They Are Dying Out (Trap Door Theater)

I caught a production last night of They Are Dying Out by Peter Handke at the Trap Door Theatre in Chicago. I’ve read Kaspar and Offending The Audience but hadn’t heard of this play until I saw the review/notice in Chicago Theater Beat. It’s a dark absurdist piece, meditating on the moral emptiness of business. But rather than trying to get our sympathies, to feel for Hermann Quitt and his existential angst, Handke exposes the hypocrisy of the language used by corporate power to justify itself. The resulting performance is cerebral but stylish, effectively using the space and social Gestus to lay bare the positions and relationships of the characters. The themes speak to our present situation, but it was more of a rhyme than a direct attack. The murkiness of the the lighting gave an unsettling noir element to the piece, but I felt that it didn’t quite work all the time. Recommended if you like Brecht (like I do).

One could, of course, make a longer critique about the way women are used in the play, but I’ll table that. This is definitely men’s avant garde of the 70s stuff.


7 thoughts on “They Are Dying Out (Trap Door Theater)

  1. I have not seen a single mention of two important themes in the play, that are enunciated at its middle, the beginning of Act II, if Truax follows the original division, and that is when factotum Hans read to Quitt, it is a long quote from a Adalbert Stifter story, a somewhat idyllic seeming image of an earlier rural life, Fourierism if you like; and the discussion between Quitt and Hans about having attended a play about folks living down and out. Nor for that matter seems anyone to be puzzled why Quitt wants to committ suicide after he’s become the king of the world, or why he as a business mogul has a such a poetic side?

    • So as the play’s translator, you got a lot more time to spend with the text than I did! I heard the text for the first time last night, so of course I missed some things.

      I think that the style of the production is such that it doesn’t ask us “why” Hans has a poetic side. Indeed, I felt very little sympathy for Hans and his dilemmas, because it seemed to me the point is that sure, moguls have a human side too, but in the end they make these ruthless decisions and that makes the effect of Hans’s story on Quitt a bit of a lie. As to why he decides to kill himself, one version would be that he could not live with himself. To me, it seemed he was a victim of his own internal contradictions, that is, he rotted to death.

      Then again, perhaps I misinterpreted the performance (or the script).

      • Of course I have the advantage in some respects, Anand. But I prefer not to take advantage of it! The Hans/ Quitt twosome is of course reminiscent of Herr Puntilla and his Servant Matti, isn’t it, who at the end of that wonderful Brecht plays asks, Puntilla does, for another weekend in which to carouse and another whiskey. It is difficult to summon empathy for Quitt, and perhaps his trying to smash his head to pieces on a rock covered with slithering snakes – perhaps one ought not to attempt to interpret it?

    • Alas, I have not read Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti, so I think the analogy is a little lost on me. But the desire to interpret is somewhat hard to shake — we are sense-making creatures, and even when the sense is that it makes no sense, one tries nevertheless.

      I did rather enjoy the interchanges between Quitt and Hans — they are the most revealing, since Quitt doesn’t have to pretend with Hans (or rather his pretension is quite different).

      • The master/slave or master servant relationship is something you have given some thought to, or had experience with, though I expect, Anand?
        The Chicago Tribune had a review, the least informative so far,0,1295711.story
        It emphasizes Quitt’s sadism, a matter one cannot argue with, since it is so self-evident. Nothing ambiguous about that among all the other ambiguities. The German title if I had translated it literally DIE UNVERNUENFTIGEN STERBEN AUS means THE UNREASONABLE ONES ARE DYING OUT. That points to Quitt’s suicide! The other businessmen may have lost, been bought up but they get along and survive – UNVERNUENFTIG = unreasonable is of course a rather mild way of describing Quitt’s actions, which are symbolic of his overall grandiose nature which quite exceeds mere business practice. We get a hint of how he treats his wife, too, of course. He is a mogul through and through.
        The play was written in 1972/73 and I translated it right way. If you happened to know how the German Left, or the Left in general had come out of the 68 revolt, as I did, and the language it spoke, you would have noticed that Handke put a lot of that lingo, about advertising, etc. into the mouths of these various businessmen. Their monologues, their comedic way of being with each other is very much in the vein of the great Austrian dramatists, Raimund, Nestroy, Oedon von Horvarth
        My own favorite minor character is Kilb, the minority stockholder, a very American figure for once, or more American than German it turns out. The way these various ideological self justifications or ways or seeing the world are handled by Handke in putting them in the mouths of these minor characters points to his then immediately prior play, THE RIDE ACROSS LAKE CONSTANCE which consists entirely of language games! And that I imagine is why the play, now 40 years old! still plays!

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