In a small plain room tucked away in the upper reaches of Vienna's majestic Burgtheater, a slight and somewhat grizzled gentleman breaks into a wide-mouthed grimace as his shoulders shake with silent laughter. As George Tabori, the 80-year-old Hungarian-born playwright/director watches an early rehearsal for his latest production, his body momentarily captures the essence of his recent work: serious, potentially tragic, yet piled high with slapstick and irreverent wit.
For example, both of the one-acts, which comprise A Mass Murderer and Her Friends (which premiered in May at Vienna's Akademietheater), are set in the final moments before death. In the first play, a woman seated in an electric chair tells her executioner why and how she murdered a half-dozen people. At the play's end she asks the guard, "Am I guilty?" "No," he replies, before turning on the switch. In the second, Don Juan spends his dying moments with a young female reporter. "Every good play is about dying," Tabori asserts, using Shakespeare as his proof.
As the rehearsal continues, Tabori lets his actors work on the scene without interruption, even when their characterizations veer into the unbelievable or insincere. At the same time, Tabori the playwright generously encourages the actors to improvise on his script, at one point having them continue a scene after the scripted dialogue has ended. The scenes end only when the actors stop or when Tabori sees them floundering or when the rehearsal time is finished.
"I always rely on the actors," Tabori explains. "None of the plays are the way I imagined, because the actors are different. They are not the characters, and I like that."
It's easy to see why actors are drawn to this gracious, old-world gentleman, who sincerely thanks the cleaning lady at the theatre canteen for the wonderful cake as she clears away his plate, or who, on greeting a middle-aged colleague he hasn't seen in some time, lovingly holds the man's face in his hands and strokes it. Tabori likes to work with actors he knows; chief among them is Gert Voss, the acclaimed German actor who appeared in Tabori's 1993 play Requiem for a Spy opposite Ursula Hopfner, who has played leading lady to Tabori offstage since the late 1970s.
Though Tabori's work is constantly produced in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Holland (a German publisher recently collected his plays in a two-volume set), he is relatively unknown in the U.S., though he still gets queries "every month," and last December his Hitler farce Mein Kampf was produced by the Actor's Gang in Los Angeles.
For the past eight years, Tabori has been in residence in the Austrian capital, just a few hours drive from Budapest, Hungary, where he spent the first 18 years of his life. But his journey was neither simple nor direct.
Tabori left Budapest in 1932 for Berlin and was there when Hitler came to power. The young Jewish intellectual found Germany an exciting place at the time, and when he emigrated to London a few years later, it was due more to interest in seeing a new country than to any sense of imminent danger. His family stayed behind, most of them dying at Auschwitz. (Tabori would eventually write his only admittedly autobiographical play, My Mother's Courage, about her deportation to the concentration camp. The play will have its American premiere at Atlanta's 7 Stages in February.)
"I was lucky, and that determined my attitude. I can't deny it," Tabori says. "I haven't found it difficult to come back. I never felt that the Germans and Austrians are guilty. I could never generalize about a nation." He joined the British army during the final years of World War II, when he began writing fiction. "I first wrote novels, and then I went to America and I switched over to the theatre, which was a great mistake." He laughs softly, omitting any mention of the British academy award for his 1952 screenplay Young Lovers.
Tabori spent two decades in the United States, finding varied success as a playwright and screenwriter and beginning still another career as a director. His first two plays, Flight into Egypt and The Emperor's Clothes, premiered on Broadway in the early '50s. By the 1960s he was more often adapting and directing the works of modern European writers, including Brecht - his collage piece Brecht on Brecht (which originally featured his then-wife Viveca Lindfors) was widely produced by resident and university theatres throughout the decade. Eventually Tabori found something of a home at New York's American Place Theatre, where his Auschwitz-based play The Cannibals and his anti-Vietnam piece Pinkville were staged.
"Theatre here [in Europe] is like a marriage - it's boring, it's wonderful, but it's a marriage. And American theatre is like a love affair..." - the satirist pauses for comic effect - "...in a New Jersey motel. It has its exciting aspects, but it's not continuous." Tabori eventually returned to Europe, again for artistic reasons. "I was never very comfortable in American theatre," the playwright admits. "But I admire it and, in comparison to the German-speaking theatre, it's an adventure. It's not that daily regular work which I have here."
In 1987, Tabori moved to Vienna to take the helm of a small, respected experimental theatre, Der Kreis (The Circle), at the Schauspielhaus theatre. Along with his productions there, Tabori offered acting workshops - importing, among other techniques, the Actors Studio method, a foreign concept to students emerging from the rigid Austrian University and Conservatory system. Local actors relished his combination of experimentation, exercises and theatre games.
However, the process-oriented artist-explorer began to feel constricted by a schedule requiring a new production every two months. So, in 1990, he started a looser collaboration with the prestigious Austrian state theatres, the Burg and Akademie, both now under Claus Peymann's direction.
His plays often take up themes of anti-Semitism, personal moral responsibility and death, but the weightiness of these subjects are more than counterbalanced by humorous incongruities, farce, wit and slapstick. In The 25th Hour, for example, a rather bland businessman faces a potentially fatal illness while surrounded by zany, self-involved doctors, family and friends. In one scene, the patient's sexpot wife and moping son bringing the family's pet dog along for a hospital visit - they prattle on that the dog has been asleep for several days, when it's painfully and ludicrously obvious to the husband and audience alike that the dog is dead. Tabori's piercing dissections of man's foibles leaves no room for bathos.
Ironically, though he's a widely known fixture in the German-speaking theatre world, Tabori writes in English. ("What should I write in - Hungarian? I never learned my 'dies, das, ders,'" he exclaims, referring to the difficulties of German grammar.) As a writer who learned English as a second language, George Tabori mines his adopted language for unusual gems, aided by an irrepressible sense of humor that veers from the sharp-witted to impish to the scatological.
In his more recent play The Babylonian Blues, a group of actors seek advice about the theatre from "a not very sage sage": "This is the age of Great Confusions. We do not know where to turn - left, right or the Extreme Middle. Theatre, we are told, is no longer the Fabulous Invalid, but an unburied corpse in a whorehouse. Everything we offer is considered either deja vu or better-not-vu-at-all."
One almost hears Tabori's moss-coated, accented voice in the sage's response: "When you are old, time becomes scarce and therefore sweet. There is little of it left. Finally you accept what the young cannot: You will not live forever; time is neither straight, crooked or circular; it is the silence before the postman rings for the second time."
While the speech itself oozes honey-drenched sentimentality, Tabori undercuts its romanticism by presenting the sage as a stinking unshaven bum sitting on a park bench eating leftover birdseed.
Tabori has been gathering an armful of awards in recent years. "It's because of my age," he protests. "And there are a lot of German awards." In December he was made an honorary citizen of Austria.
Tabori's continually searching attitude offers an admirable example for younger directors - that is, anyone under the age of 80. "I have the feeling with this new play that I'll try and find a new method. The trouble with methods are that they all tend to get formalized. After a while it becomes dead. In my old age, I'm entitled to find a new way of doing a play."
Cathy Meils writes about arts and culture in central Europe.…