Jackie in New York

produced by the Women’s Project Theatre Company at City Center.

Translated by Gitta Honegger
Directed by Tea Alagić
With Tina Benko as Jackie

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Interview with Rob Weinert-Kendt for the New York Times preview of Jackie

Q: Can you recall any early memories/impressions you had of Jackie Kennedy, and/or of the Kennedy family? Do you remember how you felt about the assassination? What do you think of the Kennedy legacy now, and if your feelings have changed, what changed them?

EJ. I grew up without a television set, therefore my only connection to the Kennedys were the pictures in the newspapers. And the language, whatever was written about them. And of course I devoured it all. Since I was very young at that time, the era Kennedy is reflected in the light of my own youth. Writing about it, I break away from the leash of old age and throw myself into that time, so to speak. The same could be said of my connection to America (though I don’t really know, I don’t know the country), it yanks itself back to a time of innocence, to Camelot. But that time never existed, of course. However, back then politics was still “made” by politicians, today the politicians are made by the politics of politics. They are exchangeable in a sense. I think that only Obama broke through this; he introduced something like a new illusion of innocence and a new beginning, which, unfortunately, he could only partly deliver.

Q: You included Jackie in your series of Princess Plays, and you made a distinction between princesses and royalty (as in Mary Stuart). We of course don't officially have royalty in America, but if we did, the Kennedys would be it. Why doesn't Jackie, in your mind, rise to the level of royalty?

EJ. Maybe because of her being in a state of unfinished-ness of sorts, of never having become herself, a being that lives off only of itself (a woman’s fate at that time). She was, of course, very well read and educated, but this was mainly to her husband’s benefit, not her own, until years later, when she became an editor. But even then she did not write books herself. Princesses remain somewhat stuck in a “Puppenstadium,” a “doll”- stage (in German the stage preceding the finished insect, the “unfinished insect,” the chrysalis is called Puppe, doll – my starting point is always language itself), that is, princesses never “came out.”

Q: I know you've used real-life subjects and public figures in your writing before, but as far as I know they have all been European. Is Jackie your first real-life American subject? And did that make the writing process any different from writing about German or Austrian culture?

EJ. In Jackie I wrote about a world-icon, that is to say, a myth. Of course my figures, which are of European origin, mostly from my own cultural background, are filtered through a different kind of experience. I simply know it better. What I know about America comes only from what I read. America, whose culture has “nurtured” us, most literally, after World War II, (it also dressed us! My older women friends wore chic American clothes, from packages they received from the US), is a myth for us, frozen innocence as myth (freely adapted from Roland Barthes) always produces innocence and “authenticity,” in place of an object’s history, which actually should be returned to it. In “Jackie” I am trying to both decipher the myth and to give back to the figure her history (for which I am absolutely not qualified; others, who know more about it are doing that anyway). I am probably adding just a new myth to the old one.

Q: Along similar lines, the other princess plays adapt/deconstruct familiar fairy-tale figures, but Jackie is very specifically about a real person, one whom audiences in the U.S. know very well, and whose references we will all understand. Are you conscious or concerned about how much differently this American content is going to register with an audience, particularly an American audience? Did you have that in mind when you wrote it?

EJ. Yes, it will be very exciting, as the play will emerge at the intersection, from the difference between the real thing (after all, American history is negotiated here, in front of American women) and a distant, foreign, acquired one – mine. I can only hope that it might be somehow interesting for an informed audience to relate to this foreign perspective, this myth of a myth. Of course I used American sources, but even so, it could be that my view of Jackie, the historical figure, is completely wrong or distorted.

Q: I haven't counted the lines, but I'm pretty sure Jackie talks more about Marilyn than about her husband Jack. Though she continually calls Marilyn not a threat, a nobody, she spends a lot of the play talking about her, almost to an obsessive degree. Is this meant to undercut Jackie's veracity--to show she's an unreliable narrator, someone whose protestations we can't take at face value?

EJ. That’s possible. Women are often more preoccupied with their rivals than their cheating husbands. Of course Marilyn was never a danger to Jackie, but there is the dichotomy between one woman who defines herself through thinking and another, who is primarily a beautiful body (I am conscious of the injustice, since Marilyn was much more intelligent than her public image and Jackie probably more superficial than one assumes), but the body always wins. A woman gains value on account of her youth and beauty (both had it! But Marilyn was a creature of light, who defined herself through her exterior, the body, and you can’t object to the body, because the body can’t be contradicted, at best it can be surgically changed), rather than through thinking and working. A man is what he makes of himself, a woman is what she is. Objection overruled. A woman succumbs to this injustice; she cannot elevate her sexual value through knowledge and know-how. A man can. And, of course, Jackie knew that.

Q: Can you talk about the various ways you've collaborated with theaters that have staged your work? Gitta mentioned that you often give great leeway to theater companies in interpreting your texts, but does that mean a totally hands-off approach? And how involved are you with this New York production?

EJ. Only half (at the most!) of a stage play is created by the author, the rest is the work of the director and the actor. I consider my “plays” primarily literary works (they have little in common with the “well-made play” in the Anglo-American tradition). They can be read as literary texts, just like novels. Except that those texts are texts for speaking. Then I hand them over to a team of theatre people, and only then the “play” gets made. I grant all the freedom in the staging of a text, because I already had my own literary freedom in writing the piece. Now it’s the others’ turn. And they can do anything with it. And the more I learn about my own work (when the theatre team discovers something I wasn’t conscious of, since the creative process always contains something unconscious, which only psychoanalysis could bring to the surface, or a theatre production), the more interesting it is for me.

Q: How closely do you work with translators to approximate your essentially untranslatable wordplay? Is your English good enough to evaluate how well they're matching it? (Ms. Honegger's work seems exemplary on this point, as best as I can tell.)

EJ. I am very fortunate to have found Gitta Honegger as a translator. She also confirms my opinion that my texts, which mostly deal with language as such, can only be translated by someone whose mother tongue is German (who, of course, is also completely fluent in the foreign language; that goes without saying). Gitta grew up in Austria, in very similar circumstances as I did. I hardly ever have to explain something to her. She just knows. And, like myself, she enjoys puns, which are an English tradition. And she can deal with them very freely, that is, create her own puns in English, where it is not possible in German. In the German language world they always hit me over the head with my puns and silly jokes, because here they don’t like such playful use of language. More recently, it was the Nazis who brutally stopped the tradition of word games. After the war,it was picked up again by the then avant-garde.

Q: Will you be able to experience the New York production in any way? On video, audio, through firsthand accounts?

EJ. Unfortunately only on video and through Gitta’s accounts. Even here I can’t see my own plays because of my anxiety illness, which prevents me from going to the theatre so that even here I depend on videos.

Q: Are you familiar with the so-called "language playwrights" in the U.S.--Mac Wellman, Maria Irene Fornes, Suzan-Lori Parks, Erik Ehn--and if so, do you feel a kinship with what they're doing? (As my friend Alexis Soloski put it in the Village Voice, many young American "writers don't emphasize plot or character. Rather, they hew toward another tradition of American drama. This school...doesn't place primacy on plot or character; instead, it questions the very devices and means by which we create theater.")

EJ. It sounds very interesting. I would like to find out more about it. In England I would add Sarah Kane. In America I am very interested in Tony Kushner (Angels in America are among my favorite plays, I watch the brilliant film version again and again. He is probably closest to what I am doing, even though he might not experiment with language so much, he comes from a completely different tradition after all). However, I am especially interested in how far language itself is able to expose societal mechanisms, since my “characters” are not real human beings, but figures made of speech, stencils punched out of the non-stop talking all around (Tellingly, Thomas Pynchon named one of his characters Stencil ). They live as long as they speak and when they stop talking they disappear. Speaking keeps them alive, so to speak, and sometimes I force language to reveal its real truth against its will. That is the purpose of my word games. One could say, their speaking knows more about the speakers than they do.

Q: Being a reclusive provocateur, one who works in the very social, collaborative medium of theater, seems a kind of contradiction--by which I mean, the novelist can only imagine her ideal reader but the playwright has the chance to see and hear them. I understand, however, that you don't often see your work onstage anymore. Do you feel disconnected from the effect your theater work has on live people in a theatrical space? And do you think this separation of yourself from the performance experience and the audience reaction has freed your writing in some way?

EJ. Yes, you are quite right! On the one hand, it makes me very sad that I am excluded from the production process (because I am incurably shy around people, and theatre is the medium where people most intensely collide, collaborate, work off each other – quite literally), on the other hand it gives me a new freedom. In my writing I don’t have to be considerate of anything or anyone, and I don’t ever get into the danger of telling an audience what it wants to hear, to butter it up. But I couldn’t do that anyway. And if you plan to do just that, it works only very rarely (maybe only for Yasmina Reza. But I have no idea, whether she always has her audience right in front of her eyes, so to speak, when she writes a play).

Q: In your opinion, is language forever poisoned by its patriarchal origins? What could heal or purge it, short of making a brand new language?

EJ. The subjugated, women, cannot invent a new language. The only thing they can do is subvert the master’s language (a discours de maîtrise, the dominant discourse, if you will, undermining, ironizing it, turning it against the master). It always was the task of the subjugated, probably going all the way back to the slaves in ancient Rome, to ridicule their masters. Because no one knew them as well as their slaves. And I mean subjugated not just in the sense of master and mistress of the house –– that barely exists anymore ––, but in the context of the general, broader value system of patriarchy. The great cultural creations have mostly been accomplished by men, women are presumed incapable of such feats. But we can turn their creations against the masters of the world. We can be subversive. I think this is also one of the biggest tasks of the theatre (of all art): subversion.

Translated by Gitta Honegger

Rob Weinert-Kendt is Associate Editor of American Theatre and writes frequently about theatre and the arts for the New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 Elfriede Jelinek


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