Heinrich von Kleist and John Banville (Copyright Michael Miller 2014)
“‘Who if not I, then, is Amphitryon?’”: Banville, Kleist, and God’s Gift(1)
Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) is an enduring influence on the Booker Prize-winning Irish writer John Banville (b.1945). Not only does Banville repeatedly nail his comedy to Kleist’s mast in novels such as Eclipse (2000), Shroud (2002), and The Infinities (2009), but he has also adapted three of the German writer’s plays since the mid-1990s: The Broken Jug (1994), Love in the Wars (2005; a version of Penthesilia), and – of most relevance here – God’s Gift (2000; his take on Kleist’s Amphitryon).(2) In an October 1994 article for The Independent, Banville stated his belief that these three plays “best display Kleist’s greatness”:
His work is at once tragic, grotesque, hectic, tender, hilarious and heartbroken […] The essence of Kleist’s dramatic world is its ambiguity, one of the chief reasons that his work speaks so directly to our own confused and uncertain times.(3)
As Hedda Friberg-Harnesk has pointed out, “It was Kleist who […] shifted the dramatic emphasis of earlier versions of the play from ‘the rivalry between Amphitryon and Jupiter, to the figure of Alcmene’ – Minna in Banville’s play.”(4) In Banville’s Irish-ized, indeed Wexford-ized, reworking of this plot, Jupiter and Mercury take the human forms of the Anglo-Irish General Ashburningham and his manservant Souse. Political conflict remains offstage but casts a shadow on the action; Ashburningham is away fighting against the United Irishmen during the 1798 Rebellion, where “Vinegar Hill runs red with rebel blood”.(5) Nevertheless, the focus remains on the classic comic scenario, namely that the General’s absence allows the King of the Gods to sleep with his wife, Minna.
Banville’s adaptation was first produced by Barabbas at the Dublin Theatre Festival in October 2000. As Carmen Szabo points out, this is a theatre company noted for “highlight[ing] the physicality of the performers and their ability to work with silence and gestures”.(6) Veronica Coburn’s direction of this successful production – which toured extensively in Ireland and Wales – thus emphasised the embodied humour and divine opportunities for clowning provided by this cuckold comedy.
Feargal Doyle’s set design for John Banville’s God’s Gift featuring Mikel Murfi’s Jupiter reclining on a miniature ‘Big House’ (Copyright Barabbas Theatre Company 2000)
However, God’s Gift also follows Kleist by playing up the paradoxical metamorphic and metaphysical aspects of the ancient plot’s doubling motif. Matt Bevis’s ironic observation comes to mind here: “There’s nobody, it seems, that we resemble less than ourselves, yet we are never more ourselves than when we are reminded of the fact.”(7) Banville’s response to Kleist’s text is thus part of a “persistent preoccupation” with “the elusive and unstable nature of identity” – “performance anxiety”, as Jim Shepard aptly puts it.(8) Indeed, it is precisely because of a shared concern with the shifting sands of the self that Kleist is such a touchstone for Banville. It’s no surprise that Axel Vander, the slippery narrator of Shroud, had in his younger days attended an academic conference on “Molière, Kleist and Amphitryon”, for example.(9) Banville plotted an axis between himself, Kleist, and the Amphitryon myth in an Irish Times article cheerily entitled ‘No Help on Earth’, with this telling commentary:
The play is at once a frantic comedy of errors, and an Olympian meditation on identity, on authenticity and its opposite, on the baffling conundrums of “I and Thou”. We laugh at the predicament of poor Percy Ashburningham, whose very self is usurped on the whim of a jaded deity, at the bafflement of his put-upon wife Minna, loved by a god, at the knockabout antics of the servant Souse and his faithful if shrewish Kitty – we laugh, but frequently our laughter ends in a gulp of compassion for these poor, deluded human beings and the failing gods who make them their playthings.(10)
God’s Gift thus emphasises both physical comedy and metaphysical uncertainty. Banville has pointed to a line from an 1805 letter that encapsulates Kleist’s ironic outlook on “the splendour and ghastliness of being human”: “Diese wunderbare Verknüpfung eines Geistes mit einem Konvolut von Gedärmen und Eingeweiden” (“This wonderful linking of mind to a convolution of intestines and entrails”).(11) The play’s denouement captures this all-too-human comic potential. Like its Kleistian model, God’s Gift ends on Minna’s tonally ambiguous monosyllable: “Ah!”.(12) The cadence here is crucial, as Charles Passage and James Mantinband observe of the Kleistian version: “Depending on the inflection of that syllable and its accompanying gesture, an actress can turn this entire work at the very last second into a shattering tragedy or into a conciliatory comedy.”(13) Banville’s reference to Mercury’s “malicious smile” in this closing scene makes the metatheatrical sense of cruel playfulness clear, ensuring that ribaldry coexists with that “gulp of compassion”.(14)