Monday, May 16, 2011

Douglas Messerli "Telling the Story As It Is Being Told" (on Roland Schimmelpfennig's The Arabian Night and Woman from the Past)

by Douglas Messerli

Roland Schimmelpfennig Die Arabische Nacht, Staatstheater Stuttgart, January 1 2001; translated as The Arabian Night by Melanie Dreyer (2003).
Roland Schimmelpfennig Die Frau von Früher, Wiener Akademietheater, September 12, 2004; translated as Woman from the Past by Melanie Dreyer (2006).

I’ve now read two plays by the German dramatist Roland Schimmelpfennig, and although these two works—The Arabian Night and Woman from the Past—are different, there is in each an unusual structural form that deserves some discussion.

The plots of the plays, although complex, are not the important element of these dramas. In the first work, Die Arabische Nacht (which premiered at the Staaatstheater in Stuttgart in 2001) the story weaves various threads of plots that might have appeared in any number of Rudolf Valentino knock-offs of The Sheik rather than in the masterful 1001 Nights. The superintendent (Lomeier) of an apartment building with a malfunctioning elevator climbs gradually upstairs in search of damage from a rush of water he can hear through the walls and whose damp¬ness he senses on this sweltering night. In the hall of the 7th floor he encounters one of the tenants, Fatima Mansur, attempting to open her door while burdened with grocery bags. She shares her apartment with Franziska Dehke, a seemingly mindless working woman who each day after work comes home to a shower before falling into deep sleep on the couch.

Meanwhile Fatima’s boyfriend Kalil arrives, just as he usually does upon Franziska’s collapse, to be with his lover. But this time he is trapped in the elevator, as Fatima, having heard the arrival of his scooter, impatiently waits. Karpati, a man from a neighboring apartment building, who has nightly watched Franziska shower, is suddenly so bewitched by her appearance that he makes his way to their apartment at the very moment Lomeier returns to the 7th floor in his explorations of the leak. Fatima goes in search of her lover, briefly encountering Karpati on the stairway. Karparti, enchanted by the naked, sleeping figure, suddenly finds himself, as Lomeier enters, entrapped in a cognac bottle. Upon witnessing the sleeping figure, Lomeier is reminded of his wife (now away on vacation) and their early love.

Finally able to pry the elevator door open, Kahil proceeds to the 7th floor apartment in search of Fatima. He finds the apartment door open and enters. Awakening, as if from a dream, Franziska rises naked, goes to Kalil and throws herself into his arms, asking for his protec¬tion: “There is a curse from the wife of a Sheik—take me out of here.” As Franziska clings to him in what is obvi-ously still a nightmare, Fatima reenters her apartment to witness the scene. In her fury over what she perceives is her lover’s deceitful affair with her own roommate, she grabs a knife as Kalil flees for his life.

After various other “adventures,” including similar sexual encounters with other women of the building, Kalil, caught in the arms of yet another would-be lover, is murdered in revenge just at the moment that the bottle of Karpati-in-cognac, crashes from the balcony to the street below.
Much has been written about the various thematic interweavings of these stories—many of which occur simultaneously in the play. But little has been said of the most obvious aspect of the play, Schimmelpfennig’s narrative structure.

Unlike most plays, in which the characters speak as the audience observes, which, in turn, allows the viewers to feel an almost voyeuristic removal from figures on the stage as if witnessing events outside of themselves, this playwright’s characters evoke action and dialogue simultaneously so that we not only “overhear” their inter¬changes between one another, but are privy to their inner thoughts and interactions with their own movements in space. Loemeier’s opening lines set the tone for the entire play:

I hear water. There is none there, but I can hear it. Middle of June. It’s hot. I get phone calls from the eighth, ninth and tenth floors, what’s wrong with the water. I don’t know. I was in the basement. The pressure is fine. But: above the eighth floor all the taps are dry. The eighth, ninth and tenth floors don’t have water. As though the water got lost on the seventh floor. Maybe there’s a leak. Hard to imagine. A leak like this, a broken pipe, doesn’t go unnoticed for long. I hear it behind the walls. I hear it rising. Sounds like a song. The trace of a song in the hallway. A song in the stairwell. A whisper on the seventh floor. I get into the elevator. I ride to the seventh floor to have a look. I keep hearing water. The elevator sounds like it’s going to break down again. Seventh floor. To the right, fifteen apartments and the elevator, to the left, sixteen apartments. On both sides two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bath. At the end of the hall to the right, in front of 7-32, stands Ms. Dehke’s Arabian roommate, Fatima Mansur. 7-32 means a kitchen balcony, windows to the southeast, bathroom to the west. The Arabian roommate is trying to unlock the apartment door with three bags under her arms, but why is she making it so difficult? Why doesn’t she just put her things down?

Not only are we told the reasons for Lomeier’s actions in this passage, but his feelings about the events (his skepticism about a leak, his poetic perceptions about the sounds of the water, his fears for the breakdown of the elevator, his evaluation of “Ms Dehke’s Arabian roommate”).

Moreover, what normally might be presented only in the script (the configuration of the rooms, the actions of the characters) are externalized.

Schimmelpfennig takes this even further with the repetition of these externalized actions by various char¬acters; in this scene, for example, Fatima says:

The keys fall under me, but I can reach the doorbell with my elbow. I hope Franziska’s there. O course she’s there. I hope she hears the bell. Lomeier, the superintendent, comes down the hall in his gray-blue overalls. It’s hot.

She rings again. She does this by pressing her entire body, the three bags and herleft elbow on the bell. Can I help you?

In short, the audience not only is given a visual presentation of the action, but simultaneously told what they are witnessing. It is a bit like viewing a movie over which the director and actors describe their various feelings and reactions to the scenes, or like attending an art museum equipped with AcoustiGuide devices—both now common, if quite irritating ways to elucidate film and art. To put it another way, imagine a member of the audience sitting next to you retelling the story of the play as it is occurs to a hard-of-hearing companion. The echo takes away any possibility that one can suspend disbelief. By telling the story as it is being told, so to speak, there is little possibility of truly involving oneself in the drama’s fantasy.

In fact, Schimmelpfennig’s The Arabian Night concerns just these issues. As a series of overlapping visual and narrative events—far closer, indeed, to what we experience in real life—what is reality? Can reality—even a fantastic reality—exist? Is what we perceive to behappening what actually occurs? What might have been clarified in a more standard play is confused by the “static” of the multilayered voices. In their attempts to behave in rational, characteristic ways, the actors of this drama are confused, entrapped in unbelievable situations become as outrageous as cartoon figures: thrust into bottles and the arms of any passing women, Schimmelpfennig’s would-be lovers race and stagger about the set only to be stabbed or dropped into space. With the final curtain, we can only imagine them springing once more to life—which, in the final bow to the audience, of course, they actually do!

The dramatist’s Woman from the Past (also translated as The Woman Before; Die Frau von früher premiered at the Wiener Akademietheater in 2004) is a less original story, reminiscent, somewhat, of the movie Fatal Attraction. A seemingly happily married man, Frank, suddenly encounters a woman he no longer recognizes standing at his doorway, his teenage lover to whom 24 years earlier he had pledged eternal love. As his wife Claudia, previously showering, enters the room Frank closes the door. Who was he talking to? “No one,” Frank lies; but when Claudia opens the door she discovers the woman still waiting. The visitor proceeds to demand that Frank make good on his promise.

The comic misunderstandings and anger that proceed from this event might almost be those of a TV sit-com were it not for the fact that the “woman from the past,” Romy Vogtländler, is determined to reassert her relationship with Frank despite all that has transpired since. Predicting that Frank will soon be standing over her with a kiss instead of the denial with which he has greeted her, Romy reluctantly leaves, only to have a stone thrown at her by a nearby teenage couple (Frank’s son Andi and his girlfriend) that may have killed her. Despite Claudia’s disapproval, son and husband take the body into their apartment, where, indeed, the unconscious Romy awakens as predicted, with Frank hovering over her. Will he abandon his present life?

Frank and his family are already planning for a big change in their situation, moving from the apartment they inhabit to a far-away place (the trip obviously involving travel by ship), but now the audience-reader must wonder if the “change” will move in another direction. Clearly bored with in his marriage and burdened with a son whose major activities are tagging the walls and boxes, having sex with his girlfriend, and throwing rocks at passing strangers, Frank, it appears, may actually take Romy back: to her suggestion that they immediately leave together, he finally capitulates:

All right—let’s go.
(He looks for his jacket.)
Let’s go. You’re right
(Short pause.)
There’s not much left.

She demands, moreover, that he not only give up his wife, but his son, to which he also agrees. She asks him to sing the song he once sang to her in the past, reminding him of its lyrics (“I Will” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney). Suddenly he remembers many of his youthful experiences, but when he cannot recall a gift he has given her, she rejects him, vowing to leave the former lover alone with nothing.

Claudia returns, relieved to find Frank still there. What she cannot know is that Romy has already killed her son—stuffing his suffocated body into one of the packing boxes lining their walls—and is about to kill her. As Claudia opens a small package she has found on the floor, she suddenly bursts into flames and is incinerated. A few minutes before, Frank trips over a small matchbox car and discovers the body of his son. The doorbell rings, but he is unable to stand. He cannot open the door nor reach the speaker.

This rather macabre story opens Schimmelpfennig’s play to several possible themes, the most obvious of which concerns how the past determines the future while destroying the present. I can’t help feeling, however, that left simply as a conveyer of the “plot,” the author’s work would seem a bit hackneyed. Indeed the play was widely attacked for being a “compilation” of ideas and a kind of “adroit quickie” in some of its European venues, particularly in Hungary.

Fortunately, the dramatist, once again, is not as concerned in this work with its “story” as he is with the structure in which the tale is told. This time around the story does not explain itself in its telling, but func¬tions in a far more original way that parallels its theme. While I was reading it, I felt that the drama would have worked better on film. Indeed, Schimmelpfennig uses several cinematic devices throughout that reminded me of Godard’s Breathless and Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. In the first the director occasionally cuts away the continuity of his action so that a character walking down a street suddenly appears several feet ahead of where he was a second to two before; in the other the director occa¬sionally repeats scenes with or without slight variations. In Woman from the Past, Schimmelpfennig often presents what one might describe as the final outcome of events and then returns in the following scene to fill in with the “missing” interstices: the words and actions that were the “glue” to the outcome. In an interview with Robert Hicks in New York Theater Wire, Schimmelpfennig, in fact, admits in this play to being influenced by French and Italian cinema. By skipping from one place to its logical or often illogical conclusion, and then returning to more thor-oughly investigate the “missing pieces,” Schimmelpfennig effectively reiterates and expands his thematic concerns. It is just such “glue,” the hundreds of missing pieces that lead from one place to another, that Romy Vogtländer refuses to accept. She is determined to pick up the present without the events in between, and accordingly, she must destroy any of the continuity of life. Andi, Claudia, and, ultimately, even Frank are destroyed because she cannot accept the arch of events that have brought them together, ending in the Frank she now encounters, a forty-year-old married man, at the curtain’s rise. What we realize when the author shows us two different versions of the events is that what we perceive as the reality of the first expurgated version is not exactly the same as the fuller version. If Frank ultimately agrees to leave with her, it is not without a good fight to protect the existence he has actually lived. How can he deny his son? As he says, it would be to deny himself, something, accordingly, also demanded by Romy.

Many authors have written of people who live in a past and are unable to accept the reality of flux (Dickens’s Miss Haversham and Faulkner’s Quentin Compson are just two such examples), but few have represented its disastrous results more dramatically. If Romy might argue that Frank has lived his life based on promises he has not kept, that he has lived a life of lies beginning with his pledge to her of eternal love, she, in turn, is unable to comprehend that the natural changes any being experiences reveal constancy to be impossible. Every hour of every day our bodies shift, decay, strengthen, fall into disuse, and so too do our words and actions. A life is not determined by birth and death, as some philosophers claim—these are just parameters—but by everything in between. To erase it means to empty living of any meaning, to destroy life itself. “The woman from the past” may be, at play’s end, a kind of Medea-like survivor, but she is also, we recognize, a lifeless monster, a Medea without a dance. This play reminds us that living is not about its promise, but about the often dreary day-to-day details of being.

Los Angeles, June 4, 2006
Reprinted from Douglas Messerli My Year 2006 (Los Angeles: Green Integer).

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