Home  •   About Us  •   Catalogue  •   Author Gallery   •   Contact  •   News  •   Resources

from Collected Plays II

, Presheren Theater Kranj, Slovenia, 2008


Conrad, a master of verbal aggression and a former opportunist with autocratic leanings that were not to his benefit (or rather they did not serve him sufficiently because he was, as he himself admits, not nimble enough), finds himself in this new world of market mentality without reliable political support. The merry-go-round of change suddenly “starts moving with such speed” that – as he admits to Matilda (only because he is certain she is the only one who doesn’t knows what he is talking about) – he begins to feel nauseous and falls off. He retreats to exile in his own house in which he appears to want to be alone and undisturbed, but in fact leaves the front door unlocked because (irrespective of the verbal abuse with which he tries to get rid of visitors) he needs company and hopes that something will pull him back into the center of events, into life itself, back from the aquarium into the open sea, where you may well get eaten by a fish. In this self-created chamber he would like to rid himself of himself or, rather, of the self he does not like because his loss of stature in society has forced him to see himself in a more realistic light and he now realizes that he cannot be proud of everything he has done in the past.

He is far from being ready to admit this – except between the lines, in a non-binding humorous form. His verbal aggression (with which in the past, from a position of power, he proved to himself the impact of his influence and his exceptionality) is now really just a defense used to camouflage the fragility and vulnerability that are both quite new to him. Not something he could not live with – in fact, the opposite: in front of our eyes he realizes (somewhat belatedly) that compromise brings relief and that by granting more freedom to others than they allow him, he is liberating himself. He has always considered it essential to control everything, either directly or through cunning, even – if that was the only way – through feigning ignorance, as in his relationship with his wife and, to a lesser extent, with others whom he keeps reproaching that they are disturbing him.

His obsession with Casablanca originates in the feeling (perhaps not just a feeling but a full awareness) that in the movie the city of Casablanca (he describes it as a waiting room, a purgatory) resembles his aquarium, in which as a slowly rotting fish he has nothing he could exchange for a pass that would give him access to the open sea. He cannot get a pass through ruses, threats, deals, tricks or prostitution (because all of these got him to the place from where he now wishes to escape). During his “orchestrated descent from the stage of importance into the benevolent silence of solitude,” as he describes his withdrawal from the world, Conrad realizes that the easiest way to avoid pain is by pretending to be ignorant (it is not sensible to talk about anything that could cause hurt, becomes his motto). Not only that, it is necessary to pretend that something obviously true never happened at all. Confrontations that demand action and a change in the status quo must be avoided. Hence the protective consideration he shows toward his wife’s transgressions and the benevolent patience with which he follows what happens to his tenant, Damien, as well as his patronizing understanding for the failures of his younger brother are not so much the indicators of a higher wisdom as a calculated maneuver with which he ensures his own peace and sense of superiority: because he knows and sees what others are doing, while others have no idea that he knows and sees, he can imagine he is a step ahead and still in control.

The feeling that he is controlling things eludes him only with the arrival of a former school friend who comes to tell Conrad that he is the father of the man’s grandson and that the grandson would like to meet his father for his birthday. In this unexpected news Conrad sees an opportunity to return to the world. The child’s sincerity and the promise of pure innocence seduce him into hoping he can leave Casablanca after all. The fact that in the end he turns on the answering machine so that the child’s call can be heard by all proves that after much hesitation he has decided to return to life, irrespective of the consequences. Within this context it is also possible to understand his altered attitude to the unpleasant Damien: when, after a series of failures, this would-be pornographer experiences the beauty of a sunset and realizes that it is possible and perhaps even not wrong to do something for others, Conrad sees in this metamorphosis a reflection of his own journey. The message of the drama is thus positive: a genuine life is possible.

                                             —Evald Flisar


Praise for Aquarium

, Presheren Theater Kranj, Slovenia, 2008

Everybody Comes to Conrad's

It is by no means a coincidence that Flisar’s play Aquarium begins with the title of the cult movie Casablanca. This involves a deliberate play on words by the author, just as with the title of the play Nora Nora (in addition to the woman’s name, the word means “crazy” in Slovene), only this time it is in the form of a question emphasizing multiple meanings. Most of the dialogues in the play continue in this fashion (and this has become Flisar’s recognizable style). And not just in this particular drama. Words and their various meanings are carefully chosen tools or weapons with which the characters operate on themselves and each other or fight, as well as deriving pleasure from doing this. The words are there to be exploited for hinting, testing, probing and playing, as well as wounding or teasing. Words are also a source of comedy, since they can remove the charge from a theme or a situation, however tense it may be, and ennoble it through distance and humor.

This is why the very first question in the play (Casa – blanca?), uttered by Damien, functions not only as information about what the main character Conrad likes to watch on video, but it also implies that there is something wrong with Conrad’s gawping at the television. His obsessive watching of Casablanca has grown into the eccentric ritual of an oddball who spends his time in front of the screen, devouring salami and smoked cheese. Damien immediately accuses him of resorting to this “sentimental shit” because he does not wish to have any contact with reality, but Conrad, adept in verbal cynicism, easily squashes him. However, it soon transpires that his dumb, pesky nephew is very much right. Conrad has consciously isolated himself from the outside world and no longer wishes to have any contact with it (or so he says). But he is not really succeeding, or at least not as radically as he had originally intended. Conrad is not a real loner, since he clearly still needs an audience for his conflict with the world. In addition, he is still living in the house together with his forever absent wife Lucy and her forever present nephew Damien. Moreover, he has left the door unlocked so that the world can always drop in for a chat.

Another association triggered by Damien’s question is, of course, that of an empty home. And it is precisely this casa blanca that conceals or rather reveals the theme of Flisar’s individual and family tragicomedy. Through Damien’s simple, naïve mouth the author establishes the initial situation that he wants to confront us with – the deliberate isolation of a sensitive and contemplative individual from the profane and banal world, which has in his opinion become “a simple cesspit and nothing but pornography.” And why does Conrad choose “sentimental shit,” a description by the most typical representative of the present day – Damien – as an orientation point for a counterweight to such a world? Let us mention in passing that something similar was said about Casablanca by the producer Hal Wallis: according to him, the movie was a hit, although it remained “shit.”

One of the most obvious parallels is of course the character of the cynical, sarcastic and charming Rick, portrayed by Humphrey Bogart who, like Conrad in his disappointment, withdrew to Casablanca. This is how Rick is described by Matjaž Klopčič in his essay on Casablanca (Ekran, 1996, pp. 1/2). “Life has already changed and impoverished him: his world is already beginning to crumble and fall apart, in the psychological sense it is possible to see in this the experience of life. [...] Rick Blaine, a displaced hero of lost ideals who took shelter in the exciting peace of Vichy Casablanca.” All of this could also apply to Conrad. Above all, Rick and Conrad are comparable in their eloquence. They are both good at word play and verbal jousting. They display a wonderful sense of irony and cynicism, which they use to save themselves, and sarcasm behind which they hide their vulnerability, embitterment and deeply concealed sentimentality.

During Conrad’s watching of the movie, by a strange – even fateful – coincidence, dialogues from Casablanca begin increasingly to correspond with situations in Conrad’s life. And suddenly we are, together with Conrad, witnesses to a strange merging of the fiction of the movie and the reality of the play. And not just that: the dialogues in the movie correspond to the situations arising among the characters in Aquarium so much that the latter can simply quote them direct. We are only slightly more confused when trying to draw a comparison at the level of the romantic story that develops in the movie between Rick and Ilse, but toward the end of Aquarium, in the scenes with Conrad’s wife Lucy, it transpires that even at that level there are parallels that cannot be overlooked.

It is Conrad himself who at the end of the play, in a dialogue with Damien, reveals to us the main reason why he is constantly watching Casablanca. It is related to the ontological question that both Rick and Conrad ask: “Why did we come to Casablanca?” and the response to it. When Rick is asked why he has withdrawn to Casablanca, he replies ironically: “My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters. – What waters? We’re in the desert. – I was misinformed.” Conrad also offers his response to the metaphorical question of why he has come to Casablanca. His reply is in line with the realism he has found his way to in his “desert”: the recognition that he has no illusions left about why he came to Casablanca and that “you have nothing you could sell for a pass,” but that only someone who loves you can give you a pass from purgatory and that in the end you yourself create the pass that enables your liberty.

Flisar confronts us with the situation of a disappointed, searching individual who has consciously withdrawn from the vapid, banal and pornographic world, a world that has gone off the rails. One of his tasks is the persistent search for an answer to the question that all Flisar’s characters are constantly asking, that is, the meaning of life. An identical question is also posed by the main character in Nora Nora: “The meaning of life is still very important even though philosophers no longer deal with it, only fools.” And Conrad in Aquarium is precisely such a fool. He no longer wishes to agree to the world’s rules that are based on illusions and emptiness and, considering the situation the world is in, we can only agree with him. In isolation, in his decontamination chamber, he wants to cleanse himself of his last illusions and resign himself to nothingness as his fundamental philosophical stance. Conrad has arrived at a point in his life where he deliberately rejects any illusions about his social importance. He recognizes the deceptiveness of all titles, functions and fantasies, while those around him draw precisely upon the illusions that he has rejected. And this is why he initially justifiably despises them. Or as he himself says in his brilliant monologue, in which he expresses his personal philosophy:

“Becoming nothing after you have been something or you have at least lived in the illusion that you are something, in an illusion that was maintained by those around you even more than by you [...], becoming nothing after such a parade of the emperor’s clothes, not because of a mistake or ineptitude or an accidental slip, but deliberately and fully consciously [...] for such a descent from the stage of importance into the benevolent silence of solitude I most definitely deserve anything but disrespect.”

In spite of this, disrespect is exactly what he gets. For Conrad and his attitude to the world, from which he has withdrawn because of his disdain for it, the play could have ended at the very beginning simply on the basis of this conclusion, if he did not allow the world he despises to come to him without any obstacles, intruding its wishes, demands and, of course, disrespect. And thus Conrad, willingly or not, finds himself in an absurd situation that can end with nothing but yet another conflict with the world and the revelation of his sins. Moreover, it appears that the world Conrad despises in principle consists mainly of his nearest and dearest. The microcosm of his home and of those closest to him is the one that Conrad must (as we soon discover) deal and be reconciled with in order to be able to justifiably despise and detest the world’s depravity. And most of all, he has to deal with himself, but clearly not in the way he had originally imagined.

Like Molière’s Misanthrope and Bernhard’s The World-Fixer, Conrad is tied to the world by binds that are stronger than he initially believes, which he is unable to and does not wish to sever. His withdrawal from the world is therefore more of a sign of an embittered cynical observer who criticizes the world but can do nothing to change it. If Alceste and the World-Fixer saw the world as a cesspit of sin, their vice is in no way negligible, on the contrary, sooner or later it becomes more than obvious. This is exactly what happens to Conrad and this is precisely what makes him a tragicomic figure.

Of course, at the beginning we are completely on Conrad’s side – as well as Alceste’s and the World-Fixer’s – until we get to know him better. The embittered formerly successful newspaper editor deliberately decides to withdraw and isolate himself from a world that he disdains, and he does so with good reason. But the world he despises so much refuses to leave him alone and vice versa. We then meet a variety of the representatives of the modern world in all their misery and Flisar’s Aquarium could justifiably also parody the title of the theatrical text which the script for Casablanca was based on: Everybody Comes to Conrad’s. It transpires that the empty house is more Conrad’s or Damien’s wish than the actual state of affairs. In Conrad’s seemingly hermetically sealed aquarium, a series of visitors appear with whom Conrad has unresolved relationships and these are what he has to deal with. If he really wants to be transformed, he must take the arduous path of dealing with the world and particularly with his past, not just in principle but in a very real manner – by dealing with those closest to him.

Conrad’s ritual of watching Casablanca is first interrupted by his excessively intense and ruthless nephew, followed by a procession of individuals, all of whom are constantly demanding and wanting something from him. His younger brother blames him for his own professional failure, his sister pesters him about the maintenance of their grandparents’ grave, his nephew’s young colleague unsettles him with her intellectual simplicity and intrusive sexuality, his former school friend bothers him about a school reunion, while his wife is never there, always away on business. But it is gradually revealed that the situations (like words) are not quite as unambiguous as they seem at first, and therein lies the charm of Flisar’s play.

Conrad’s bizarre nephew Damien is the most obvious specimen of the world that Conrad justifiably despises but cannot avoid. The conceited, vacuous, stupid and career-minded Damien is also a model specimen of the young generation that craves rapid success and, above all, fame. Damien is a very good example of the model TV personality, who can easily be recognized and who is all too common in the world of television these days. Faced with Damien’s complacent emptiness, which is comical in its absurd stupidity, Conrad’s cynicism and sarcastic attitude toward the world can only grow, and with good reason. It is also interesting that in the end it is Damien, alongside Conrad, who makes the greatest conceptual leap – within his limited capabilities, of course. When Damien finally realizes that the pornographic movie with which he wants to launch his career at the start of the play is in fact pornography and he then describes the situation in the world with the same term, he becomes likeable in his naïve simplicity – both to Conrad and to us.

, Presheren Theater Kranj, Slovenia, 2008

The story takes a slightly different turn with regard to Matilda, the second most explicit representative of the world that Conrad is unable to stomach. If Damien can still be salvaged by his simplicity and sobering up upon recognizing what pornography really is, and in the end, of course, by his desire to make an artistic hit or shit à la Casablanca, we can certainly not say the same about the vulgar career-driven Matilda. In her straight, narrow pragmatic stance that takes no account of anything or anybody, she is a typical representative of the young generation to whom any questions about the meaning of life, not to mention ethical values and education, are anathema. This is why it is no surprise that it is alongside her that Conrad plays an out-and-out weirdo, as in her eyes that is precisely what he is – an utter fool. Once he realizes that she is not just a naïve “floozy,” but deliberately and banally evil, all he can do is classify her as “a bitch who wags her tail, and then suddenly bites you.”

Conrad has a much more complex relationship (it transpires later) with his younger brother Matthew. As is customary between brothers, it is full of unresolved frustrations, old grudges and unspoken resentments. And if it initially seems that Matthew has only come to blame his older brother for his professional failure, we soon realize that there is a great deal more behind this: old grudges and a feeling that Conrad has never loved him or has at least not accepted him as he is, has never respected him and never noticed his admiration. This can only be followed by the sweet revenge of a disappointed and frustrated younger brother, who can finally take it out on his older idol in the most banal and stereotypical fashion: by seducing his wife. Matthew wants to hint at this to his brother during his two visits in an extremely perfidious manner: he accuses his brother-in-law, but keeps quiet about himself.

Equally unresolved is Conrad’s relationship with his sister Catherine and, of course, vice versa. It soon emerges that she also has not come only to clarify the situation regarding the neglected grave of their grandparents, but wants – or demands – a favor from her brother. Behind these two issues is concealed the main question of where her husband is and whether Conrad knows that he is sleeping with his wife, Lucy, although Catherine never spells this out. Conrad’s concept of isolation well and truly fails during a visit by his former school friend Radivoy. We find out that in this case the relationship is once again not as simple as it initially seems. Radivoy’s invitation to a school reunion is really just an excuse for another, more serious invitation – an invitation to Conrad to recognize and accept the responsibility for his illegitimate son, to turn on his phone and answer the boy’s call.

Alongside all these traumatic and complex liaisons there is the painfully traumatic relationship Conrad has with his wife. The frequent business trips that Conrad tolerates so stoically and comments on so cynically are for an important reason well-known to both of them. When we find out that Conrad has been lying about his infertility and thus misleading his wife (or, in his words, allowing her to hope, but in doing so he has consciously pushed her into the arms of his brother and brother-in-law), we learn about Conrad’s ultimate sin. In front of us now stands not only an embittered and tragicomic victim of the crazy and perverted world we can easily agree with, but someone who is a part of that dirty and tainted world. His sins are no smaller than the sins of the others he despises and for which he feels only indignation. His relationship with Lucy finally reveals the last parallel with Casablanca in the hint of cruelty with which Rick first pushes Ilse Lund into emotional distress, which forces her to admit her love for him, and then finally returns her to Laszlo. This cruelty can also be seen in Conrad with regard to all his relationships, not just with Lucy, whom in a way he himself led into infidelity while pretending to be not there and, after her confession, reproaching her with cynical malice that she has betrayed him. And not just with anyone, but with the wrong men, who were in his opinion unworthy of his wife. What superior sarcasm! But Conrad knows very well that he himself is not innocent and that years ago he was unfaithful to her with a naïve girl whom he in passing left with a son, making her unhappy for the rest of her life, and with whom years ago he watched that romantic “shit” Casablanca.

And so Conrad’s sins, together with Alceste’s and The World-Fixer’s, are more than obvious. Like Moliere and Bernhard, Flisar is unforgiving to his characters. He is merciless toward Conrad just as Conrad is merciless in his justified criticism of the world. And that is precisely what makes Flisar’s play so thrilling and, above all, touching and true to life. In the end, Flisar’s Conrad decides to switch on his phone, thus allowing his child to call him. He decides to re-enter the world for cleansing and re-birth with the son who needs him so very much and whom Conrad also needs. He decides for life instead of slow suicide in the aquarium. He decides for the inward path offered by Marcus Aurelius. And this path, like the path to others, will be difficult and steep.

                                            —Marinka Poštrak

Evald Flisar (1945, Slovenia). Novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor. Studied comparative literature in Ljubljana, English literature in London, psychology in Australia. Globe-trotter (travelled in more than 80 countries), underground train driver in Sydney, Australia, editor of (among other things) an encyclopaedia of science and invention in London, author of short stories and radio plays for the BBC, president of the Slovene Writers’ Association (1995 – 2002), since 1998 editor of the oldest Slovenian literary journal Sodobnost (Contemporary Review). Author of eleven novels (six short-listed for kresnik, the Slovenian “Booker”), two collections of short stories, three travelogues (regarded as the best of Slovenian travel writing), two books for children and teenagers (shortlisted for Best Children’s Book Award) and thirteen stage plays (six nominated for Best Play of the Year Award, twice won the award). Winner of the Prešeren Foundation Prize, the highest state award for prose and drama. Various works, especially short stories and plays, translated into 32 languages, among them Bengali, Hindi, Malay, Nepali, Indonesian, Turkish, Greek, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Polish, Czech, Albanian, Lithuanian, Icelandic, Russian, Italian, Spanish etc. Stage plays regularly performed all over the world, most recently in Austria, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, Nepal, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria and Belarus. Attended more than 50 literary readings and festivals on all continents. Lived abroad for 20 years (three years in Australia, 17 years in London). Since 1990, resident in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Texture Press
1108 Westbrooke Terrace, Norman, OK 73072