Elfriede Jelinek, the Nobel prize-winning Austrian playwright, novelist and poet, is renowned for politically charged, challenging works as much as for an unconventional dramatic writing style. Her plays are seldom performed in Britain, but the English language premiere of Sports Play, a timely examination of the darker side of competitive games, took place this month. In a rare interview, Jelinek spoke to the playwright Simon Stephens
Simon Stephens: Sports Play is extraordinary. It’s funny, savage, satirical and beautiful. As the Olympics arrives in London, it also feels enjoyably timely. The play seems to fly because it is carved from both faith in, and fear of, human potential – or, if not fear, disappointment. What disappoints you about society’s cultural obsession with sport? What inspires you about it?
Elfriede Jelinek: I don’t think you can call it disappointment. It would seem absurd to be disappointed about something as global as the enthusiasm for sport. What disappoints me is rather the disdain for intellectual achievements in comparison to sports achievements. But who am I to complain about this? What I fear – and this is perhaps a kind of obsession – is the way the masses get charged up by sports events, something that at some stage gets out of control. [In Sports Play] I associate the metaphor of sport with war. The unrest in the former Yugoslavia, after all, started with a football match that then became charged in nationalist ways and ended in violence. This was the game on May 13, 1990, between the Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb and the Serbian side Red Star Belgrade at Maksimir Stadium [in the Croatian capital].
It is no coincidence that the culture of Ancient Greece, which first gave us law and democracy, also gave us theatre, which seems to excavate the contradictions between justice and law. It strikes me that all plays are born out a need for justice in the face of the law. That same culture also gave us sport. What, for you, is the cultural role of sport?
Well, it could be the other way round. Possibly, it can only be determined by a photo finish. The oldest surviving tragedy, The Persians by Aeschylus, beats [the foundation of] Attic democracy by a fraction. The emergence of the latter is dated between the Persian wars and the Peloponnesian War. We, the dramatists, got there first.
It’s interesting that the treatment of historical events by art precedes the civilisation of people through democracy. After all, the Persians are so great because they give back humanity to their opponents – or rather they don’t deny it to them – and not only to stress their own martial achievements in victory.
At the time [I wrote Sports Play], I did not realise that football, for example, can also play an incredible political role – and a peacemaking role. As much as football can cause war, it can also cause peace. Football is a kind of Geiger counter of civilisation, or a catalyst for good as well as bad. We don’t even need to start talking about the psychoanalytical component. I see sports as [reflecting] everything – transfer, counter-transfer and also catharsis, as in Greek tragedy. When I wrote the play I still underestimated this.
Sports Play also considers the relationship between the personal and the political. This is a theme I recognise from your novels. Do you consciously return to the same ideas?
I think most authors are obsessed with an idea, which they keep modifying and varying. That’s certainly the case for me. I am a sort of justice fanatic, and I always have to give a voice to those who get a raw deal. In Sports Play, for example, that includes the mothers, who in a way are dispossesed of their children they lose to the sports fields – though this is often best for both parties. To put it another way, when I see that the boat is overloaded on one side, I have to run to the other side. I almost compulsively have to include the social implications of things in my writing.
Is the process involved in writing a play different to the process of writing a novel?
In spite of the fact my plays often look like prose – as they consist of long monologues – they are actually not prose. My plays are texts written to be spoken, while prose narrates. Plays are designed for collective reception, prose for individual reception. So you can’t simply say my plays are a kind of prose, since they don’t narrate anything. They talk. They speak. Although recently I’ve noticed the differences are blurring, and my prose is increasingly becoming ‘speaking’.
Do you plan your plays or do you depend on intuition?
No, I don’t plan. That would be boring to me. I always let my texts lead me. They know themselves where they want to go. Keeping a dog for decades has prepared me for this. You have to go where the creature, the text, wants to go. And sometimes it drags you along behind it, taking you somewhere completely different to where you originally wanted to go.
Do you imagine your plays onstage as you write them? How physical or pictorial is your playwriting, or is it entirely linguistic?
Well, I do have images in my head when I write plays – that suffices for me. When a director does something completely different, this interests me all the more. It would also be boring for me if the director – and of course also the actors – were simply to stage and illustrate what I prescribe to them. Although I do imagine the play [being performed], it is all the more wonderful when I learn to see my own text with new eyes, through theatre practice. A play is never the product of the author. It is at most half, if at all, his or her work. It only comes into being through collaborative teamwork. That’s what’s so interesting about theatre.
Theatre uses time differently to the reading of a novel. We can read a novel in one sitting, or over the course of days or even weeks. We watch a play in one go. I use narrative to manipulate or control time in my plays. Narrative is more elusive in your work. How do you think of the role of time in the creation of a play?
I don’t rack my brains about that at all. I think time plays an important role in dialogues because timing here is very important. To learn that, I translate comedies and [the works of] Oscar Wilde, which I update and adapt. But I have not been writing any dialogues myself for a very long time – actually since I began writing plays, because I want to hand over the time element, too, to the performers and the director. I want something new to emerge, something where my text only participates as one element among many. I provide only an offer, not even a master copy, of a text.
Do you think about how your plays affect collections of people or do you write for individual audience members?
No, not at all. I don’t think of the audience for one second. Nevertheless, I am aware that I surrender my writing to a collective.
What do you learn from watching your plays?
Unfortunately I can no longer watch my plays because I suffer from an anxiety illness and can no longer visit the theatre. So I lack this experience. In earlier times, when I could still go, I did watch the plays but I didn’t learn anything, except that I had to find a different form than that of dialogue, but that was something I already knew beforehand.
We’re shamed by your absence from our major stages. How Austrian do you consider your writing to be? How Germanic?
I’m sorry, too, that British stages don’t seem to have an interest in my texts. I think that’s also due to the different tradition. I simply don’t write any ‘well made plays’. I wouldn’t be able to either, even if I tried.
Owing to my illness, I live a very reclusive life, so I wouldn’t even know anymore how people talk to each other nowadays. Therefore I have to let ideas and ideologies compete against each other – another sports metaphor. In any case, I come from the Austrian literary tradition, which is really quite different from the German tradition.
In Austria, there has always been a receptive audience for texts that critique language – texts that let language itself speak, as it were – from the language philosophy of early Wittgenstein and the language critic Karl Kraus through to the Vienna Group of the postwar era. In Germany I don’t see this. I drive language on, all the way to the worst pun – something I am always accused of – so that language has to say the truth, even against its will.
Actually, this should work in Britain, since puns and wordplay are ever present in British literature. I know little about cockney [slang] but I know enough to admire the incredible linguistic creativity of this distinct ‘language’. So my plays, I believe, would not be entirely out of place in Britain, even though they are not ‘normal’ theatre plays.
* Translation of Elfriede Jelinek’s responses by Karen Jurs-Munby. The interview was conducted on the occasion of the English language premiere of Sports Play, performed by Just a Must theatre company, which is touring until August 4 (www.justamust.com), and the conference Jelinek in the Arena, taking place until July 13 at Lancaster University. The full translation of the play is published by Oberon Books (buy now from www.amazon.co.uk)