WAT > eWAT > eWAT I. (December 2012) > Massacres and Masturbations
Vladimír Mikulka

Massacres and Masturbations


photo by KIVA
Ten years ago Patrik Ouředník won the hearts of the Czech readers with a thin book, which at first sight resembles swotty school notes by a secondary school pupil, who despite being very meticulous, is completely unable of distinguishing what he heard at school from the things he saw in some trashy TV quiz. Europeana consists of a free stream of historical data, mixed with miscellaneous information from popular science on technology, sociology and politics; magazine gossip is complemented by shocking and peculiar details, on top of that, the mixture is spiced up by banalities, clichés and primitively paraphrased ideological slogans. Ouředník uses stiff schoolboy style, repeating constantly sentences such as “Some people said this and others said something else.” Descriptions of war horrors appear as a refrain and the absurdity of this surreal mixture is supported by a pseudoscientific glossary, which is printed in a column on the margins of the page (“The future is full of excitement”). Heaps of corpses are mentioned with the detachment of a statistician and the invention of the pushup bra receives similar attention as the Oedipus complex or the atomic bomb.

The book begins with the information on the length of a line which could be formed from the corpses of American soldiers who died during the D-Day operation in Normandy (38 kilometres). It concludes with an even more telling reminder of the optimistic theory about the “end of history”, which is closely linked with the definite victory of liberal democracy, “which was invented in 1989 by some American political scientist.” Moreover, Ouředník includes a vicious, yet in its brevity very telling epilogue: “Yet many people didn’t know the theory and kept on making history irrespectively.” In the meantime, the history of the 20th century is narrated at random as a chaotic bloody mess; purposefully there is no gradation nor structure (except a very vague chronology describing the events from the oldest to the newest with many digressions and jumps).

Although Europeana is soaked in irony, Ouředník does not openly give hints to his readers (the above mentioned comment on making history is one of the few exceptions). He rather adopts the attitude of a naively trustful stupidity with almost Schweikian rigorousness. He describes all events very seriously and with conviction– but from such perspective and in such context that the ridiculousness, senselessness or even murderous stupidity of the events is fully shown. Ouředník is unusually skilful and manages to be subversive in a very catchy way. As a result, almost all readers agree with Europeana. It is a strange paradox: he laughs at everything and everybody and still wins praise from everyone. It seems that Europeana matches the current mood with almost dangerous precision.

The readers of Europeana might be confirmed in their comfortable “pub” feeling that nothing has (and never had) any worth, as they have always suspected and that now they together with the author of Europeana have finally seen it in full light. However, nothing is so simple, Ouředník definitely does not relish in such banal plebeian attitude: his stance is despite all irony quite clear and consistent. On the whole, it seems more conservative than plebeian. His disgust with wordy ideologies, concepts, social engineering and revolutions is most strongly revealed when he writes about Nazism and Communism (which is very often). Enthusiastic revolutionaries of Paris Spring, various sectarians or Esperantists trying to save the world also get their scolding. Basic human values – but surprisingly also faith and even the church, both being common targets in such cases – Ouředník leaves aside. Europeana is a sarcastic and cruel book, but it is not without distinctions, nor is cynicism an end in itself.

Jan Mikulášek and his production team (especially the dramaturge Dora Viceníková, the co-author of the production) not only had to face the ‘evident’ question how to transfer Ouředník’s nontheatrical text to the stage, but they also had to decide how to deal with the purposeful shapelessness and aimlessness of Europeana.

The answer to the first question is a marthalerian fluid stream of images that partly illustrate, partly comment on and are partly independent of the text. Much more complicated is the answer to the overall meaning and aim of the production. Mikulášek’s Europeana is set in the 1970s or 1980s formica polyester hideousness, but simultaneously evokes a contemporary “European” conference. The episodes from European history are presented within a certain timeframe, yet the production has an air of fuzzy and foggy timelessness.
Mikulášek and Viceníková chose from Ouředník’s messy and chaotic “notes” above all the passages dealing with war horrors. Contrary to the novel, the stage production of Europeana has also a gradation and thus becomes darker and more serious. It is emphasized in the final long scene (one of those that are not based on the original) where the actress Zuzana Ščerbová recites year by year the dates. The actor Jiří Kniha keeps on falling from a chair with each year recited by Šcerbová – it is getting more and more difficult for him to get up again. Another distinguishing aspect of the theatre adaptation of Europeana is the general atmosphere of intensive awkwardness, in contrast to the amazement at human incorrigibility in the book.

On the bare, almost empty stage lighted from above by strip lights, stands a long conference table with few microphones, headphones, papers and bottles of mineral water. At the back is a glass box (smoking room) and large sign EUROPEANA, the letter N is upside down. The introductory scene (and a couple of the following ones) really resemble a conference: seven actors enter the stage and sit at the table, Jiří Kniha acts out a grotesque etude with a non-existent microphone stand, into which he, after a lengthy manipulation, announces the name of the author, title and subtitle of the production: A Brief History of the 20th Century. After that, Kniha joins the others at the table, all actors put on their headphones and stare at the audience in silence for a long time. Later they begin to hum a melody, which slowly merges with various “war” sounds in beatbox style and also with the song Where have all the flowers gone? (one of the leitmotifs of the production). The actors are dressed adequately to the scene: men wear cheap shapeless suits, hideous ties and greasy sleek hair, the ladies with strange hairdos and unfitting dresses, hiding grandma underwear. From the very beginning the production fully stresses awkwardness as an aesthetic category.

As opposed to the book, which begins in medias res with the banal measuring of the line of dead soldiers’ corpses, the theatre version opens not only with a couple of warm-up scenes, but also with something like a motto: “The 20th century has been described as the most murderous, and those who were looking forward to the 21st century used to say that nothing can be worse, but other people said that it can always be worse or even as bad as before.” It is the first real replica of the production, announced with meticulous diction and the smooth-tongued tone of a TV News presenter, by Ondřej Mikulášek sitting at the table. Immediately he adds more citations from Ouředník’s book; the other actors listen to him and sometimes they illustrate with exaggeration of his words with movement or mere sounds. Ondřej Mikulášek – the oldest person on stage and simultaneously the father of the director – remains for many minutes the only speaking actor; for a while it seems that he is going to play a sort of solo-witness.

The production finally gets going thanks to the few more or less independent comedy scenes. While Jiří Vyorálek plays and sings Dylan’s protest song Masters of War with growing passion, Jan Hájek translates the lyrics into sign language in a very funny way. The most entertaining scene of the whole evening is loosely related to the theme of war horrors, but could easily stand independently as a cabaret number. It becomes clear that Hájek, Vyorálek and Kniha will be the leaders of the production, mainly because of their ability to underact (in contrast to their other colleagues, especially the ladies). In other words, they are able to create grotesque, affectedly awkward situations with poker faces, treating everything as the most usual business.

Another noticeable feature is an example of a marthalerian lengthy scene playing out of a single motif: as the celebrations of the new millennium are approaching, the actors are trying in vain to open bottles of champagne in a way that more and more resembles masturbation. When Jiří Hájek mentions his worries about the Y2K effect, the lights in the theatre suddenly go off for several moments. Despite resembling an independent comedy number; this passage fits in the production not only with its absurdly awkward mood, but also with the above mentioned reference to masturbation. In the theatre version of Europeana sex is as important as the totalitarian and war horrors. Sex is presented solely in its most pitiable form; sweaty autoeroticism is from this angle unusually “photogenic”.

Sex and autoeroticism is presented more times in various (always repulsive) ways as a sign of impotence and substitution. Most effective is another awkwardly funny scene based on the Ouřeník’s sentence “they practiced different modes of sex”: Jiří Kniha describes partly with gusto and partly with clerical matter-of-factness the achievements of the sexual revolution, while forcing a couple of staid looking helpers to demonstrate various sexual positions. Dita Kaplanová and Jan Hájek look very unhappy and disgusted, unwillingly they follow the instructions and try to use every opportunity to stagger from the stage. The climax of the erotic awkwardness is the scene in which Jiří Hájek uses a motionless hand of a sleeping woman for masturbation. He masturbates with his back to the audience with an utterly grey unimpressiveness, while leaving, he returns for a while to touch the breast of the sleeping woman with a pitiable lowness.

All the “erotic” scenes described above are performed in a very entertaining way. In some passages of the production these scenes are far more impressive than those developing the main “historical” themes. Nevertheless, the deeper meaning of the erotic theme line is more difficult to decipher. It seems as if the main aim of the erotic scenes was to make the production as awkward as possible. It remains questionable whether not it is too little for a production, whose ambition, similarly to the book, is to capture the “non-sense” of the 20th century. Paradoxically, the awkward erotic scenes are most theatrically creative and have even a trashy “edge” that is missing in the more serious scenes.
The “main” or “historical” theme line suffers from an opposite problem. The purpose is clear, but the production does not succeed fully in expressing it in a theatrically effective way. When successful, there are passages where the production is frostily cheerful. When not, the stage is slowly filling with dragging boredom.

In one of the most effective scenes, Dita Kaplanová at first describes in an inappropriately seductive voice the effect of gas on the soldiers, later she enumerates with clerical matter-of-factness the names of innumerable international conferences that made the use of gas illegal. With each date, her colleagues numbly and mechanically raise their hands in the act of voting; Václav Vašák has a gas mask on for the entire scene, while the spiritual “We shall overcome” underlines the scene silently. In this case, the production perfectly goes in hand with Ouředník, who returns to the motif of combat gas many times. In the following scene the production even manages to create an effective shortcut connecting several motifs that are not related in the book. Dozens of dolls falling from the gridiron seem at first a funny illustration of a Barbie story, gradually though, the heap of doll begins to resemble terrifying heaps of corpses, well-known from the documentaries of concentration camps. In the meantime, a seductive lecture on eugenics and sterilization of unadaptable persons is recited, while Marie Jansová is slowly stripping and later she disappears backstage.

Other scenes are less successful: for instance, when Zuzana Ščerbová ecstatically utters Ouředník’s sentences about how many dictators and mass murderers were educated and culture-loving, the accompanying scenic action seems empty and banal (the rest of the ensemble are crawling on stage and simulating masturbation with books). Similarly unbalanced are also the more abstract scenes, which are not based on Ouředník’s book. While the existential scenes with repeating falls of the actors to the ground have undoubtedly an air of barely describable fatality, the long spasmodic dance to Wagnerian music, which closes the first half of the production, is not so effective, despite the neat idea of descending ceiling and the final point with an “inappropriate” dance of two bald dancers: the returnee from a concentration camp and a woman, whose hair was shaved because she had been sleeping with the Germans during the occupation. Even in the main theme line there are several light, yet meaningful, scenes. For example, a weeping tirade mixing a cry to the melody of “Ode to Joy” with weepy singing of “Tell Me Why You Cry” by the Beatles, and finally the crying (but perhaps partly laughing) of the speaker at the microphone.

While Ouředník chaotically places things next to each other and forces the readers to combine the facts themselves and to look for a certain point of reference, the theatre audience is quite easily directed to the expected conclusion, i.e. that in 20th century Europe many terrible horrors were happening and that it was not a nice sight at all. Together with the attempt of the production to alternate serious and lighter passages, it weakens the effect of the written Europeana: absurd monotonousness and naively childish heterogeneity of the stream of fragmented information served without any obvious intention and without any direct authorial commentary.

As with Mikulášek’s other productions, it is typical for Europeana to gain the attention of the audience more by the marthalerian absurd and awkward atmosphere and individual scenes than by the overall message. If Mikulášek intends to continue making theatre that addresses wider social problems, he needs to progress from well-done details to more complex shape.

Patrik Ouředník: Europeana, dramatization Dora Viceníková and Jan Mikulášek, direction and music Jan Mikulášek, stage design and costumes Marek Cpin, dramaturgy Dora Viceníková, National Theatre in Brno – Reduta, Czech premiere 9 June 2011.

english version of the article from Svět a divadlo magazine, issue 5, volume 2011
translated by Hana Pavelková