The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

Write in the morning and the rest is adventure

The main question in nearly all of his plays is: how can we live?

Breakfast in a cluttered kitchen with the family jostling for attention and Granmaha torn between keeping the peace, seeing that everyone is fed and getting off to work: this is the opening of Don't Eat Little Charlie. In this play Tankred Dorst explores how far theatre can go to fulfil our childish need for illusion. Translator Ella Wildridge says:

Tankred Dorst is a fantastic man of the theatre. Each play I read in the early days was very different but very exciting in its form. Tankred constantly surprises audiences by making a temporal collage, not being scared to shift timeframes or to play with size and dreams. His plays combine intellect, imagination and a sense of spectacle.

Tankred Dorst was brought up in a village where his father operated a tool factory. He read whatever was on his father's bookshelf and by the age of eleven or twelve was determined to be a playwright. The war intervened and he served in the army, was a prisoner of war in England and America and returned to find his family property confiscated. Throughout his adult life he has studied, lived and created theatre in Munich. Much of his work is co-written with his wife Ursula Ehler. As a dramatist he has never been directly involved in the actual political problems of his country although many of his plays are basically political. The main question in nearly all of his plays is: how can we live? Ella Wildridge gave this quotation from Tankred Dorst:

When I was a student in the fifties some friends and I founded a puppet theatre and I wrote surrealistic plays for audiences that were for students and adults, not for children. I'm not a specialist in writing plays for young people. I don't think it is any different from writing for old people, blue, green, rich or poor people. My main concern is always to write a good play with interesting characters. Ursula and I have been living and working together for many years now. We usually work from ten in the morning till two in the afternoon then we go somewhere to eat. The rest is adventure.

From the chaotic start of Don't Eat Little Charlie the characters operate realistically in a world of magic-realism. Accept for a theatrical moment that Granmaha has collected her family from the detritus left at the railway station, that Olmo has an insatiable appetite and wants to eat his little brother, that Fizzypizzi is a supercharged electrified girl and that there is a talking dog under the table. After that everything becomes logical and sensible and, furthermore, can give the audience an insight into society and our relationships. Ella Wildridge says:

Olmo is a totalitarian tyrant who consumes everything while The Owner is another kind of tyrant who has control of people at a micro- level. He is a man with a head full of poison, controlling your house, furniture and payment of rent. He is a despot that people come into contact with in their everyday lives. Pug is the aristocrat who has come down in the world. He is a devious survivor, the smooth operator, the person who will negotiate with tyrants, will sacrifice others and then crawl under the table to save himself. He is literal, pompous and censorious. Granmaha is the ordinary woman, the survivor who cannot bear to see others in want and yet gets fed up when she is left responsible for them. However she has her crown and her dreams and in this magical fairy story her king comes to get her, Antunes is the creative person without whom tyrants and despots would have their way over ordinary people. Fizzypizzi is the impulsive energiser, the one who makes people happy or angry or prone to falling in love, while Charlie is naïve, the innocent child who cares about his brother despite the threat he poses and who laughs at everything.

The dark moments of the play come when the man with the carbuncle speaks. His language is vile and some lines jolt us out of our comfort zones. ‘Right, into the cattle truck’ needs little elaboration. ‘Shove off you charred piece of charcoal’ is a truly offensive line spoken by a truly horrible character. But Tankred Dorst is able to smooth the offence by suggesting that the carbuncle can be lanced, the poison can be replaced by a bird and music can transform us all.

The language in Don't Eat Little Charlie is subtle and complex. To some it might appear to be a chaos of conflicting rhythms but Tankred Dorst is a great wordsmith. There is an arc of energy in the language as it moves through a series of dislocations, antiphonal exchanges, fairytale narrative and extended poetic interludes to a harmonious resolution. Using language in this way Tankred Dorst shows how all is change and haphazard. Our society is one where nothing stays intact, almost everything is in the wrong place and the contents of the house come from a railway station, itself a metaphor for change and movement. He is also able to reflect on family life. Amidst the boredom and turmoil of domestic interactions the need to be ordinary is set against the need for the poetic and beautiful. Hence the symbolism of the crown that, if sold, would pay off all the debts. In the world of Tankred Dorst the crown is too precious to be sold and the only way out of the sordid preoccupations of domesticity is through the King of Song and his magic. If you can produce a bird from the vile carbuncle, he can surely show the beauty of ordinary experiences.

Tankred Dorst

I have in my mind the most beautiful, poetic, imaginative performance. But undoubtedly there are some technical problems to be solved. I hope everyone involved will enjoy acting and looking at the actions of others. The play is more than an entertainment. I hope they will learn from the experience and will be able to say, like Charlie at the end of the play, ‘I have grown a tiny little bit.’