It sounds like a setup: Batman’s Joker, a talking pink gorilla and the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez walk onto a stage. But it’s no joke: rather, they and several other deliciously over-the-top characters are the principal protagonists of Elfriede Jelinek’s latest play, Schwarzwasser (Blackwater), the 2004 Nobel Prize winner’s reckoning with Ibizagate.
Directed by Robert Borgman, it premiered at the Akademietheater on February 6, a mere nine months after the video that brought down Sebastian Kurz’s first coalition went viral in May 2019. Secretly filmed in an Ibizan villa only months before the general election in October 2017, the video showed Heinz-Christian Strache and Johann Gudenus, then leading members of the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), offering up lucrative state contracts and even the nation’s water supply to a woman posing as the niece of a Ukrainian oligarch in exchange for off-the-books party donations and help in undermining Austria’s free press.
At a time where reality has overtaken parody, when the abysses of Austrian politics are common knowledge, what is there left to say on stage?
Jelinek answers in her own unique fashion by not only dissecting the scandal, but adding current and past events, Greek tragedy, philosophy and kitsch into the mix. Without ever mentioning any real names, the result is a delicious, though a bit hard to digest, 3 1/2-hour dinner with courses to spare.
With everything seemingly happening at once, Schwarzwasser can best be described as a puzzle, with each piece a scene with multiple meanings. Dense and overloaded with allusions and side blows, it invites the audience to fill in the gaps. Which is easier said than done: Shedding its skin like a snake, Jelinek’s text is nebulous, forcing the audience to revise each interpretation almost as soon as they grasp it.
The play opens with a red carpet event hosted by Martin Wuttke in a tuxedo while the rest of the cast sits in the first two rows of the audience, now an integral part of the stage. Next, a pink gorilla (Caroline Peters), a Thunberg-esque climate activist, soldiers and two young men (Felix Kammerer and Christoph Luser) in sharp slim-fit suits and Sebastian Kurz wigs start symbolically dismantling a gypsum wall on stage.
In another scene, the Joker (Wuttke) is dressed in a baroque costume, giving a keynote speech while trying to handle two chairs with the help of fellow Batman character Poison Ivy (Peters). Just like Strache and Gudenus, they regret not having seen the camera. Soon after, Wuttke is Diego Velázquez painting Las Meninas while his 5-year-old model, Infanta Margarita (Peters), laments the existence of violence in a high-pitched, computerized voice.
The outstanding performances of the cast – led by Peters, Wuttke, Kammerer and Luser – function as a glue holding everything together, supported by a choir in ever-changing roles and colorful costumes. There are nymphs in leather outfits with earmuffs and mermaid hair, two Biedermeier characters dancing in front of a snow machine and short videoclips of historical mass accumulations to confuse and amuse the audience.
The play ends with a giant Biedermeier portrait of right-wing German NSU terrorist Beate Zschärpe holding a gun in her lap. We are sent away with the question: “What are we going to do with our violence now?”
Tragic, sarcastic, wicked and bittersweet, Schwarzwasser goes far beyond Ibizagate, tackling the current state of the world with recurring themes of violence, the selling out of democracy and freedom of the press, of corruption, gender roles and undermining the rule of law, of culprits in victims’ clothing and Austria’s Nazi past. In the midst of all this, the lack of logic or a clear plot somehow makes perfect sense.
With everything seemingly happening at once, Schwarzwasser can best be described as a puzzle, with each piece a scene with multiple meanings.
Surprisingly – or maybe not – Schwarzwasser is also very funny. The audience, equal parts pearl necklaces and torn fishnet tights, polished Italian leather shoes and holey Converse sneakers, often laughed out loud, applauding after almost every scene. Afterward, there was neither booing nor a standing ovation; the audience seems exhausted, but not shocked. In 2020, a video is often more shocking than a play.
Back in 1988, when Thomas Bernhard´’s seminal work Heldenplatz premiered at the Burgtheater, the opposite was the case. Commissioned by then director Claus Peymann for the theater’s 100th anniversary, it was the biggest theater scandal in Austria’s history.
Fifty years after the Anschluss, Professor Schuster and his family return from exile in Oxford, but to their shock, they can still hear the cheers from nearby Heldenplatz. If anything, the situation in 1988 is even worse than in 1938; in despair, the professor commits suicide. After the funeral, family and friends also mourn the loss of identity and illusion.
Already provocative, the historical context made the play a bombshell: just two years prior, revelations that former UN Secretary General and presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim was a former Wehrmacht officer who knew of – and may have been involved in – war crimes shook the nation to its core.
The play provoked an avalanche of protest and disdain even before its premiere, and then 19-year-old Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on camera screaming in protest from a balcony.
Often called a Nestbeschutzer, one who fouls his own nest, Bernhard continued to dissect the Austrian soul until his death in 1989. His legacy still stands, having helped destroy the national myth of Austria as the first victim of Nazi Germany.
Blurring the Boundaries
Bernhard certainly wasn’t the first prominent Austrian author to defy theatrical conven-tion. Decades earlier, 2019 Nobel laureate Peter Handke was gleefully dismantling theater as we know it with his first play, Publikumsbeschimpfung (Insulting the Audience),which premiered in 1966 in Frankfurt.
A milestone in the history of theater, Publikumsbeschimpfung features an empty stage – no props, no pretense, no illusion. There are four speakers, but no roles. Taking turns, they reject the core conventions of traditional drama, stressing that this is not a play and they are not actors, tearing down the imaginary walls between stage and auditorium, between actor and audience. As the title promises, it culminates in the insulting of the audience: The number and intensity of the swear words increases with each line, with some of them deliberately lifted from Nazi jargon.
Salting the wounds
A 24-year-old law student at the time, Handke’s Sprechstück (Spoken Play) exposed and deconstructed bourgeois theater, challenging the traditional passive role of the audience and bringing him immediate recognition.
Today, Publikumsbeschimpfung still feels provocative, as it shows how little the role and responsibilities of theater, authors and the audience have changed. There may be good reasons for this; the basic principles of drama laid down in Aristotle’s Poetics have withstood the test of time. Nonetheless, Handke’s challenge is still worth considering.
As for Jelinek, Schwarzwasser is only the latest in a long line of artistic efforts dedicated to exposing (inter) national disgraces.
Her sarcastic, provocative and occasionally vulgar or blasphemous writing is also brave and agile, enabling her to tackle specters of the past, struggles over human rights, war crimes, migration and xenophobia. Highly critical and relentlessly inquisitive, with a virtuosity that hears the echoes of present crises in the archives of the ancients, she takes a very long view. She is also uncompromising, resulting in performance bans and a reputation as a Nestbeschmutzer akin to Bernhard.
Her first foray into scandal was the 1985 premiere of Burgtheater in Bonn. Although no names were mentioned, it was obvious to all that the play portrayed three former Burgtheater stars – Paula Wessely, her husband Attila Hörbiger and his brother, Paul – who were, to varying degrees, part of the Nazi propaganda machine. It was an explosive subject, as all three were favorites of the regime but had also used their positions to help Jewish colleagues, with Paul imprisoned for treason in the final months of the war. Jelinek’s play addressed the moral responsibility of celebrities in the Third Reich; using three actors of such enduring popularity muddied the debate. Burgtheater was performed only once in Austria.
Bambiland, which premiered at the (actual) Burgtheater in 2003, pilloried the role of the media in the Iraq conflict, exposing war as an industry and a form of entertainment. In 2014, Die Schutzbefohlenen (The Charges, literally, those in need of care), premiered in Hamburg, taking on the refugee crisis, human rights, and inhumane asylum policies. Am Königsweg (On the Royal Road) saw Jelinek decry the connection between right-wing politics and hypercapitalism, as well as the helplessness of reason and fact in the modern era, with the titular king a clear reference to Donald Trump.
Resistance playwrights face a Sisyphean task, exhausting and often futile: Reason drowns in the sea of social media, while facts are dismissed as fake news. Jelinek’s plays, like Handke’s and Bernhard’s, can be a needed response, an answer to hatred, hysteria and injustice. Taking things to the logical extreme, distorting beyond recognition, even into absurdity, can be illuminating, reveal new perspectives, awaken reason to new possibilities.
Art is always a mirror; sometimes it belongs in a funhouse of distortion and the bizarre, flooding reality with exaggeration until the system crashes, and the sneering kings are revealed to be naked after all.