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

from Collected Plays II

, Ljubljana City Theater, 1998

Why Does My Shadow Go with Me?

At the first rehearsal of Sunspots the director Dušan Mlakar recalled Bojan Štih’s comment that for any text an actor needs to remember and understand only thirty key sentences: those that support the structure, theme, color, style, purpose and meaning of the drama. Is it possible to find thirty such sentences in Sunspots? And if not thirty, then twenty? Ten? Above all, would twenty, ten or even five sentences help us to unlock at least part of the secret that is the essence of the play? For this essence is hidden even from its author – often from him most of all. And so this author at least does not hesitate for long if asked to join with those who are trying to find the pulse behind, beneath and between the words of his text. For a drama to be able to breathe and take on an autonomous existence it needs to be tamed in some way, domesticated. This means appropriating that which the words conceal or simply show. We need to tease an answer from the drama as to why it was written, and why in that way rather than another – at least one of the many possible answers.

Are Štih’s “thirty key sentences” a short cut to this inevitable goal? I would like to give it a try. The first key sentence is certainly the one that led Dušan Mlakar to recall Štih’s words. “Why does my shadow go with me across the ground?” says the family fool and ‘poet’ Gregor at one point. The shadow that does not want to separate from man on his path through life can be understood in many ways: from an extension of personal imperfection and decayed hopes to a Jungian accumulation of rejected and unacceptable personal characteristics that with time come alive in the subconscious. If the ego is that part of the psyche which we are completely aware of and which represents reason and culture, it is the shadow of something that remains hidden from us until its energy exceeds the ‘civilized’ strength of the ego and erupts in the form of destructive rage or self-destructive acts. We weaken it by regularly paying the tax it extracts from us and thus we acknowledge that it is ‘ours’ or an integral part of our psyche.

How do we pay this tax? With rituals both small and large, which can be as trivial as tidying up and washing the dishes when we feel that life is most favorably inclined toward us. Through actions with which we restore balance to the psyche and admit that there lurks within us a dark, destructive human dimension with which the ‘civilized’ ego does not want to come to terms. Through actions with which we seem to sacrifice part of our dignity and thus neutralize the dark forces, so that they do not break free from their cage and appear outside the control that we constantly maintain over our conduct. Thus Jung’s pupil Marie-Louise von Franz and her companion Barbara Hannah had the custom that the one who had achieved some kind of success or upon whom fortune had smiled would have to take out the garbage for a week. This was their simple but effective way of paying the tax to their shadows. A somewhat grander idea was that of the French Queen Marie Antoinette, who wearied of her magnificent court and had a shed built where she could milk cows for fun. But when she sat on the stool and smelled the animal from close up she reconsidered.  If she had persisted, with this small ritual she could have paid off the tax to her shadow and balanced the formality of her court with a touch of the earthy, ‘unclean’ side of life. In this way she would have balanced her conduct and her path may not have led her to the guillotine. The essence of this ritual was sacrifice, in this case of regal dignity, the milking stool functioning as an altar.

In Sunspots, Joseph decides to build a monument to the victims of war, irrespective of their political appurtenance. He has felt the destructive power of the shadow that has accumulated in his own life and that of his family, and wishes in this way to drain it of its devastating power. But just like Marie Antoinette, he stops where he should take the decisive step. “Where will you put the one responsible for the plague that has poisoned our blood for a hundred years?” demands his father, Matthias. “Where, when your monument has no altar?” In other words, Joseph wants to pay the tax to the shadow with counterfeit money. He wants to achieve redemption with a gesture, but at the same time retain his dignity. In his case – and that of other members of his family – the real sacrifice that would neutralize the shadow would be an acknowledgement of guilt. Not only for the bad things that they have done to others, but also collective guilt at their relations with people close to them, their neighbor and his daughter Frieda.

The family shadow in Sunspots is the result of decades of concealment, pretense and rationalization. The most adept and determined in this regard is the grandmother, Vera. “I did what I thought was right. I have never, ever acted any differently.” And: “No one in my family has ever done anything without an official document.” Maintaining an appearance of normality, regardless of the consequences of the family members’ actions, is her mission in life and something that she is matchlessly good at. She does not think of the family’s Christmas reconciliation as facing up to conscience and the truth, but as ritual confirmation of a conspiracy of silence with regard to anything that could create the impression that her family is not “clean.”

But at the precise moment when the big lie is about to be confirmed by the sacred festivities, the family shadow achieves a critical mass and appears in the form of a shared hallucination: Santa Claus as the most appropriate symbol of mutual openness, generosity and love. At the first rehearsals we were all convinced that Santa Claus was the embodiment of a suddenly awakened conscience. In response to the question as to what the play was about, I too, would automatically have replied “a confrontation with conscience, which does not survive Christmas Eve.” Now I am increasingly inclined toward the conviction that something else is taking place, or something more: that the false family celebration is invaded by the cumulative shadow of their concealed actions (concealed from themselves and others, and collectively through silent agreement).

Gregor, who senses the coming trauma, labels the shadow literally: “A shadow, a shadow, a shadow falls on the closed window. It is coming along paths, from the sky, from the depths. It is coming quickly, it will soon be here…” And he points toward the French windows in front of which stands Santa Claus. But why does the ugly, dark side of the family’s past appear in a form whose role and general expectations represent its opposite? I think there is a reason for this. Santa Claus is not some witty idea intended to spice up events and create a festive atmosphere, but a collective vision of a genuine festivity such as the members of the family dare not celebrate, although they would long to. But in an authentic and genuine fashion he exposes all that has been suppressed and denied and now demands to be spoken: so the polite, although slightly sarcastic Santa Claus is in reality a metaphysical messenger, come to demand a sacrificial ritual. Put another way, Santa Claus comes to collect the tax that the family over the decades has failed to pay to their collective shadow. Gregor intuitively senses his real role: “The landscape into which we go is terribly old, a rotten sun shines on it from a blackened sky…” The shadow has come to demand an admission of guilt and, with it, the dignity of the false guardians of morality and justice: of the “embalmed” family members, as Matthias calls them.

Of course, this hallucinatory healer of the familial (national?) soul does not demand payment as a petty officer of justice, but rather creates the opportunity for the family members to save themselves from their individual and collective hell by taking responsibility for past actions. Stepping into a new life is possible only when we acknowledge the shadow from the old, reoccurring life, which by entering the sphere of the human and the candid loses its crippling force.  Blaming oneself and not sunspots is a personal action that borders on heroism. It is thus (as we see and experience every moment) almost impossible.

"In the muddle of our century," Dürrenmatt has said, "there are no longer guilty or responsible human beings. Everybody claims that he is not to blame, that he did not want it to happen. And indeed, things would have happened without anyone in particular doing anything about making them happen. We are far too collectively guilty, far too collectively embedded in the sins of our fathers and of their fathers. We are merely the children of their children. That's our bad luck, not our guilt. Guilt presupposes personal action, a religious act.”

Does not Gregor say something similar at the end of the play? “For a long time there have been no more mothers, nor children, we are getting old and young women are alone in their brittle, wrinkled skin. The plains of old men lie between us, the plains of coagulated blood that has stopped draining into the ground. Our semen has poured into the sky, which has blackened to the edge. Dead children are falling from it.”

There are of course more “key sentences” and even more questions. Some have been answered or will be answered by others. I shall agree with some, with others less, although as an author I cannot do anything other than respect each honest and well-intentioned opinion, including those that I find hardest to concur with. My wish is that at least someone will see in this drama a story of lost innocence and the small hope that it is possible to return to it through the door that in a moment of God’s grace is opened by some subconscious Santa Claus. That, above all, is how the drama is experienced by its author, the one who felt the need to give birth to it.

                                             —Evald Flisar


Praise for Sunspots

, Ljubljana City Theater, 1998

Unbound Tongue, Unlocked memory

The room became a privileged private space in the period of naturalism. But in a world mediated by the media, in which the intimate is available online and man's identity is divided among thousands of masks, the room as a legitimate dramatic space of domesticity – albeit false – still needs to be established. The invisible fourth wall, which in naturalistic drama ensures that something is revealed, no longer suffices for an open conversation on the stage. For people to open up to each other it is necessary to capture them in space – literally; enclosed in space they are capable of facing their own and the collective truth only in the presence of a mediator. 

The familial and national reconciliation dealt with in Flisar's drama Sunspots calls for the laying bare of past events which do not fall easily from the tongue and which the participants would rather keep locked away in memory. The text also speaks to us all through the central characteristic of contemporary forms of communication: in an indirect, mediated way. For conflict resolution, people are needed to play the role of diplomats – those who are paid are called lawyers. Friendly conversations are replaced by confessional monologue. The feeling of domesticity is created by radio announcers and TV hosts. Visiting and physical contact is replaced by chatting on the phone or online, during which we cannot be sure of the sender's identity, while we can also change our own. It seems that these days, simple communication between people requires an intermediary and the path to others is made possible only by a mediator.

In Sunspots, this role is played by a mysterious guest whom the playwright calls Santa Claus: who else would be wandering around on Christmas Eve in a characteristic red outfit with a sack of presents? In spite of this, the dramatic characters cannot reach agreement about who he is: is he Grandfather Frost, St Nicholas, a lonely vagrant, an escaped madman, perhaps even a Martian? More important than the name of this stranger is his mediatory function. To successfully carry out his task, which is to get the family talking to each other, dramatic space and time has to be condensed first. A properly closed space – in Wölfflin’s sense of the term – and time trigger action and ensure its development. The dramatist gathers together three generations of an unnamed family on Christmas Eve – a family holiday they have not celebrated for almost fifty years. Time is measured for them by a wall clock – an obligatory part of the set in naturalistic drama – which here also shows real time. Thus fictional stage time is equated with our real time, the action extended into the auditorium and the audience placed at the center of events.

This clock is also significant as even in the stage directions it points to Flisar’s writing technique. Most of his plays follow an Ibsenesque dramaturgy resting on naturalism (which entered Slovene drama via Cankar), characterized by an analytic development of a conflict situation. We are reminded of the Norwegian dramatist also by the setting (and not least the way of writing stage directions): a living room from which a number of doors lead to the rest of the house and with the outside world visible through a large window. The fireplace, which gives Ibsen’s residents a deceptive feeling of security, is replaced in Flisar by the television. When Santa Claus is allowed in from outside to join the family the room becomes closed. The space becomes a kind of press which works on the same principle as an hour glass: the grains of the past run from the upper vessel and in the lower vessel are transformed into the grains of the future. We are in the narrow, compressed neck of this device, here and now, where past and future interact.

In no other drama does Flisar, by closing off space and time and thus strongly intervening in events, locate them in the now and sharpen the sense of the present as much as in Sunspots. Just as in Tristan and Iseult, Tomorrow and What About Leonardo? the solution from the time space continuum is role-play. This involves an exchange of identities that relies on calling up another’s feelings, and among all games is closest to the stage play. It is accompanied by a specific awareness of an ‘other’ reality in relation to everyday life, and this itself is a prelude to the analytical uncovering of family tragedy rooted in conflict between father and son and their appurtenance to the White Guards or Partisans in the National Liberation War. Of course, the basic rule of the game, taking on a role, is only a cover beneath which the participants can remove their social masks and reveal themselves in all their nakedness. They draw strength for confrontation from this apparently fictitious reality and only within this framework is communication between them possible. Their game does not offer pleasure as does the role-play in Tristan and Iseult, nor does it bring oblivion as in Tomorrow, but rather a therapeutic effect similar to the fabricated stage play in What About Leonardo?

The game in Sunspots is called the Feast of Fools. This was a medieval Christmas entertainment in which masters and slaves in ancient Rome exchanged roles and engaged in all kinds of jesting, explains Santa Claus, who forces the family to take part. They must all accept it: the closed space, which actually represents the prison of the self, can only be unlocked by confession. The tension visible on the outside, compressed inside the margin of the space, is internalized, becoming dramaturgic tension of action, visually increasing that tension. The game is led by the master of disorder, confusion and misunderstanding that is Father Christmas, a cross between a voice of reason and a deus ex machina (a constant in Flisar, for example the Troubadour in Tristan and Iseult, and Goosefeather in The Poet’s Heart), who is both a distant observer of events and an active driving force. It is paradoxical that in the hour of truth Santa Claus draws his knowledge from such an unreliable source as newspaper cuttings: he reads details from them in “raw” journalistic style, which the family members take as a starting point for confession and which eventually brings about a need to talk that has been suppressed and rejected a priori for almost fifty years. Only in the impenetrable circle of fictitious role-play, in the shelter of magical Christmas Eve and with the help of a communicative mediator can the path to the future, which leads across the threshold of the past, be once more passable. The grains of sand from the upper vessel can once more flow into the lower one, and in the present moment stalled time can run once more.

To begin to speak – to relax the paralyzed throat of the present – is the dramatist’s goal, so the end of the drama remains open, with familial and, more broadly, national reconciliation unachieved. Santa Claus vanishes as quickly as he appeared and it seems that his visit has changed nothing. The characters even doubt he was really there. The conviction grows that they are the victims of some bizarre hallucination. Only the father, Matthias, on the surface the most withdrawn character in the play, is aware of the transformation: words have unlocked his memory. Man’s treasury of memories is not a computer file that we open and, when we have finished, close and erase. There is no device for cleaning the memory. His words are conciliatory: “I don’t want wine, I want us to talk.” This is an optimistic end to this hollow game: rejecting forgetfulness, accepting responsibility for past actions that are no longer subject to sunspots or the constellation of stars in the sky and a fatalistic view of the world in which man has no influence on his own life. Here there is a readiness and even a need to talk.

The play Sunspots tells of the crisis of miscommunication already dealt with by Chekhov and even more by the theater of the absurd. If the conversations of the characters in Chekhov’s Three Sisters take the form of monologic confessions wrapped in dialogue (as they seemed to Peter Szondi), Stanley in Pinter’s The Birthday Party can no longer sustain even monologue. His statements, as Norbert Greiner shows, are all separate and refer only to themselves. This brings about constant ambiguity of meaning, bearing witness to man’s alienation from others and even from himself. Flisar does not accept that the loss of identity is a consequence of the loss of a shared world and self-understanding. He replaces the hermetically sealed dramatic person with a closed space. Into it he brings a mediator Santa Claus who draws from the characters, one response at a time, monologic confessions that they can connect into dialogue. Here, the question asked by the Prague Structuralist Jiři Veltruský becomes relevant: does dramatic dialogue arise from dramatic monologue or from ordinary dialogue? Veltruský theoretically confirms the source of dramatic dialogue in ordinary conversation and Flisar would give the same answer. For him, there are no doubts about language as the primary means of communication, his faith in language is unshakeable: from the theatrical point of view, he believes in dialogue as the anchor of dramatic language and, in a deeper human sense, in talk as the first step to the resolution of problems.

                                            —Dr. Barbara Orel

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