Photo by Beth Rooney
(Editor’s Note: This is unedited; raw.)
(Author’s note, to director Olivia Lilley, The Runaways, and the cast and crew of Friedrich Schiller Writes The Robbers: Apologies in advance for all of this; I had been wandering around in the electricity the past few days, walking by—and subsequently turning off—streetlights and the usual heraldic bad craziness, and I think I finally turned the corner the night before this was written, a sleepless tilt into tumult. Accordingly, the following is more a fever-dream essay and mania driven loupe for the enjoyment and parsing of your play then a review per se; but it was inspired by you, either way, and I hope you enjoy it, regardless.)
The Nurse knifes through the blackness, all cold eyes and blood stained lips (all the emotion comes through those terrible, wonderful lips) and seething, ruthless, weaponized sexuality; she stomps her booted foot, jarring her wards-cum-playthings into rapt attention and quivering fear; she tortures them, with the precision of a laser scalpel, finding their weaknesses, cutting of both heads, so that the body may follow; she drops down, boots and thighs and pelvic girdle and skirt forming a lascivious, serifed M; she bends hard at the waist, ass—and other things—stiffening, spreading wide the leering eyes dotting her shanks. Amalia slips from the velvet lips of the eventide; she emotes—profusely, pornographically—and cries, cold eyes melting; she wails, and wallows, and dies and is reborn a hundred times over again, reaching delicate rigidity to the heavens and smacking away, like a cobra, her own hand. They are one and the same, transgressing both space and time—anachronisms abound, most noticeably a typewriter, but we know the times are different, I promise, I’ll prove it to you below—and in the front row of the Parlor, so close the feelings alight, sticky, against the flesh, we see it all, we see everything, and we know what it is like to be a Tralfamadorian.
~ ~ ~
Tralfamadorians are, of course, from Tralfamadore; or, more accurately, from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. They are alien beings, described by Vonnegut’s pan-dimensional plying protagonist Billy Pilgrim as “… two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm. The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions.” Perhaps discounted in the midst of imagining such bizarre physical appearances, this seeing-in-four-dimensions thing is the crux of their inclusion both in the book and in this essay.
For a Tralfamadorian can see time, all of it, every scene. Billy explains it thusly (and I’m paraphrasing here): Imagine you can look out upon the Rocky Mountains; that is how a Tralfamadorian sees time. They see all moments, understand all moments; to them “the Universe does not look like a lot of bright little dots … The creatures can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti.” A human being looks like “…great millipedes, ‘with babies’ legs at one end, and old people’s legs at the other’.”
These odd little plunger beasts can perceive time as we do depth and length and space; they know everything all at once, beginning and end. Juxtapose this glorious vision with how they describe a human being’s ken:
"The guide [Billy is, at this point in the narrative, on display in a Tralfamadorian zoo. The guide is elucidating for his fellow eye-palms Billy’s woefully limited existence.] invited the crowd to imagine
that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak, or a bird, or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even
down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through
which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.
This was only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head
or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar,
didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.
The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped—went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he
had no choice but to say to himself, “That’s life.””
Olivia Lilley’s Frederick Schiller Writes The Robbers unbolts us from that tyrannical flatcar.
~ ~ ~
Lilley’s play bounces gleefully—skips like a stone, really—from Frederick Schiller composing The Robbers laid up in his military academy to The Robbers itself; in this aspect, really, we see one step beyond the Tralfamadorians, for we are peering into other dimensions, as well as time frames. And yes, there is time travel: As stated above, the sheer number of anachronisms and delirious shifting from modern prose to Romantic histrionics makes it technically impossible to ascertain the time period in which we are watching either Schiller or his characters; there is but one mention of specificity that we can utilize, and that is of the falsified report from the Battle of Prague. There are numerous conflicts utilizing that name, but the most likely candidates for what the real Schiller was referring is the Austrian/Prussian clash in the Seven Years’ War, which took place in 1757. (The two Battles of Prague in the Thirty Years’ War took place between The Kingdom of Sweden and Bohemia, and Schiller explicitly mentions Prussia.) The Robbers was published in 1781, meaning any of the Battles of Prague would have been in the past; the only other option, fought in 1945, is an extraordinarily unlikely one (in the context of the play), seeing as how Prussia—which was practically abolished by 1932, anyway—would have been on the side of the fascists, and Schiller’s rebellious Karl would never loft their standard, not even in this alternate reality.
So we are unmoored, have hopped the tracks, gone off the rails, so to speak. We see both Schiller, banging away on his typewriter, and his mates, banging away against their fate, and we also look into the past and across a universe, at the scheming Franz and the frail Maximillian Von Moor. We see a kerosene lighter, and an age when horseback is the preferred means of transportation, the sword of inducing transit of a more permanent source. Even the play begins to become confused; Schiller, while being Schiller, retains the leather jacket or eye patch of his anti-heroic alter ego Karl; The Nurse walks past the typewriter—perhaps we are seeing things only a few scant minutes removed, now?—and apprehends the cadets in positions just as compromising, if not more so, than Schiller’s. A Cadet pulls a trumpet from a pillowcase, hammers out a staccato rhythm, and it is C-Murder’s “Down 4 My Niggaz” in 2000, and TNGHT’s “R U Ready” in 2012, and Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves” in 2013, and the Cadet’s savage lamenting howl now, in the infirmary; Schiller runs out into the Humboldt Park night, a sacrifice for glorious rebellion and act of supreme cowardice, and we know that here, in the present, in the audience’s time and place, men with similar desperation and aspirations are on the street corners a few blocks away, at Homan and Huron, selling and dying as bastard mirrors of how Karl lived.
~ ~ ~
Lilley’s play is pitting against each other the notions of reality and fantasy, while at the same time availing itself to the kind of existential conflicts—between good and evil; between rebelliousness & personal freedom and law; the melee between power, masculinity, femininity, and love—which so awestruck Schiller’s original German audience. All of this is—indeed, all of anything—is easier to understand, more poignant, more pragmatic, with the aid of our plumber beasts emerald eyes, with the comfort which comes from the omniscient knowledge of Tralfamadore; we are lifted high above the sturm und drang, transcending it as The Robbers did, seeing, laid out before us as a mountain range or a skyline, everything at work here, and none of it is right, none of it is wrong. It just exists, and so it goes.
-B. David Zarley