Obsessed by God (A Feuilleton about The Absolute)
I would like to start by saying that sometimes very strange things happen to people. For example, on December 6th last year, just before waking up I had a dream about God. It had never happened to me before. At first, in the darkened room where I was in the dream, with some anonymous people, suddenly a fluorescent, sky-blue light appeared. It had the shape of a six-sided prism resembling an oriental lamp. There were four angular columns of light shining sideways from it towards the floor. After that, the shining object shrunk into a levitating cube glowing with blue light, which I knew was the flesh of God. On its side it had a human ear. God wanted to be eaten. I cut a slice carefully. Finally, we went out with the others into the street and other people joined us. And then I woke up.
One day later, on 7 December in the evening, I saw the second premiere of The Absolute in Dejvické Theatre. Right in the opening scene, Simona Babčáková entered the downstage to tell the audience after a brief hesitation that she was “the second coming of Christ’s consciousness”. She was speaking in the shy manner of Jehovah’s Witness selling The Watchtower. A silent companion, Anna Schmidtmajerová, who later announced that she was a 100% incarnation of archangel Sandalphon, accompanied her. I had an intense feeling that I am watching a loose sequel to my dream about the manifestation of God.
After the theatre production I read Čapek’s novel The Absolute at Large (1922), for the first time. It is a peculiar text: old-fashioned as the provincial Czech lands were at that time, but also, extremely topical in its grotesque scenario. In Čapek’s novel, the entire world sinks into religious madness, which leads to a horrendous global holy war. Čapek, it seems to me, was commenting with very dark humour on the threats of his time, but also on those of the present day.
This connection might not have come to my mind, if very soon afterwards I hadn’t overheard an interview of two men in a café. A journalist was interviewing them about an organization called the National Home Guard. The organization’s motto was “Defend our homeland” and their main enemies were the “millions of migrants”. Originally, it was allegedly a service organizational, but today they have troops similar to the German SA (brownshirts), one of the men proclaimed shamelessly. I thought that such protectors from migrants, i.e. terrorists, were very close to the terrorists because they both had been searching for and found their “holy mission”.
I do not know how hard they were searching, perhaps it was just a calling from above… just as Čapek had the idea to write a feuilleton about an inventor called Marek, who created an atomic “carburettor” (such is the clumsy name Čapek gave the invention), which burns so effectively that not only does it produce an enormous amount of energy, but it does so completely, leaving absolutely no remains. Or, in other words, the only thing that remains is the power that created the matter, i.e. the Absolute, i.e. God (and Marek refers to Spinoza, Fechner and Leibniz, who correctly predicted this outcome). As a result, any and every body in the vicinity of the Absolute, goes into a religious trance. The consequences, as mentioned earlier, are catastrophic because people get to know only a part of God; but they are convinced that they know it all and that only their God is the right one.
In his foreword to the second edition (1926), Čapek admitted that his original feuilleton had expanded to dozens of sequels, which were published in Lidové noviny; but in the meantime he had forgotten the sequence of events, and he finished the novel under pressure from his publisher. He added that the process of the work’s creation was the actual plot of the novel; which therefore lacks a consistent storyline. This is true. At times, the author follows the stories of at least two protagonists; Marek and his former classmate, a factory owner called Bondy, who distributes “carburettors” around the world. However, Čapek leaves these two characters at times, and sometimes seems to forget even what he wrote. He writes that, “Our Czech homeland was gradually controlled by the Swedes, French, Turks, Russians and Chinese, while each invasion completely wiped out the native population.” In the last chapter, however, there is a scene where several Prague citizens gather in a pub, chat together and eat sausages; all well and not murdered.
It is thus not surprising that Egon Tobiáš worked very freely with Čapek’s novel and that the production in Dejvické theatre is a very loose adaptation, with fragments and replicas of the characters. It seems that Tobiáš and his collaborators were inspired by Čapek’s contagious idea, i.e. divine inspiration, and added it to their own ideas. Those who expect the adaptation to offer a normal, clear, and enclosed story will be disappointed. It is an open, even chaotic, work. I see this positively as it provoked my interaction during the performance, and it also stayed on my mind long after the end of the production. If the audience don’t accept the openness of The Absolute, they will be confused in the same way as the readers of Čapek’s novel The Absolute at Large were; (as expectations of a coherent narrative are disappointed).
While Čapek shows the effect of the Absolute on a global, history-making, scale, Egon Tobiáš and also Dejvické theatre narrow down the perspective. Logically, in the theatre the focus is on the person, the specific character. Alongside Marek and Bondy, there are several other of Čapek’s episodic characters. These include: Ellen, Bondy’s lover who is transformed by the Absolute into a new Joan of Arc; an excavator operator called Kuzenda, who gives the crowds the miraculous coffee of truth; Bishop Lind, who during the production becomes first a parish priest and then the Pope. Inspired by the merry-go-round owner Binder, Tobiáš also brings to the stage two extra characters, the firs is a prostitute, Lenny Binder, whose client is Marek, and who later is a priestess of divine love. The second extra characters; is a Messenger (also known as, “the second coming of Christ’s consciousness”), who tries to deliver a telegram to Bondy; and to Santo Santini, Bondy’s lawyer. It is these two characters extra characters created by Tobiáš that gain prominence in the production.
Although Lenny looks the entire time like the most typical minor character, permanently “bringing a letter”, she turns out to be a double messenger: as God’s messenger she delivers both good and bad news. She reminds Marek, who is constantly blaming Bondy for spreading the destructive invention; that it was he who personally gave the consent to creating the machine for the Absolute.
Santini, whose name is confusing as he is an angel of destruction, is very pleased that he has managed to create such a good apocalypse. The Messenger surprises him by thanking him for his cooperation: because the people will finally lose their illusions and wake up. Personally, I see this as a trick that the Messenger is using to disconcert Santini and the audience. People will not lose their illusions forever, even a temporarily loss is doubtful. The present of ‘doubt’ – is a demonstration of a critical stance – and is therefore the cure against being infected by various, seemingly loving, yet murderous convictions.
A propos. Such infections are enabled today by marketing. One sales assistant offered me as a Christmas special, “a training for shooting people”, and additionally, another bargain offered improvement in the form of “the ingredients for a loving relationship”. As a participant of both trainings, I would attain the state typical of a human infected by the Absolute.
Not to be mistaken, the theatre production The Absolute is not a symbolic drama, but as the subtitle says, “a cabaret about the end of the world”. Even Egon Tobiáš called his script a cabaret, and the production has embraced this concept fully: Santini, who is the host of the evening and the master of ceremonies, gives various speeches interspersed with songs and sketches. Cabaret as a theatre form corresponds well with the original series of feuilletons. In prose and on stage there is a collage of ideas, colourful details, jokes and sarcasms, the aim of which is ‘questioning’ and ‘relativity’. Relativity is crucial also for the narrative on stage. As most of the actors represent many characters, both with, or without names (called “Human as such”), it is not always momentarily clear who they are. Eva Jiřikovská’s scenography also muddies the waters. Everything takes place in the unchanging setting of “a saloon’; entirely covered in shiny aluminium foil, including a fireplace, which resembles Andy Warhol’s Factory. In the dead fireplace, there are three big letters - TNO - stuck to the side: the end of the word Absolute.
The story arc of the production is not fully consistent either. The audience might not grasp at all that the characters in ‘child’ masks made out of brown paper sacks are actually cannibals, and that when they together with their leader Ellen, now Joan of Arc, go after Bondy and he then vanishes in the dark, meaning that he was actually eaten by them. The audience might even doubt whether Bondy is really dead. He is, as the Messenger says, like Schrödinger’s cat in the box. Unless we see him dead, he might be alive. From this aspect, the theatre production is close to Čapek’s prose as the reader is also unsure about Bondy’s fate: there is some hope that Bondy might have saved himself from the cannibals on the island.
The ambiguity and illogicality of the situations are characteristic in the Absolute – both the production and the eponymous work. The theatrical adaptation of Tobiáš’s dramatization uses the same concept. While in Dobiáš’s version the character of the Unemployed, suffering from religious outbursts, presses Marek to accept the only thing he still has – his shoes: but in Dejvické theatre, Bondy receives the shoes, which are burning on the inside, from a woman without any explanation. In a different situation, the application of this illogicality might be bothersome, but not in this production; even though the burning shoes are confusing and banal in comparison with the other attractions of this show. There are better ‘illogical’ attractions: the three letters of the title inflated by helium, and the drone, which feels threatening despite omitting the information about thousands of drones spreading the Absolute. Illogicality serves the cabaret well as its main focus is the brief anecdote and absurdity.
Together with logic, clear causality is also lost. It is replaced by a stream of freely analogous scenes: there are several reports by Santini, in which he tells Bondy the news about the successful sale figures for the “generator” (the new name for Čapek’s “carburettor’); several love scenes between Bondy and Ellen, and many scenes with the Messenger, who is looking for Bondy. Some scenes are stand-alone, independent cabaret numbers. For example, there is one scene where the Pope, a couple of nuns, and a priest wonder why God has abandoned them. They come to the conclusion that they are perhaps not sexy enough for him, and therefore they slip shyly into negligees, turn the music on, and dance hesitantly to the rhythm of the famous song by Toto Cutugna L’Italiano (the song is about God who knows that “I am here”). Similarly stand-alone is the scene with the shop assistant in a supermarket, who is possessed of a heart-breaking kindness: she cries so that the others do not have to cry anymore.
This number is typical for the production as it is presented with a playful, purely theatrical, non-illusionistic simplicity. The actress in the role of the shop assistant sits on a chair, facing the audience, and next to her, the same customers join the queue again and again, holding credit cards in their teeth, and in the shopping trolleys there are empty plastic sacks. The shop assistant takes them and with her mouth makes sounds, imitating the binging of a cash register as goods are scanned.
A simple suggestion like this is often enough at other times through the production, which is suited to the acting style of Dejvické theatre. Dejvické is famous for sticking to the rule, that less is more. The self-confidence of the actors does not need a shiny pedestal, their humour is dry and the basic expression is the ironic poker face… Those so-called ‘romantic’ souls might find the production too cold and the irony cynical, but as a true romantic myself, I see cynical camouflage better in the kitschy appeal to emotions. I remain fascinated by the contagiousness of Dejvice genius loci.
With the general use of minimalism, only a little is needed to develop a character: Václav Neužil’s Bondy is an antisocial bon vivant, he is amused and indifferent even to the effects of the Absolute. Jaroslav Plesl’s Marek is fragile, a little frightened and very sulky – and he is also immune to the Absolute because he is wearing a helmet made out of strainer. While Lukáš Příkazský as Santini incarnates movement itself. His furtive movement is as sleazy as the silver latex overall he is wearing on his naked body. The Messenger in a dark costume, on the other hand, stays calm despite being almost always on her way, on the ground, on the way to the island, and also on water. In contrast to the characters played by Anna Schmidtmajerová, whose leitmotif is gentle sentimentality, Lenka Krobotová’s characters (Lenny etc.) are exalted and provocative. Yet, her portrayal of the saviour in the name of Love is a bit less brutal than her Truth–preferring opponent Kuzenda (Tomáš Jeřábek), who is not an excavator operator here, but a crane operator. These two, who address themselves as “Mr. Simpleton from the crane” and as “chatty whore”), represent the shepherds leading their flock into a battle against each other.
The flock is an army, the army is a crowd, the crowd is a mob, and the mob is a queue. It is the same queue that had appeared earlier in the scene with the shop assistant. It comes back as a queue so long that the people must be waiting for something for free (the coffee of truth). Finally, it returns as the image of a line of people, who have survived the war, and now are dressed in golden foil to protect them from cold and shock as they wait for a medical check-up. The choreography is often facing the front, and always in an ensemble (another synonym for a crowd). The performers make similar movements either simultaneously or one after the other.
Their uniformity is reflected also in their costumes – colourless trench coats. They cover colourful individual clothes: Lenny’s prostitute’s outfit, Kuzenda’s work trousers… The acting is also collective, always in an ensemble. All the soloists step out of the choir gradually in an egalitarian manner. The crowd is a theatrical principle and simultaneously an ambiguous metaphor: the crowd of consumers is the crowd of voters, or believers, who become the armies of enemies, which eventually dissolve into individuals fighting one-to-one against each other.
Čapek’s main topic of ‘global war’ is updated in Tobiáš’s dramatization and summarized in the text of the “war song” listing the names of the fighting sects. (“Jehovah’s Witnesses, Moonies, Scientologists, Satanists…”) and also states (“England attacked Iceland. Russia attacked Poland. Macedonia attacked Japan…”) and finally “Lída attacked Markéta”. It is the only song, whose text was written by Tobiáš, the other songs were written later. Altogether there are six original songs and two covers (typical Christian folk song We are all one body and the above mentioned disco hit by Cutunga, which is heard again at the end in a sad, slowed down tempo).
Tereza Marečková, the dramaturge for the production, said in a radio interview that in this production, which is almost a musical, they wanted to emphasize the theme of God’s coming to the world, and therefore they added “references to various spiritual texts and poems. The production, luckily, did not become too serious, nor too sentimental as a musical might. This is also thanks to the composer Ivan Acher, who always creates original music, be it big band swing, robotic electro dance music, or a choral. Acher’s music is simultaneously serious and grotesque. The songs are sung in foreign languages, including Acher’s favourite Esperanto into which the “war song” is translated. The audience automatically have a detached relationship to the songs as the lyrics are projected in translation as not completely synchronous subtitles. The songs serve the purpose they should in a cabaret. They are independent numbers: they do not tell a story, do not illustrate, but they are connected to the ‘dramatic’ part of the production mainly by their mystical-ironic tone.
While Čapek’s prose is partly a feuilleton and partly a discursive composition, the stage production is a “cabaret essay”. This term was aptly used by Dejvické Theatre in the press release before the beginning of the rehearsals. It is remarkable that they were not afraid of being essayistic and that they managed to be up-to-date. These words resemble the ‘Green Party’s’ political programme: “We must immediately start protecting natural resources. We must unconditionally stop thinking only about ourselves. No more fossil fuels; only clean energy. Let’s be responsible.” One would sign this petition immediately, but actually it is Bondi’s advertisement for the generator. It is always good to remain sceptical. “The entire universe is governed by the same physical principles, without exception!” Marek says above Bondy’s grave. “The behaviour of the elements is not different from the behaviour of the planet – they are bound by the same connections and powers, they change into waves and are connected together by mutual interactions. Nothing is separated, no parts exist separately...” This long, very academic-sounding reflection can be understood differently in the context of the production, but I would say, being doubtful, that its significance is mainly “musical”: in the dynamics of the production a quieter moment is very suitable. Unfortunately, the production temporarily lost its energy, and it was the only part that I would do without. Actually, I did not even mind the burning shoes. In each cabaret there are new attractions alongside the old ones. The theatrical form is a metaphor for the present world that has lost unity and is shattered into a chaotic mess where various sensational attractions shine like aluminum foil.
This is the essence of the essay on the Absolute. It is derived from Čapek’s reflection on the madly boundless, chaos-creating activity of the Creator. It also stressed the fact that “The Endless Energy that used to employ itself in the creation of the world, moved on to fabrication – given the changed circumstances.” In the stage version, this idea is shifted – via Santini – to a vision of the apocalypse of the consumer society, which is crumbling while the factories, run by the released energy, produce even without anyone alive: “The world is drowning in a flood of trinkets although there is nothing to eat. Everything is for free, but there is nothing to buy. The rules of the market are stronger than God’s rules. Our daily bread is worth gold. The Absolute found the numeric expression of its endlessness: abundance. The orgies of abundance started and caused insane global chaos. And then there was unlimited abundance of everything the people need. Everything is needed for the people, but in unlimited abundance.” Indeed. Marek’s generator is not even needed for the abundance to threaten mankind. It is perhaps because of the trinkets, (alias attractions) that people do not know what to wish for. There is only the desire itself, a desire for desire, i.e. the Absolute.
Karel Čapek, Egon Tobiáš and company: The Absolute (A Cabaret about the End of the World), directed by Anna Davidová, set design and costumes Eva Jířikovská, music Ivan Acher, dramaturgy Tereza Marečková, Dejvické divadlo, premiere December 6 and 8, 2018 (review written after the second premiere on January 14, 2019).
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 2, volume 2019
translated by Hana Pavelková