[a “review” in four parts
is an adaptation for stage of Peter Handke’s short book of the same name. The name seems to have settled into English as A Sorrow Beyond Dreams
. I prefer Unimaginable Unhappiness
. It has been created for the Burgtheater by director Katie Mitchell, the adaptor Duncan Macmillan, the bildregie (cinematographer?) Grant Gee, the stage designer Lizzie Clachan, the video designer Finn Ross, the sound designers Melanie Wilson and Gareth Fry, the composer Paul Clark, and lighting designer Jack Knowles.
The book, published in 1972, is a meditation by Handke on the suicide of his mother. The opening paragraph reads: ‘THE SUNDAY edition of the Kärntner Volkszeitung carried the following item under “Local News”: “In the village of A. (G. township), a housewife, aged 51, committed
suicide on Friday night by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.”’
The adaptation is a “camera show
”. Above the stage hangs a large screen. On the stage itself all the audience can see is a large, single storey expanse of plywood with windows set into it. On the far left hand side of the stage is a small voiceover booth, and on the far right is a similar cabin for a foley artist. Various lights and cameras point at the windows.
When the piece starts, sometimes sections of this impenetrable front wall will lift out and we can see “inside” or “behind” the set. There are rooms even further behind these, which we see on screen, that we can never see from the auditorium.
The book by Handke is a forensic excavation of his mother’s life. It contains this striking passage:
‘City life: short skirts (“knee huggers”), high-heeled shoes, permanent wave, earrings, unclouded joy of life. Even a stay abroad! Chambermaid in the Black Forest, flocks of ADMIRERS, kept at a DISTANCE! Dates, dancing, entertainment, fun; hidden fear of sex (“They weren’t my type”). Work, pleasure; heavyhearted, lighthearted; Hitler had a nice voice on the radio.’
[the caps are Handke’s – words in capital letters are scattered across the pages.]
Where the book, though short, is copious with words, the text of the adaptation is stark and minimal. Delivered as voiceover by either Peter Knaack, playing Der Sohn (i.e. Handke), or Petra Morzé – Die Mutter – according to whether they are his words, or words that she has written. She sent him a letter before she killed herself, enclosing her will.
The action on the screen cuts between black and white and colour. In the black and white parts we see Die Mutter – Dorothee Hartinger – preparing to kill herself. Eventually, over and over again. Intercut with this, we see, actually see on screen, Der Sohn – Daniel Sträßer – receiving the letter in his apartment, catching a plane back to his family home, walking into the family home, meeting his sister (Liliane Amuat) and mourners, seeing his mother lying in her coffin. The action on screen flicks backward and forward between the two time periods – in theory only days apart, but thanks to the switch between black and white and colour feeling like decades apart. The mother, still caught in the film stock of the past, in a house dressed largely like the 1950s she moved there during; the son, a part of the present, in the early seventies – his room, for example, has a poster for his early play Kaspar hanging on the wall.
The screen action shows Der Sohn sorting through his mother’s personal effects, trying to make sense of her suicide, and especially trying to make sense of a small, postage-stamp sized photograph of her which he finds. It has evidently been cut from a larger picture. He looks through photo albums, sorts through drawers. Imagines her journey from kitchen sink, emptying the contents of several packets of sleeping pills into a single glass, mixing them with water, taking it to bed and drinking it.
All the while, while this takes place seamlessly on screen, the performers and camera operators scurry industiously around the intricate stage floor setting up shots, performing actions, creating dislocated close-ups, taking down and moving cameras and rostra. Setting up new shots. Dorothee Hartinger (Die Mutter) running disconcertingly backwards and forwards between life and death as she appears in black and white, alive and preparig for death, then nimbly hopping back into her coffin for a colour shot with Der Sohn at her side, mourning, bereaved. The performer almost creating a jarring parody of the “reality”.
Rather than immediately talking about my response to the piece, I want first to discuss the reviews by the Austrian critics. There is a reason I want to do this. Mostly, it is because I read them when I was processing my own response to the show, and so much of what I thought subsequently was a meditation on these responses as well as on the show. They were, largely, impressed by the technique, but most, in their own ways, found fault with the way that the book had been presented. I wondered about this. I wondered a lot.
Teresa Präauer in Nachtkritik
suggests: “Der Wille zur Mimesis illustriert hier wohl genau jenen biographical approach, gegen den Handke so skeptisch anschreibt im Wunschlosen Unglück.”
(roughly: The will to mimesis illustrated here probably exactly those biographical approach, against which Handke writes so sceptically in Wunschloses unglück.)
And concludes: “In der Gesamtheit, und gerade bei diesem Stück Literatur: leider wohl, auf hohem Niveau, ein Missverständnis.”
(As a whole, and especially in this piece of literature: Unfortunately, probably, at a high level, a misunderstanding.)
Roland Pohl in Der Standard
writes: “Technisch bis an die Zähne bewaffnet, übersetzt Mitchell Handkes Erzählung, ein unsterbliches Stück Weltliteratur, in ein Kriminal-Fernsehspiel.”
(Armed to the teeth technically, Mitchell has translated Handke's narrative, an immortal piece of world literature, into a TV crime drama.)
And even more damningly: “Der Springinsfeld ruht nicht, bis er Mamas Geheimnis auf die Spur gekommen ist. Sie schämte sich ihrer NS-Begeisterung 1938. ‘Ja, das war es!’, sagt sich Handke in Gedanken. Damit hat Mitchell Handkes Text auf eine Binsenweisheit heruntergebrochen. Viel Applaus für einen sterilen Abend.”
(The happy-go-lucky young fellow does not rest until he is able to track down Mama’s secret. She was ashamed of their Nazi enthusiasm in 1938. ‘Yes, that was it,’ Handke says in thought. Thus, Mitchell has broken down Handke’s text into a truism. Much applause for a sterile evening.) [an analysis which I find frankly chilling. Seriously? A *truism*?]
Norbert Mayer in Die Presse
redeems Austrian criticism a bit, while cavilling on the same point – that the book suggests the suicide is about more than the Nazi past (so does the staging, but...) – he argues: “Bei Mitchell wird die Suche nach dem Geheimnis der Mutter symbolisch überhöht. Das bringt Dramatik, simplifiziert aber zugleich die Vorlage. Den schönsten V-Effekt gibt es jedoch am Anfang. Auf der Leinwand sieht man den Schluss einer Folge der beliebte TV-Serie „Wenn der Vater mit dem Sohne“. Man hört nur eine Frage: „Papa?“ Und sieht den Subtitel: „Happy End“.”
(In Mitchell, the search for the secret of the nut is too high symbolic. This brings drama, but also oversimplifies the template. The most beautiful V-effect, however, there at the beginning. On the screen you can see the final result of a popular TV series ‘When the Father with the Son’. You hear only one question: ‘Dad?’ And see the subtitle: ‘Happy End’.)
Those reviews were all published pretty much with 24 hours of seeing the piece. I was still thinking. I was sitting in a kind of stunned silence and thinking. If I had had to give you an account of my immediate, visceral reaction, I couldn’t. In a way, because it isn’t/wasn’t that sort of piece. It doesn’t have an adrenaline punch as such. It has *moments* which make you jump out of your skin, or that clench your teeth involuntarily. But the piece as a whole is more meditative than that. And sad. It’s a slow drip, drip, drip, of thought, and sadness, and seriousness. Image, sound, voice, language (though obviously that last largely unavailable to me in-the-moment, which is also significant), action.
It is true that Mitchell and Macmillan have, in their staging highlighted that one available reading of the reason for Handke’s mother’s suicide – the same reason for the cut up, hidden photographs of her seig heiling ecstatically at the Anschluss – is her shame at her complicity with the Nazis. Their point, as Handke’s: that Die Mutter’s personal tragedy reflects the vast, greater tragedy of the nation. The difference, Handke implies – “proud” of his mother for her suicide – is that she at least took responsibility for herself in the end: she took the only honourable course of action.
Another striking passage from the book:
‘For my mother the war was not a childhood nightmare that would colour her whole emotional development as it did mine; more than anything else, it was contact with a fabulous world, hitherto known to her only from travel folders. A new feeling for distances, for how things had been BACK IN PEACETIME, and most of all for other individuals, who up until then had been confined to the
shadowy roles of casual friends, dance partners, and fellow workers.’
Of course, this does play down the rest of her unhappy life, her evident depression, her loveless marriages, and deep disappointments. Probable deep depression. Ongoing. Perhaps a desire for death for years. But, at the same time, there is still his pride in her suicide: the suicide of someone who was perhaps even *missing* the war – missing the excitement and glamour of the Nazi party, or at least missing the transition and relative freedom that the turmoil and conflict threw up. Perhaps this is more striking to me, and to Mitchell and her British team, than to the Austrians. I would dispute, though, that this constitutes “a truism” or an error of analysis.
Also, it feels strange to be discussing “errors of analysis” within a German-language theatre context. Perhaps Austrian Theater is much more conservative than its German cousin. Perhaps there is more reverence for the text here; hunting the chimera of “The Author’s Intentions”...
Something which I happened to read in the essay 'The Act and
The Author' by Calum Neill two days after seeing Wunschloses unglück:
“ ‘a signifier is what represents the subject to another signifier.’
(Lacan, 2006: 694)
“In such a chain, with each signifier signifying something to another signifier, something must halt the process or be seen to halt the process. If not, then nothing is represented. This halting takes place by virtue of a signifier, not the subject. The subject is the something represented. And it is represented for another signifier. This latter signifier is then that which would allow the possibility of something having been said, it allows the coherence of some sort of sense. It is important here to distinguish sense from meaning. The two operate in different registers. The movement of signifying, from signifier to signifier, seeks sense and anchors sense in the operation of this ultimate signifier to which all signifying speaks. Meaning, on the other hand, accrues in the realm of the imaginary. As the subject emerges through representation from one signifier to another, the subject imagines itself and “imagines himself to be a man merely by virtue of the fact that he imagines himself” (Lacan, 1977: 142). Each encounter with language thus produces both a sense, which allows signifying to unfold with a stability of its own, and meaning, which would be the subject’s encounter with its own emergence in language.”
Extracted, it might not make all that much sense (and, hell, I find that level of theory very difficult to really process at the best of times), but I wanted to contextualise what clarified for me my problem with the way that the Austrian critics had dealt with what they had been presented. That there had been a surprising one-way, literal-mindedness to their interpretations.
To me, then, the idea of the multiple elements of the piece and the extent to which the disparity and separateness of those elements is foregrounded is absolutely crucial to an understanding of why Mitchell would choose to adapt first *this* “story” in *this* way, and then why at all.
It demonstrates a very real commitment to trying to explore – and make explicit the exploration of – precisely those elements of problematic signification which were being discussed by both Lacan and Handke. (As in The Waves
before it.) This is not only a serious examination and experiment with how to present a text – and a text that in itself is an examination and an experiment – but a question about how the stage can possibly hope to ever speak to “reality”.
In the auditorium at many given moments there are: “Peter Handke” the author of the text; “Peter Handke” or “Sohn” played by Daniel Sträßer; the voice of “Peter Handke” being played by Peter Knaack; and then there is the image on the screen where in our minds – seeing Sträßer “think” the words written by Peter Handke as Knaack reads the words which Duncan Macmillan has chosen to represent the book for the theatre piece with the same name – everything compresses into one “reality”.
To reduce this intricate matrix of signification to “a TV crime drama” is a catastrophic error. Television rarely wants us to think that it’s television; this piece won’t stop showing us the multiple elements that are being used to achieve the illusion of a coherent single reality. We are constantly being asked to question the way that we look at these constructed “people” in this “realistic” setting. We can see with our own eyes that they’re not “real” at all. (On a very basic level, Mitchell and co. could all have been hidden behind a big black wall if this was all about what was *on screen*, FFS. I’m pretty sure even the Burgtheater’s troubled budget could at least have run to a big curtain had one been called for.)
I found the text on which the piece was based incredibly heavy emotionally. The literary postmodernism of it, the coldness and abstraction of it, just seemed to speak all the more eloquently of the kind of desolation where you can’t put the damn thing into mere words. “Being clever” about something never fooled anyone. And the blankness in Handke’s prose could also be read as the most appalling depression. Beyond that, the sheer weight of the subject matter: the micro – the mother’s suicide – and the macro – an apparently civilised nation’s sudden tip into the insanity of fascism and genocide felt overwhelming. At the same time, Vienna is kind of hard in the same way.
So, yes, I took a long time to get to grips with Wunschloses Unglück
. It is a difficult piece to process. The multiple elements do make focussing on what is being said incredibly difficult. Trying to watch more fragments than the eye can see at once is hard. Trying to appreciate elements both as separate parts and a whole is an impossible trick for the brain to perform.
And, yes, I did wonder if the superficial similarity of approach – the “camera show” – was simply a pre-existing form being placed on top of another text. It took some proper thinking to conclude that the reverse was true. And more than that, while *superficially* the “same approach” the whole feeling of Wunschloses Unglück
was immeasurably different to Die Gelbe Tapete
or Reise durch die Nacht
. The set-up of the stage feels different. The rabbit warren of rooms totally dissimilar to the single-file rank of a train carriage or the open-plan rooms of the flat in Yellow Wallpaper
. And, more than this, the atmosphere of the thing just felt appallingly heavy from the start – a seriousness and sadness around the subject and piece like I’ve rarely felt before. The sort of thing you really can’t explain, but that feels like it sits within you, a kind of unplaceable sense of sorrow or dread.
Faced with something like that, do you come out and say “Yes! I loved it! Five stars!” I wonder if, in part, even the fightyness of the Austrian critics was in part due to having to write about this confrontation with the aftermath of evil so soon after watching it. Wunschloses Unglück feels like it lingers inside you like a stain for a long, long time afterwards. Like a hangover lasting for days. Like an illness that won’t quite let go. And that’s just watching the piece in a theatre and reading the text of the Handke. I’ll admit that it didn’t quite define for me what it was I was thinking about in the following days – or perhaps, more strictly, it didn’t really try to “pin anything down” like that. In a stark and horrifying way, it makes questions about the past part of the present, and makes them about how we understand and construct the world around us. It asks about conservative societies; in particular, about their capacity to suddenly erupt into something even more horrific. It looks at what we can really call “civilisation” and reminds us why that comforting word might be one of the worst misnomers or glosses ever applied. As a concession to my Austrian counterparts, I do now wonder if the piece that Mitchell, Macmillan and co have made is only partly about Austrian history and whether a lot of it isn’t informed by the British present. Rather than looking back to 1938 and 1971 “on the continent”, I wonder if, in part, this isn’t a terrifying and increasingly accurate speculation on the future of the UK, and beyond us, the world.