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November 30, 2022

Job’s humour

To mention Hitler today, even in a theatre play, still stirs the suspicion of an attempt – an abusive one, in certain people’s eyes – to discredit right wing ideology. George Tabori and his unconventional work “Mein Kampf” (1987), seems to confirm it: the play is one of the most efficient satires targeting the society of consumption, the hysteria caused by authoritarianism and puritan fears. This time, though, wealth, order and hierarchy become ridiculous notions because they are challengingly associated with a decay in civilisation. The evacuation of poverty, erotic freedom and volunteer social class lowering as ethically damaging is treated therefore less as a deceiving utopia and more like a compromising intellectual naivety. A childish nonsense, in other words, especially if we are referring to the refined tradition of a culture that does not ignore theological values.

Actually, “theological farce” is the expression Tabori himself had used when introducing his play; and the description is too easily knocked off as mere semantic play. And this is the most obvious quality of Alexandru Dabija’s direction of the play, at the National Theatre of Cluj: preserving, despite of the frantic comical development, of a basis of inconvenient interrogation, similar to a music leitmotiv. The radical announcement – “God died at Auschwitz!” – receives an original answer in Tabori’s work, that goes beyond the usual clichés of exasperated lament in front of Illuminist failures or of those of ethical Rationalism, that sees Historical Evil as a punishing Divine Whip, or of those of anti-Humanist scepticism. Hitler’s neurosis seems almost understandable, which the multiple connotations of his (de)forming experiences: a frustrating family, the affective chaos of the society outskirts, the permanent challenge of hygiene, his sexual initiation at the bordello, the carousel of his social status, his imperfect aesthetic sublimation. Perhaps we should reach a different understanding of God by approaching with dialectic thoughtfulness Hitler’s tortured humanity. This is Tabori’s artistic stake, and it is one that would have failed from the very beginning if he wouldn’t have exploited what we could name as “theological humour”. As this humour is the only one to overturn the perspective of overly misused existential perceptions. And even thus, many times, we are just the prisoners of a banality defined by snobbish gravity, just like the respectable friends of unfortunate Job. Actually, the failed Jew who adopts the “lost” Hitler embodies the wisdom (slightly presumptuous, but well intended) of the one who sees the unexpected appearance of a new cohabitant as not unrelated to the awaiting of the Messiah.
And this is his “fight” (an allusion to Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf”, editor’s note), more important than the words of the unwritten book: to challenge God precisely on the basis of imperfect humanity.
Not seeing Hitler as a louse that only deserves to be crushed – as Hitler himself used to see Jews and his enemies – is a motif of a subtle theological sensitivity. The theme of “purity” is not a mere allusion to the precepts of Judaism or to the racial obsession of Nazism, but also allows a more sophisticated approach of the relation between intimacy and society. Scenographer Carmencita Brojboiu has placed the night asylum in the scenery of a ruined, but originally luxurious public bath. It is a place where people get undressed, not just physically, where the necessity of cleaning generates the structure of society, where intimacy is potentiated, but also socially defined. And the issue is not that the (symbolic) water of this bath had gone dry – which is the sign of a ravishing moral crisis – but actually that all efforts are concentrated in a nonconformist pedagogic pathos (accented by the delicate soft tone opposed by actor Ionut Caras). Apparently, the pathos is fruitless, because the result is the one known from history, but, also, it does not resemble a failure; because the drama was enriched with the consistency of truly defying questioning of the usual ideological debates.
The satirical verve of director Alexandru Dabija emphasises an element which is frequently noticeable in our local culture as well; the depreciation of urban lifestyle in favour of a highly and falsely praised rural civilisation. Hitler (initially wearing a hilarious mountain cap), Himmlisch (alias Himmler) and the prostitutes gradually get, throughout the show, the traditional clothing of the pretended rural paradise, a folklore uniform that announces the more sinister one to come. Similarly, eroticism, stylised as a mixture of sport and circus, seems to precede the volunteering choreography of the forthcoming regime. And there’s a fundamental ambiguity of human action – this is the card played with remarkable inventiveness by George Tabori.

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