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The Banality of Comedy

BRECHT’S JOKES INFECTED HIS AUDIENCE, AND BECKETT’S MADE THEM SQUIRM IN THEIR SEATS. GEORGE TABORI, FRIEND AND COLLEAGUE TO BOTH MEN (AS WELL AS TO HITCHCOCK, CHAPLIN, AND MARILYN MONROE), HAD A DIFFERENT SORT OF HUMOR—PRECISE, PASSIONATELY HUMAN, AND FIERCELY MISANTHROPIC.
DISCUSSED
Trapezes, Automated Abattoirs, Dustin Hoffman, The FBI, Muppet Dogs, Estragon and Vladimir, Mitteleuropean Staircases, The German Hamlet, Boa Constrictors, Tight Catholic Lips, Death, Thomas Bernhard, The Third Reich, Thornhill’s Mother

The Banality of Comedy

Philip Oltermann
16 Snaps

At the age of three, George Tabori, a young boy growing up in Budapest (the year is 1917), goes to the circus for the first time. Drumrolls commence. A young girl climbs onto a fifteen-meter-high platform. She takes a step back, jumps, mis­ses both the trapeze and the safety net, and crashes onto the floor, finishing in a bloody, lifeless mess. “For se­veral years I thought that that was part of the performance,” he wrote. “When I go to the theatre nowadays, I still expect something similar, and I am a little bit disappointing when it doesn’t happen.”

*

Sixty-three years later, in 1953, George Tabori and Al­fred Hitchcock go on a trip to the American Midwest to find locations for an unnamed film ­project. “There are parts of the American landscape which are so strange, so surreal, you just ­really want to build a film around them.”

Tabori and Hitchcock come across a number of enormous crop silos, scattered across the arid plains. Ta­bori suggests a chase sequence that would end with one of the villains falling into one of the silos from a great height. Hitchcock is skeptical about the idea.

Next, they visit a modern, automated abattoir. ­Cattle enter the slaughterhouse on an assembly line on one side and exit the factory at the other, the animal processed and pack­aged into tins. Tabori suggests a shot showing one of the villains falling into the abattoir from a great height—the next would show a pair of eyes rolling on the conveyor belt at the end of the assembly line. Hitchcock doesn’t like this idea either. Soon after, he calls off his collaboration with Tabori.

*

The first half of George Tabori’s career was re­markable only for the consistently negative outcome of his ar­tistic endeavors. Born in 1914 in Budapest, Tabori moved to London at the age of twenty-two, where he worked for the Secret Service and the BBC. He wrote four novels: Beneath the Stone the Scorpion, Companions of the Left Hand, Original Sin, and The Caravan Passes, all ex­tremely ambitious his­torical novels which were mar­keted incongruously as spy thril­lers. None of them were par­ticularly successful.

From 1947 until 1969, George Ta­bori worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood and New York, where he mingled with the rich and fa­mous. He joked with Charlie Chap­lin, smoked with Thomas Mann, canoodled with Greta Garbo, and talked literature with Mari­lyn Monroe. When one of his plays, Flight into Egypt (1952), fi­nally appeared on Broadway, it was di­­rected by the legendary Elia Ka­zan, who had made Tennessee Williams fa­mous with productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. When Tabori started di­recting plays himself, he picked an aspiring young actor named Dustin Hoffman as his assistant.

But celebrity mattered very ­little to Tabori. Like so many other European émigré artists, he arrived in the States brimful of ideas about revolution and rebellion. Most of his friends were communists, or thought they were. “Lenin had said that film would be­come the most important of all the arts, so we all really believed that we could ach­ieve something with cinema, content-wise.”

Tabori’s faith in content soon took a number of blows. On the night before Flight into Egypt’s premiere on Broadway, Kazan took Tabori out for a meal and told him that he would pass his details to the FBI if the play turned out to be a failure. Tabori pleaded that commercial factors like success should never conflict with artistic integ­rity. “You Europeans don’t understand success,” Kazan replied. “Success is when you get a call the day after the premiere.” When Tabori’s phone rang, it was the FBI.

After the disappointment in theater, Tabori tried his luck in cinema. He worked on a Hollywood ver­sion of Thomas Mann’s The Ma­gic Mountain with Alexander Korda’s brother Zoltan—which never mo­ved beyond the planning stage. He became good friends with Joseph Losey, who would later collaborate with Harold Pinter on The Servant. Over the course of twenty years, Tabori wrote ten scripts for Losey. None of them were ever made into a film.

Soon after the premiere of Flight into Egypt, Alfred Hitchcock contacted Tabori and invited him to work on the script for his current project. In I Confess (1952), a prestigious lawyer is killed by Otto Keller, the lay caretaker of a local parish church. Keller confesses his crime to young Father Michael Logan, whose priestly oath now pre­vents him from being able to name the murderer—even when he himself becomes the prime suspect in the case.

I Confess is a typical Hollywood script as written by a self-conscious European intellectual. Like Tabori’s novels, it is predominantly concerned with European history and fixated on the German national character: Keller, played by the heavily accented German actor O.E. Hasse, makes for a pantomime war criminal; Montgomery Clift’s Father Logan makes for an ac­­curate representative of passive German clergy in the 1930s. At the same time, the script tries to lash out at some of Tabori’s con­tem­porary de­mons: the fact that he had found his own name on the Hollywood blacklist added a whole new level to the film’s paranoid obsession with name-giving.

Tabori tried to Europeanize Hol­ly­wood, but Hollywood would­n’t have any of it: I Confess flopped spectacularly. In Hitchcock’s oeuvre, both critics and bio­graphers agree, it represents a step back after the success of Strangers on a Train (1951). “An interesting plot premise holds out considerable promise for this Alfred Hitchcock production, but I Confess is short of the suspense one would expect,” commented Variety at the time. “Earnest, distinguished, very interesting, and on the whole a failure,” writes Robin Wood in Hitchcock’s Films. Hitchcock himself thought the final result was “rather heavy-handed… lacking in hu­mour.”

Tabori’s favorite epigram on Hollywood was this: “Hollywood at the time was one big brothel, and I wasn’t a very good whore.”

*

George Tabori died this July, aged ninety-three. In 2005, I interviewed Ta­bori in Berlin. He had lived in Germany and Austria for the last thirty-seven years, where he is seen as one of the most influential playwrights of the postwar era. His plays are firmly established in the repertoire of theaters across Germany and Austria, and monographs on his work are multiplying by the month. Just before our interview, Tabori said, he had been on the phone to Claus Peymann, the di­rector of the Berliner Ensemble, talking about two productions he would have liked to have put on at the theater within the next year if health permitted. “If that happens I would be the oldest practising dra­matist in history. Even Sophocles kicked the can in his eighties.”

Tabori lived in a relatively spacious top-floor apartment a few hundred meters away from the Ensemble. The theater was ­founded in 1949 by Bertolt Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel. If you step out of the staff canteen at the theater, you walk past a bronze ­statue of Brecht. The square is named after Brecht too.

In 1968 Tabori was invited to take part in a season of modern Brecht interpretations, the Brecht Dialogues. Tabori recalls that “at the BE I found what up to then I had been looking for in vain at the theater: pure perfection, an incomparable unity of form and content.” When he stepped onto the stage to de­liver his contribution to the even­ing, he stood in silence for five minutes and eventually broke down in tears.

In 2000, a Tabori play, The Brecht File, was chosen to celebrate the reopening of the theater after its temporary closure. By then, Ta­bori had started to emulate Brecht’s own modus operandi: playwright, translator, director, producer, and actor.

Books by and about Bertolt Brecht hogged the shelves in Ta­bori’s living room, and a biography of Brecht’s exile years in America sat on top of a pile between us during the interview. One of his favorite stories, which he told me in the interview and which appears in pretty much every interview he has ever given, is how he first met Brecht.

Joseph Losey introduced the two ­writers at a party in 1947, but Brecht ignored Tabori and sat in the corner for the rest of the evening, smoking his cigar. The two met for a second time when Tabori’s friend Charles Laughton, who later went on to direct The Night of the Hunter, was trying to put on a production of Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. Laughton had already translated the play, but not very well, as he didn’t speak German himself. One day Tabori was sitting in Laughton’s flat, looking on as Brecht and Laughton were fighting: “Brecht was angry, he was shouting: ‘Simple simple simple simple! Not complicated! Simple!’ And then he just stormed off.”

The third meeting with Brecht was more successful. In spite of their numerous arguments, Laughton and Brecht had managed to take Galileo to New York. Tabori was working in the city as a scriptwriter at the time and turned up at one of their rehearsals. This time Laughton was in a rage. “I can’t do this play,” he was screaming. “I don’t want to do it.” Then he calmed down and his gaze fell on Tabori. “George, maybe you can do it.” Laughton had been struggling with the last big speech in the play, where Galileo recants his own teachings in front of the Vatican. For Laughton, the speech was he­roic and noble, and Brecht would interrupt him: “I’m an asshole—that’s what he is saying.” Laughton said something must be wrong with his translation, because he could see no asshole in this script.

Tabori took the play home overnight and made three small changes. “Something happened that night that I still can’t explain—I just wanted to do theater, because I knew I could do it. Strangely, I think I got a feel for what Brecht was after from the Bible—not the content but the language. The English bible is so beautiful. When Brecht was screaming, ‘simple ­simple simple,’ he didn’t see that you just have to turn to the Bible to find that simplicity in the English language.”

There is another literary figure looming over Tabori’s career: Samuel Beckett. As with Brecht, Tabori enjoyed taking the bits from Beckett he liked best and bringing them to the stage. In 1980, Tabori put on a series of “Beckett eve­nings” in a circus tent in Munich. On one of these evenings, an actor performed Play Without Words with a real elephant watching him in silence. In 1989 Tabori wrote a third act for Waiting for Godot and published it in Theater Heute: Estragon and Vladimir are still waiting by the dead tree. It starts to snow, and after a while they freeze to death. Then, suddenly, Godot arrives: “I am terribly sorry, but you know what the traffic can be like…”

That Beckett let him translate freely and loosely, rewrite stage directions, and ignore time restrictions, is remarkable given the his­tory of court cases against those who tried to do likewise. Tabori had met Beckett in Berlin, where they shared a residency at the Academy of the Arts. While Tabori was working on the production of his first play, The Cannibals (1968), Beckett was involved in the productions of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape at the Schiller­theater. Their correspondence continued for years, and Tabori often visited him in Paris. “His cards were like love letters to me. I adore him, love him. Love is perhaps the right word. He appeals to me more than anyone else alive today,” he said in 1981.

My interview with George Tabori itself was decidedly Beckettian. I ascended to Tabori’s apartment via a wide Mitteleuropean staircase which must once have been inviting and was now slightly ­shabby. At the top floor I was ­greeted by a dog with a thick, spaghettilike coat. It was barking at me aggressively while somehow only managing to look comical, like a Muppet. Tabori was wearing a very elegant dressing gown with a silk necktie. He had a full white crop of hair and a flamboyant fin de siècle mustachio, but he looked old and tired. He greeted me and apologized, explaining that his hearing aid had broken yesterday. I have a theory that this was part of an elaborate practical joke, that he wanted to play Nagg to my Nell, that he rejoiced at the idea of the interviewer as decrepit Krapp, later listening back to a crackly tape of his fragmented memories. Either way, he acted his part well:

GT: After Galileo, I wrote three essays. The first one—there is this Italian book, I can’t remember the title [Long pause, heavy breathing, the rustle of paper.] The first one was about the German Hamlet. In German, the line “the rest is silence” is normally translated as “der Rest ist Schweigen”—of course it should be “der Rest ist Stille.” And so I wrote an essay about why this was the case. It’s the same with “to be or not to be”: “Sein oder nicht sein” doesn’t get it. I enjoyed… working with the American language be­cause it was so much more… di­rect than the polite diction of the German theater. There is this epilogue… in Mother’s Courage… Am I boring you?

PO: No, no, I am not bored.

[Dog starts barking]

GT: I saw Brecht again many years later, in Zurich. Or I thought Brecht would be there, but he wasn’t. Why was I in Zurich in the first place? Oh, I think it was because they were putting on one of my plays, The Clowns…

PO: That’s one of my favorite plays of yours.

GT: Eh?

PO: One of my favorite plays of yours. The Clowns.

GT: ???

PO: The Clowns is my favorite play. I like it very much.

GT: Yes. The premiere was in… 1972. Or was it 1973…

When I transcribed the interview, I realized that I had found no new insights into the artist and few glimpses of Tabori the person. As he couldn’t understand my questions I had resigned myself to listening passively to Tabori’s increasingly inane anecdotes.

Here is what I would have liked to have asked him: How have you managed to make a career out of telling the same two or three anecdotes again and again? Where would you be without the tenuous links to Brecht and Beckett?

Only, I knew this wasn’t quite fair.

*

In performance, Tabori’s plays are actually neither very Brechtian nor very Beckettian. Beckett’s plays are structurally pure. Their pleasure comes from seeing patterns repeated and completed: nothing happens, but twice. Brecht’s plays too are carefully organized. Their pull-and-release structure mirrors their political objective. They are patterned to have maximum impact on the audience.

George Tabori’s plays are chaotic, muddled, and inconsequentially episodic. They don’t have a political message, but they don’t champion the absence of meaning either. They neither drive to a conclusion nor rejoice in their own equilibrium. In The Cannibals, a group of inmates at a concentration camp kill and cook a fellow prisoner. All this happens within the first thirty minutes of the first act—for the rest of the play the inmates playact, fool about, and chat. In Tabori’s Mein Kampf, Hitler moves in to a shared flat with two Jews. They fight over a girl, kill a chicken, and make jokes. In The Clowns, a woman wrestles with a boa constrictor, a boy builds bombs with a nameless monster, and a father reenacts scenes from Wilhelm Tell with his son.

Tabori’s plays are series of sketches. They employ theatrical effects that could be called Beckettian or Brechtian, but they don’t share the former’s profound nihilism or the latter’s faith in the enlightening effects of dialectical theater. Tabori’s theater is much more his own than it might at first seem.

*

There is one thing Tabori shares with Brecht and Beckett: his sense of hu­mor. But even here the contrasts are more apparent than the similarities. Beckettian humor is in­tensely private. It will be triggered by a random memory, bubbling over in the form of a smile, a grin, a snouty chuckle, and disappearing again behind tight Catholic lips. Rarely does it stray beyond the boundaries of the stage to the audience. Brecht­ian humor, on the other hand, is a communal affair. It is scatological, vulgar, physical. It says: we’re in this together, we are made of the same soil. Brecht’s laughter infects the audience, Beckett’s laughter makes them squirm on their seats.

Tabori’s humor is different. It belongs neither to the audience nor to the actors—Tabori’s jokes bounce back and forth across the curtain line like tennis balls. His jokes are both passionately human and fiercely misanthropic. They are too black for Brecht and too populist for Beckett. Here are some examples of jokes in the plays of George Tabori: 

The Cannibals is dedicated “to the memory of Cornelius Tabori / Who died in Auschwitz / Never a hungry boy.”

✯ In Mother’s Courage, a play about Tabori’s mother’s escape from the SS, the mother character asks one of the officers: “Where are you taking me?”

FIRST OFFICER: To Auschwitz.

MOTHER: Where?

SECOND OFFICER: To a Jewish bakery.

✯ Then, in the same play, the mother says: “Can I at least get some food on the train?”

✯ When Hitler introduces himself to his prospective housemates in Mein Kampf (the Tabori play of 1987, not the Führer’s memoir) Herzl says: “That’s funny, you really don’t look Jewish.”

✯ In the same play, Hitler says: “I don’t really want to become a painter. I don’t really want to paint twilights. I want something dif­ferent.”

HERZL: For example?

hitler: The world.

HERZL: OK. The whole thing?

HITLER: Yes.

HERZL: Including New Zea­land?

HITLER: Especially New Zea­land!

HERZL: What’s so great about New Zealand?

HITLER: I don’t know, but I want it.

✯ At the end of Mein Kampf, Hitler meets Death. “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” says Death.

*

When George Tabori moved to Berlin in 1969, strange things were happening in German politics and culture. Germany’s economy had recovered after the war, but the prevailing sense, especially among the intelligentsia, was that the country had yet to come clean with its own history. Das Schweigen der Väter became a central issue for artists and writers. Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum (1959) became a key text of the period because it advocated a radical break with the ­legacy of Nazi Germany and then actually performed it: When Oskar Matzerath realizes he was born into a world of fallenness he revolts against history. His protest is total: psychological and physiological.

Grass set the standard. Thomas Bernhard’s play A Party for Boris (1970) is set in a world ruled by war veterans. Boris, a crippled old man in a wheelchair, rebels like Oskar Mat­zerath: he bangs a tin drum and screams a silent scream until he drops to the floor, dead.

In 1966, Theodor Adorno came up with a term that summed up this attitude: he called it “aesthetic negativity.” Culture’s only “authentic” option after the Third Reich was to acknowledge its own impotence: to curl back on itself in a gesture of resistance, refusing to be part of a culture industry that pretended to function without fault.

Grass, Bernhard, and Adorno’s protest is forceful, but also oddly vague. Aesthetic negativity shuns clarity of expression in favor of impenetrability. By advocating a complete refusal to communicate, you might say, it paradoxically mirrors the very silence of the authorities that they had sought to criticize.

Set against the backdrop of Grass, Bernhard, and Adorno’s aesthetic protest, George Tabori’s The Cannibals was radical. Tabori’s plays might be chaotic, muddled, and un­­structured, but the jokes are precise and hardly ever vague. They are un­subtle: punch lines yank subtext into the open with swift, sharp tugs. They are slaps around the face. They defy the notion that the Holocaust lies beyond the boundaries of representation. “Where is my father?” asks one of the concentration camp inmates in The Cannibals. “We ate him and we shat him out again,” says one of the ­others. For Tabori the banality of comedy is as good a response as any to the banality of evil.

*

Five years after Alfred Hitchcock and George Tabori went to the Midwest, Hitchcock was in his living room with another scriptwriter, Ernest Lehman, acting out one of the most famous scenes in film history. Hitchcock was a diesel truck, Lehman a crop duster plane. The film they were working on, provisionally titled The Man in Lincoln’s Nose, was released in 1959 as North by Northwest.

In the film, comedy takes place in confined spaces, and tragedy on open plains. Advertising executive Roger Thornhill is mistaken for the government agent George Kaplan by a gang of foreign spies. In an early scene, Thornhill is having drinks with some friends at the Plaza Hotel. As he leaves the bar in order to send a wire from the lobby, he is suddenly flanked by two tall and sinister-looking men. “Who are you?” asks Thornhill. “Mere errand boys, carrying concealed weapons,” says the man on the right. Thornhill tries to shake free. “What is this—a joke or something?” “Yes,” says the man on the left, while removing his hands from his pockets and shoving a gun into Thornhill’s ribs, “a joke. We will laugh in the car.”

Later in the film the spies chase Thornhill through a hotel. By his side is his mother, who is oblivious to the danger they are in. They manage to escape into a lift packed full of other visitors, so the spies have to hide their true intentions. Thornhill’s mother looks at them teasingly. “You are not really trying to kill my son, are you?” The ­people in the lift break into nervous laughter.

North by Northwest reaches its climax when one of the villains falls off one of the presidential heads carved into Mount Rushmore. The man falls, but we don’t see him hit the ground.

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