Rechnitz (der Würgeengel) by Elfriede Jelinek is about the power of language to distort and to obfuscate. It is about people who hide behind an excess of words. This is why it works as theatre: you hear the words and you can see the people.

To give a very summary, Rechnitz (der Würgeengel) tells of the killing of about 200 Hungarian Jews in the night of 24 to 25 March 1945, during the final days of the Second World War, in the small Austrian village Rechnitz, near the Austro-Hungarian border, by a group of local notables who had gathered for a party at the castle of the Countess of Batthyany, born Thyssen-Bornemisza. At some point during the evening guns were handed out. The people were killed and afterwards the guests returned to the castle to continue the party. After the war the massacre was covered up. Residents boycotted an official investigation, one witness was murdered and other witnesses died under suspicious circumstances. To this day the remains of the victims have not been found.

In the play, directed by Jossi Wieler for the Münchner Kammerspiele, the events are recounted by five messengers ("Boten") in the sense of ancient Greek tragedy (one of the conventions of Greek tragedy was that no violent scenes took place on stage and that important events were told by way of an "angelia"). They alternately dress as party guests and servants. They don't talk to each other, they only address the audience. They smile and flirt with the audience as they twist the facts and play down what happened during the evening.

The stage consists of a wall with wooden panels that serve as doors that give way to some sort of a cellar. At one point one of the doors opens and some guns fall onto stage. As the performance progresses the stage gradually becomes home to an orgy of decadence. The actors dress down to their underpants, they smack each other on a thigh, they eat pizza, eggs and chocolate pie and dress up in evening clothes. All of this remains restrained, which is more powerful than the now fashionable exuberant realism. One the messengers picks some topping from her pizza, throwing the rest away, while talking about the prisoners. One wonders why they looked so thin when they spent their days working outside in nature! (I don't recall the actual lines, but it was something to this effect).

I wasn't too sure when I read that the entire play consisted of five messengers talking about the events, but it works very well. As a matter of fact, I think the text has more impact when it is performed than it would have as a book (*). In short, I thought it was a great performance, which proves the relevance of theatre as an artform. A word of warning though: There is a lot of wordplay and free association going on. There really is no point in attending the piece if you don't speak German.

A short documentary about Rechnitz.


(*) Dunkelblum by Eva Menasse is a fascinating novel that also takes inspiration from the events that transpired in Rechnitz.