Beckett is Dead! (But European Playwriting is Still Alive)
I once asked an American dramaturg at one of the larger regional theaters if they had ever played any contemporary continental European plays. ”Sure,” he answered. ”Last year we did The Bald Soprano, and a couple of years before we did Endgame.”
Ionesco, Beckett? They’re both dead. I said “contemporary.”
Looking at the repertoires of the major theaters in North America, and at the course syllabi, I’ve found on the internet, you’d think that European playwriting had simply died some time around 1970. It didn’t. In fact, it is as vibrant as ever.
So, who´s the new Beckett? Well, according to the chief critic at Le Figaro, it´s Jon Fosse, a Norwegian playwright. His minimalistic dramas have been produced 900 times in Europe and Asia, but only a handful of times in the U.S.
Throughout most of its history, Anglo-American theatre developed through a mutually beneficial exchange of plays and ideas with continental Europe. The best plays from the two continents readily jumped the Atlantic. Important new works by Pirandello, Brecht, Sartre, Beckett, Ionesco and others found their way to New York a few years after their premieres in Europe. And new plays by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller got produced by major houses in Europe within a year of their Broadway premieres.
For many years, this exchange went both ways. But some time after the heydey of the absurdists, the U.S., Canada and to a large extent the U.K. stopped importing new continental plays. So today, there is a whole generation of envelope-pushing playwrights in Europe that are played regularly across the continent but are virtually unknown in the English-speaking world.
What would English-speaking theatre look like without the influence of Brecht and Beckett? I’m sure you’ll agree that it would be deeply impoverished. Now, how much richer would theatre be if Europe’s leading playwrights were well known in the U.S.? The mind boggles. Why did the flow of plays from Europe to America suddenly stop?
I can think of two reasons, one good and one bad. The good reason is that theatre people in the U.S. have woken up to their own country’s minority voices, voices outside of the mainstream culture: Black, Asian and Hispanic playwrights are getting produced. Why then look abroad for foreign plays?
The bad reason, and I may be stepping on some toes here, is what looks for all the world like a subtle, lingering case of American exceptionalism: We’ve got all the playwrights we need right here, thank you very much. One really would expect more openness and curiosity from the world’s last remaining superpower.
Add to that the dreaded “E” word: Eurocentric. It may come as a surprise, but Europe and European playwriting are far less Eurocentric than one would think. During the last few decades, Europe has undergone a sea change. Waves of immigrants have settled here; Europe is a melting pot. Multiculturalism is in the air, here in Europe as in the U.S.
So what is different about European plays? That is, what are you missing out on?
The most obvious difference is that the interesting playwrights over here write plays that can’t be turned into films or pilot episodes for HBO. They exploit the theatrical medium in new ways. This is far too rare in America. American plays, of the kind that win awards and get produced around the country, often wind up at a Cineplex near you a couple of years later. Examples would be Proof, Doubt, Rabbit Hole and August: Osage County, all of which won both Pulitzers and Tonys. I read them when they were still on Broadway and remember thinking: I’ll wait for the movie.
Not that this type of easily digestible, camera-ready play isn’t being written in Europe as well: Yasmina Reza, significantly the only living European playwright widely produced in the U.S., writes plays that get scooped up by the film industry (e.g. God of Carnage).
It’s not that I think these are bad plays. I’m sure theatres around the country sold a lot of tickets and that the productions were enjoyable. This should be celebrated. But what do these plays actually give the audience? Snappy dialogue, memorable characters (a least one of whom we can identify with), all wrapped up in a tidy, logical story with a beginning, middle and pretty much inevitable end.
All of this is right out of the How to Write a Play handbook, so what am I complaining about?
Just this: We need plays that don’t look like movies or sitcoms. Theatre, lest it be forgotten, is not a mass medium. Like it or not, we don’t put on plays for Joe Six-pack, but for an audience that is educated and curious. TV and films give us our fill of sitcomish dialogue, ingratiating characters and cause-and-effect plotting. I think audiences want something else from theatre.
The plays I’ll be recommending here all employ elements of the modernism/postmodern tradition. In Europe, plays like these are often done in mainstream institutional theatres. They are selected from piles of submitted scripts and are thoroughly worked through, a process that yields plays of independent literary value that can be done by other theatres in other cities and countries. They will often be directed by leading directors, who may have cut their teeth on the classics, and acted by established actors. The playwright expects the director to interpret, but without changing any words. The text counts, and it will often be published for the reading public as well.
In America, similarly modernistic works are typically produced on makeshift stages by devoutly “alternative” companies. The production may be cutting-edge, but the (often devised) texts themselves don’t get an afterlife. They therefore, make less of an impact on the art form.
But enough of the sweeping generalities. Here are five plays and names English-speaking theatres ought to look into—playwrights who have been overlooked but who are as potentially seminal as the absurdists were in their day. All of these plays have been produced in several countries in Europe, so they aren’t heavily culture-dependent, and they have all won prizes. They are also among my personal favourites, and I’ve worked on productions of several of them. My selection is idiosyncratic; I’m not an expert on European drama—but then who could be? Europe is a collection of about 50 countries and 35 different languages (depending on how you count).
We’ll start with two playwrights who write in German.
Elfriede Jelinek is probably the most celebrated playwright in Europe at the moment—and probably the most hated. When she won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2004, for example, one of the jury members quit in disgust. Controversy surrounds her. Her Princess Dramas: Death and the Maiden (2002) in six parts and Bambiland (2003) are often produced in Europe. The only U.S. production I’m aware of was Jackie, one of the Princess Dramas, done by the Women’s Project in New York in 2013. (It’s about Jackie Kennedy.)
Jelinek’s plays don’t look like plays. She writes what she calls Textflächen—text surfaces—i.e. long monologues that you can divide up among the actors pretty much any way you like. She doesn’t do story or character, just language and theme. My favorite is The Merchant´s Contracts (2009), about the contradictions in capitalism. Where does money actually come from? How is value created? What does it mean to swap debt? If you don’t think your audience is interested in things like this, you may be underestimating them. Jelinek’s plays are startlingly insightful and full of delightful linguistic pirouettes that elegantly expose the hollowness of our normal speech.
A far more accessible German-language playwright is Marius von Mayenburg, currently dramaturg and playwright in residence at Berlin’s Schaubühne (by my reckoning Europe’s most important theatre). His breakout play Fireface (1997), written when he was only 25, is still getting played a lot in Europe. My favorite, though, is Perplexed (2010). When we played it at my theatre, Norway’s leading critic called it “a refreshing renewal of the farce genre.” Our production won the national Best Production of the Year award. If Jelinek celebrates the “death of character,” then Mayenburg revels in their birth. In Perplexed, four actors glide through about twenty roles in a continually shifting kaleidoscope of an existential farce. The tone is creepily comical; the theme is deeply nihilistic. It makes you laugh and then wonder why.
Moving closer to home—my home that is—there are three Scandinavian playwrights I’d recommend here, one from each of the countries Sweden, Denmark and Norway.
Jonas Hassen Khemiri is one of the new bi-ethnic writers in Scandinavia. Born of a Tunisian father and Swedish mother, his I Call My Brothers (2012) and Invasion! (2008) deal directly with outsider status in a supposedly liberal democracy. My favourite however, is The Hundred We Are (2010), about three women of three different ages, looking back on their lives (or life, if you choose to see them as the same woman at three different ages). Khemiri’s full-throated theatricality and nimble wit keep it lively, but he also shows an astonishing insight into the lives of women. You’d think the play was written by a woman over 50, not by a guy barely 30. And like Perplexed, the production at my theatre won the national award for Best Production that year.
Denmark’s leading playwright—irrespective of gender—is Astrid Saalbach. Her plays are quirky, caustic, funny and sad. And always dramaturgically innovative. Her many plays are regularly done in other countries, so they transfer well. End of the World (2003) won two major awards (Best Danish Play and Best Nordic Play) and many productions of it have won national awards as well. The production in Prague won the prize for Best Direction, and the French language production in Ottawa garnered ten nominations and won four Prix Rideau. The play is published in book form in Danish and French as well as in Romanian and Chinese. Strangely, the play has never been done in English. (Full disclosure: I’ve translated it.)
End of the World is constructed as a dream-play–although “nightmare-play” would be equally appropriate. We follow the main character in a linear story, an unusual feature in Saalbach’s plays. Xenia, a flight attendant suffering from serious jet lag and premature hot flashes, has just returned from a long and upsetting flight; the passengers panicked for no apparent reason. Back home when the play starts, she gets lost trying to find her house. A girl who would rather be a horse leads her into the world beyond our time zones. In this world, airplanes are a thing of the past—they started inexplicably falling from the skies some years ago—and a baby can be exchanged for a roller-bag. In a series of fantastical scenes, Xenia confronts her deepest fears and greatest longings, among them a woman who will undergo any treatment, no matter how painful, to preserve her youthful looks. Saalbach has constructed an imaginary, frightening world, but no flight of fancy is left untethered in this finely crafted work.
Like Elfriede Jelinek, Saalbach is often accused of being anti-feministic or even misogynistic. In truth, both writers are often unkind to their female characters. But both are also acutely aware of their own minority status in a male-dominated profession. Their feminism simply runs much deeper than the cheery, optimistic “You go, Girl!” feminism of, say, a Wendy Wasserstein.
Norway’s new Top Gun is Arne Lygre. His spare, minimalistic dramas have captivated several of Europe’s A-list directors, such as Stéphane Braunschweig and legendary Claude Régy. Since his debut 15 years ago, Lygre has developed a unique style: pared-down, pinpoint precise dialogue in a muscular, free verse rhythm. But into the dialogue he regularly interjects lines spoken in the third person, as if the character is telling us what happened in the distant past. This creates a distancing effect that, paradoxically, draws us deeper into the story. Some have called this “enhanced realism.”
Lygre’s most popular play would seem to be Man without Purpose (2005), an enigmatic story about a billionaire who buys up the land around a fjord and creates his own city – and his own family. Can’t buy me love? Well, maybe you can rent it for a while. It’s been produced in seven countries thus far, and more productions are on the way.
So there you have it. Five of Europe’s best plays—a mere taste of what the continent has to offer. You can read more about the Scandinavian playwrights on their websites (khemiri.se, astridsaalbach.dk; arnelygre.com), where they have posted reviews and the like in (often dodgy) English. All three are represented by Colombine Teaterförlag in Stockholm (firstname.lastname@example.org), and their plays are available in English.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.