

By Marcel Inhoff.


If you’ve read Thomas Bernhard’s letters you’ll know he was frequently upset about the way his plays were staged. Not so his fellow Austrian, writer Elfriede Jelinek. What she hands over to theatres is, on the page, a block of text. Fiery, complicated, no paragraphs or speakers, just one long monologue on topics like power, violence and sex. Theatres are free to use her texts as they like. And German theatres, notorious for taking enormous liberties on the stage, have taken this freedom and run with it. Recently, a Jelinek play had its premiere in Germany’s former capital, the sleepy city of Bonn. The play, titled Abraumhalde (written and first staged in 2009), takes current discussions about masculinity, violence and religion, and reads them in connection with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s enlightenment classic Nathan the Wise and Austrian rapist Josef Fritzl.

The relationship to Nathan the Wise is central for Jelinek: this is the first of two so-called secondary plays (Sekundärdramen). She suggested the term in a brief 2010 essay: secondary plays are supposed to be read with the classics, complimenting—and commenting on—them. There are two central tropes in Nathan that have special interest for Jelinek. The play, set in Jerusalem, is about religious tolerance, and about the way we are all related in one way or another. The subject of religious tolerance finds expression in the so-called “Ring Parable”. In the play, the sultan asks the Jewish protagonist which religion is the best. Instead of giving a straightforward answer, the Jewish protagonist tells a story about a father, his three sons and three rings, one of which is real and extremely valuable, two of which are copies. The rings are indistinguishable, even by the father. The only way to tell which one is the real ring is by its magical properties: it makes people like the wearer. Since, however, the three sons had erupted in a fight over the heritage, none of them may have the real ring. It ends with an exhortation for each to behave as if each did have the real, magical, expensive ring. I’m sure we can all connect the dots as to how this applies to the struggles between the three monotheistic religions.

Jelinek’s play takes these topics and has her speakers erupt in a fight over which religion is the best religion, and inverts the positive value of family by connecting male obsessions with virginity in Christianity and Islam with the notorious case of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who kept his daughter locked in his cellar and raped her repeatedly, fathering seven children with her. The text itself, on the page, reads, as with many of her recent plays, like a chant, like a dark flow, returning to the topics of money, sex and violence with a terrifying intensity. It’s hard to see these texts as plays—formally they are prose monologues—but stage after stage has chopped them up and rearranged them for adaption.

What seasoned Swiss director Simone Blattner did with Abraumhalde in the Kammerspiele Bonn is particularly interesting. Blattner cut up the usual monologue into six voices: five men and one woman. With a remarkably clear eye, Blattner made explicit what is sometimes only implicit in Jelinek. In her novels, particularly in the work following (and including) Oh Wildnis, Oh Schutz vor ihr, Jelinek is obsessed with the literary quality of sloganeering, and uses puns, alliterations, and repetition to shift them into uncomfortable, sometimes alienating territory. In a sense, this explains why she stopped writing novels but continues to publish plays at a prodigious pace—this interest in speech. In Abraumhalde, her focus is on masculinity, specifically the symbolic violence Pierre Bourdieu called “la domination masculine” in his book of the same title. We see the same slogans, but we also see debates about which virgin-based theology is better: Islam or Christianity. Without speakers in the text, there is no equivalent of Lessing’s simple dialogic situation, of a debate. Instead, it is a whirlpool of vaguely indistinguishable rants about women and virgins. Blattner has realised this and turned the play into a dialogue of sorts. The five men are types: dressed cartoonishly, they are in effect wearing a modern equivalent of Ancient Greek theatre masks. Their role is recognisable. The woman keeps changing clothes and roles, she has to contend with the stomping, self righteous men. None of this is in the original text, but Blattner very elegantly peels off the basic discourse of the play and makes it visible to the audience. Even if you can’t quite follow the sometimes turbulent dialogue, the performance fills the gaps—in effect, Blattner turned an ideological discourse into a captivating performance.

Abraumhalde review

It was startling to be in the audience for this performance a mere week after the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany and the violent protests there. This is not to criticise the protests or necessarily poo poo violence against the police, but it is indeed remarkable how masculine the anger on Hamburg’s streets was. As a reporter pointed out, the young men burning cars and throwing bottles at the police were not “progressive” in any meaningful sense: primarily, they were men performing a particularly toxic masculinity. Jelinek’s play is full of slogans you might recognise: attacking the state, attacking banks, criticising interest on money, sometimes slipping into the explicitly anti-Semitic. Jelinek herself connects this with religious discourses and Fritzl, but it is Blattner’s staging in Bonn that really highlights what’s typical about this loud, shouted, usually white anger—how male it is, and how exclusionary. With Jelinek’s words and Blattner’s eyes we reread Lessing and notice how much of it is about male order, male inheritance—about, in a word, patriarchy. In Fritzl, who raped his daughter and got her pregnant, and then separated his children into upstairs children, allowed to live in the daylight, and downstairs children, locked into the cellar with their mother, Jelinek finds the dark mirror of Lessing’s protagonist who tries to control his own adopted daughter. Ideology, Jelinek finds in her work time and time again, is men shouting down women, and in Blattner’s staging in Bonn, we find a compelling visual representation of it.

At the same time, it is this very performance, with its echo in angry men in Hamburg on the weekend, whether they are policemen or burning cars, that suggests a limit to Jelinek’s work. Much of Blattner’s performance follows lines suggested by Augusto Boal in his Theatre of the Oppressed, particularly the way a performance in the Arena Theatre in Sao Paolo, recounted in the book, makes roles unimportant: “All the actors interpreted all the characters.” Jelinek’s play almost demands a similar approach from the theatres that perform it, and the actors make their art transparent, putting on and taking off their wigs onstage. Some actors interacted with the audience, but the interaction Jelinek wrote into the play—of using Fritzl as a dark equivalent of Lessing’s Nathan—is not as sharp in Germany as it would have been in Austria. There is no national shame for what Fritzl did, nor an indignation over this country’s writers dirtying Germany’s reputation. What you could sense in Blattner’s staging was Jelinek’s sense of this problem, and her concentration on the element of the play that is equally true for Germany, making the male dominance of the discourse palpable, visible, uncomfortable onstage.

And yet if we, like Boal, look at the impact theatre has on those that watch it, the impact of the Jelinek/Blattner cooperation is limited. Seeing a woman in discomfort onstage or in real life doesn’t alarm men. It’s when women are unbothered and dominant that men get queasy. But that’s not Jelinek’s work—Jelinek works with guilt. And men—it’s not easy to make them feel guilty, whether they are in Hamburg, Austria or the White House. Theatre has to grapple with that, and I’m wondering whether the discourses that work for other oppression have to be interrogated when it comes to the ways political theatre treating gender issues and particularly male symbolic violence is constructed, not on the page but on the stage.


Marcel Inhoff

Marcel Inhoff is finishing a doctoral dissertation at Bonn University (Germany). His publications include a volume of poetry (Prosopopeia, Editions Mantel, 2015), as well as individually published poems in both English and German. He has written and published essays on Derek Walcott, Ingo Schulze, Robert Lowell, Tracy K. Smith and Elizabeth Bishop, and translated fiction into both English and German. He’s a contributing editor for the Battersea Review. He blogs at shigekuni.wordpress.com

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 20th, 2017.