Péter Esterházy: Mercedes Benz / Tesla Teátrum

The new play of Péter Esterházy called Mercedes Benz premiered in Tesla Teátrum in a Reader’s Theater – apparently for a single special occasion. BY PÉTER POGRÁNYI.

The play was commissioned by the Slovakian National Theatre, and will be put on stage in Bratislava, but the cream of the Budapest audience was given a taste of the performance that is a mix of a manifold de-written family saga, witty intertextual games and intrepid, jubilant laughter. To summarize up front: it was jolly good fun. 

I am tempted to think that the reader’s theatre is the ideal form for Péter Esterházy’s texts that are meant for the stage. People of the theatre who struggle, I assume heroically, with his texts may not like what I am about to say, but he is a writer whose mind is so much more tuned to the page than to the stage, and the performances of his works always seem to be overstepping the mark, trying to accomplish the impossible even with the best of intentions and the strongest artistic visions. 

Péter Esterházy
Péter Esterházy
For instance regarding the play I am the You, that premiered in the National Theatre four years ago, I felt confusion and perplexity: as if the painstakingly constructed, nevertheless not completely thought through theatrical world had been wedged between the spectator and the text, and the abundance of visuals that were added on top of the multi-layered writing turned the whole production into chaos – I for one didn’t understand a word of it. 

I recalled this, because during the reading of Mercedez Benz I had the impression that due to the lack of unnecessary dramaturgical components that do not fit an Esterházy text anyway, I was able to focus on the text entirely. At the same time the dialogues were very much alive, the actors created a quasi-dramaturgy for the play making maximal use of the restricted options provided by the reader’s theatre format (this version was created by Zsuzsa Radnóti, the director was Iván Vas-Zoltán), even having an – almost obvious – ironical jab at the unadorned setting. This made the author’s peculiar humour all the more vibrant, and the fact that we got to enjoy it as spectators/listeners instead of readers brought new nuances to light. I would like to highlight József Gyabronka, who gave a brilliant performance in all of his five (!) roles listed on the bill. 

The Esterházy gags, quotes, references, insinuations that follow one another regularly with subtlety and slyness were perhaps all the more enjoyable when read out loud, the effect was at times hilarious. Paraphrasing The Tragedy of Man, the play starts with a wager between the Lord and Lucifer, they are betting on the salvation of the Esterházy family. During the blood drenched centuries of the Hungarians Lucifer tries to lead them to damnation, and smites them with all sorts of woes. And we glide over Hungarian history from the battle of Vezekény through the communist era to the reclaiming of the castles (or rather the mentioning of the possibility to reclaim them). The loose dramaturgy provides an ideal framework for an Esterházy best-of in a very good sense: His Lordships, aphorisms infused with wise irony about the passage of time, Haydn at the kids’ table, Eisenstadt, deportation, Austrian-Hungarian row resembling the Benny Hill Show, etc.
The laughter from the end of the Janis Joplin song of the title is heard several times during the performance, suggesting that the key of the play is to be found in gaiety and joy: the laughter of the singer seems to rise above all trials and tribulations of this world, even offering a sort of solution to the historical dilemmas the play touches upon. The fact that a quality work of literature can interact so vividly with the audience and is able to entertain in the noblest sense of the word is a great forte: it is like watching an intellectual, literary vaudeville. 
It was a special occasion, and not only because of the one-time performance. Probably the entire audience felt that with their presence they are expressing their solidarity and love towards the author fighting a grave illness. Who also showed up, giving the spectators the joyful opportunity to judge the success of the show based on his reactions. I am happy to report that Péter Esterházy enjoyed his play, his laughter was the most boisterous of all. 
Translated by Péter Papolczy