Theatre Shouldn’t Make You Feel Safe
Marius von Mayenburg’s »Peng«

by Joseph Pearson

11 May 2017

»I started writing this play after the US presidential election«, Marius von Mayenburg tells me, »I was already working on another play. But then this came up. It was an allergic reaction – this play – to what happened. I must say that Trump was not the first thing that happened. It felt like the last thing. We had had Brexit, Erdoğan, Putin, Orbán, Kaczyński, a long list. I observed a longing for macho men in societies, for leaders who provide very simple solutions to complicated problems. Since, in theatre, our worst fears can result in the worst outcome, I created this character ›Peng‹«.

Peng! It’s a name that is delivered with a bang. It snaps like a slogan: Peng! Mayenburg tells me he wanted a name that »pops«, which instantiates the reaction of those who desire radical political solutions: »the idea that people want a change, for something to happen, for better or for worse«.

Peng is personified as a monstrous child, played by the inimitable Sebastian Schwarz. I watch the actor practice his monologues, lashing violently out against anyone or anything in the world that does not approve of him. The contemporary political resonance of Ralf Peng’s racism, womanising, selfishness, atavism, and inability to take criticism, is not easy to ignore.

Mayenburg walks thoughtfully around Schwarz as the actor delivers his soliloquies. Occasionally he intervenes, directing a stress on this or the other word (one can intuit from this precision that Mayenburg is both writer and director of the piece). Schwarz is, meanwhile, wearing the most ridiculous (and revealing) long underwear. He has a way of moving around the stage in them lasciviously. The mix of adult and childlike is purposefully irksome. As Ralf Peng opines in the play: »I grapple at every woman’s blouse or between their legs because: I am still a child. I do it ›innocently as a bab‹. Purely out of›curiosity and joyful exploration‹«.

The parents who brought this monstrous child into the world believe he can do no wrong. »Peng« is full of hilariously disturbing situations in which Peng’s inexcusable behaviour – on the playground, with the music teacher, or towards the babysitter – is somehow excused. The monstrosity of family life is on display. One wonders – in the scene when Peng chews apart a teddy bear, as if there’s a crocodile inside the baby carriage rather than a human...or perhaps something all too human – whether this play might be used as an effective form of birth control.

Mayenburg elucidates, »There’s a certain blindness that parents have towards their children, they don’t see what’s going wrong because they love them so much, and parents compete in idealising their kids as especially special or gifted. That a boy can walk at ten months doesn’t mean he’ll become a Mozart. It’s this strange phenomenon that I wanted to address. There’s also something else I realised, about power. I think people who have a lot of power tend to regress. When you tell them something is not possible, only two kinds of humans react »I know it’s not, but I want it anyway«: bosses and children«.

»Is that the link between political power and family life in this piece?« I ask.

»Yes. It’s very childish, this tendency – what Erdoğan does, for example – to be offended by everything that is said. It’s ridiculous. Every grownup would say so. Trump has a problem with the number of people who appear at his inauguration. My birthday was the bigger one! No mine was! It’s completely childish. Although it’s important to say that this play is not about Trump, but rather about a certain mindset in societies that creates characters like Trump«.

»Is the childish violence about which you speak something more general about male behaviour? Or, rather, the conduct of a certain kind of male?« I ask.

»I very much believe in culture. It is something we need somehow to put this beast that males can become behind a fence. I think it needs to be done. There is a moment in the play when I say men kill and women don’t. Of course this is an exaggeration, but this exaggeration is demonstrated by the characters themselves. And I really think that the world would be a better place with more women in power, even if they are called Merkel or May, who are also the products of a male-dominated world«.

»Your early play »Fireface« (»Feuergesicht), which you wrote in 1997, is also about children and their capacities for radical action. Is this a revisiting of those themes, but from a perhaps more experienced perspective?« I ask.

Mayenburg replies, »It feels strange to talk about »Fireface« now. Twenty years is a very long time. It almost feels like somebody else wrote the play. I can only say that I was very angry when I wrote it and that I was also very angry when I wrote »Peng«. But I didn't write »Fireface« to encourage kids to kill their parents. I hope that play is more about the general issues surrounding growing up, having parents, and being in the world as a young person. »Peng« is probably less psychological. I wanted it to be a play about political emotions. About the irrational longing for explosions and sensations in the political sphere. I do not like the speed with which political situations now change. I am not a fan of revolution. I believe in evolution and would always prefer this to revolution. I want spectacular sporting events, spectacular theatre, and a spectacular life, but I don’t want spectacular politics. Politics become spectacular when people get killed. I prefer boring and slow politics.«.

»Peng« is a story set in the apartments and playgrounds of Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, a mix of scathing social criticism and comedy. The director tells me, »Comedy is the back-door through which I can try to enter the minds of the audience, with some unpleasant thoughts, when the front door is locked«.

Some audience members might find some of the humour – surrounding sensitive subjects such as domestic violence towards women – hard hitting and upsetting. But I do think that we need to resist moves to sanitise social criticism in theatre, in the name of political correctness, and turn theatre into a neutered »safe space«. Mayenburg is not interested in allowing the audience get too comfortable, permitting them to feel »safe«.

He tells me, »Theatre can’t be about being polite. It can’t be about showing people who do the right thing. If I show a murderer on stage, I am not suggesting this is how we should all act. Theatre needs to attack, so I would prefer to show a politically incorrect rather than a politically correct character on stage in order to offer a politically relevant play. Otherwise, we end up in a church-like sermon, preaching to people who think the same as we do. That would be boring and not at all intellectually challenging. If I see something terrible, it activates me«.

»I don’t think people should be offended if characters use language on stage that is offensive. Maybe it will even make them think thoughts for the first time that they would normally not have. I’m trying to make it difficult for them to resist such thoughts, which have far more to do with ourselves than we like to believe. It’s easy to point the finger at the USA and say: they have this terrible leader. We have the same tendencies here in Germany, with AfD and Pegida. This longing for simple solutions to complicated problems – shooting people who try to come into our country, because they try to escape war, for example – is also a German idea. We don’t need to point fingers at other nations.«

I step out from the Schaubühne practice stage – where I have seen men grappling ferociously in boxer masks, muttering angrily from mouth guards, and then playing on an enormous green slide – and I am intrigued by how, just a half-year after what can only be called a catastrophe in American politics, there is already an invigorated artistic response in the German theatre. That art flourishes in hard times is a weary historical hypothesis – I’d prefer to think that we can’t predict how artists might react – but plays like »Peng« make one entertain the possibility that there is a compelling link.


by Marius von Mayenburg
Direction: Marius von Mayenburg

Premiered on 3 June 2017