George Tabori Tramps through the 20th Century

Article excerpt

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. …