A Smart Piece Of Silly Putty

Slapstick Philosophy, Conundrums by René Pollesch In Das Purpurne Muttermal at the Akademietheater

Hans Moser, Lex Barker and Eve Harrington on stage | Photo: Richard Werner

In René Pollesch´s play Das Purpurne Muttermal (The Scarlet Birthmark), in repertory at the Akademietheater since November 2006, we are greeted by a lilac-colored salon shoved so precipitously close to the footlights it looks more like an existential corridor, with a large video screen above the mantelpiece. Topping that, in Gothic letters, is the stern question: “DO I WANT TO ESCAPE?”

Behind the back wall, which is a bit higher than a Brechtian curtain but low enough to peek over from standing room, we glimpse the greener grass of a video set, including one diva’s boudoir, one train compartment, one chintzy marital bed, one Freudian couch, and exactly one half of an automobile. Half the drama plays back there, conveyed to us live by a crack video team onto that swank screen.

Enter Sophie Rois, slamming the flimsy door behind her with a scornful, oblivious flick of the wrist. She’s wearing a Meryl Streep wig, fake black-rimmed glasses, and a very abstracted air. It’s a big day — she’s written a letter to her mother, which she proceeds to read aloud to spouse Martin Wuttke:

“Mother. We are separated from our lives. And it takes the senile Maria Schell to make us aware of this, in the documentary film her brother made. To every question about her career, to every question on the refulgent high points of her life, she answers only: ‘Everything was fear.’ She can only remember fear. Fear is lived life. And earlier, while she was still separated from her life, she could remember her career—her life along with a positive conception of it—the stories that constantly narrate themselves. Everyone who attempts to neutralize these truths says that the senile Maria Schell has simply forgotten her life, and that the only thing left over is fear. But she has NOT forgotten her life. You can’t just neutralize the whole thing that way. She is perhaps for the first and last time NOT separated from her life.

“Or – should I rewrite it?”

Wuttke: “No, it’s good as it is. You could mention the contingency problem…”

Das Purpurne Muttermal certainly has the kernel of a plot – a love triangle between Rois, Wuttke, and Caroline Peters, playing a character called “Eve Harrington” – although it is the kernel spat out from a hybrid fruit composed of Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, a bit of Gorillas in the Mist, Autumn Sonata, and plenty others. Peters periodically murmurs in Rois’ ear:

“Darling, we’ll tell your husband now.”


“That I love you. AND that I’m your understudy.”

The ante is upped by calm allusions to Peters as (sometimes) a chimpanzee, and Rois (also sometimes) a dog (and a dogmatic dog, at that). But despite the glamour of Rois, Wuttke and Peters, all of whom could have just stepped out of a production of Die Fledermaus, playwright René Pollesch cites biologist and philosopher Donna Haraway as the play’s central influence. In her writings, she warns us of the modern tendency to speak for others—for example, sociologists presuming to represent the interests of South American rain-forest inhabitants—instead of with them.

Das Purpurne Muttermal could be described as performed philosophy. This does not just mean philosophical ideas demonstrated onstage, but philosophical discourse performed for us – and how transformed it seems, freed from the hermetic smugness of the printed page. The surprise in this adult form of show-and-tell is that, as often as not, philosophy is slapstick. The characters scamper and slide over the stage, tripping over cables, bursting through walls, completely absorbed in their perorations, chasing and being chased by arcane sociological questions (“What is exactly the problem when the millionaire Sigourney Weaver plays an autistic person?”), eagerly imparting their conundrums to us in a prattle, both single- and absent-minded at the same time.

Rather than letting his plays be published, René Pollesch directs them himself, writing the roles in this case for extraordinary actors who seem to mysteriously achieve total artistic integrity through a kind of self-parody. Well, what else is theater for?

Of course, in a play where conversation centers on topics like “performing biology” and being separated from your life, self-parody may be the last liberty left to take. Martin Wuttke´s armchair philosophizing (“We must see to it that what destroys us also holds us to life”) and sparse, slicked-back hair seem to cry out for an antimacassar.

Sophie Rois has long since hoisted hysteria to the level of art, but critics who nod and wink at this don’t understand the value of her contribution: When hysteria becomes a form of discourse, it magically sheds that aspect of manipulation that makes it such a drag in real life. Similarly, Sachiko Hara´s Japanese accent is the noblest form of slapstick, Hermann Scheidleder waddles and splutters his way through the Regisseur/butler role with transcendent tact, and purple-lapelled Daniel Jesch, hair set in a buttery pouffe, delivers his Sunset Boulevard-style monologue in a suave mumble. Caroline Peters is something else again: an actress (pace Pollesch and Haraway) who consummately “speaks for” this playwright in her mellifluous indignation, skipping and striding on the soles of her boots in a costume (Janina Audick) best described as the perfect synthesis of chambermaid and bat.

Unlike what happens in written philosophy, Pollesch´s characters seem quite scared of the philosophical moment of truth (“Should I rewrite it?”).  In this, they and Pollesch show good taste. His stated aim may be to apply theory to real life, but there must be a reason he can’t sit still as an artist, writing plays that segue so fast into each other they resemble those vaudeville backgrounds zipping by on rollers behind the stationary Lone Ranger. (His play after Purpurne Muttermal, performed in a decrepit theater nestled in an East Berlin beer garden, touches again on the Maria Schell theme, this time calling her a “blöde Kuh”. The difference between Berlin and Vienna?)

In this very smart piece of silly putty, philosophy is behaviour, not authority, as appealing as any Lubitsch film and the exact stuff of theatrical revolution. I, for one, don’t want to escape.



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