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The Poetics of Provocation: Elfriede Jelinek

Brian Bell's headshot shows him from the shoulders up, half smiling and wearing a white t shirt
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." 
The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series throughout March and April 2017!


As we stumble through this enormously unsettling period in American history, and take stock of our own ability (or perceived inability) to enact change it can be extremely helpful to look for models, other theater-makers who use their work to provoke and enact change. There was recently an article in the New York Times about a reading of Elfriede Jelinek’s newest play, Only the Loyal Road: The Burgher King, about Donald Trump and how directly and bravely her work confronts current political systems. Since she is unfortunately almost unknown in the English-speaking world, it could be useful to talk more about her, and why her work is such an important example of using the theater to resist entrenched systems and disrupt political discourse.

Elfriede Jelinek is one of the most controversial, prolific, and poetic playwrights working in the world today. She puts out an enormous amount of work and her plays are seen in her native Austria and all over German-speaking Europe in hundreds of theaters each year. She has won many prizes for her writing, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004. How is it then, that most Americans do not know her work?

Saying that Ms. Jelinek is controversial, is in fact a gross understatement. Her work has caused her to be verbally attacked, receive death threats, consistently be lampooned by the press, skewered by critics, and booed in public, and caused boycotts in the theater. Her criticism of Austria's government caused her to be accused of treason by the political establishment. Last April a group of Neo-Nazis burst into of one of her plays, sprayed the audience with blood and chanted “Multiculturalism kills” before being taken away by security. So, her work generates a strong response.

Her plays are characterized by highly theatrical poetic forms, extremely long strings of text, seemingly chaotic but in fact strictly outlined and structured. She routinely tackles Feminist themes, Austria’s Nazi past, and current politics. She is unapologetically leftist (was a member of the communist party for years) and puts out theater pieces every year that directly address the current political situation. Her piece Die Schutzbefohlenen (The Suppliants) was a rework of Aeschylus’ play that featured a chorus of refugees who had crossed the Mediterranean into Europe. It opened at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe last year and was performed all over the continent in response to the worsening political situation. No doubt her piece about Trump will be making the rounds soon enough.

When I write, I have always tried to be on the side of the weak. The side of the powerful is not literature's side.”
— E. Jelinek

The most exciting thing about Jelinek’s work is how she unabashedly uses theater to confront the ills she sees in the world. And that she does it in such a highly poetic and theatrical way. He texts are challenging. Linguistically, thematically, politically. They are challenging to read and even more so to stage, because they do not adhere to any kind of classical dramaturgical structure. Tackling one of Jelinek’s texts can be like opening Pandora’s Box: one never knows where it will lead and what it will unleash:

Everything that has gone before: null and void! O, and this rosy ring of protection around me, don’t you forget me either, hey, oh no, that’s not a ring around the rosy, it’s just a bypass ring, an outer ring around the outskirts of the city, designed to spare the cityscape, forgive me. Cityscape, someone else’s image of some other woman plastered to a billboard, forgive me if I’m not the spitting image of this one, that one, or the other! O my thighs, my ass, forgive me for making you what you are! Forgive me for having scorned a woman scorned! O the ground where women dare to tread, forgive the fluffs of her feet that missed their cue when the stage was set for her grand entrance! O martyred Maries foraging at my breast, forgive me! Forgive me first and foremost for the fact that you found nothing there! Foreign man, forgive me for becoming your one and only! Foreign man, forgive me for not being there to become your one and only! I’ve gone my own way, may the road I have taken forgive me for the fact that it has always been a road already taken.”
— Death and the Maiden III (from the Princess Dramas)

This is an excerpt from the opening speech Rosamunde gives in the play. It is answered by Fulvio’s response which is twice as long. The piece continues like this in unbroken streams of consciousness that have been meticulously crafted to create cascades of language, ripe to be spoken. As with any good playwright, her words are better heard than read. One of the main reasons Jelinek has not been made accessible to a wider audience is the musicality of her language is so difficult to translate. In the original German, her texts rhyme and sing and burst forward with a theatricality that is extremely difficult to capture. And in every instance, she uses the power of her language to challenge her audience’s assumptions, question their loyalties, and insist on a reality that is more just.

The theater has an opportunity to use the power of its storytelling to resist the current paradigm. We can learn from Ms. Jelinek that no matter how small your audience, no matter how set they might be in their ways, they can always be reached, shook up, challenged by the work they are seeing. Jelinek wrote for years on her own, putting out an enormous amount of work. She was writing for her specific audience, the Austrian people. She wrote unabashedly on political themes, took a stand for what she believed in and was banned and booed and walked out on for years. In the face of incredible resistance, she persevered and never stopped speaking truth to power.

It took a lot of work and a long road, but Jelinek is now celebrated across the world as one of the strongest voices for feminist, humanist, and progressive thought. And her most famous work, Children of the Dead, the novel that she arguably won the Nobel Prize for, still has not been translated into English. Her lack of access to the English-speaking market, arguably one of the largest and most influential audiences of the world has not slowed her down.

From the Nobel committee’s justification of the award:

To employ language is for her a form of resistance to life and society. She wants to reveal what is concealed and has been concealed in the past. By means of the organized artistic shock that her writing in fact is, she tries to get rid of conventional boundaries and patterns of thought. This is what she is about when, like a linguistic juggler, she puts the unfamiliar into the habitual and everyday. Her aim is to cause a different and new standard of measurement to emerge, a new order which is only uncovered through violent conflict.”

Elfriede Jelinek is not afraid to use language as a tool for political change. She uses her plays to challenge the status quo and make the audience uncomfortable with the injustices they are complicit in. Perhaps it is fitting that as our own political systems start to unravel, we look to artists who have been actively criticizing such systems for decades. Perhaps Ms. Jelinek’s relevance will finally become apparent to an American audience. And perhaps we can use the incisive clarity of her texts to challenge our own audiences in radical new ways.

I am a sort of justice fanatic, and I always have to give a voice to those who get a raw deal.”
— E. Jelinek
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