Olga Neuwirth
Olga Neuwirth | © Harald Hoffmann

May the musical drama I am currently working on become something similar to Joseph Conrad’s writing, which was at risk just as his travels by sea. I hope that it will trigger some kind of »fernweh« or longing for faraway places among listeners and thus an intensified need to observe and consider the environment and fellow humans more carefully.

In all my permanent attempts to counter the absurdities of everyday life using abrupt cuts, overlays, quick successive contrasts, gestures leading to nowhere, and montages employing heterogeneous materials, I used a surrealist play concerned with the timeless theme of social constriction and repression as well as the peace anticipated through love, which dates back to 1940, for this musical drama project. The problematic is amplified by the actual historical backdrop against which this drama came to be. In the days when Leonora Carrington wrote The Feast of the Lambs, a wild epic relating the story of a perverse family structure, in which love comes with imperiousness, not only her friend Max Ernst was deported to a French concentration camp, but France experienced the worst disaster in it’s history. German troupes were quickly advancing toward the South, where Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst lived.

I chose this specific surrealist play because of a thirsting, which came through a passage in Maurice Nadeau’s book History of Surrealism, relating to André Breton’s surrealistic manifest Qu’est-ce que le surréalisme? dating back to 1934: »The surrealist turn of mind, i.e. surrealist behaviour can be found at all times provided it is regarded as the willingness to bring about an even clearer and at the same time ever more passionate consciousness of the world perceived by the senses« (André Breton) which all philosophies, that are not content with letting the world be as it is; strive for and for which the heart of mankind thirsts, without ever finding satisfaction. This is also the point at which surrealism excites me. One can, I believe, return much deeper into reality by means of exaggeration, artificiality and ironic alienation and distance.

Some general remarks on the content: It is a sadistic family story in scurrile-surreal snap shots. The home of an odd family stands in a completely remote, heathlike landscape. Here we already have the alienation, which plays a key role in the play, that is to say the inner and outer coldness – in this “House of Usher”, with me the “House of Carnis”, sadistic ice-age cravings of a psychic nature occur. This some-what dilapidated bourgeois house in its seclusion is refuge and madhouse at the same time; here the other is close yet ghastly strange – it is as funny as it is tragic, as tender as it is queer and shrill. Here, in the bizarre impressions of family life, the focus turns on people and nature: an outer world, drowning in violence, coldness and terror, and the small, inner world of a bourgeois family, regulated right to the last corner, but abruptly toppled into chaos, when couples and generations come to be at logger-heads about their unappeased longings and desires.

Philip, the vile-smelling, aging, despotic bourgeois husband devoted to ginger wine, reminiscent of Carrington’s own authoritarian father and Jeremy – half human, half wolf – the snow-white light figure, the anticipated other to whom young Theodora helplessly succumbs, are the two competing male protagonists. Theodora tries to escape this miserable life, marked by Philip’s sadistic coldness, and old Mrs. Carnis’ exaggerated love for her two sons, Philip and Jeremy. She seeks the other, free, open, peaceful, new in the shape of Jeremy, the wolfman, a kind of »arctic vampire«. The nursery as the room of refuge and of hope, as well as the place to work through her own story, becomes the room where she prefers to spend her time. Jeremy, a counter tenor, appears to her for the first time in this room. He loves her affectionately, yet disappears again and again. Philip and his first wife, Elizabeth, observe the otherness of the two with hate. They are confused by the possible change. Philip combines in himself the awkward bumpkin and perverted hypocrite who destroys everything around him. Elizabeth is a sophisticated, vindictive woman. Their senseless, irate, machine-like strike against hope, Jeremy and Theodora, knows no beginning and no end: What remains is a deserted landscape. Blood, war and destruction are evoked. The (petit) bourgeois gone wild as protagonist of evil, the hotbed of intolerance. In the end Jeremy is murdered. The other, non-normative, unorthodox, free is not permitted to be. Jeremy appears to Theodora one last time as a ghost – now all his songs are only recordings on tape, modified with a sound-morphing programme – and promises her to return. But only if she fulfills the following condition: Beautiful she must remain, beautiful, happy and young. Theodora’s attempts to break out fail because of the mad, intolerant beauty cult. Here the drama of Leonora Carrington ends in absolute tristesse. In the final scene, however, another picture follows.

Theodora is very young, and what we wished to point out here, at the end, is analogous to what Muriel Gardiner, an American psychoanalytic, wrote in her article »The wolfman grows older« on Sigmund Freud’s first case study »The wolfman«. This man was treated by Freud in his early years, but had to live with his disease for the rest of his long life after Freud’s death and struggle all the while to lead his own, free life and find peace of mind. This moment – that one can have an incisive experience at a young age and with which one must continue to live – plays a decisive role in the end of this musical drama.

But Theodora does not become insane in the end. Insanity is this non-place, which, usually, is the only place conceded to women, as a place of pseudo-hopes. Theodora may have been forsaken, but perhaps she can draw conclusions from her experience, her pain, her love’s joy lost and begin a new consciously and with real hope and strength. Thus we have found a pessimistic-optimistic end, an open end with a glimmer of hope.

Theodora’s solitude and otherness, her wanting to break out from musty rigidity and her failure to do so are all a form of survival, of courage and a protest against quotidian insanity and thus a means to cope with the prevailing lack of emotions and inability to communicate in modern life.

he struggles against crampedness, and this way defies the complacency of our society dominated by and geared toward media and rules. Another aspect of this play is its very nasty black humour. I was looking for material, with which one oscillates continually between laughter and crying. I find that one can merely laugh about the fact that one is a human being, but, on the other hand, life is also very sad and desolate.

I just love both – slapstick and it’s opposite. In the story of Carrington there are both. It is funny on the one hand – André Breton called this drama »érotisme comique«. Laughter is the exception. It is outside the law, it reveals the state of the illicit. But laughing can also be an act to resist the horror. Laughing in this drama stands beyond the verbal order. On the other hand, there is this omnipresent level of inescapability and horror.

June 1998