Yesterday evening, Nancy and I went to see the play, Arthur Schnitzler’s fin-de-siècle Vienna play, The Amorous Adventures of Anatol, at the Tarragon Theatre. This season we have been delighted and moved to see such wonderful productions as This is War, A Brimful of Asha, and No Great Mischief. But last night was a real disappointment and, given the seats we chose, we were trapped and could not slip out quietly and unobtrusively.
Perhaps the production was doubly disappointing because Morris Panych, a talented playwright and director in his own right, interpreted the play as just a piece of flaky Viennese pastry rather than a fast-paced farce with a dark centre that tells a tale of self-destruction of a vain, self-centred playboy in Freud’s world. (Freud, a friend of the playwright Arthur Schnitzler, would twenty years later publish an important paper on narcissism.) The whole pattern of the play is lost as Panych replicated the repetitive drawers of one of the most marvellous sets by Ken MacDonald (as well as uses of lighting and projection) in my recent theatre-going. The wall of compartmentalization apothecary multi-use drawers is used for doors, shop windows, peak-a-boo holes, and most of all store houses of memories by Anatol for collecting magical moments where each momento helps to recall, not the delightful creature whom he romanced, but just another of his own fanciful projections.
I have been writing about sociopaths and lying; a wonderful opportunity was lost to reveal the pathology of the condition through the lens of humour and wit. First, instead of a pathological specimen, we saw Anatol played by Mike Shara only as an indecisive neurotic romantic twit so self-absorbed that the audience cannot possibly identify with him. But that is the challenge – how to get the playgoer involved in Anatol’s progressive self-destruction. All we get is repetition as if the director is as entranced as the main protagonist. And Max, as played by Robert Persichini, is only a heavy-footed befuddled friend taking notes The production never allows you to see why. Does Max truly befriend this romantic, self-deluded and lying romantic scoundrel with soulful resigned patience as his proffered advice is rejected? The friendship is then totally incomprehensible. The lines presented as just light banter along the lines of a TV sitcom never emerge as a series of ironic and perceptive takes on the narcissism of Anatol. Max should have been played as a cigar-chomping, witty scientific observer, not a hapless buddy.
Perhaps I am being too hard. The series of seven women were played absolutely wonderfully by Nicole Underhay; she succeeds in bringing out each of the character’s unique resilient properties as we progress from victim to each very different variation who can increasingly turn the tables on the self-absorbed roué. But Panych could have done so much more with Adam Palooza who plays all the silent mime parts of doorman, servant, waiter to valet. As the bondsman to a master of self-conceit and self-deceit he could have provided so much more of the body language to comment on this preening poppycock.
In the first scene with Hilda where Anatol’s jealousy is revealed as an absorption in his own imagination with his projections on women of himself as an irresponsible serial liar, the projection we see on the much magnified apothecary wall of drawers is the word “Hilda” rather than a translation of the original “Die Frage an das Schicksal” which was an adumbration of the fate of Anatol as the playwright played with the double-sided meaning of shicksa and fate. So another opportunity to unveil the darker meaning of the drama was lost.
One of the issues is of memory. If everything we deal with is merely a projection of our self-love, and the self is just a handsome, boastful uncomprehending dolt, then there is no memory at all. For memory differentiates. Memory teaches, Memory enriches our lives rather than reflecting it back as a series of boring repetitious failures so that all an Anatol wants to do is undercut even the memories of others. When Anatol says at the beginning of the play that everything is hypnosis and magic, then the shameless use of magic and its limits dramatized in the first scene gets lost as just a theatrical trick.
When in Greek myth Narcissus rejected the nymph Echo because he was so entranced and enraptured with his own reflection in a the river that Narcissus turned into a flower, the theme of vanity and self-absorption that requires the other to be reduced to a projection of oneself and oneself to spend one’s time in love with their own imagination of the other that they will not even follow through with a hypnosis of the other to be confronted with the truth, for the only truth is their self-absorption; there is no empathy. There is no understanding. There is no self-conscious awareness. And if the director does not comprehend this, then the combination of flattery and sense of vulnerability, the haughty tone of his words and the fear of being shamed, the thin skin and the use of clothes as a protective body shield, the hyperbolic exaggeration and the absorption in self and minutiae cannot be understood.
How could Anatol have such contempt for women he professed to be in love with? Because it was a projection of his own self-contempt. How could he spend so much time degrading others with whom he was intimate? He had to as the only way to protect himself from seeing his own degradation. Where was the rage demonstrated of the narcissist when his expectations were thwarted and his will was frustrated? The exploitation of his conquests comes across more as a kitten playing with a ball of wool than an outrageous misuse of an Other. Where is the flitting back and forth and dizzying movement between fantasies of conquest and imaginative humiliations, exaggerated sense of one’s own intelligence and shame at one’s total display of banality? They are in the words and structure of play but we could not find them in that production.