The concept of middle-classness, since its conception, has come to represent, from the perspective of artists at least, a kind of pedestrian effort at life, a lampoonable commitment to continuity at the expense of everything else. Its contradictory values and ideals, of perpetual wealth, human rights, institutions, and self-interest, were perhaps always fantasies, and a ripe target for artists, those commonly living closer to the poverty line, and for whom life is somewhat more immediately transient.
The relationship between Art and the middle-classes has been one of patronage on one hand, in exchange for a certain softness in critique – a gentle slap on the wrist in exchange for the promise of a subscription renewal. Quality writing aside, such an explanation accounts for the retrospective popularity of certain works by Shakespeare and Moliere, later Ibsen and Wilde, and later still, Miller and then perhaps in a softer way, Yasmina Reza.
Lately, it would be fair to say that this artistic tradition has lacked a bit of sting. New forms of labour exploitation under neocapitalism have all but removed the license of artists to attack the umbilical cord, knowing that without subscriber numbers, or the sponsors’ attracted to the brand exposure offered by those with the most dispensable income, or increasingly, bar sales, they will suffer every artist’s worst nightmare, and become invisible.
Increasingly, too, these middle-class fantasies are the objectives of those operating in emerging economies, creating new centres of power in those economies, which subsequently wield their political power in the same way that counterparts in developed economies do – for their protection. It’s fair to say that what’s driving most of this is an ideology behind middle-classness, and those particular values outlined above, that make them seen as desirable by people globally. As if they are somehow in themselves neutral – and that their existence does not come at a price.
Marius von Mayenburg’s 2007 play Der Häßliche (The Ugly One) sticks out as an example of effective middle-class critique. A souped-up update to the classic play, it stands as a veritable assault on the aesthetics of superficiality pervading the three prongs of middle-class life: the successful career, the happy marriage, and the high bottom line. It looks at these ideological elements systematically and without compromise, and with a kind of brutal economy in the writing that lets it cut through the bullshit, and go directly to the problems in its philosophical position.
Its economy and directness stand in contrast a play like Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest despite some similarities in their symmetrical comedy and attention to detail. It’s funny to think that it is nominally a play about plastic surgery, so coherent is its dramaturgical argument, and so vast are the bases covered, as Michael Billington noted in his review for the Guardian. The elements upholding this lifestyle are systematically exposed as farce, there replicability rendering them without inherent meaning, and in relation to the principles of human life, shallow. Despite it’s comic overtones, it’s also, as in Earnest, the writing of someone very, very angry.
Plastik Stück (A Piece of Plastic), debuting at the Schaubuehne as part of the F.I.N.D festival, a festival of ‘new work’, feels like von Mayenburg, now his own director, very much continuing the work of The Ugly One. Jessica (Jenny Koenig) is a cleaning lady newly employed at their household, comprised of overworked wife Ulrike (Marie Burchard), neurotic and camp husband Michael (Robert Beyer) and problem-teen Vincent (Laurenz Laufenberg). Ulrike’s boss, the eccentric contemporary artist Serge Haulupa (Sebastian Schwartz), intervenes in their life and eventually uses them as an art installation for his exhibition, a perfect metaphor for a new politics of labour.
A Piece of Plastic is more overtly a satire than The Ugly One. But it’s not simply this which reduces the play’s attack. One gets the sense of an original idea that has been backed away from: a play which began in the same way as The Ugly One – a tight, structured examination of middle-classness. As it is, the play is fairly toothless in its critique, which is limited to some (extremely pointed, and very funny) statements about the family.
They are continually shown to be prejudiced and two-faced: Michael drinks from a plastic bottle of beer (a sure sign of Berlin poverty) whilst bemoaning his wife’s attack on him leaving money around the house, Ulrike makes an unbearable attempt to explain to Jennifer why her son took photos of the cleaning lady in the shower. But the addition of the Serge creates a problem. Take him out, and you have a play that tries and probably fails to articulate contemporary class struggle under new and invisible economic conditions. Add him, and you have a paper-thin scapegoat – an easy escape for an audience who may not want to hear unpleasant truths. Not only is this lazy, it’s misdirected. Contemporary art certainly does fail at addressing current class structures in many ways to do with its own white, middle-class neutrality – this was not, however, what the play was talking about, nor is it really something interesting for the predominantly middle-class audience of the Schaubuehne to hear. If there is a connection between the position of the middle classes and that of the contemporary artist, this is lost somewhere, and one merely seems to dilute the argument of the other.
The damage of this is difficult to understate, and paradoxically, should be forgiven as part of an development process. There is a play in here somewhere. But at the moment it pretends, to an extent, to speak for a certain class of people who are neglected and misrepresented in the structure of capitalism, and in as much as it does this, it cheats and betrays them for the sake of its own preservation, and the preservation of its audience’s conceits. In this regard, it betrays an artistic tradition of bourgeois satire – to which von Mayenburg himself belongs, in favour of crowd-pleasing.