FIND 17 Home Cooking and Intimacy: Richard Nelson’s »The Gabriels«
by Joseph Pearson
21 March 2017
When the quartet, »The Apple Family Plays«, came to the FIND festival from New York in 2015, the question was asked: how will plays set in a rural American community, Rhinebeck, two hours north of New York City, speak to a German audience? Will Germans care about the intricacies of New York State politics? Will they connect to the food prepared, to the conversational vernacular? How will all this translate with German surtitles?
Director Richard Nelson’s plays were very successful in Germany, and therein lies a little puzzle. As Nelson tells me in conversation, »One of the lessons I learned coming to Berlin was that the more specific one is – the more actual in time and place and detail – the more universal the play can become. That’s an interesting lesson. This small little village of only a few streets started to become something much bigger, although it is contained in a small place«.
The invitation was extended – by both by the Schaubühne’s FIND 2017 and Hamburg’s Theater der Welt festivals – for Nelson to return. He brings with him »The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family«. While the »Apples« charted a Rhinebeck family in a living room over four years of elections and national memorials, »The Gabriels« charts a Rhinebeck family in a kitchen over the course of the 2016 presidential election campaign. »The Gabriels« is composed of three parts – »Hungry«, »What Did You Expect?«, and »Women of a Certain Age« – with a cumulative effect that makes spectators glad they booked to see all of them.
Who are the Gabriels? They are descendants of working-class Austrian immigrants. The grandfather worked as a garage mechanic; the grandmother was a maid on the Astor estate. But it was a family that, Nelson tells me, became very cultured and educated, involved in music and literature. The plays are dominated by women. By the final part, almost all the characters are middle-aged women, with one in her eighties (»It’s wonderful, I think, to show there are wonderful actresses out there who because of their age have worked less than they should«, Nelson adds). These (almost Chekhovian) characters are locals from the town of Rhinebeck. Unlike the Apples, who didn’t grow up in Rhinebeck and moved there, the resilient Gabriels face the pressures of gentrification as their town becomes popular with weekenders from New York City (buying country homes and driving up local prices). As Nelson explains, while the Apples were »in search of a home, the people in these pieces were born here, and are being pushed out. Here, it’s about the loss of a home«. This story of displacement will speak emotionally to those touched by the debate in Berlin around neighbourhood change and gentrification in, say, Kreuzberg or Neukölln.
These comparisons bring me back to the puzzle posed at the beginning of this preview. Why is it that the plays work better cross-culturally, with large audiences, the more specific (Rhinebeck) cultural detail is provided? How does one then arrive at something that Nelson calls »universal« or »human«? These are, of course, categories that meet resistance within sections of the German theatre scene seasoned by a suspicion of universalism, and also among those that reject what they call the conceit of naturalism or hyperrealism (although Nelson prefers to call the technique in his work »verisimilitude«).
Nelson tells me, »We have some experience with these plays in very different cultures, in Perth and Hong Kong for example. Let me tell you, in Hong Kong, a third to a half of the audience was reading along with Mandarin supertitles. So, you tell me. Clearly, the familial situations are universal. Families are not that dissimilar in terms of their basic dynamics, but I think something else is going on«.
»When I talked to Tobias Veit [of the Schaubühne direction] – he was the great instigator of bringing the ›Apples‹ over – he argued specifically that he felt that there was an audience for issues and places involving liberal characters [»liberal« in the American sense of the word, meaning social-democratic]. In these plays, we see characters who grew up with liberal beliefs and voted Democrat... liberal people who are not wealthy, who created and believed in a world with a certain kind of justice, with a certain kind of right and wrong. They have watched the world change a great deal, and are now feeling that perhaps their leaders are not quite so focused on them. Western Australia is just about to have an election. Hong Kong in the midst of a very big election. Germany is about to have an election. England lives under the umbrella of what happened with Brexit, and across the border France is having an election. The Netherlands are about to have a huge election [at time of interview]. In all of these places, the concerns of my characters seem to be alive. How that happened is very interesting«.
I ask, »Speaking of elections, the last part of the trilogy, »Women of a Certain Age«, premiered in New York on election night, 8 November 2016. After that performance the actors watched the faces of the New York Public Theatre’s audience fall, as Trump’s victory became clear. How are »The Gabriels« interpreted differently pre- and post- Trump?«
Nelson nods, »What has happened is that the plays have deepened. If Hillary had won, the plays would have been seen as cautionary tales: let’s not celebrate too much. Be careful, vigilant. But since Trump won, it’s a much darker tale, in which one feels more and more alienated. Where is my voice? There’s one line in all three plays: ›what about us?‹ Given the situation, the election, that line just resonates – in a much darker place, an impotent place. The plays touch that«.
»Does that mean, then, that America is a broken place? That these plays are about broken people in the age of Trump? Do ›The Gabriels‹ mourn an America that was better and is now gone?«
Nelson replies with an emphatic »No«. He says, »The excitement about these plays is the sense of resilience of these people. More than one person has thanked me, saying that all we hear about America is a certain kind of story: about scared, frightened, confused people. But they are questioning people, there is a voice that is resilient, and a hope behind it. That is at the heart of these plays. It’s so obvious that people feel that something has gone wrong: an incredible statistic came up two weeks ago, that eight of the world’s richest people have as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion. In the history of the earth, there has been nothing like that. How did we get there is a reasonable question«.
»I want to return to the word »human«, which we have used a number of times in our conversation. And I wonder what this category means to you«, I ask the director.
Nelson replies, »I begin very specifically and concretely: I am a playwright, and I work in the theatre. And I’ve said many times, theatre is the only artistic form that uses the entire live human being as its expression. As an artist, the only thing I have to work with is the whole human being. So I begin there. This is my path; this is what I have. It’s not a question of ›what is human‹; it’s what I’m given, the tools I have, the individuals that I work with and am trying to create. I tell my actors at the beginning of rehearsal, always, I say: the only ambition we have is to be put people on stage who are as confused, complex, deep, ambiguous, as any one person in the audience. And that we will always fail. But that’s our ambition. When you have that as the centre of your work, it’s not a question of having to justify what it is. It is working with what you have«.
Nelson’s plays are stripped down, with minimal costume choices that begin with the actors’ own wardrobes, the set is almost bare and everything on it is used. Yet, a great deal of technical sophistication has gone into the appearance of simplicity, be it in the lighting – the stage is lit as if for a dance piece – or audio. The characters often speak with their backs to the audience, in conversational tones, thanks to an innovative series of microphones placed over the set, with only delicate amplification. Together, these subtle gestures help create the impression we are peeking into a world, and that creates intimacy and empathy. As Nelson puts it, »we are human beings in front of human beings, together, live, and in the dark, at the same time in the same place«.
One of the reasons »The Gabriels« promise to be so intimate is that these plays are set in a kitchen where food is prepared. Nelson tells me, »The only real plot of each play is a meal is being made from scratch. The play ends when it is ready. Why? There are a number of reasons and three that are specific. The first is so obvious that I had never thought about it: human beings are the only animals that cook. Therefore, cooking is one of the things that makes us human. What better way to focus on the human being and its complexity but to focus on one of the things that defines us as human. Secondly, I think the plays are about the dignity of these people. In essence, these plays are ›work plays‹. We are watching people work: things are physically being made, there is dignity of work. Finally, maybe for you too when you were growing up things were spoken in the kitchen in certain ways, when preparing food, differently than elsewhere. The kitchen allows for a certain kind of conversation. The kitchen is a way into that conversation«.
by Richard Nelson
Direction: Richard Nelson (New York)
Premiered on 2 April 2017Video