A Matterhorn of a Man

So what to say about The Night of the Tribades, a play with little plot or dramatic action, no discernible conclusion or resolution, and consisting of four characters either blabbing on and on or reading lines from a play they are rehearsing?

It’s pretty damn good. Superlative acting and an intensely elusive script that, like the work of the playwright it’s based on, August Strindberg, seems constantly to be “concealing itself. Disguising itself. Everything important exists outside the script.” That’s a line from the play, delivered by a tribade (a euphemism for lesbian) to Strindberg, the towering literary genius who dominates this play, just as he apparently tried to dominate everyone in his life.

Swedish writer Per Olov Enquist wrote Tribades in 1975. Somewhere along the line, Ross Shideler, a professor of comparative literature at UCLA, translated it into English. He did exemplary work because even though it’s set in 1889 and is suffused with lofty ideas about literature, legacy and female emancipation, the words feel contemporary and wholly accessible.

Well, all but one word is contemporary. The one that doesn’t fit is in the title, and it’s important for two reasons.

Tribade is a slur against lesbians, but it’s an archaic one based on a Latin word borrowed from Greek: tribas, meaning “to rub.” According to my handy Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, it first surfaced in English in a 1601 play by Ben Jonson and was often used in medical and criminal texts in the 19th century in phrases such as “the practice of tribadism.” It may not carry the weight of such great contemporary terms as dyke, carpet muncher or muff diver, but because the great Strindberg wields it with such venom, it’s far more injurious.

It’s also important because the word was apparently perceived by some Long Beach State officials as too offensive to list on the Seventh Street marquee that promotes California Repertory productions. That decision of PC self-censorship sparked about 24 people to stage a 10-minute protest of tribbing, or scissoring, in front of Boltman Hall on Nov. 17.

Lesbianism does pop up in Tribades, but it’s far less important than the turbulent relationship between Strindberg and his wife, Siri, and, by extension, the tortured psychology of an artist with a Matterhorn-like intellect saddled with cavernous insecurities that he attempts to cloak through a raging ego. (That didn’t always work. Between 1894 and 1896, Strindberg experienced five psychotic episodes, which he termed his “inferno crisis.”)

Based on actual events but with plenty of literary license, Tribades takes place in 1889. Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie, has run afoul of censors and, needing money, he has decided to launch an experimental theater in Copenhagen. For some reason, he picks his estranged wife to run the theater. The debut production is a new work by Strindberg called The Stronger, a bizarre piece about a woman and a mute mistress who are both madly in love with an unseen man. When Strindberg arrives to watch a rehearsal and discovers the woman performing the mistress is Marie, a self-admitted alcoholic whom Strindberg is convinced lured his wife into a lesbian encounter several years before, his ego and pride erupt.

The play, split between awkward attempts at rehearsing and bouts of psychoanalysis, slowly reveals that The Stronger is re-imagined autobiography. The unseen man in the play, whose presence, Strindberg tells the actors, dominates the proceedings, is actually Strindberg, with the wife an opaque stand-in for Siri and the mistress being Marie. But unlike his real life, when the image (perhaps imagined) of the women locked in carnal embrace served as a major blow to his self-image, the women in The Stronger are both madly in love with him, and the wife eventually reclaims him.

It’s a case of wishful thinking by an insecure, if brilliant, artist desperately trying to control reality as much as his fictions. Faced with the fact his wife truly will gain the independence she craves—the same independence that makes Marie such a threat to him—Strindberg vaults into misogynistic tirades. Ultimately, it’s easy to agree with translator Shideler’s 1984 critical assessment of the piece, that it explicitly focuses on “the male need to dominate women, to be the center of their lives, and on men’s sexual insecurity.”

It’s also frequently hilarious, thanks to a remarkable performance by John Prosky as Strindberg. Though cruel, abusive and arrogant, Prosky imbues Strindberg with enough charm that even his nastiest assaults are a joy to hear. The presence of Craig Anton (one of Mad TV’s original cast members), who plays a peripheral role as a hapless director outmatched by Strindberg’s roaring ego, also adds a great deal of humor. Director Thomas P. Cooke directs the talky play with lean precision and a minimum of superfluous distraction and elicits strong performances from Linda Castro as Marie and Sara Underwood’s Siri.

Like most of Cal Rep’s productions under the leadership of Joanne Gordon, who took over the faltering company in 2004, Tribades is complicated, stimulating and unpredictable. That such a riveting character study of such a fascinating architect of modern theater is also so funny makes it as entertaining as it is cerebral.

The Night of the Tribades by California Repertory at the Queen Mary’s Royal Theatre, 1126 Queens Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 985-5526; www.calrep.org. Thurs.-Fri., Dec. 9-10, 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 N 8 p.m. $15-$20.


This review appeared in print as “A Matterhorn of a Man With an Etna of a Temper: Get past the name controversy of The Night of the Tribades, and what’s left is a pretty damn good study of a legendary playwright.”


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