It’s Always Sunny in Vienna
It is 1912, in the spacious apartment on the ground floor, the writer K.K. Is rehearsing the performance/reading of his new creation: Nestroy and Posterity. It is 2015, in the three bedroom apartment across the hall a couple, young/liberal/white, is making love. Above Kraus, in the small one bedroom apartment that used to ‘host’ the servants in former times, a young woman in a sort off 1970 ideological determination, is learning how to make a home made bomb. It is the roof apartment in 2070, a recent Italian immigrant to the city, is training the art of Waltz with the help of an A.I. Dancing Machine. It is almost winter, all over the interlocking timelines, a month or two before Christmas, and Vienna is not yet dressed for the occasion.
Part 1, Winter
It’s Always Sunny in Vienna is the third instalment of our ongoing The New Old Cycle. It is also our recurrent production with a plan to stage between 3 to 4 instalments in the coming years.
Part 1, Winter, deals with 4 separate time lines occurring over a period of 150 years, between 1912 to 2070. But before we get into specifics, let me give you some background on the idea for the project as a whole.
The inspiration for this project is the book Life – A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. In it, Perec takes a single apartment building in Paris and uses 99 short chapters (along with a preamble and an epilogue) to give a meticulous description of each and every room as well as the life stories of all the inhabitants, both past and present.
In It’s Always Sunny in Vienna we tell the story of a single apartment building in Vienna. The inhabitants of the different apartments are characters from past, present and future Vienna, some are real historical figures while other are made up. The characters represent a kaleidoscopic picture of a city and culture that knew a lot of turmoil and drama over the years.
The stories are not told in a chronological order but intertwined and intercut into each other. The separate timelines switch from one scene to another, from one timeline to another. Instead of a unified plot, the narrative continuity follows life in Vienna over a long period of time. It is an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another past, present and future.
In Part 1 Winter we zoom in on 4 apartments, in 4 different time lines.
“The Potemkin city of which I wish to speak here is none other than our dear Vienna herself.” (Adolf Loos)
1912 Kraus and Posterity
It is the working room of the writer Karl Kraus. He is rehearsing a speech he is about to give later that night. He wrote the text and as was his habit he first reads/performs it in front of live audience. The text is titled: “Nestroy and Posterity: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of his Death.”
Karl Kraus was a terror. Scourge of the misplaced comma, bane of the sentimental or stupid remark, champion of linguistic purity and artistic rigour, destroyer of reputations, instigator of lawsuits and punisher of friends. In the hothouse world of fin de siècle Vienna, he was its chief gossip and hanging judge. His nickname was The Great Hater.
Krauss was trained as an actor. All his earliest ambitions were directed at the stage. He called his essays “written acting,” and his celebrity had much to do with his skills as a performer. In his prime, he gave hundreds of public readings, in which he kept audience rapt with his gifted mimicry and mesmerising voice. He was blessed with an illustrious following. Most of the leading lights of the German and particularly, the German-Jewish literary world: Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Elias Canetti, Gregor von Rezzori, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, numbered among his subscribers and fans of his journal Die Fackel. Benjamin was especially effusive with his praise, calling Kraus “one of an evanescent few who have a sense of what freedom is.”
Imagine a walk along the Ringstrasse in Vienna in one of the years before World War One, and it instantly becomes a Where’s Waldo game of artistic, intellectual and political Modernism: There’s Hofmannsthal drinking coffee, Wittgenstein in a carriage, Trotsky in a tavern, Alois Riegl on a merry-go-round, and Egon Schiele in the bushes (The cultural historian Carl Schorske’s „Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture“ remains the best guide to this glittering and embattled world).
And while this was all going on, Kraus kept his eye firmly on the back pages of the newspaper, hunting for misprints. He made notes of his contemporaries only to insult them. He disparaged Klimt, mocked Freud, called Max Reinhardt a “layman of the stage.” But then again, if fin-de-siècle Vienna was a sexy, dangerous Hogwarts for artists and intellectuals, Kraus was always destined to be its Draco and never its Dumbledore. He had a role to play. He was the designated hater. It didn’t matter that he never found a fitting target for his wrath. As Benjamin said, the sheer gusto with which Kraus gave voice to his prejudices and pursued his private vendettas was a form of liberation.
That helps one perhaps to appreciate what a personal culture it all was, in Vienna: It really wasn’t about work at all (that would have been sober and German), it was more about who said what behind whose back, who appeared in whose company, who greeted or failed to greet whom. It was a jockeying for position, a battle over authority, vulgarly a pissing contest.
Kraus reminds us one of those indomitable little toy automobiles exhibited on trays by their vendors, which strike the parapet, roll over, right themselves, and carry on regardless, as long as their batteries will drive them. And presumably with an unwavering sense of mission and purpose. Not to mention direction. Kraus wrote: “When I don’t make any progress, it is because I have bumped into the wall of language. Then I draw back with a bloody head. And would like to go on.” It would seem he had the same idea. The writer Michael Hofmann wrote: “Kraus was a crocodile: he swiped his prey with his tail, dragged it down to depths where it wasn’t meant to be, and drowned it; then he worried at the cadaver over months.”
Kraus was a bully and a snob, a lover of Offenbach and a pursuer of aristocratic ladies. His political views can be considered in the best case suspicious. In “Nestroy and Posterity,” he longs for the age of absolutism when “passion for the theatre was an outgrowth of the artistic feeling aroused by political suppression.” His father’s wealth allowed him to live an “independent life.” The independence that gave Kraus from advertisers and publishers was nice confirmation of what Oscar
Wilde called the “influence of a permanent income on thought.”
Kraus was a brilliant contrarian who despised technological modernity but kept a car and a chauffeur.
Putting aside my mixed feelings regarding Kraus, I cannot but feel an admiration for a writer who in the words on one academic “Fought a war for incomprehensibility.” And the Vienna of Kraus sounds like a hell of place to be. As Kraus himself said Vienna is “a research lab for the Apocalypse.”
1970 Chocolate-boxes are elusive
It is a small one room apartment, occupied by a young woman, relatively new to the city. It is some months after Bruno Kreisky became a Chancellor and ushered Austria to the golden age of social democracy. But the young woman wants nothing to do with Kreisky. She is attracted to the left, the real left.
Christopher Hitchens wrote about that time: “There was a prevalent mystique in those days about the Cuban and Vietnamese and Mozambican revolutions, as well as about various vague but supposedly glamorous groups such as the Tupamaros in Uruguay. In the United States, the brief resort to violence by the Black Panthers and then by the Weather Underground was always imagined as an extension of “Third World” struggles onto the territory of imperialist North America. Other spasmodic attempts to raise armed insurrection—the so-called Front for the Liberation of Quebec, the I.R.A., and the Basque eta—were confined to national or ethnic minorities. And of course there was the PLO.
But there were three officially democratic countries where for several years an actual weaponised and organised group was able to issue a challenge, however garbled and inarticulate, to the very legitimacy of the state. The first such group was the Japanese Red Army, the second (named partly in honour of the first) was West Germany’s Red Army Faction, led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, and the third was the Red Brigades in Italy…the propaganda of the terrorists, on the few occasions when they could be bothered to cobble together a manifesto, showed an almost neurotic need to “resist authority” in a way that their parents’ generation had so terribly failed to do.”
When I was 13 (1977) in Israel, I joined the communist party. I was an avid supporter of the PLO and there just cause to release the occupied territories ( I still am by the way). My family, right wing to the core, thought that something was wrong with me. To that I would like to respond with an anecdote:
Late in 2002 it was discovered that Dr. Bernhard Bogerts, a psychiatrist from at the University of Madgeburg, had been keeping Ulrike Meinhof’s brain in a jar in the corner of his office. Bogerts had been studying the brain off and on for five years trying to determine why a young, well-off, successful mother of two would throw away all vestiges of her happy life and sink into a morass of violence. As pressure to return the brain came from Meinhof’s twin daughters, Bogerts announced that he had solved the riddle of Meinhof’s behaviour. “Pathological modifications” in her brain, the results of a mildly botched operation to clip off a blood vessel, had led her down the violent path.
It was such a comforting answer to a population that still feels the mythos of Küche, Kinder, Kirche in their very core. It was a brain abnormality, not the logical progression of a sharp mind who was truly devoted to exposing the fascist underbelly of West Germany and the global imperialism of America.
2015 Sex in the City
It is the bedroom of a thirty something years old couple. Let me employ the words of Georges Perec to describe them:
“Sie versuchten zu fliehen. Lange kann man nicht in einem Wahn leben. Die Anspannung in dieser Welt, die soviel versprach und nichts hielt, war zu stark. Ihre Ungeduld war unerträglich geworden. Sie glaubten zu verstehen, daß sie eines Tages eine Zuflucht finden mußten…Sie träumten davon, ihre Arbeit aufzugeben, alles hinzuschmeißen, anderswo das Abenteuer zu suchen. Sie träumten davon, wieder bei Null anzufangen, alles auf eine neue Grundlage zu stellen. Sie träumten von Abbruch und Abschied.” (Die Dinge, 103, 105)
It is the story of a young couple who want to enjoy life, but the only way they know to do so is through ownership of things.
2070 Do the Waltz!
It is a room in an apartment of an Italian woman, a recent immigrant to the city of Vienna, a global warming surviver. I can already see the slogan: Vienna, one of the few cities that survived the environmental catastrophe intact.
( I have a son. He will probably still be here in 2070, I have to keep his city unharmed.)
The Republican U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman said in 2013: “ The best thing about the Earth is if you poke holes in it oil and gas comes out.”
And that’s what happened. We kept poking holes and one day water came out and washed everything. But Vienna stayed dry. To be honest, there is a better chance that the South will dry out and the North will be washed with rain. But we are dealing with doomsday scenarios, with worst-case storylines. So take it as an “As If” plot. Especially in our current political situation. We are dealing with war and economics refugees. Climate change fugitives seem like a luxury right now.
When I was a kid the future was flying cars, regular visits to the moon colonies, robots that give us a lot of free time to do whatever it is that we like to do. Now, it is over-population, food shortage, water flooding, big data companies that own our secrets. I miss the old future, the happy-end future. So all that is left for an Italian woman in 2070 is to learn how to dance the Waltz. The teacher is an A.I. Nothing bad can happen from learning a bit of Waltz. It’s a happy-end.
Jaron Lanier wrote something in his book Who Owns the Future that I would like to happy-end with: “Say almost anything bold about the future and you will almost certainly sound ridiculous to someone, probably including most people in the future. That’s fine. The future should be our theatre. It should be fun and wild, and force us to see everything in our present world anew.
One of the old-new types.
“Changes in the traditional way of building are only permitted if they are an improvement. Otherwise stay with what is traditional, for truth, even if it be hundreds of years old has a stronger inner bond with us than the lie that walks by our side.” (Adolf Loos)
Probably in a rather ‘cool’ part of the city.
“The room has to be comfortable; the house has to look habitable.” (Adolf Loos)
It is by now part of the old Vienna.
“Be not afraid of being called un-fashionable.” (Adolf Loos)
If you look at the building from the street, will you be able to guess, who lived there? Who lives there now? Who would live there in 20 years time?
“If nothing were left of an extinct race but a single button, I would be able to infer, form the shape of that button, how these people dressed, built their houses, how they lived, what was their religion, their art, their mentality.” (Adolf Loos)