Review – 2nd August, 2010

Horribile dictu

Péter Nádas: Siren Song

Review–2nd August, 2010


Critics are rather divided over Péter Nádas’s new work Siren Song, a play written on commission from Germany. This is little wonder as we are talking about a truly odd post-dramatic textual construct – a crude apocalypse, a crazy post-modernist death dance of Western civilization.

No characters in the traditional sense, no plot, no real dialogue on any customary human scale, the conflicts in Nádas’s Siren Song are abstract, speeches appear more like  poetic recitations, space and time are impossible to define, the language is a mixture of the sublime, the banal and the obscene blended on the editing deck. Even more startling than these formal curiosities, and emphasized even by typographic means, is the comment offered about the planet, the world, humankind, God and the gods altogether – a crude apocalypse, a crazy post-modernist death dance of Western civilization. The play contains a number of Nádas’s familiar ideas, but this time the entire vision of the (end of the) world is wrapped in some sort of macabre sarcasm, a devastating irony, a massive, horrific ridicule that makes one’s stomach turn as the author offers his reflections on the philosophy of history, on anthropology, ethics, politics and all you ever wanted to know about love. These sometimes covert, at other times explosive fragments of ironic-sarcastic pathos lend the work a degree of solemnity which makes one feel like a guest at  the death feast of universal collapse.
The scene is the ‘blood-soaked stage of the world’, a timeless underworld which has overcome the Earth where Hades rules – a faceless, indifferent ‘loser’ who is nevertheless always there and reigns from behind the scenes with his back to the world. We see doomed, half-crazy, tormented, wretched and miserable souls drifting all over the place (adjectives from Nádas), teeming up and snarling at each other, devoid of any individuality. They include Persephone who is held captive at the end of the ‘disgusting red tether of history” and tortured from time to time by Hades, supposedly a paedophile. Besides the author, blotted out from our view while his instructions are worked into the text of the play, Persephone, although living on anti-depressants, is the only character who shows a degree of awareness. She describes, interprets and comments on the overall confusion we see on the scene, even though this consciousness is clearly no help to anybody, including herself. The scene is ruled by total war where the World War scenes (reminiscent of the motifs and characters of Nádas's monumental novel, Parallel Histories) are but a ‘chapter’. Fathers and sons are at war and so are mothers and sons, sons and ‘daughters’, lovers and friends, humans and animals, humans and the natural world.  Peace (the scene called Breakfast in the open air) ends in an orgy with people being sick. "No goodness can stand up alone and sober in this world, it must go crazy, must fly from itself, must perish in wickedness and envy, covered in festering sores" – claims Nádas’s judgement spoken by Persephone’s daughter. There is no room for human relationships based on mutual affection or for camaraderie; friendship and love always go wrong, everyone ends up a dismal failure and turns out ever more frustrated. Dialogue, the very base of the dramatic genre, collapses entirely. Generally, human beings as a type turn out to be hellhounds – selfish, greedy, calculating, blood-thirsty, vengeful, murderous bastards. The ‘revolutionary uncles’ who prophesy noble ideas for changing the world (witness the scene Finally a feast of joy which stages modernity and the bourgeois period) or the ‘fishermen’ on strike (Open sea) complete with a critique of capitalism are equally chastised by the author. Anything like true drama is rendered impossible by the universally hopeless inner anthropological darkness and the primal horror of existence, the mass of ‘negative characters’ – all we can hope for is some sort of a final development, a terrible murder followed by an even more terrible death. Philosophical thinking, Nádas’s philosophical ideas which he expounds with far more subtlety and detail in his essays or in his prose writing, dominate over the entire play where the characters indeed become shadows and their destruction is not tragic, not cathartic, but an abstraction – something that is rather embarrassing in a dramatic text.
While the characters writhe in the agony of their madness, the Nereids, the waves of the sea, in other words the figures that impersonate the indifference of the natural world, laugh or giggle at them in chorus, parodying them, echoing or babbling in quotation marks their silly, exaggerated, fake, hollow sentences or half sentences, their clichés, their banal complaints. (This section makes use of Nádas’s skill at imitating different prose styles.) Incorporating banalities in this elevated text does not rescue the play from the pitfall of abstraction – they remain abstract banalities, inhuman linguistic signs. In the last scene which describes a post-capitalist social and ecological disaster, the chorus of the Nereids is no longer heard, they must have perished in the ‘seas of the world producing industrial filth’. Here at the very end they plan the destruction of the half dead or the dead, cannibalism is a prospect and Nike turns into a seagull, waiting for delicious mouthfuls, hooting like a siren the moral of the play, "Need is a mighty lord. (…) All people are hungry, the world is empty."
Indeed, everyone was hungry in this tight-pressed, synchronic history, not only for meat but for kind words or love, affection, for a mother, a father, for fun, and every one of them was in fact involved in killing, stealing, perversion, cheating and lying – this is Nádas’s great oxymoron. At the end of the play we find out that the latest great patricide of the history of mankind and at the same time a grand Oedipal murder had just taken place (thinking in Freudian terms), since Odysseus the ingenious, an archetypal figure of our culture, was killed, whether or not by accident we don’t know, by his lazy, stupid, good-for-nothing sons. This could be taken to mean that while in Freud the patricide by the primal hoard was an act which created a culture, the present event is equally destructive of our contemporary culture, meaning the end of the Greek-Christian paradigm (there are no signs to indicate that this might be the beginning of something new). Oedipal variations of the play had, by the way, taken place earlier, in a sketchy form and a ghastly style – all the men had killed each other with their heroism rising to a peak when one of the characters sets fire to himself. (However, even Kant is mentioned in some vitriolic context.)
"The theatre of horrors", "a nightmarish, apocalyptic dirge", "a raging world song", a "judgement of the world", "the history of violence in Europe", "a satire-play saturated with history", "the swan song of the West", say the German reviewers who saw the play in Mühlheim, directed by Roberto Ciulli in the framework of a great Greek-style theatre project. András Forgách sees great theatrical potential in the text which is not at all impossible to unfold; the play, read in this way, is the promise of great pictorial visions and sets the reader’s theatrical imagination going. It is linguistically highly varied, ranging through a number of layers from the vulgar and the philosophical all the way to Hungarian slang. If one reads it as a book play, it is a true delight to come upon Nádas’s characteristic wisdom already familiar from his other writing ("We spend all day doing things we do not approve of’"; "I should be the kind of person I am not" etc.); the typical rich sentences ("Sophia is not a chick, mother, but the great question whether I will ever, at the cost of a lifetime’s work, understand the chaos that I have been irresponsibly thrown into", to mention but one from a potentially long list). Anyone acquainted with Nádas’s works will easily find here his philosophy of love, his theory of chaos, his lines of psychological, ethical or theological thought. It is also quite clear that besides all else Siren Song reflects on the basic questions of theatre as well (the triple unity of dramatic structure, the question of rhetorical modes used in the theatre, the mythological vs. bourgeois nature of the characters and so on). Incorporating the stage instructions into the text of the play is a special point of interest – it is a way of staging meta-theatre. The theatricality of the language, which appears here both in earnest and in a parody, also deserves attention. The entire play has a character reminiscent of Wagner’s operas or of an oratorio – it is a matter of taste whether this is perceived as attractive or as distasteful.
There are also difficulties with the play – it is ideological (final destruction and hopelessness splendidly depicted), it emanates the author’s intellectual superiority which looks down, as if from a high bank opposite, on everything that is historical, human or fallible, and also it exudes a kind of total negativism which loses its strength precisely as a result and produces an eerie pathos.
Viktória Radics
Nádas Péter: Szirénének
Jelenkor, 2010

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