Tormenting the Cleaning Lady: Marius von Mayenburg’s »Plastic«

by Joseph Pearson

1 May 2015

I arrive at a rehearsal of the new Marius von Mayenburg comedy, »Plastic« (»Stück Plastik«), and have to duck. Spaghetti is being thrown left and right. Sebastian Schwarz, playing the overbearing artist Haulupa, is looking droll and sucking pasta from his knuckles. Robert Beyer, the frustrated husband Michael, is enraged and chucking more stringy matter across the stage. His wife, Ulrike (Marie Burchard) is about to slip on errant tagliatelle. Laurenz Laufenberg, as the child Vincent, must be in the wings somewhere crying his eyes out. The whole back of the set is smothered with semolina that defies gravity. Jenny König, the objectified housekeeper, Jessica, looks on perplexed, as do I.

»Enough for today«, says Marius, and a crew of real-life cleaners get to work on the (it seems impossible) task of removing the spaghetti, which has been rubbed into the plastic flooring, or found its way into seams of the furniture.

»Lucky them, having to clean all this up«, I suggest to the director, »Don’t you feel a little bit sorry for them and find that their job is ironic, given the subject of your play?«

The mucky relationship between a wealthy family in Prenzlauer Berg and their embattled cleaning lady from Halle is a central conflict of »Plastic«. If you follow through the consequences of leaving a little pocket change around the apartment, to test the honesty of the domestic help, then you are already in the spirit of this dark satire.

»Well, it’s their job«, replies Marius, »But of course we have situations where the actors make an extra mess and I wonder whether we should make it easier for those who clean up. But this can’t be the policy when creating theatre«.

»Spaghetti is better than fat, which also needs to be cleaned up at one point in your play. That’s an allusion of course to –«

»To Joseph Beuys«, he completes my thought, »There is this joke about Beuys, that his art always is the victim of cleaning people. When you have artists, and cleaning people on stage, there’s always Beuys«.

Having read a preliminary draft, I have dabbled with my own interpretations of the new work, as a portrait of the bankrupt political convictions of a left-leaning generation. It shows the perfidy of class snobbery that has grown rancid behind a plastic film of political correctness. There’s plenty of plastic on the set too – the kitchen, furniture, walls, curtains – and, of course, in the title, which is a play on words: »Stück« in German means both a »piece of« and a »play«; »Plastik« is both the material and a »sculpture«.

We sit together near the entrance to the Practice Stage, and I ask Marius what made him write a play on this subject.

MvM: I have a weak spot for cleaning ladies. I wanted to write a full-length play about a person who helps other people in their household. I have been fascinated for some time with people who have a certain political identity, who consider themselves leftwing and believe they fight for the rights of the underprivileged, but who have chores in their households they don’t want to do by themselves. They don’t want to clean their own toilet. This political double life interests me. We have certain ideals and we don’t live up to them.

JP: How does it make you feel when you see other people do work for you? For example, if you see movers carrying your stuff and you’re just there standing doing nothing?

MvM: That's a very good example, because it felt really weird when I first moved with professional help. I couldn't just stand there watching. So I carried the boxes together with the moving guys, which made me feel even more useless. While I heaved one box up the stairs, they ran past me taking three at a time. And it was all books, an intellectual load I wasn't able to carry on my own. Ridiculous.

JP: Maybe it is another form of condescension from middle class professionals to think: »we must help you, because we believe you do such terrible work’. Is it a lack of respect to help?

MvM: You mean, is it patronizing? There's definitely something patronizing about the attitude of people who went to university, who think they can be of any help to people who work with their hands. A carpenter friend of mine, who made a wardrobe for me, taught me that lesson when I tried to help him and he just replied: don't mess with my wood.

JP: Is there not a difference between the way a carpenter, who has a craft, is treated in German society, and the way a cleaning man or lady is treated? There’s a line in your play, when Ulrike says to Jessica: »well, of course you haven’t studied’. Or, when she’s asked: »where are you from, Ukraine, Poland?’ The play discusses a section of the workforce that does not have sufficient respect afforded to it, for work done well.

MvM: Maybe there is even respect for it, but people don’t know how to behave. They have only learned to react in political terms, which means you have to pay them well. But if you want to ask your cleaner, ‹can you take special care when doing this or that’, you are immediately very embarrassed. We all don’t know how to do that correctly.

JP: Your characters, Michael and Ulrike, really don’t know how to react. How did you go about creating these conflicts?

MvM: I thought about embarrassing situations, and then tried to get to the most embarrassing point of those situations. I tried to be as precise as possible about what it was that is embarrassing. It is one thing to leave money lying around the apartment, and quite another to talk about it, to say sorry, and then, by saying sorry, make things worse.

JP: Another uncomfortable aspect is the couple’s relationship to their child.

MvM: It is my belief that parents don’t know how to deal with their kids anymore – if they ever knew. Religion is no longer the right tool, luckily enough. Of course we learned in the 60s that we shouldn’t beat our children, although the progressive Pope now tells us that god has no problem with it. So parents turn to books, about what to do when their kids don’t sleep, how many minutes you wait before comforting your crying child. People are really insecure about their private lives. We know a lot of rules, and are very skilled at our social lives, or in our job where we understand hierarchies and how to cope with them. But we have no clue what’s going on in our private relationships.

JP: It’s even more complicated because the child in this play is going through the discoveries of puberty, and the cleaning lady is an object of interest not only for the child, but also for the father whose marriage is lacking communication.

MvM: With this boy, I wanted to depict a child who is lost, in the special way you can be lost at that age. You begin to realize that the grown-ups have this thing they never talk about. You don’t know what it is, but you know it is there. You try to understand it, and that it is crucial, but everyone is weird about it. Even if your parents realize that you need help, they are definitely not the right persons to help you. So all they can do is fail the best way they can.

JP: Your play is a little bit like reading a book about how to mess up your children.

MvM: Except that both parents are trying to do their best. Our society is asking a lot of us: be successful at work, be good parents, be rich, be sexy, be politically aware, be healthy, and (the very worst part) be happy. We are overwhelmed by our ambitions, and of course we can't fulfill them.

JP: You are very sympathetic towards the parents in this play.

MvM: It was important to me that they don’t hate each other, but rather that they fight against each other because they fight for each other. For that reason, I thought sexuality needed to be an important part of their relationship, even though that sexuality might be in the past. There needed to be a high temperature between them – even a memory of a high temperature. It is a very strong glue that prevents them from separating, an even stronger glue than having a child together. I also thought this play had to be really aggressive, and I wanted to have aggressive characters on stage.

JP: You mean Haulupa…

MvM: Yes, it was good to have one character with the potential to fight everyone, and that is Haulupa. This very loud and somehow space-consuming character is played by Sebastian Schwarz, a very charismatic and charming actor. So, even if the character might get on our nerves, I hope we still end up liking him. The relationship Sebastian and Robert [Beyer] have in private life also feeds into their relationship on stage. It is a great pleasure for me to see them in rehearsals, because they know why I wrote these lines.

JP: Could you tell me then a little more about the writing process?

MvM: Since I’m writing for myself as a director, it has changed my process of writing. Before I was unconsciously writing with the phantoms of potential directors on my mind. I don’t necessarily do that anymore. I’m trying to write what I myself would like, and know how, to direct. I am also writing for the actors I know. Since I was already working with the team while I was completing the script, this strongly affected my choices. What has been important for me is the collaboration with Nina Wetzel and Sébastien Dupouey [in set design and video, respectively]. This is something that has developed in the past years, and working with both has become a very important part of my work.

JP: Does your work on this play indicate where you are going next?

MvM: I've been sharing a studio with a couple of international artists for many years and there has always been a fascination with each other's work. While writing »Stück Plastik«, this mutual interest has had an intense revival. So some of my next steps might actually take place in that field. There have been promising contacts with some Dutch institutions. The results could be surprising.


by Marius von Mayenburg
Direction: Marius von Mayenburg
World Premiere

Premiered on 25 April 2015