06. 17. 2008. 11:18

La bourgeoisie bohème

János Térey: Table Music

Reading stage plays and cookbooks requires a split state of consciousness. As a reader, one often wonders whether it would not be wiser to actually see the play and eat the food – for example, that "green herb soup / with smoked salmon stripes".

János Térey's play takes place in Budapest's White Box Café where the characters eat their way through the daily menu and talk their way through their lives. Yet, we could equally well say they talk through the entire menu and eat their way through each other’s lives.

Here we have, nomen est omen, Győző (Hungarian for Victor), the restaurant owner, worst of all blockheads. Indeed, he seems to grow more and more obnoxious as his turnover rises. Next we have his best friend, Kálmán Donner, a traumatologist with a serious case of burn-out; a few wives half way or more through divorce; Mariann, the beautician who is bored and is the mother of Győző’s two daughters; and Alma, the ambitious lawyer who does not want children any more (nor does she want Kálmán). Lastly, there is one common mistress, Dolphin, the sinking opera singer. This central crew is complemented by gay interior designer Krisztián; Henrik, the sour opera critic; and Marmeladov, of the upper crust; as well as Roland and Zsuzsi, waiter and waitress. These latter are, for the time being, outside of the circle, but there is every reason to fear that soon they will be caught in the whirlpool of Buda-side decadence.

The menu largely consists of the private life of successful people in their mid-thirties. For starters, we are offered spoiled friendships and wrecked marriages. The main courses consist of failed love affairs, declining careers and hollowness, Midas style. And for desert, we are served an unexpected piece of news with some fascinating question marks.
Table Music is their chamber opera. Duets, trios and quartets follow each other – you often hear parallel conversations between the two tables and the bar.
One can easily find a unique timbre for each of the characters based on their style, constitution and, what is most important, their manner of speaking. The three acts consist of allegro, andante and presto movements to be played without an interval.
Furthermore, according to authorial instructions, the play must use original music and Dolphin must not sing. What we do hear if we hold our ears fast against this five-star box is the rumble-tumble of life itself. (We might refer to the play as Tafelmusik, true to the spirit of its title – the background music of social gatherings. In such a case, the instruments become characters and the consonance is the divertimento itself.)

In this work, Térey used as his base the genre of the conversational play, the bourgeois parlour drama (intrigue, gossip and adultery, all served in the most refined, elegant – i.e., the most vicious – fashion possible). The added twist is that the heroes of the play speak throughout in the rhythmical verse of the choruses in ancient Greek tragedies. With this unique switch in wavelength, their diction gains a permanently elevated quality and seems to hover high over the level of the ordinary spoken tongue. (A similar instance is T. S. Eliot’s bitter-sharp verse drama Cocktail at Six, set in a similar milieu.) This refined, stylised register gives the speeches a distanced and yet familiar timbre and functions simultaneously as a magnifying glass, making the reader re-think what we actually mean by realism. (Or, to refer to the deftly played Puccini motif which makes its appearance on many excellently timed occasions throughout the play, what is there to expect from abstract verismo?) We must not forget that Térey’s play is strictly defined in terms of space and time alike.

We are in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century – so the authorial instructions read at the beginning of the play. However, the conversations soon reveal that in fact we are in February 2007, following the hurricane of 20 August 2006 (see note), which each of the characters recalls at one of the climactic points in the play, describing where they were and what their experience was. This makes room for a true moment of community which is as rare in this off-white, chic designer café as trolley-buses on the Buda side. We are also past the autumn riots – their smoke and fog seem to hover over the outside world which, according to the present state of evidence, is supposed to be located somewhere in the streets of the Pest side; however, the White Box on Buda’s Királyhágó (literally: King’s Pass) Square lies at a safe distance. So, let’s hear Győző and Kálmán, the one-time good friends. At one point of the conversation, the waiter, who is lucky or unlucky enough to be an almost perfect clone of Győző, also joins in.
GYŐZŐ: O the Pest side, the delight of the proles with
Juicy gossip that talks of us all on the hill,
That’s where the war zone lies, they know pretty well that
Our side is not fit to be war zone.

KÁLMÁN: There is a nasty little dizzy-making stench hovering, they
must be setting fire to the cars once more,
and turning over the phone-booths.
Hear the eardrum-breaking hoot of the sirens,
see how the teargas slowly becomes omnipresent there.
Here in the White Box we don’t need to know any of this,
Should half of Budapest be wiped from the face of the earth
We still don’t need to take heed of it all here.
Should Pest die and should Buda die, too,
We vegetate and drag on and on here,
Even when Budapest all turns to a wasteland,
White Box will still open the doors to its guests, see.
ROLAND (to GYŐZŐ): Oh, what a year, what a year it has been.

KÁLMÁN (to Roland): Remember Pest? Do you still see
tram Number 2 glide gently along the police lines?

GYŐZŐ: Not a country worth much attention,
Witless, hopeless seat of self-nominated
Top managers, presidents and heads of
All manner of committees.
KÁLMÁN: Not at all a remarkable new generation.

ROLAND: Not at all a remarkable age, this. (exit)

GYŐZŐ (looking up to the ceiling): A sky of no special value
And the celestial beings truly not worth any notice,
But Budapest has a charm of its own still.

So, we are located on the Buda side in terms of ideology and worldview alike. Sándor Márai’s manner sentence (“living in Buda is a worldview”) is one of the mottos of the play. The other motto comes from a "classified ad" by a writer of the Pest side, István Örkény. The two quotes mingle in true proportion the ideological and the critical ramifications of the Buda phenomenon through an emblematic literary figure of each of the two sides.

The characters in Térey’s play, as the excerpt reveals, make rather strong statements. The sentence “not a country worth much attention” will become quotable separately, ripped out of its context, whether approvingly or disapprovingly. After the scenery of the conversational play and the consonance of the diction, this is the third emphatic element of Térey’s play – a trait we might, somewhat clumsily, call Bernhardism. (Indeed, Térey himself refers to Thomas Bernard’s scandal play Heldenplatz as seminal reading.) In this dramaturgy, compulsive diction becomes detached from the characters and starts to live a life of its own. The language flies far away like a boomerang, hits hard and then gently and gracefully returns to its origin.

Térey’s play is teeming with various criss-crossing cultural and social codes. Everything is meaningful – where people eat out, what they eat and drink, where they live, but also where they come from. The main trait in this identity is the individual’s attitude and behaviour. What are the cultural objects that can best display the capital one has accumulated? A weekend in Florence, a painting by Otto Dix, or is it enough to eat fig salad with caviar? These are the problems that preoccupy la bourgeoisie bohème locked inside their box. They are captives of their own lives, lies and life lies.
Győző, the most central character, is the most hopelessly captive. White Box is his chef d’oeuvre and he cannot get away from it, from the illusion of the social box which he believes to be genuine. The characters are linguistic and social puppets (figures in the front cover photo by Balázs Kovalik display this with an oppressive kind of charm), moved on the strings of compulsions. They exchange imitations of genuine language. There is hardly any flesh and blood interaction between them, although they constantly talk about flesh and blood interactions. They do no more than talk about them since this is a play in which, as the author says, only steaks are allowed to be bloody. Stylisation, the central principle of the entire play, is permeated by the smell of naturalism. (In this respect, we must not fail to mention Térey’s personal favourite – Dezső Szomory’s art of musical style.) The polyphony of table music includes the rattle of plates and cutlery.
Térey’s present play is a more stageable enterprise than his monumental and unactable opus The Nibelung Residential Park. The plays he writes are becoming increasingly more performable. Table Music is partly a book play – reading being the par excellence medium for its reception; on the other hand, it is the script for a stage play which can be staged and performed but requires a great deal of concentration and heavy directorial presence.
In Térey’s “ice cold anthropology” (Sándor Radnóti), these puppets can only be handled from outside the human domain, as this is the sphere they consistently ignore. At the end of the play, the snow starts to fall in large, clean flakes – perhaps referring to Géza Ottlik, that other great philosopher of Buda-side existence (more original than Márai), as it creates an illusion, or even hope, of salvation. “One should make a tabula rasa,” says Kálmán in the name of all the main characters in the square. Still, although in one of the last scenes Roland, the headwaiter, wipes the weekly menu off the board; a true clean start, a genuine tabula rasa is impossible for these people.
Nature, however, proves a sublime and intelligent director – as ever.
(Note: ”A severe thunderstorm caught Budapest on 20 August 2006, wreaking havoc during the celebrations of the Constitution Day. Around 1.2 million spectators of the Constitution Day fireworks were hit by storm and hail shortly after the show began at 21:00 local time. Heavy rain and wind-gusts over 120 km/h uprooted trees, smashed cars and windows and ripped tiles off rooftops. Five people died and hundreds injured as a result of the fierce storm.” - Hungarian Meteorological Service (HMS), Budapest, Hungary)
Previously on HLO
Mob behaviour and shared history. András Papp and János Térey: Casemates

Térey János: Asztalizene
Budapest: Magvető, 2008

János Szegő

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