After his theatrical speech for admission to the RAE, Silencio, which Blanca Portillo performed at the TNC, Juan Mayorga is now presenting a new production by Himmelweg in Barcelona at the Akadèmia theatre. Camino del cielo, his most international work and, according to many voices, the best, although he specifies that it is "the least bad". Cristina Plazas, Guillem Gefaell, Sònia Gardés and Raimon Molins, who directs it, interpret this piece located in a Nazi extermination camp, to which the playwright gives an unprecedented vision. The brand new Princess of Asturias award responds to questions from La Vanguardia on the same stage.
Is Himmelweg your favorite work?
I am in constant conflict with everything I do, but I think that when I found the Himmelweg, I was also lucky enough to find a way to deal with all of that. When I am asked the question of the work that I would save on a deserted island, I think it would be this, because of its subject matter and its form.
It is his most represented work.
He has had more than 40 productions in many different places, such as Korea and Australia. And, to my surprise, there have been amateur theater productions and even school ones. It really strikes me that there are boys who have played the commander, and also girls.
How did it occur to you to approach the Holocaust through the theater within the theater?
First there is the extermination of the European Jews, which for me is the great historical event. Perhaps the least trodden place is not to treat the issue only as a completely asymmetric encounter between some brutal, crazed Germans, and some poor Jews. The play puts on stage a question that I don't think is insignificant: Why did Europe let its Jews die? It is what Primo Levi calls the gray area between the drowned and the saved, which are those human beings who either entered into complicity with the executioners, due to weakness, cowardice, laziness or inertia, and also speaks of those victims who were forced to enter into complicity with the executioner. A good part of the perversion of National Socialism was to force the complicity of the victims.
It's a very different approach to what the public is used to.
It is a look that is not hegemonic. I found a way to talk about something terrible that, at the same time, offered the actors and a director a theatrical game, something that is paradoxically attractive. It is an oblique representation, because that extreme violence, that of the gas chambers, is so enormous that it is obscenity just to pretend that you can represent it.
What did you want to talk about?
The work presents three thematic lines, which are the invisibility of horror, the manipulation of the victims, forced in some way to support the speech of the executioner, and thirdly, the work talks about the place of theater in our lives.
Are our lives theater?
We all have to pretend one day, we are forced to represent characters we are not the authors of, a little false, sometimes to survive. As the mayor's character says, he himself played nice to his boss, and when he came home he didn't tell how things were. I notice that many people understand that, he knows what he is talking about. Years ago, an English critic linked the work, saving all distances, with Life is a dream and Calderon's theme of the world as theater. We need the theater to live.
Aren't you afraid that the public will empathize with the Nazi?
There is a fundamental problem and it is how to present an executioner, trying to understand him, without legitimizing or justifying him. I think that this is decisive because the spectator looks for the place of the victim, because he perceives it as the place of innocence. We want to feel good, nobody wants to think that the dead on the Melilla fence are their business. On the contrary, I think that the theater can make us wonder what we don't have to do with the executioner. I want the viewer himself to be able to find his response to the commander, I don't want to build a character that cancels himself out and that we immediately perceive as an orangutan, a pervert, a savage.
Your Nazi is a cultured man.
I am among those who believe that culture, by itself, does not preserve us from barbarism. The culture-barbarism opposition is a comfortable dichotomy, but it happens that culture can be complicit in barbarity. The only thing that can preserve us from barbarism is a compassionate look towards each other human beings. I think the most serious moment in the commander's speech is when he tells the spectators that his most immediate project is to concentrate all the Jews of Europe here, but his final project is much higher: to demonstrate that everything is possible in this world, everything what we can imagine we can do. It is a very attractive offer because there are no limits.
In Himmelweg there is a reference to a clock made in Toledo in 1492.
Spain has a very important anti-Semitic tradition. In Thessaloniki, where there was an important Sephardic community, they noticed the reference. In Spain, in 1492, the Jew was designated as the other, the stranger, and it has to do with what the commander says, that they have found a solution to a problem that many have dreamed of: the expulsion of the other, the elimination of he.
Just as in Himmelweg the theater is seen from the inside, in Silencio, his theatricalized speech of the RAE, he refers his keys from the outside.
In my pieces, the theater within the theater does not appear as a strategy, but rather as a matter in which the characters free themselves from life by doing theater, following the theatrical game.
Does Juan Mayorga also do theater in life?
Theater is the art of gathering and imagination, and it is a privilege to participate in it. I find it impressive that, in a while, people who don't know each other will find themselves here. That makes me feel a little less worthless, because I have so many doubts about the value of everything I do. The important thing is that, of course, I'm hoping that they are interested, that it affects them. I find it fascinating to relate to the world through theater, I feel privileged.
A red pen peeks out of his pocket.
The red thing is by chance. And I carry a little notebook, where I take notes because suddenly, at any moment, a story can appear. I see the world thinking that they are doing theater there or that one day it is worth being observed on stage.
You are a philosopher and mathematician. How are these disciplines combined?
They are part of me. For me, mathematics is an extraordinary creation of the human imagination, and I am sure that it has shaped me and shaped my work as a playwright, because the great work of mathematicians is to find expressions as simple as possible for extraordinarily complex realities. Mathematics have educated me in the search for a synthetic language and I believe that theater must be that, in terms of writing, but also in directing and acting, to account for the most with the least, with a single gesture, with a single sentence. As far as philosophy is concerned, the fact that philosophy and theater were born together does not seem insignificant to me. They are born fundamentally to question us. I believe that the best theater is the one that is capable of suspending you when faced with good questions, rather than offering you answers or certainties. Of course, mathematics and philosophy shape my theater.
Now that you are an academic, how does the oral language of theater fit into the RAE?
I feel like a weirdo, but I consider myself lucky to be in a place like the Academy, where every Thursday afternoon I learn a lot from my wise classmates. It is true that in the theater we are educated to be especially attentive to the vibration that appears when the word is no longer on paper, exposed in situation and in action.
What do you think about the controversy over Catalan and Spanish?
It would seem completely normal, desirable and rational for kids in any school in Spain to study something from the four languages of the State, because if you don't know something, you're not going to love it, and if you don't love it, you're not going to defend it. This seems crap to me. The counterargument immediately appears that the kids have to know English well. But it is not about that, there is another type of utility that is if we want a community, and we take seriously the diversity that may exist in a society. Having said this, at the same time I believe that all Spaniards have the right and the duty to know the Spanish language and that the institutions have to help us to do so. In terms of percentages and others I do not understand, nor do I think that this is the fundamental issue. Although as a theater creator I am especially attentive to conflict and theater lives on conflict, as a citizen I am in favor of conversation, of negotiation, of trying to understand the reasons of the other, of trying to think that my ideas, in reality, are also may be crossed by interests.
In charge of the Teatro de La Abadía and the Corral de Comedias de Alcalá since last February, what is your line of action?
The motto we have chosen is "Action, emotion, poetry and thought", and we want these four brands to be in each of the shows. We seek excellence in diversity, thematic and formal. In addition to programming, we promote activities such as "Poets in the Abbey", where a poet occupies that space. And a cycle with thinkers, who have meetings with theatrical creators. We want it to be a very lively and open house, where questions and ideas circulate. It is a fascinating adventure, to create opportunities to gather people, and it allows me to follow the work of these creators.
They have given her the Princess of Asturias award. Of all the recognitions, which is the one that has made you most excited?
The truth is that I received this award with great fear, because I still think that I exceeded myself, exaggerated for my merits. But the Asturian people live it a lot. I have been able to meet people, like the 1,200 readers of public libraries, not only from Asturias, but from all over Spain. Then I had a meeting with 600 high school kids, representing many more, who had written a play based on a provocation I had given them. I met the students of the School of Dramatic Art in Gijón and he even gave a reading in Avilés of a still unpublished piece of mine called La colección. Cities and people are very involved and it is also a prize for them, so it has made me happy. Then, for example, an award like the Alumni that your school gives you, from the Autonomous University of Madrid, and the Europe Award for New Theatrical Realities, are exciting.