If you, like myself, have suffered through Thomas Malory’s indigestible Le Morte Darthur, you would feel vindicated by the large-scale deconstruction of the Arthurian romances undertaken by Tankred Dorst and his collaborator Ursula Ehler in this epic play. The 1981 premiere of Merlin in Dusseldorf was nine and a half hours long — surely, an overbearing experience not any spectator can sustain, although neither that one nor the subsequent stagings were complete, as the play performed in its entirety would run to the tune of 15 hours. Consequently, seeing Merlin on stage so far has meant the inevitable foregoing of some parts of the original text. Anyone who would like to experience this unwieldy play in its complete form has to read it. This situation is not uncommon for German language dramatic works: think, for example, of such monumental plays as Goethe’s Faust or Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Mankind. Since there has been an English language production of Merlin based on an abridged translation, the play is well-known in the theatrical milieu. However, the complete text as an autonomous work of literature has not reached the English-speaking reader yet — hence my modest contribution to filling in this gap.
In general lines, Dorst’s and Ehler’s play faithfully follows Mallory’s account of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table from the promising beginnings of this idealistic society to its tragic dissolution and the demise of its leader. The only glaring omission is the story of Tristram and Isolde (the bulkiest part of Le Morte Darthur, as you know) which is just slightly sketched out in several letters exchanged between Queen Guinevere and Isolde. The course of the major events recounted by Mallory has been preserved, and we know in advance how everything is going to end. Nevertheless, Merlin is full of surprises, as its authors add a new and rather gloomy spin to the familiar legends both in terms of narrative techniques, of how the stories are presented, and in terms of the specific details of each episode. Another significant instance of licence taken by the German playwright and his collaborator is the introduction into their text of “outsider” characters who do not belong to the traditional Arthurian world. By making a new embroidery on the old canvas the authors present the audience with a modern interpretation of the traditional motifs, in which the story of the Round Table serves as a blueprint for the destruction of a civilisation.
Merlin is a dynamic, I would even say stroboscopic, work that consists of 97 scenes some of which are just several sentences long. Genre-wise it is a patchwork comprising drama, verse, narrative and songs. Quite often the poems and songs are recited in foreign languages: English, Italian, Old French, Celtic Breton. The play consists of a short prologue in which Christ, illuminated by a thousand light-bulbs, drives away pagan gods, and the following four parts: Merlin’s Birth, The Round Table, The Grail, Destruction. Merlin is the controversial, complex protagonist of the unfolding drama who has something of Faust and something of Peer Gynt. He frequently behaves like a traditional Trickster figure provoking, tempting, misleading and making fools out of the gullible Arthurian knights. Merlin’s magic is of diabolical nature as he is the child of ugly giantess Hanne and the Devil himself. The sole purpose of Merlin’s coming into existence seems to be the fulfillment of his dark progenitor’s intention as he is already born as a grown-up man, ready to work miracles and cause mischief among human beings. In the course of dialogues between the wizard and his father we learn what kind of grand and wicked design the Devil had in mind when begetting Merlin: to unite the knights of the Christian oecumen and to send them on the path of evil that will eventually lead them to hell. Being far from an obedient son, Merlin appears to be revolting against his father’s wish: while he readily gets down to the business of establishing the new chivalric society, he refuses point-blank to instill in his wards inclination towards evil. Instead, he opts to leave them with the choice which path to take. This, at first glance unbiased position suits the Devil just right, for he knows well enough that letting humans choose between good and evil is the surest way of dooming them to eternal perdition. When King Arthur, under the tutelage of Merlin, founds the fellowship of the Round Table, he is perhaps one of the very few who naively think that a great chivalric Utopia is being inaugurated, that thanks to the new order all strife and iniquity will become obsolete. What we see unraveling before us, instead, is not so much a sequence of courageous and noble deeds, but a series of petty conflicts between utterly depraved and vicious characters bent on satisfying their sadistic urges or monomaniacal goals. Yes, they have come together, but there is nothing noble or altruistic about their unity. The Round Table allows for synergy of wickedness that will inevitably result in a full-blown apocalypse.
Since some of the German reviewers were pointing out the excessive violence of the play, I was half-expecting a Texas Chainsaw Massacre treatment of the material which had been far from bloodless already in its medieval form. This did not turn out to be the case, although there are several scenes that are clearly meant to shock with its Grand Guignol attention to gore. For example, Parzival who comes to the king’s court as a feral adolescent obtains his first armour by gouging out the eyes of its possessor with a sharp twig and then by scraping the murdered knight’s flesh out of the armour with a knife like “the meat of a lobster out of the half-opened shell”. Most of the violence, however, is of psychological character. It is latent in most of the dialogues, even if they seem quite innocent or even benevolent at first. The atmosphere of lurking menace never leaves the stage. The characters may be exchanging opinions or sharing secrets, or just bringing one another up to date — but this is just on the surface. The ulterior motifs of betraying the trust of the other, of pushing them towards some harmful decision, of using them to one’s own purpose and then discarding them to a horrible fate are all too obvious to ignore. They are tangible in almost every scene of the play, and that is exactly what the dark magic that got the Arthurian society running in the first place is about. In this fictional world, nobody can escape the pervasive violence, even those who are perfectly aware of its fictitiousness. At one point, a skeptical spectator climbs the stage to check if the Siege Perilous at the round table can do him any harm. As soon as the man takes a seat, he is engulfed by flames.
An Abrams tank exposing its Medieval roots. Art by Jody Harmon. Image Source.
Merlin is as self-reflexive as it gets. Lots of postmodern tricks are employed here, but they are not an end in itself. First and foremost, the play is a very dense, personal vision of the Arthurian romances, obviously refracted through the prism of avant-garde art and the cold war mentality and presented as a series of heterogeneous elements bearing the imprints of these preoccupations. The Theatre of the Absurd and the surrealists have definitely been a significant influence: there are echoes of Beckett and Ionesco as well as a couple of scenes that would make David Lynch proud. At the same time, without any direct reference, there is a subtle evocation of the menace characteristic of the period in which nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers and the subsequent obliteration of the life on earth were considered by many a possibility. Let us not forget that the fellowship of The Round Table is a society primarily based and totally dependent upon the use of lethal weapons. A knight covered in armour from head to toe loses humanity, his face is transformed into the soulless steel mask of war expediency. He represents the incessant drive to perfect the engines of destruction, thus himself becoming a symbol of future military innovations: tanks, submarines, strategic bombers. The Devil confers on Merlin the ability to look into the future, so that the mischievous magician can fully appreciate the coming reincarnations of the technocratic militarised societies similar to the Arthurian knights in appetites, morals, and ambitions, but greatly surpassing them in hardware and armament. For what it’s worth, the evanescent Sangreal sought after by the brave knights may be, in fact, enriched uranium whose significance they cannot yet grasp due to the limitation of their epoch. It is only Merlin who is allowed from time to time to talk anachronistically, and analyse the medieval goings-on around him from the point of view of a twentieth-century person.
The alternative title of Merlin is The Waste Land. It is not only an homage to T. S. Eliot’s modernist classic, but also the recognition of the leitmotif accompanying this extensive and overpopulated play from start to finish. The German for “the waste land” is das wüste Land in which the word wüste can be translated as either “desert” or “waste”. Indeed, in Merlin we often come across the disquieting imagery of sterile lands, be they natural deserts or man-made wastelands of mass destruction. The wasteland is a constant latency for the fellowship, even when the landscape around them is nothing but a flourishing idyll. For Dorst and Ehler, the barren environment of sand and rock is a hidden dimension that under certain circumstances can penetrate reality, for example with the assistance of Merlin’s wizardry. We get the first significant glimpse of the wasteland in a chilling scene called Have I dreamt my Life? In it, the youthful Sir Beauface viciously taunts the elder knights because of their old age and is punished by Merlin who inveigles him into plunging his face into a bowl with bewitched water. When Beauface lifts his face after just several seconds, everybody sees a decrepit old man who has just returned from a long journey to some distant desert clime. This magic occurrence leads to the sudden opening of the portal to the extra dimension, as the inhabitants of the desert with whom Beauface spent most of his life, enter the world of the Round Table knights looking for the missing sojourner. Their arrival is entrancing and eerie. The gathered knights watch them come with growing anxiety, for the spooky strangers also act as the harbingers of the fate reserved for the fellowship: a wasteland with mounts of iron-clad corpses and the myriads of bluebottle flies swarming above them.
A high, buzzing, mysterious sound is in the air. The light changes, becomes pale. A procession of strange, very large shapes slowly comes in: a huge black man is carrying an old woman, she is sitting in a contraption with a tall backrest propped against his head, her legs are on his shoulders, her face turned in the opposite direction. As a headdress she is wearing a golden bird with its wings spread. — Then comes a richly-clothed old man, the brother of the woman. — Four servants are carrying in a raised askew litter the corpse of the dead father in white winding sheets. — A frail old man with an iron mask on his face is dragging an enormous chopped-off human hand that has completely withered. — A man with wide, fluttering sleeves. — A naked man whose skin is spotted with wounds and scabs like the ailing skin of the earth. Swarms of midges. He is carrying a big bundle on his head. — A dried-up tree with brown leaves. The procession enters slowly and silently. There is no noise of the footsteps; it seems as if they were walking through deep sands and had to withstand a strong wind. They climb up the tabletop. The bundle is unfolded: it is a large silk cloth embroidered with figures. The man with the wide sleeves raises his arms, and sand starts running out of his sleeves, infinite amounts of sand; it keeps running all the time while the strangers are standing there. Little by little, the round table turns into a sand desert.
This motif of the sterile sun-dried land becomes more prominent in the penultimate part of the play in which the Arthurian knights search for the Holy Grail. Once visiting the barren realm of the King Fisher and failing to heal the wounded grail keeper, Parzival is no longer able to leave the wasteland. He continues wandering in the desert even when he is physically present in a lush green meadow with singing birds. Sir Gawain, who meets his befuddled fellow roaming about in the invisible wasteland tries to bring him back to reality, but all is in vain. Parzival is doomed to remain there, perhaps until one of the knights finally achieves the Grail. This scene, called The Waste Land, is key to the whole play because it contains the metaphor of the wasteland we carry within. It is a question of time when it becomes a wasteland without. Dorst and Ehler take over the symbolism of the wasteland poetically examined by T. S. Eliot and develop it further keeping in mind the horrors and the anxieties of the second half of the twentieth century. The legend of the maimed king whose land has been turned into a desolate, sterile desert mimicking his own infertility resulting from a genital wound was utilised by Eliot with respect to the torpid, disoriented, weak society that has recently survived the senseless butchery of the Great War. In Merlin, the image of wasteland acquires additional aspects, for it is applied to the society that has experienced by far more destructive Second World War and is hypothetically facing nuclear annihilation. The wasteland in Merlin comes to signify the destructive potential of any progressive urge of man, a metaphysical desert that man will never tire of materialising in real life with each new spiral of his technological development until the wasteland is large enough to swallow the whole planet. Here is what the Devil has to say on this count:
The idealists, the Grail seekers, the founders of Round Tables and ideal states, of new orders and systems, who promise salvation with their theories and want to bring great happiness to humankind […] I am not only speaking of Arthur, I also mean others who come after him in hundreds of years –, in the end they lead whole nations straight to hell! — To me!
How Mordred was Slain by Arthur, and How by Him Arthur was Hurt to the Death. Arthur Rackham.
In another crucial scene almost at the end of the play, when the armies of Mordred and King Arthur have obliterated each other, effectively putting an end to the Utopian fellowship, we are granted a peculiar glimpse of the future. The scene consists of a monologue that perhaps is being delivered by a scientist from some extraterrestrial civilisation. By that time the life on earth has been extinguished as the sun has run out its course. The speaker does not know what kinds of cataclysms happened before that, but it doesn’t matter any more. The humans have disappeared forever, and, in the speaker’s words: “the few traces of their existence remain mysterious”. The drama of human progress is over, and, as has been foreseen, it has ended in wasteland. We do not know what those remaining artifacts are, but, perhaps, among them there is a chronicle of devastating intercontinental warfare that will be eventually deciphered and read by the aliens with the same interest as we now read about the bloody and cruel exploits of the Arthurian knights.