I saw the New York premiere of Ritter, Dene, Voss by Thomas Bernhard at La Mama First Floor Theatre last Sunday and loved it. This is a perfect gem of a play and it is difficult to understand why it did not arrive in New York sooner: originally produced in German in 1986, it is beautifully written, elegantly translated into English by Kenneth Northcott and Peter Jansen, and intricately structured with levels upon levels of self-referential and symbolic allusions, and it is astonishing that it should have taken nearly 25 years for it to have made it here. And even after all that time, it still took a Canadian troupe, Toronto’s One Little Goat Theatre Company, rather than an American troupe, to bring it off!
Thomas Bernhard, although not that well known in the United States, was one of Austria’s most highly regarded and provocative novelists and playwrights of the last century. He developed a ranting manner and an unusual writing style: his plays are written without punctuation of any kind but with line breaks indicating cadence - which actually has the effect of making his plays all that more poetic (albeit a tougher challenge for the actors involved in performing his roles). Clearly influenced by Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet and others of their ilk, Bernhard might have been expected to assume a prominent role in the absurdist school, but he did not. We may hope that this production may redress some of that imbalance and that he may be more highly regarded in this country in the future.
On the surface, the plot of Ritter, Dene, Voss is a simple one involving the attempts of an older sister (Maev Beaty) and a younger sister (Shannon Perrault) to bring their highly eccentric if not actually psychotic brother Ludwig (Jordan Pettle) home from an insane asylum but the sibling rivalries and repressed psycho-sexual relationships among the three add so many layers of meaning to the play that a simple plot description does it little justice. Ludwig is clearly meant to be a fictionalized representation of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most influential and arguably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. The press release for the play states that Ludwig is “loosely based on…Ludwig Wittgenstein” and in an “Author’s note” in the program, Bernhard states that “During my work on the play…my thoughts dwelt mainly on my friend Paul and on his uncle, Ludwig Wittgenstein,” but it seems quite clear to me that Ludwig is intended to be Ludwig Wittgenstein and not just a character loosely based on him or influenced by the playwright’s transient thoughts of his friend’s uncle. And the sisters are intended to be Wittgenstein’s sisters and the family to be the Wittgenstein family, at one time the wealthiest family in Austria.
Ludwig, after all, has been dictating his books on logic to his older sister. (Might those be his Tractatus?) He has recalled the time he spent at his remote cabin in Norway and has expressed his desire for a doctorate degree from Cambridge. His disdain for children and for money is made clear. And in a clever tour-de-force, he repeatedly proclaims his adamant refusal to see Doctor Frege for whom he exhibits little respect (a symbolic reminder, surely, of the relationship between Wittgenstein and Gottlob Frege, the mathematician-logician who had a profound influence on the early Wittgenstein but whose philosophy was almost directly antithetical to that of the later Wittgenstein.)
That is not to say, of course, that this play accurately portrays all aspects of the real Ludwig Wittgenstein. On the contrary, Bernhard clearly has taken poetic license in endowing his Ludwig with some traits that Wittgenstein surely lacked. It is, for instance, highly doubtful that the real Wittgenstein would have harbored incestuous longings for either of his sisters, as Bernhard suggests, since likely as not Wittgenstein’s inclinations were more of a homosexual than heterosexual bent. But that is what makes this a play, rather than a documentary, and all the better for that.
The title of the play itself, Ritter, Dene, Voss is a bit mysterious to begin with for it actually has nothing to do with the substance of the play nor any of the characters in it. Rather it is simply the surnames of the three actors who originally starred in the play and for whom Bernhard wrote it. But what is Bernhard getting at with that odd conceit? Perhaps a further clue is provided by the fact that two of the three characters in the play, the two sisters, are actors themselves and what Bernhard may be alluding to is the degree to which our personas are nothing more than self-referent roles. Bernhard returns to this idea in several guises. Are the portraits on the wall really pictures of the persons they purport to depict or do they provide false impressions of who those persons really were? Who are the truly insane in the institution from which Ludwig’s sisters seek to release him: the inmates or their keepers? And why does the older sister really want to bring Ludwig home – for his sake or for her own?
The three actors all do a superb job in their respective roles and the director deserves considerable credit for this production. The scenic design is creative and first-rate, particularly the arrangement and rearrangement of the various portraits which are designed and utilized to dramatic effect. And the decision to play the music of Ludwig von Beethoven is a good one, underscoring the relationships among the three Ludwigs (the play’s protagonist, Wittgenstein, and Beethoven).
All in all, this is a terrific play and, even if you’re not overly familiar with the life and work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, you’re likely both to enjoy it and to get a lot out of it. And if you are familiar with Wittgenstein’s life and work, more’s the better. In that event, you’re really in for a treat.