Elfriede Jelinek Adapts Wilde’s An Ideal Husband

The updated masterpiece of Victorian manners and maneuvering works in German(!) at the kademietheater

On The Town | Peter Quince | April 2012

Maria Happel as Mabel Chiltern and Matthias Matschke as Lord Goring

If it is true that Oscar Wilde’s last words were "Either this wallpaper goes or I do," Bettina Meyer’s nifty, luxurious set for the Akademietheater production of his An Ideal Husband is quite the coup de grace. (Poor Wilde, done in by indefatigable damask!) The walls are crawling with four distinct floral patterns in hothouse colours, and for good measure Meyer plunks a mock-up of the Burgtheater’s extravagant side staircase down the middle of the stage. I knew we were on the same Wildean wavelength when I noticed the balusters stage right were three dimensional and the balusters stage left mere cut-outs: An instant before, some two-faced comment from Lady Cheveley (Caroline Peters, kicking back the train of her red dress) had suggested to me exactly that configuration.

But Elfriede Jelinek’s new German "version" of An Ideal Husband ("based" on a translation by Karin Rausch) doesn’t cater to the kind of O.W. addicts who fawn over chiseled, lacquered repartee. Yes, there used to be a supercharged, sugary stage accent, which German actors slathered over Goethe and Schiller, but it must have been collateral damage in WWII bombing raids. Today, German-speaking actors insist on emitting "truth" out their mouths. And as we can hear, the truth is rude. Here, Jelinek slyly transforms old Lord Caversham’s "damned nonsense" into "verdammte Scheisse", so satisfying in its mix of profanity and scatology, and Johann Adam Oest expletes the two words with a sportsman-like splutter.

And as Wilde and his set knew so well, rudeness and politeness are most edifying when they are exactly the same thing. The Ideal Husband’s little sister Mabel Chiltern (Maria Happel) knows just how to work it: after her fiancé confesses he’s over 30, she says "Dear, you look weeks younger than that;" seconds later, she tells her sister-in-law, "How pale you are looking, Gertrude! It is most becoming." Drawing the bathwater to precisely the right temperature is a serious matter, not a comic one, especially if you’re doing it for someone else.

British slapstick

In fact, some of us have never found Wilde’s witticisms as funny as we’re supposed to, and   audience reaction at the Akademietheater isn’t quite the stuff laugh tracks are made of. Here, the audience seems almost more diverted by director Barbara Frey’s physical caricaturing of British manners and mannerisms. Matthias Matschke plays Lord Goring with an orgy of fey eyebrow raises and about-faces, whereas Katharina Lorenz, as the Ideal Husband’s wife, lopes imperiously around her parlour like an old sea captain. Racing from subplot to subplot, Goring slides down the entire red-carpeted flight of Burgtheater stairs on his stomach; Gertrude bumps down them on her butt, laid low by too many hot toddies.

Pratfalls are contagious. When more than two show up for tea, the otherwise cooperative butler suddenly gets a fit of the sulks, flinging teabags down like tiny class-warfare gauntlets. And when Matschke and Happel, just engaged, fall upon each other in a bizarre, petrified bout of lovemaking, you could swear they’re playing doctor on a Twister board.

At the centre is the genial but slightly harried Michael Maertens as Sir Robert Chiltern, a brilliantly successful Victorian politician tempted by femme fatale Lady Cheveley to make a right out of two wrongs. The first wrong was a bit of insider trading with which Sir Robert launched his career, an episode that she has inconveniently found out about; the second would be even worse – using his political might to obtain approval for a foolhardy and corrupt canal project (one she has mega-invested in) in order to buy her silence on the first matter.

Wilde’s convenient and inconvenient plot twists put his characters through the wringer, but Sir Robert somehow emerges unscathed, and since his best friend Lord Goring burns the only evidence Mrs. Cheveley possessed, the play saves its own moral fibre in the nick of time.

Punning Wilde-style

Jelinek unfurls a delicious run-on monologue for Maertens in Act I, where he naively explains to Mrs. Chevely the devious ins and outs of canal construction, financing, and political rubber-stamping (in this case, for our 21st century); over and over, Maertens tosses off the seductive German word "Tochterfirma" with such a sensual impatience that we hear it as his neo-liberal mantra. She regularly assigns Wilde’s characters slips of the tongue, then hastily corrected – "Die Liebe ist wandelbar." (Pause, then double take.) "WUNDERBAR! Die Liebe ist wunderbar" and therewith could be said to have established a new figure of speech, the bifurcated pun. (That’s what I want from a Nobel Prize winner.)

Otherwise, the ball’s in Wilde’s court, and the play’s high-toned ending might prove that he was a stubborn-er moralist than humourist. When Maria Happel laughs brusquely at her own jokes, riding crop in hand ("Lord Goring, I never believe a single word that either you or I say to each other"), she seems to be weighing every ounce of wit. When Peters reads an incriminating letter aloud at Lord Goring’s, her voice balloons right through the fourth wall, although walls one, two and three all have ears. The plot itself, with its wallpaper symmetry, is a wee bit too portentous for the peeling-paint irresponsibility of humour.

Or perhaps Wilde is just putting last things last: Back then, the only way to survive the final curtain of Victorian moralism was humour. ÷

Der ideale Mann

7 April, 19:30

Akakdemietheater, 3., Lisztstraße 1

(01)514 44-4740, www.burgtheater.at

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