Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. Juni 2001 Editorial

Werner Schwab in a Norwegian Context

Siren Leirvåg (Oslo)

This paper is based on some ideas that I would like to present to you in this suggestive way, for a possible discussion on the theatrical language of Werner Schwab. They are merely preliminary thoughts that may be elaborated in other contexts. I realize that the situation in Norway is not unique when it comes to performance traditions and acting conventions. It serves, however, as the context for the comments on staging the Schwabian universe.

The Austrian artist and playwright Werner Schwab has been introduced twice in Norwegian theatre: first in Oslo in 1996 with Volksvernichtung oder meine Leber ist sinnlos(1) (translated: People Annihilation or my Liver is Pointless) and last in Bergen in March 2001 with Die Präsidentinnen.(2) In the next pages I will point to some problems attached to the translation of the Schwabian universe to Norwegian theatre.

The first problem is related to the Schwabian style of writing, which is often looked upon as particularly provocative, with its grotesque imagery, its distorted linguistic tone and its bizarre plots. We find the reference to this way of using the language in the Austrian Baroque Folk-Plays or comedies. They played on the grotesque and linguistically ambiguous. Schwab's own experience of growing up in the Austrian province of Graz, in a basement of most meager conditions, must also have played a significant role in his writing, as well as the act of creating the myth Werner Schwab.

When the Torshov theatre in Oslo staged Volksvernichtung oder meine Leber ist sinnlos it was translated by Öyvind Berg, the author and member of the Bergen theatre company, Baktruppen.(3) His linguistic universe is not particularly bourgeois either. The particular atmosphere in the text is above all created by the Schwabian language, where the linguistic awareness is always loudly present. In a psychological and realistic performance style, which is the most common style in acting in Norwegian theatre, this particular language does not ring through, so to speak. Instead the miserable conditions are explained. They are put in a realistic and humanistic perspective: Why do we not communicate the truth? Why do we suffer in each other's company? There is a subtext here that in some ways undermines the grotesque and distorted atmosphere. I don't think it's merely a question of the director's choice, it's more about a bourgeois theatre tradition and hermeneutic situation.

I particularly get the notion of displacement from Volksvernichtung oder meine Leber ist sinnlos - Eine Radikalkomödie. With the subtitle: Mir selber zugewidmet, dem Autor, dem grossräumigen Lügner.(4) (Dedicated to myself, the author, the comprising liar.)
We are in a block of flats in Graz, where Frau Wurm and her son, Herrmann, live in the basement. There are two flats above, one inhabited by the Kovacic family, and on top is the terror-cabinet: "Das Speisezimmer der Frau Grollfeuer, alles düster, alt und kostbar. Überall stehen angebrochene Schnapsflaschen und Gläser herum".
The thirty or so year old Herrmann, sees himself as an artist. His mother disagrees.

Eine schändliche Sau bist du, die mich vor der ganzen Welt davondenken will. Aber einmal wird ein Tag auftauchen, der sich gezwungen sehen wird, in eine Kenntnis hereinzunehmen, dass der Maler Herrmann Wurm in Graz sein Licht erblickt hat und dass er das gleich auf der ganzen Weltoberfläche abgebildet hat. Graz...wird man sagen...und wurm...wird man sagen...und Erfinder der persönlichen Lichtstrahlen...wird man sagen...und Kleinstadt: Grosskunst...wird man sagen...und ganz einfach Grazkunst...wird man vor sich voraussagen. Weil eiene richtige Grazkunst, die ist keine Mausescheisse, die von einem Hund gefressen wird, der dann von einem Lastkraftwagen zusammengeführt werden muss. Und die Grazkunst, die ist aber auch schon überhaupt keine angefressene Leber, die aus einer alkoholisierten Leiche herausgefallen ist...beim Leichenwashen. Und schon gar nicht ist die Grazkunst für nichts zu gebrauchen...
Niemand kann mir Graz aus dem Leben herausnehmen

Frau Wurm:
Aber was ist das dann denn für eine Sorte von einer Kunst, die Grazkunst?

Also die Grazkunst...diese Kunstsorte, das ist, wenn die künstlerischen Menschen ihre Gefühle in der gefühlvollen Stadt...zusammenreissen...also wenn eine Kunstsorte sich einen einmaligen Anfang herausnimmt aus den gefühlvollen Grazmenschen. Das ist so, wie wenn der Herr Hausherr sagt, dass er ein Farbbild hereinbrauchen will für das Kinderzimmer von den Kindern von Graz. [...](5)

How does one translate or even present this concept in Norwegian theatre, even on the fringe stage of the National Theatre? Another question is of course: Why?

The program is perhaps more interesting than the performance. The Dramaturg describes the whole house as the medieval stage turned upside down with hell on top.(6) Frau Grollfeuer's project is to absorb the whole of humanity in her unique self. She despises people for not satisfying her ideals, thus no man, no love, no meaning. In the middle there is plenty of meaning in the form of compromise. The bourgeois, social democratic, IKEA home of the Kovacic'. Below is the limping figure of Christ and his mother, Frau almost-virgin-Wurm. She exists by her self-suppressing piety. He finds a meaningful existence in the landscape of Art.

My second thought is related to a potentially philosophical concept in Schwab's writing.
If we think for a moment Nietzsche as a source of importance to Schwab's life philosophy, it looks as Werner Schwab was taken up with what we may call the displaced existence, i.e. what we in our rationalized society look upon as ooze or mud, or stools, to use one of the central metaphors of Die Präsidentinnen. The secluded or displaced existence is for Nietzsche first and foremost, the suffering. In Die Geburt der Tragödie it is the classical tragedy and the ambiguous life preserving view that represent the object of his interest with regards to the way the suffering plays a part of the manifestation of life. I think that in some way the ambiguity of the Schwabian linguistic universe is exactly the suffering and the life display, not as counterparts, but as a double play. In this universe we find the recognition of the inevitable suffering. His unfolding of life is (through) the language; the morbid humour, the grotesque imagery. His suffering is life - to my mind an Artaud-like concept.

A crucial question remains: how can we learn to endure the suffering?
Nietzsche suggests the Greek gaiety or humour that involves the tragic notion: a life on the surface with the deepest insight in the cruelty of existence. This is the kind of humour that we find in Werner Schwab's writing. It may even be what makes him one of the most interesting of European playwrights of the 1990s, with great relevance into the 21st century. Besides, Werner Schwab staged his own life, he created the myth about himself. This idea certainly echoes the cultural passwords of the 1990s, "staging of the self as life". His early death only reinforces the faction.

My third and last point is conclusive and two-folded:
We tend to have a more subtextual and psychological (in other words a bourgeois) approach to current issues than this pulp comedy suggests. Thus, the jolly suffering cannot possibly be received as productive in a Norwegian context but merely as a surrealistic critique of the bourgeois society.

© Siren Leirvåg (Oslo)

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(1) First night: October 5, 1996 at Torshovteatret (Nationaltheatret) in Oslo, directed by Otto Homlung.

(2) First night: Mars 10, 2000 at Den Nationale Scene in Bergen, directed by Catrine Telle.

(3) Their series on the Peer Gynt-material is well known, particularly in German-speaking parts of Europe, for example the performance "Per, du lügst. Ja!." (IV version), Hebbel Theater, Berlin, 1.-2.October 1993 and "Super Per" (Highlights from Per, du lügst. Ja!"), Trippel X, Amsterdam, 28.-30. July 1994. For an extended list of their work:

(4) Theater Heute 1/92, p.35-42.

(5) Theater Heute 1/92, p.35.

(6) The dramaturg, Carl Morten Amundsen, in the program of "Folkeutrydning - eller leveren min er meningsløs", Torshovteatret, October 1996, p.6.

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