The Ethics of Open Questions

Ersan Mondtag's "Tyrannis" has stayed firmly with our author during the past weeks. In her article, she sums up the debate surrounding the production and takes a closer look at its aesthetics and implications.

Well, readers, it’s time to wind down. With a few weeks past to think and digest, Lily Kelting revisits the toothsome productions of 2016.

Theatertreffen opened with a panel discussion, „But is that art?“ Normally such hand-wringing feels extinct, the province of those already aged out of relevance. But lo and behold: in the Festspielhaus foyers, on, this very question is addressed to Ersan Mondtag’s Theatertreffen premiere, „Tyrannis“.

Blinking in the sunlight after seeing „Tyrannis„, I had no words for what I just saw. Maybe I had one pretty colorful word.  What the fuck was that? „Tyrannis“ is at once simple and radically open to interpretation: a breath of fresh air after the over-determined and over-produced „Schiff der Träume“ I had seen the night before. I loved it. I was happy to let a handful of different interpretations–less really, just allusions– sit in my mind. I wanted Tyrannis to stay inscrutable. I didn’t plan to write about it.

But in the weeks since, I can’t stop thinking about it. 

Partly because any play that sets off a hearty round of boos surely deserves more critical airtime than the ones that are just… good (thanks, Borkman cast!). And partly because the criticisms leveled against the play seem outsized– that it is „dead boring“, „hollow formalism“, or „superficial Pseudo-art“, or „meaningless“, or „insight-deficient“, or „a vacuum of hype produced by the theatre scene“– that it’s too small for such a great festival as Theatertreffen. I do appreciate that the responses to the play have certainly given me some choice German shade-vocabulary („Whoever says that this is a dense combination of installation art and theatre either has only seen terrible visual art or goes too often to the state theater“). I’m not part of the hype machine. I’m not a fanatical fan. But I would like to call bullshit on the idea that the piece is meaningless or hollow because it presents open, allegorical questions rather than tightly-controlled answers. I’ve seen the answer-plays. They’re as hermetic and ungenerous as Mondtag’s critics claim „Tyrannis“ to be. (Yes, make plays about refugees. No, don’t do that by giving the festival-opener to a white director self-flagellating about the neurotic, self-contained world of European high-art onstage… two years in a row.)

Anyway, Tyrannis, as I saw it:

Darkness. A scream, woodland noises. This goes on for a long time. The lights come up on the dollhouse-like set. CC TV cameras blink on, following cartoon-ish characters in their cardboard-looking, brightly patterened bedrooms and through the halls. Twenty-five minutes in, the first live actor appears– the mother begins to prepare a meal in the darkness. Morning ablutions for the son in tighty-whiteys and „fat daughter“ (this from Mondtag’s paragraph-long description of the score). The aunt bustles about. The father appears from outside, holding an axe and felled tree. The tree is dragged into the one room not patrolled on the CC-TV. The performers‘ eyes, as far as I can tell, remain shut this entire time– big, anime eyes drawn over their eyelids instead. The stylized choreography of the routine is magnificent (Vegetable chopping! Toothbrushing! Silverware screeching on plates as the family eats!). After dinner, the family band performs together a melancholic, wordless song– nothing is spoken.

Day two. Dawn of day three, a tall black woman in a dress that matches the Red-Room-Twin-Peaks carpet and an orange beehive that matches the family’s cartoonish carrot-tops appears where the father did the days before. She enters the house. The father faints (dies?). The daughter shreiks. The guest uses the bathroom when everyone is washing up. She occupies the unmonitored room. She takes the mother’s seat at dinner. She harmonizes with the son during the daily concert. The son and daughter join her in her room, while the mother and aunt mix up some milky, opaque liquid and serve it to them. Night of the third day– the mother and aunt drag the limp bodies of the son and daughter out of the room. Lights out– the cast comes forward and slowly, as the light changes and the audience applauds, begin to laugh. Their eyes open at last. Fin.

What the fuck, right?

But here are some real questions: What is one to make of this routine? Is the father figure the eponymous tyrant? Why is he holding an axe? What’s in the unmonitored spaces to which the father escapes? Is this a capitalist nightmare? Do they not speak because they hate each other or because they have perfected their own world? What does this mysterious stranger represent? Is she a threat from outside or a long-lost daughter? How might we read her blackness, her similarity to the family, her intrusion into their world? How is the audience positioned, watching this on screen? And the ending?

These questions aren’t to be answered. It’s axiomatic, that telling the audience what to think creates boring theatre. But it bears repeating when so much theatre about alterity and so much theatre featuring non-white actors does exactly this. If an inscrutable play posing questions it can’t answer is boring, too, let it be boring. Sit with the questions. Hold two interpretations in your mind at the same time! This is the gift of this beautiful, old-fashioned, excessive, expensive, and probably-useless art form! If watching these magnificent actors channel the Sims, the Simpsons, David Lynch and Vegard Vinge is boring, let it be boring! If watching two hours of impeccable eyes-closed choreography is boring, let it be boring! But don’t say you’ve seen it before, okay? Because you haven’t.

The ethics of open questions

The formalism complaint smacks the hardest– especially because, let’s be real, these charges aren’t applied equally across the board. Robert Wilson does knock-off kabuki for decades and rises to the theatre pantheon. Young Neuköllner creates strong, alienated images with great technical skill and is booed. I’ll play my American, identity politics card now: is it because German theatre audiences can’t deal with this kind of theatre from a 28-year old with Turkish parents?

It reminds me of the recent questions about the unbearable whiteness of theatre criticism in the States. Diep Tran asks, powerfully, why it is that Jeffrey Gantz, in a review of a play by A. Rey Pamatmat, wonders why there is so little discussion of being Filipino and why there is so little race-related conflict in the play. Tran is pretty put together, but I’d like to yell: BECAUSE FILIPINOS DO OTHER THINGS BESIDES TALKING ABOUT HOW FILIPINO THEY ARE?

When these white critics ask Mondtag to put a point on it („what’s in the unmonitored rooms? your answer is too cryptic!“) they are recreating exactly this same gesture and missing the point entirely. Maybe meaninglessness and insight-deficiency are a great cure when a move towards clear answers and obvious political programs are a move to the far and dangerous right. Painted eyelids might look open, but closed eyes can’t see. Not-knowing-for-sure, in the over-determined political economy of contemporary Europe, might be the most radical mode of resistance we have.





Lily Kelting

Stage editor, Exberliner magazine. Works internationally as a freelance radio producer (NPR Berlin) and writer. She holds a Ph.D. in Theatre from the University of California, San Diego. Postdoc at the Freie Universität, Berlin. Originally from New York City, she lives in Berlin.

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