Yesterday I saw Wedekind's Lulu presented by the London Almeida Theatre at the Eisenhower as part of the English cultural festival that's been running the last month. I knew the play as Pandora's Box from reading it in school and also from Berg's opera but I've never seen the famous movie version from the 1920s. This production was the original version of the play from the 1890s, older than the version you normally read.
It's set in Berlin, then Paris and then in London [in the original, the Berlin scenes were in German, the Paris scenes in French and the London scenes in English]. The staging to hold the segments together is Jack the Ripper walking past a scrim, looking like the bordello windows in Hamburg and Amsterdam, and being lured on by prostitutes.
Lulu, somewhere in her mid 20s, destroys everyone she comes in contact with or at least they destroy themselves because of her. There is no real plot, just the sweep of her relationships with others across Europe. The scenes set in Berlin and Paris have little emotional depth, in fact they're almost entertainingly cartoonish, but well done. The scene in London switches dramatically in tone and color and is [unpleasantly] deeper. The play ends with the dying lesbian countess crawling across the stage to get one last look at Lulu. I'm sure it was theatrically obscured but because of the way Jack the Ripper had killed Lulu, I looked away to avoid any details.
Lulu was beautiful and young and fresh ... but that doesn't come through in the pictures of the actress who, even in the photos in which she's in costume for the role, looks older and harder. But on stage the actress is beautiful and somehow innocent. Even Lulu's clothes, and a lot is made of her clothes in the opening scene where her portrait is being painted [for the husband who dies of a heart attack when he finds her having sex with the painter who becomes the next husband who commits suicide], are erotic and sensual and sexual but still somehow innocent and delicate. The actress and the actress' movements in the clothes appears healthy and naive and attractive.
In Berlin and Paris the costumes and the props weren't too specific but were probably from the early 1920s; but in London Lulu appears in a vinyl miniskirt as a prostitute from 2001 and the other characters dress is non-descript but also could be from 2001.
When I read the play a long time ago, I thought the only decent person was the Countess Geschwitz who sacrificed herself for Lulu. In this production Geschwitz was just monomaniacally possessed by Lulu and destroyed herself as all the others did.
Kadega, the 13 year old girl in the Paris salon, was either played by a fantastic actress or else was really a 13 year old girl. Since the character is played by 2 different actresses I suspect that, if not 13, she is underage. I hadn't heard of any of the actors, although from the program it looks like the actress playing Lulu might be well known from television and movies. The acting was good [although the low class British accents of some of the characters was a strain to follow at times] but cartoonish is again a word that comes to mind.
Perhaps they made too many cuts or made cuts in the wrong places [the play was a little over 2 hours and somewhere in the notes it said it had been originally 4 hours] but the acting and the direction seemed to be racing and there wasn't much depth of
As you can see from the ticket stub above, the play had "Mature Content"; all the radio ads and print ads have the same warning; when I bought the ticket at the ˝ price ticket booth, the woman actually read me the maturity statement aloud before handing me the ticket. When you walk into the theater lobby, the mature audience statement is on a placard. I took this all as hype to sell tickets with sex. But...
Yes, there is simulated coitus on the stage; but that is in a million movies nowadays. Yes, Lulu is loose in her ongoing sexual liaisons but that's in a million television series nowadays. In the Berlin scenes, for example, when her husband has committed suicide after he learns of her ongoing relationships, she is found by her next husband having sex with his son and a circus acrobat and her coachman, dressed in black leather pants with a champagne bottle protruding upwards from his crotch. My reaction was
something like: it's a farce and it's interesting. The audience [about 90% sold] reaction was laughter; but not negative laughter at the play; perhaps uncomfortable laughter. I also took it as a farce when the husband tried to have Lulu commit suicide as atonement and she instead, by accident, shot the husband dead and wounded the acrobat.
That audience laughter reaction continued in the Paris scenes but then I don't think it was "perhaps" uncomfortable it was definitely uncomfortable. Here, when Lulu agrees to have sex with her father so he'll murder her blackmailer and the father is fingering her vagina or when Lulu forces the lesbian countess [who is crawling on the floor at Lulu's feet begging Lulu to "trample and debase" her] to have sex with a man as part of the murder plot or when the mother is ready to sell the 13 year old girl for sexual play to a 60 year old man, the audience also laughed but it was a different kind of laughter than earlier. And at the end of the play in the Jack the Ripper scenes the audience seemed politely stunned and the reaction reminded me of walking out of the final DC try out of Mack and Mabel, when I heard a comment behind me describing the ending: "Strange".
Notes on the Program
Frank Wedekind (1864-1918) was a playwright, journalist, songwriter, cabaret
performer, actor, dissident, and roue Most of these qualities ran in the family. He
was conceived in San Francisco, the son of a German political exile and his second
wife, a German actress and singer who was touring the Wild West rather in the
style (one imagines) of Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again. When they
married, she was exactly half her husband's age, "a fact which strikes me as not
altogether devoid of significance," Wedekind wrote later. The couple returned to
Europe in time for their son to be born on German soil, where he was christened
"Benjamin Franklin" in honor of the American democratic tradition.
He was 26 years old when he wrote his beautiful paean to sexual freedom, Spring
Awakening, the play that would make his name when it was finally produced by
Max Reinhardt 15 years later. Meanwhile, he moved to Paris on the proceeds of
his father's will. The walls of the Paris galleries were dripping with brand-new
Renoirs, Monets, and Gauguins; Sarah Bernhardt and R6jane were at their height,
and Debussy had just had his first success, but none of these names seem to have
interested him. He spent his energies writing and having sex, with a distinct bias
in each case toward avant-garde experiment. "I can hardly speak because my
tongue is fearfully sore. It's at least a centimetre longer than it was," he wrote in
his diary after a night with a young prostitute named Margot. It seems the
damage wasn't serious, since he soon found himself being carried away by the
"imperious Olympian grandeur" of a young cocotte named Alice. "She whinnied like
a foal," he noted. But accidents will happen. "I shove my lower jaw back into place
and discover I've torn a ligament," he wrote.
On June 12, 1892, he was walking down the Champs Elys6es when he had the idea
for a new play, "a gruesome tragedy." He skipped a date with a couple of friends
at Yvette Guilbert's and drafted Act One instead. Three more acts followed,
under the working title of Astarte. In January of 1894, he left for a six-month
stay in London, and it was there that he wrote the fifth and final act of his
profound and ambiguous masterpiece. Its working title in London was Divine Birth.
When he'd finished the play, he called it Pandora's Box: A Monster Tragedy. But
by a series of accidents and appropriations, oddly like the process by which its
central character is re-named at the whim of each new lover, the play has
acquired a different title in the public mind: Lulu.
Wedekind's life, post-Lulu, was avid and adventurous. He was a star contributor
to the satiric periodical Simplissimus and served a seven-month stretch of
imprisonment for making
fun of the Kaiser. He sang and performed in alternative cabaret, wrote
prolifically, and became notorious as a political and sexual plainspeaker.
Persistence paid off, and when he turned 50 he was feted throughout Germany.
Bertolt Brecht, then a promising young local poet, was one of his circle, and stood
at the graveside when Wedekind died at the age of 53. But the younger writer's
published tribute had a touch of envy about it: "His greatest work was his
personality~" he declared.
Wedekind's Monster Tragedy was never produced in his lifetime in the form that
he'd written it: in a way, it was his own tragedy too. The reason is obvious. It's a
disturbing play even to the modem eye, and what it must have seemed like to a
publisher, producer, or government censor of the 1890s is easy to imagine. No
one would touch it. Wedekind's response was to rewrite the play, again and again,
and in the process to lose his focus. It was "development hell": the gotwrenching
process that modem screenwriters undergo of seeing their work pulled apart by
butter-fingered script doctors, with the added cruelty that in this case the script
doctor was the writer himself. Long passages were cut, changed, and diluted, new
characters added, the plot became ever more tortuous. Worst of all, he cut the
play down the middle, thus turning it into two separate plays: Earth-Spirit and
(confusingly, the second of the two) Pandora's Box. He then added a new and
redundant act to each.
Publication, production, and the odd prosecution followed. Even in their mutilated
form, the plays caused enough of a sensation to inspire Berg's great opera and no
fewer than five silent movies, including the Pabst masterpiece. Wedekind acted in
the plays whenever he could, sometimes as Dr. Schoen (as Dr. Schoning was
renamed), sometimes as the new character of the Ringmaster, sometimes as
Jack-and it was in the course of playing Jack in a single club performance of
Pandora's Box organized by Karl Kraus in Vienna that he fell in love with Tilly
Newes, the actress playing Lulu. They married the following year: at the age of
19, she was just under half his age.
After Wedekind's death, the usual procedure for anyone wanting to present Lulu
was to run the two-play version together-why leave anything out?-and then to cut
it down to performable length, hence the play's reputation as a wonderful idea
brought low by muddled writing. One such version was planned (though never
produced) at the Royal Court in the early 1960s, in a translation by Christopher
Isherwood. A year or two later, when I was working there, and rather addicted
to going through old files, I came across a batch of letters from Wedekind's and
Tilly Newes' daughter Kadidja, urging the
Court to present not a corrupted version of the play, but one close to her
father's original vision, one which she herself had reconstructed and would be
only too happy to provide. One got the impression that her life was a frustrating
one, trying to persuade the world that she wasn't just one of those power-crazed
copyright holders who can't bear to give up control. She was vindicated in the
1980s, when a full and scholarly reconstruction was published in Germany and
produced by Peter Zadek in Hamburg.
I read this version in my office at the National Theatre in the late 1980s in Wes
Williams' translation-the same translation on which I have based the adaptation
you will see tonight. I will never forget the thrill of turning the pages. I knew and
loved the two-play epic-indeed, the only reason I was reading Wedekind's original
was as scholarly back-up for a production that the National was planning in a
script by Angela Carter. (Also never produced.) But this new text was different.
It was clearer and odder, more accessible and more extreme. And it was far, far
more beautiful. Huge cascades of dialogue unfolded-urgent, quickfire exchanges.
In their staccato rhythm, they echoed the beating heart, the shock of sudden
contact, the shudder of desire. A sense of physical reality emerged, where
before there had been the clash of figures in an expressionist vacuum. And the
action shot forward like an arrow.
Strangest of all, it now turned out that, in the original version, Wedekind had
written the Paris and London acts in the languages the characters themselves
would have spoken: the Parisians converse in French, and Lulu's London customers
(and Lulu herself, when dealing with them) speak English. Wedekind's French was
good, his English less so. Yet the "Jack" scene, written in hesitant, formal,
foreigner's English, is ravishing.
There are many things about this play that are disturbing and magical, which hint
at strangenesses beyond the written text, but (for me) nothing is so evocative as
the exchanges between client and hooker that Wedekind didn't invent, which he
simply transcribed. They're too convincing to be have been written in any other
way. "You say, you missed the last bus and that you have spend the night with one
of your friends." "I had a rich friend-give me your shilling." "Are you a bugger?"
Some longforgotten London prostitute said these words to a client she probably
never met again: a hawknosed, deep-eyed, burly young German who afterward
wrote them down as well as he could remember, sometimes accurately, sometimes
pitted with Teutonic blunders. These fragments of lost lives seem to me to be
quite amazingly precious, and I've changed them as little as possible, though I
know the effect is odd.