Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek on how she uses theatre as a licence to seize speech

Her latest play, ‘On the Royal Road’, a scathing indictment of ‘Trump the Emperor’, will hit Indian shelves in November

October 31, 2020 04:01 pm | Updated 08:45 pm IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

“The writing…runs through one’s fingers like… time… [that] can do everything at once: find its way into one’s own work … blow into… tousled hairstyles … like a fresh, even if malign wind… risen suddenly and unexpectedly from the direction of reality. … [It] blows and sweeps everything with it… away, no matter where, but never back to this reality, which is supposed to be represented.” These lines are from Elfriede Jelinek’s Nobel lecture.

When the Austrian playwright, poet and novelist, who writes in German, won the literature Nobel in 2004, the citation recognised her “musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.” Her latest play, On the Royal Road , a scathing indictment of ‘Trump the Emperor’, was recently released in English in the U.S. by Seagull Books and will hit Indian shelves in November . In this e-mail interview, Jelinek speaks about writing, about writing Trump in the post-truth age, and about India. Excerpts:

Your play Am Königsweg ( On the Royal Road ) was recognised as the ‘play of the year’ in 2018. How important is theatre for you as an author and has this changed over the course of your career? Is there a glass ceiling for women in theatre?

Strangely, for me, writing for theatre has nothing to do with the practice of theatre. Rather, I use theatre as a kind of licence to write. Privately, I speak very little. But my language for the theatre is like an exhibiting, almost as in the visual arts. I exhibit texts which allow me to speak or, rather, I seize speech, even if it is not intended for me. It is always said that women talk incessantly, albeit in private; yet they are still not represented in public. So, then I speak through theatre and doing so, I am conscious that I am fighting for the right to speak in public. My theatre is language, and it is incumbent upon those staging it (directors, actors, designers) to make a play out of it, with which I don’t want to be held up in the urgent, urging flow of my speech. Thus, every one of my plays is many plays, because everyone can make their own out of it.

What were your most important influences as a dramatist? Would you say scepticism with language is an element of your writing process, and is the ‘unmasking of consciousness’ still the core of your work?

Yes, the persons in my texts speak by saying what they wouldn’t say explicitly otherwise. On the one hand this introduces the ceremonial, the festiveness of antique drama (which I use for my plays). On the other hand, by doing so, I can bring the social and political conditions and contingencies onto the stage. So, then I exhibit publicly what social forces shape the people, to which they are subjected, even though they are not conscious of it. (Perhaps one could say that I try to set a process of ‘making conscious’ in motion.) I am telling you and you tell it to the audience. My most important influence for this way of writing is probably Heiner Müller. He was the first one who broke the theatrical form, that is, the dialogical structure, and actually wrote prose or, plain and simple, texts. Most importantly, Medea Material/Despoiled Shore/Landscape with Argonauts was a kind of revelation for me. The dialogical form always seemed banal to me (and rather suited for film; although, of course, it produces magnificent plays); for me the text has to be everything, yes, despoiled shore, with flotsam and jetsam floating by, and the audience standing there with long poles, fishing for what they can use.

In the world of this play, written after the triumph of Donald Trump, it is no longer possible to differentiate between ‘reality’ and the ‘reality show’. How can theatre and your play contribute to a critical assessment of these trends in society?

But there is no difference. As in Plato’s allegory of the cave, if such a comparison isn’t too presumptuous. What people see of each other and of themselves, imprisoned in their class, their status, their gender, is only what they see projected as shadows on the wall of the cave and this is the only reality or truth for the imprisoned, that is, as the shadows of artificial objects. If such prisoners were taken outside to look at the light, they would resist. So it is naive to assume that one could see something like the truth in the constant clamour and drift of images bombarding us. And probably we wouldn’t even want it. This conditioning of the first nature (that is reality) by the second (all sorts of social manipulation we often aren’t even conscious of), this attempt to create out of language the conditioning of reality by whatever the rulers let us see (freely derived from Roland Barthes)... [I seek] to set in motion a process of demythologisation, ultimately, to unmask societal lies, if this does not sound too arrogant.

The book outlines an unprecedented crisis of democracy by foregrounding an obnoxious Trump-like figure. As Gitta Honegger asks in her introduction, “Can the word still maintain a ray of hope amid this disfiguring, deadly violence of power?” Trump is clearly the product of broader historical trends — do you see possibilities of reason, freedom, viable alternatives today?

It is always a problem for me when I am asked or expected to show utopias or at least other possibilities. I can’t do that, and I don’t see it as my task either. I try to find structures in reality (in the complex reality) and also exaggerate them in order to cut paths with a machete through the jungle, so to speak, and to structurally display such complicated correlations and circumstances, without simplifying them. Generalising does not mean simplifying to me. In this regard, the drama of ancient Greece has always offered me a model, which I highlight by using quotations from it. The Greeks, after all, also used their own history to throw a spotlight on it, to give a twist to reality (which is also the task of satire), to disfigure it to recognition, so to speak. In The Persians by Aeschylus, for example, the naval battle at Salamis is a historical event, but one that is reflected from all sides and commented on by the chorus as well. Thus, the defeated enemy is not flaunted, the event is not relativised, not thrown to the pigs or turned into one (Miss Piggy!); rather, it can lead to a new realisation, by giving the enemy a voice, thus returning his humanity to him.

You stepped out of the Communist Party of Austria in the early 1990s. How did you experience the emancipatory hope and solidarity of the 1960s? Why did that dream degenerate so rapidly? And was there a personal disillusionment, and how did you deal with it?

Yes, it was a personal disillusionment. Some of us — an entire group, primarily artists — who joined at that time left later in direct response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968, as did the party’s best minds and fighters. With good reason. After this catastrophe we wanted to try to introduce a different kind of socialism — but that takes us beyond this conversation. We thought we could change the party and had to realise that this was not possible. We certainly were naïve. Nothing was left of the history-shaping force of the working class (which, in large part, is voting for Trump in the U.S., also a kind of farce). The early days of socialism in the Soviet Union, after the revolution, were a time in which science, technology blossomed to an unimaginable degree. Those hopes were betrayed. I would like to know if they always must be betrayed or if there could be a new socialism after all. At this time, however, I don’t see it.

Your plays have focused on global events such as the financial crisis of 2008, the inhuman treatment of refugees, the Charlie Hebdo massacre… In Royal Road , you specifically talk about ‘writing as a foreigner’. How do you understand this ‘outsiderness’ and how does it affect your writing?

I’ve always been an outsider, already as a child, and only through writing did I realise later that this is the position from where one sees things the clearest. The ongoings in an anthill can only be seen if one distances oneself from it rather than sticking one’s nose right into it. The stranger, the foreigner, often sees more than the native, who might be too deeply rooted in the ground. And from the distance it is also possible to move the figures around like a god and arrange them in any experimental configuration that comes to mind. As for me, in the case of Donald Trump, Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy (which is often compared to Oedipus Rex ) turns into a farce, in which a guilty king loses every (even his arrogated) greatness, as I measure him against the ancient tragedy of King Oedipus and he becomes ridiculous, because he does not want to confront his guilt, let alone atone for it. Quite the opposite, he proudly brags about it and falsely turns it into his merit. He becomes a babbling puppet (therefore the Muppets resonances). I try to tear down the great while making the small great, similar to Brecht: The great doesn’t stay great nor the small, small.

And, inevitably, do you have a perspective on today’s India? As a writer of political theatre, how do you look at political formations that today admire a Hitler or a Mussolini?

Unfortunately, I cannot travel due to an anxiety disorder and therefore my knowledge of India is limited to what I find out from the media. Hindu majoritarian fascism is very worrisome to me. It is an enormous catastrophe in a country with so many cultures, religions, and languages, and, unfortunately, also castes. To me, the caste system seems to be India’s greatest tragedy; it is always described as insurmountable. As long as India does not in real practice abolish the caste system and as long as it tolerates ‘untouchability’, it cannot enter the circle of modern nations. It doesn’t count then (unfortunately, I am very rigorous in this matter), that great scientific and technological developments were accomplished here, so long as large groups of society are condemned to have no real rights.

(Translated by Gitta Honegger.)

Milind teaches German language and literature at IIT-Madras; and Arati teaches German at VIT University, Vellore, and did her Ph.D on Jelinek at the Centre of German Studies, JNU.

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