January 10, 2005: Eldridge, Festen

“A dramatisation by David Eldridge.” Directed by Rufus Norris. Almeida production. Opened there 18 March 2004, transferred to the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue on 15 September 2004. Based on the Dogme film and play by Thomas Vinterberg, Morgan Rukov, and Bo Hr. Hansen. Runs 1 hour 45 minutes, not including one intermission.

Having just arrived in London for two weeks, I walked up to the box office at 6:00 p.m. and got a very good stalls ticket for this play for £15.00. It is a spare yet violent play about an annual family reunion on the occasion of the father’s birthday; through the shocking evening and following morning that ensues, once the family have gathered at the paternal mansion where they all grew up, a terrible revelation of hetero-and homosexual incest tears the family apart and makes it clear that there will be no further reunions for this shattered family.

The family members arrive on a bare stage; a full-stage backdrop on runners proves to have a panel in it serving as a portal. Three siblings arrive — Christian, Michael, and Helene; a fourth sibling, we discover, has recently died, a suicide. This drop then opens up — rises, I should say — and reveals a monstrously long dining table; it glides downstage on grooves in the stage floor to center stage, and the family sits down — parents, siblings, and father’s siblings, along with Michael’s very patient wife and their bubbly daughter (age about seven or eight, triple cast; on this night, Clemmie Hooten, I think). Michael is an unwelcome guest, he having acted out his tremendous aggressiveness at last year’s party; but he breaks his way in anyway. He is an ugly customer, to be sure, but not a single one of these people is much less than dislikable, and some are positively detestable. Over the course of the evening we begin to understand why they are so awful and why the tension in the room is fairly palpable. Tremendous energy is being expended to keep up appearances. But when the eldest child, Christian, is called upon to give a toast to the father on his birthday, he produces two speeches, one written on green paper, the other on yellow, and asks his father, Helge, to choose. In retrospect one gathers that either color would have spelled disaster for the birthday. At any rate, the father chooses the green, and Christian proceeds with a story of the truth: he witnessed his father raping the sister who is now dead.

As the evening wears on, Christian is expelled for telling the truth, but he comes back and reveals an even more sordid truth, in a story of how his mother, Else, came into the room and discovered Christian being forced to fellate his own father. The evening explodes into manic, desperate revelry, with much single-line dancing through the rooms of the mansion, as Michael and Helene, and the father’s brother, subdue the hysterical Christian by tying his hands and feet with their belts — though Christian eventually breaks free. A scene of mayhem ensues.

The next morning, a somber breakfast is served on the long table — we are now into Act II — and a muted, almost silent company is joined by the father and mother. The father makes a sort of brave speech, even complimenting Christian for his courage in revealing the truth — a truth capped the previous night by the revelation of the dead Lynda’s suicide letter to her siblings in which she reveals the continued sexual abuse of her by the father which ultimately drove her to kill herself. Over breakfast, the father acknowledges the fact that this will be the last time he will ever see his children; but, he says with a completely straight face, he wants them to know that he will always love them and hold them in his heart. The irony is so bleak and profound that it almost doesn’t register. When asked by Christian the previous night why he did what he did, the father retorted, almost matter-of-factly, “Because that is all you were good for.” The depth, the profund­ity of the father’s contempt for his children is so great that no comment can be made; and no comment is made.

In fact, the curious thing about the play is its almost complete lack of comment of any kind, on the part of the characters themselves or the playwright. The actions and even the words that describe the actions speak for themselves in the most radical, matter-of-fact way. This is the way this man is, this is the way the family is, as a result, and there is really nothing to be said about it. Or done about it. There is a certain amount of symbolic cleansing that goes on; at the end of Act I Pia, a maidservant who is in love with Christian, brings him a cloth and a bowl of water to clean his bloody face. But this is merely a gesture in the face — sorry — of an indescribable enormity that nothing, no subsequent action, can countermand. Before the breakfast has proceeded very far, Michael suggests to the father that he should “disappear.” “Of course,” he answers; but when he asks his long-suffering wife to leave the table with him, she says she will remain. And he goes off alone. Christian asks Pia to come to Paris and live with him; she gives him a simple and ready “Yes.” It is a shred of hope only and no viable counter­weight to the cleansing series of sad, shocking revelations.

And the play holds the audience almost transfixed. There is some incidental humor, but it is muted and does little or nothing to change the low-key bleakness that characterizes the tone of the play throughout. There is a deep, understated quality to the play that extends to the exposition: we find out only by degrees, and to an important extent by inference, who people are, whom they are related to, and what their backgrounds and pasts are like. The playwright is notably chary in providing details; it seems we are not to be allowed to distract ourselves with such particularities because they might cause us to develop too much sympathy for these unattractive, badly damaged people. Instead, we are required to keep the big picture in view. And we do. If we end up being appalled by it, so be it. That is our business. The business of the play is to present a bare-bones action that serves to reveal the secret that lies at the core of the common life of this family. What we make of it, how we relate it to our own lives or place it in social or sociological or moral contexts — that is all up to us. As for the play and its radical moral economy, the very spareness of its means takes on a kind of inevit­ability that makes for tragedy.

I have seen plays with enormous tables as centerpieces (or partial center­pieces) before. The Act III setting of Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance comes to mind, as does the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre production of Shaw’s Heartbreak House (there, a long table slanted up stage and oriented to and almost perversely interfaced with the action; not Shaw’s idea, of course). The table has a kind of monolithic quality that grounds the action, while simultaneously symbolizing the solid, rooted immobility of this family, trapped — until revelations begin — under a curse of pretense that one would have thought nothing could shake. There is thus a quality of surprise and perversity that accompanies the revel­ations when they begin. Once started, there is seemingly no stopping them. And so, in the face of that Juggernaut of truth, the continued presence of the table takes on a profound irony, as events contrive to make certain that it will never again be used for a reunion or a party for this devastated family.



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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