Over and over at the end of act one of Ritter, Dene, Voss, we hear Ludwig (Jordan Pettle), a brother who has returned home, repeat futilely, “Lend meaning to life, lend meaning to life.” It’s an ironic statement because everything in the play, written by the esteemed Austrian dramatist and novelist Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), is overtly meaningful and symbolic—and the character is nothing if not overanalyzed—he’s been long in a sanitarium. His life, nevertheless, is meaningless, and it is this contradiction which makes the play absurd, existentialist—Ludwig is an educated philosopher from a wealthy family who will never be able to use his personal insight to actually change.  Chronically ill (like the playwright himself, who had a lung ailment since his teens), he travels in an endless loop of unfulfillment.

His sisters, actresses for a family-owned theatre, are challenged less physically, but their own self-knowledge has hardly provided a cure in their own lives. So rigidly defined by their family and doctors, and themselves, they’re at a point of near immobility, still repressed, caught between the same forces that gave us both Freud and Hitler—we’re in Austria, remember. Ludwig provides the most memorable example concerning this conflict, however, in a scene where he stuffs crème puffs into his mouth, continuously forced to indulge because he had once said he enjoyed them.  It seems like a profoundly un-American notion to believe that one can’t reinvent oneself, that one can’t change, but Bernhard, the writer who doesn’t like much of anything, let alone anyone, can swing back: “Everything is ridiculous, when one thinks of Death.”

Ritter, Dene, Voss is more problematic to produce besides having a difficult outlook, though—its title, for example, has nothing to do with the play (instead, it employs the last names of the original actors who created the roles of the three characters–but its basis did not come out of their real lives).  Further, as written by this production’s director, Adam Seelig, in the program notes, Bernhard wrote here the way he did in all of his plays, “without a single mark of punctuation—only line breaks indicate cadence.”   Not allowed to be played in Austria, due to a provision by the author in his will (actually there have been exceptions), and populated by mature characters who are acquiescent to age (and flesh and perspiration if you view members of the original German-speaking cast on YouTube), there was absolutely no reason not to assume that the play would be cast into obscurity here.

Yet, we do now have the opportunity to see an example of Bernhard’s theatre and a kind of Germanic Absurdism—we’re probably much more used to French and British.  The jury may still be out on the American version, which can seem artificial, just look at the difficulties reviewers had with Edward Albee’s new Me, Myself & I.  We don’t carry the same baggage that gave rise to Ionesco and Beckett (winners in WWII, we did not fight or experience the war on our continental soil, we remain optimists).  Not so Bernhardhe’s got the lower registers covered; the history of his nation excruciatingly gives it to him. The density and construction of his play are very strong, too, despite the fact that Bernhard felt German “wooden and clumsy, disgusting . . . a terrible language that kills everything light and wonderful. The only thing one can do is sublimate the language with a rhythm to give it musicality.”  His characters are unmocking—the opposite of which is a pitfall any Absurdist from anywhere can fall into.  But he does agree with an essential point of the Absurdists, which is that the style best describes the human condition, “People are everything. Each individual is more or less everything. Sometimes he laughs and sometimes he doesn't.”

You’ll like the little-engine-that-could story behind this production. One Little Goat Theatre Company, from Canada, excavates this play from the archives and strips away much of the Germanic context, so it can be more objectively appreciated in its New York premiere.  The thin, hard-working actresses playing the sisters (Shannon Perreault and Maev Beaty) may belie the point Bernhard is trying to make about physicality, but they are just on the onset of showing “age,” the first wrinkles on their faces hint at mortality.  Pettle also seems youngish to be playing his role, but here’s the larger point: The group had the guts to do the play, remind us of Bernhard, demonstrate a different kind of Absurdism, and give our sometimes prefabricated theatre . . . meaning.

© 2010 by Bob Shuman

Ritter, Dene, Voss
By One Little Goat Theatre Company
September 23 – October 10, 2010
First Floor Theatre
purchase tickets online

Ritter, Dene, Voss is a razor-sharp ‘misanthropic comedy’ by Thomas Bernhard, “Austria’s most provocative post-war writer” (New Yorker), about two sisters and their volatile brother, who is loosely based on the 20th century’s philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Performed by Toronto’s One Little Goat, and directed by Adam Seelig, the production has enjoyed widespread acclaim for their Canadian and Chicago premieres.

(Sponsored by the Austrian Cultural Forum NY, Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, Weiss-Rohlig Canada.)

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Photo:  Dave Beckerman       

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