Book Review by Dana Rufolo
12 January 2023
Romanian Eugene Ionesco’s foothold in the French and eventually the American imagination back in mid-twentieth century allowed western theatre experts to associate absurdism with a dramatic style. Martin Esslin’s classic definition of absurdism as “the inevitable devaluation of ideals, purity, and purpose” presupposes a resolute moral universe lurking behind distortion. How frivolous that idea seems now! Absurdism was a parlour game, an approach, something clever that distorted the world as if one put a puzzle’s pieces together not properly interlocked but by forcing them into unnatural alignments. But the fractured nature of absurdist dramas in the country that assisted in giving rise to the term didn’t emerge from a style. They weren’t the consequence of putting puzzle pieces together in a haphazard way. No, in Romania if the plays in Plays from Romania can be trusted to reflect the true state of the nation’s dramatic art (and when we take stock of the prominence of the playwrights, then we know that they certainly can be trusted!) absurdity is reality – there is nothing else … there is no safe ground where normalcy ranges and from which the absurdly angled puzzle with its nightmarish design can be playfully labelled a counterfeit.
Before I discuss each of the nine individual plays that have been skilfully translated into the English idiom by Romanian-born UK national Jozefina Komporaly who is also an ethnic Hungarian, let me just mention the subtitle: “dramaturgies of subversion”. I am surprised that the Merriam-Webster definition of “subversion” was updated as recently as December 20, 2022, suggesting that the word is charged with significance presently. The definition reads: “the act of overthrowing: the state of being overthrown, especially an attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by persons working secretly within the country.”
Yes, these recent Romanian plays do stick their tongues out at the world of superpowers the playwrights live in. They are the product of writers who will never trust the state and its capacity to govern fairly, and to perform these plays is to support subversion and independent thought. (Interestingly, each has been premiered, and a copy of the original premiere poster for each play is included in the book.) Komporaly herself writes in the introduction to the volume that “… it is still difficult to conduct a conversation about Romanian theatre without addressing the country’s emergence from totalitarian rule in December 1989”.
But “dramaturgies”? Why that term? It would have been equally valid and perhaps more explicit if the book had been subtitled “Dramas of Subversion.” However, Bloomsbury, which published this book, has been publishing books about dramaturgy, a term which is perhaps more exotic in appearance than in fact since, at least in the German tradition, the dramaturge is one who researches the history and social relevance of a drama, the era and geographical, political, literary and dramatic context in which the play appears – or if it is a new play, the immediate context of the work – so as to give credence to adaptions and alterations in the original work. I conclude therefore, that the subtitle is intended to bring the book in line with the aims of the publisher.
The first play in this collection is an adaptation and dramatization of Herta Müller’s short story collection Niederungen (Lowlands) by the Romanian director Mihaela Panainte. Müller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009; she has deployed her own Romanian childhood as a member of Romania’s minority German-speaking community in something like stream-of-conscious-absurdity, beginning with an ‘other way around’ description of daily experience from a child’s perspective, where down is up and out is in. Translating it is a feat; Komporaly succeeds by casting up idiosyncratic English that captures the German original, as in this line: “The sun goes down at the end of the street. A sack plunges down the village, bringing the night sewn into it.”
Being poetic narrative, Lowlands is experimental. The poster of the premiere on 13 October, 2018 at the Vasile Alecsandri National Theatre of Iași showing many characters in obscurity dressed in tunics and apparently walking around speaking the lines, on a stage decorated with a few triangular-shaped pillar structures (design by Dan Istrate), reveals an original way of highlighting the spoken words which are the chief attraction of this staged literary work.
Matéi Vişniec, the Romanian playwright based in Paris, is no stranger to readers who have been following reports on Romanian theatre festivals in this online magazine. The second play in the book, his The Spectator Sentenced to Death, opened at the Théâtre de Nantes in June, 2009. Characters who are in the legal profession and who, however, act like clowns are conducting a trial against a spectator in a theatre who has a priori been condemned by them. It is an absurd situation. The characters’ withdrawal of empathy towards the accused, the happy compliance of witnesses who include the theatre staff personnel such as the woman who serves coffee and champagne during intermissions and the cloakroom attendant, and, above all, the silence of the accused (spectator) and of all other spectators, make it a play of ideas that questions if the traditional distinction between actors and audience is morally acceptable. But above all, the play escapes the metaphor of the theatrical experience and, as Komporaly points out, touches on the violation of ‘presumption of innocence’ (Ei incumbit probatio, qui dicit, non qui negat), a legal protection for the accused listed as a human right and that was inserted into the Romanian constitution in 1991 but against which earlier there had been no protection.
The Passport by György Dragomán is translated by Komporaly from Hungarian and premiered in 2016 at the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj, about which I have recently published an article online here. András Visky directed the play; one of his own plays is also in this book. The Passport is a beautifully crafted drama. The hilarious comedic scenes in it expand the theme of betrayal beyond sexual exploitation and the lawlessness of the Securitate secret police in the 1980s, the era in which the play is set. Betrayal has become second nature to the characters trapped in the man-eat-man-eat-woman world of the play. The intensely logical and consistent characters in the play push into place the irrational and absurd nature of their world – it is a hermetic enclosure, really, not a world – and are unable to alter it.
The next play, The Man Who Had His Inner Evil Removed, translated by Komporaly from Romanian, is again by Matei Vișniec. First published in 2016 as a book, the play premiered in 2016 at Timisoara’s Compania d’Arte. It opens with a damming scene where Eric informs a mass audience about the hypocritical tendencies of sensationalist journalists to use fake news and capitalize on tragic and oppressive news items. After that, even though Eric periodically reappears, the play surges into the dramatization of a rat takeover of human society and uses the rat as a symbol that I am unable to follow. If the rats were to have represented all that is crude and vulgar: human carelessness and disregard of hygiene, pollution of the environment, and the wellbeing of one’s fellowman, I would have understood better.
However, rats seem to have promised to eat up the mountains of human waste that are causing an environmental crisis and also “(t)he rat feeds on the evil generated in the human being, and the latter becomes a hundred per cent good or, in other words, is freed from evil”. The play seems to be referencing a particularly personal or Romanian worldview, one perhaps less devoid of scientific explanations for the present environmental and moral crises than I am used to. In this play, the rat proves itself to be a highly manipulative animal with a talent for leadership that exceeds the humans’ because they have the “advantage” of a “collective mind”. The only aspect of human existence that rats have not taken over by the end of the play is our connection to poetry. Rats are neither able to understand poetry nor to judge why poems are linguistically appealing to people.
András Visky’s collection of four plays in Hungarian originally placed under the umbrella title Stories of the Body premiered in English using Komporaly’s translations in the USA at Theatre Y Chicago in 2018. The first two in the series dramatize the life of historically famous women who transcended their time and place, and the last two stage the biography of women of our era in a generic fashion.
Artemisia is a play about the extraordinarily talented female artist Artemisia Gentileschi who grew up in the early seventeenth century in Rome. Not unlike Frieda Kahlo, she infused her artwork with a female perspective born out of trauma – in her case, the trauma of being repeatedly raped by her art tutor and having to subject herself to torture to prove her innocence.
Mother Teresa is an iconic figure. In Teresa, we learn of her earthly struggles to convert her wayward self into the sacred figure helping the children of Calcutta that we know her as today.
The play Eva is a harsh first-person narrative. Eva, probably of Roma origins since she references herself twice as such, has a mother who despises and rejects her and is tossed from man to man, life situation to life situation – always exploited, abased, and beaten. Nobody sees her as a person; even other women see her as a body meant to be worked to exhaustion or a body to be sexually exploited. Her lack of education aids and abets their objectification of her, and early on she confesses that she has trained herself to never expect happiness: “I remember it though. Happiness that is. I haven’t forgotten about it. Thought that is the reason why grownups existed. That Mum beats happiness out of me, because it will be easier when I grow up if I don’t know what it’s like.”
Visky states in the introduction to Lina, the final play in Stories of the Body, that he wished to “make enquiries regarding the specificities of perceiving the world from the perspective of a mutilated body” after a friend lost both legs somehow. He wrote it while listening to the music of the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks and recommends various pieces by Vasks to accompany each of the scenes in the play. ‘Woman’, the main character, who was in a car accident, wakes up in hospital where the medical staff are wearing animal-head masks to discover: “Where could they be? Hey, where are you? Legs?! I can’t feel them! And they can’t feel me either! I can feel that they can’t feel. There! I’ve lost them, I must have lost them both! What the … I dashed out of the theatre and, and, and must have forgotten them on the underground, Yes, that must be it, I keep losing everything! The city is chock-a-block with my lost property, they are in search of me. Bags, buckles, scarves, gloves, a tooth or two … ”
The play continues with the voice over of a “little girl” giving us the dictionary definitions of the terms “stump” and “maim” – “amputation” is added later – and then the play morphs into a second theme, that of Hungary post-World War. Woman says, “after the Great War, Hungary was called a missing stump. The war amputated its limbs. Hands, legs, everything. It was amputated all round. It lost the war, so this is what happened, it got punished. . . . A single glance at the map suffices: one stump next to another, stumps all over. And roaming phantom pain everywhere. …”
The final play in this book, Sexodrom, originally in Romanian, premiered in May, 2019 in Bucharest. I don’t imagine that it will ever be produced by independent actors. The Roma feminist Giuvlipen Theater Company, based in Bucharest, devised this work, and it is indeed a reflection of the company members’ own personal experiences of womanhood and of affiliation with a minority culture. Indeed, Komporaly reports that Giuvlipen was founded in 2014 to “enhance cultural integration and the visibility of Roma performers, to counterbalance negative or incorrect stereotypes and to bring taboo subjects to public attention.”
Sexodrom reminds me in its emotional intensity of Tennessee Williams’ Out Cry. Both are psychodramas. In Sexodrom, there are seven characters – really company members who play themselves and who have generated their own texts. Some use their real-life names, some a stage name. The characters exude self-loathing and convey a sense of sexual and personal degradation to such an extent that they are unable to posit any other kinder world even as a utopic contrast. Structured as a game in which each takes turns being “Queen” – a term that in itself reflects internalized notions of superiority/inferiority and references a colonialist perspective – they describe scenes devoid of human contact and human feeling. In the place where they exist, nothing is real, but the strawberry fields are fields of thistles and nettles. One character refers to herself as “a flawless woman, perfect in every bit”, but by the end of the ditty she identifies herself as “a super-bitch, admit!” Definitely a cri de coeur as Williams said his own Out Cry was – a work of characters who shout out their stories into a sordid solipsistic space where no recognizable, clearly conceptualized audience exists.
A Methuen Drama, 2022 publication.