Sunday, September 9, 2012

33 Variations: Diabelli and Beethoven Explored

33 Variations

by Moises Kaufman

directed by Nick Bowling

Timeline Theatre Company

at Stage 773, 1223 W Belmont, Chicago


As I watched the play this evening I was struck by the fact that the ending to Act I is a fugue for actors. (I failed to pay attention to what the piano was doing during this finale so it may have well been Beethoven’s fugue along with the actors’ fugue.) Musing about things during intermission I focused on the notion that musical composition is generally a motif followed by instances of repetition, sequence and variation based on that idea. The Diabelli waltz actually yielded three (or possibly four, I am depending on external analysis here, not my ears) motifs from which Beethoven constructed the finished set.

On the way home I mused over what the underlying motif of the Kaufman play might be. I walk about a mile and a quarter to get home from Stage 773 or Theater Wit so I had a good deal of time to muse.

Upon arriving home I thumbed through the Timeline program (always an academic work that rivals a thesis!) and sure enough, in “A Note on Structure” on page [unknown but it would probably be 5 if they had numbered their pages] it mentions Kaufman’s intention to write 33 scenes that are variations, one of which is actually a fugue. Kaufman certainly succeeded to my ears, even on first hearing with no advance research or reading. (I try to avoid reading about works I never experienced before just to see what I can get out of the experience without prior bias.)

Timeline misses a huge opportunity here to present the parallels between the classical music forms and the Kaufman piece probably because actors are primarily story-tellers, not practitioners of abstraction the way composers are. The musical devices of repetition, sequence and variation developed because of music’s limited vocabulary; once you establish a modality, key and a melody you’re pretty well locked into a path for at least a short time. Repetition, sequence and variation are just about the only ways you can make a musical piece interesting in the long term. Language, with its nuance and rich repertoire of vocabulary allows for an almost free-wheeling experience that doesn’t depend on structure for interest. In this case, however, I believe that Kaufman has set himself a much sterner task and succeeds brilliantly.

Kaufman does, in fact, have a motif, at least in my eyes. It is “time as a limiting factor.” Everything about the play deals with time. Kaufman repeats this motif endlessly, but he also “sequences” it (musically sequences deal with transpositions of the motif into different keys) by various theatrical devices like switching between current time periods and those of Beethoven’s Vienna or the completely artificial and impossible conversation between Dr. Brandt and Beethoven. He adds variations to his time motif by exploring the different perspectives held by various characters so that while “time” is central to each scene, the ornamentation or exact exposition of the motif may vary.

For Dr. Brandt time was a “killer.” She knew it was her enemy and there was little she could do to defeat it. For Beethoven, he always needed “more time.” Time was outside of his control in-so-far as the variations were concerned; the variations wrote themselves and he just had to wait until all of the secrets were revealed. Schindler and Diabelli were prisoners of capitalist time; both needed more time to meet financial obligations or greater financial resources to meet obligations in the time allotted. Take your pick, the capitalists have always had the same problem with time! For Mike and Clara (the youth element) time had no meaning what-so-ever. This is the typical view of youth; Mike was in a routine career and Clara was busy “experimenting.” Neither felt any urgency to explore life’s options, a viewpoint that would doubtless change as their years accumulate. Finally, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, represents to me almost the Snoopy (in the Charles Schultz sense) of the characters. She lives for today; she has experienced a loss similar to the situation of Dr. Brandt; she takes the philosophical and yet humanist approach that one should reap as much in the present as one can. Contrary to one reviewer (who must have some sort of hang-ups about sex) I found that Dr. Ladenburger’s advocacy of engaging a “masseur” for Dr. Brandt only underscored her convictions that “the time is the present; carpe diem!”

"Wait until the evening before the opening night. Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or for the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair. In my time, all the impresarios in Italy were bald at thirty."

—Gioachino Rossini

So Kaufman takes the motif of time and repeats it, sequences it and embellishes (varies) it to arrive at this remarkable piece of theater that crosses the line between classical music and contemporary story-telling. What a happy experiment! We probably won’t see a lot of pieces for theater written this way, but who cares? Much of art is “one-off,” and we’re grateful that we have at least the single example for our enjoyment and enrichment.

One final word: Beethoven struggled with the closing of the variations. What did Kaufman do? First, in the imaginary conversation between Dr. Brandt and Beethoven he explores the notion of acceptance; Beethoven relates how his own acceptance ultimately resulted in his own freedom and he encourages Brandt to acknowledge that she has fought the valiant battle, but now is the time to surrender peacefully. Kaufman devised a superb closing when he chose to have Clara present her now deceased mother’s final paper to an academic forum. Kaufman sets the markers earlier when he conceals Dr. Brandt’s preparations for death from her own daughter Clara. Clara is hurt and angry and feels she has been unjustifiably isolated from her mother. Kaufman ties up this loose end by a theatrical “fade” from Dr. Brandt to Clara, reading the closing paragraphs of Brandt’s paper. Mother and daughter are thus reunited.

The 33rd variation, a minuet, is played; the entire cast joins in the dance, exchanging partners in endless variation.

Bravo Kaufman! Bravo Timeline! Of course, bravissimo Beethoven!

33 Variations presented at Stage 773, 1223 W Belmont, Chicago, IL 60657. Previews 8/24/2012 closes 10/21/2012. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays (matinee and evening) and Sundays. Tickets $32–$42. More info: