Provocative questions at the hand of a conductor
LENOX — It is 1947, and we are in Switzerland with Willem Mengelberg, the disgraced conductor of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw orchestra. When he’s not conducting his phantom musicians (with the aid of scratchy vinyl on a wind-up Victrola) or communing with absent friends, he rails against the “pious Calvinists’’ at home who have exiled him here.
Bitterly, he reflects that he has spent his career creating music for a philistine “herd of sheep,’’ then explodes: “Is there a more horrendous human tragedy than that: wasting the sublime on boors?’’
Well, actually, there is — and this man, more than most, should know it. For Mengelberg has lost his orchestra in retribution for his apparent collaboration with the engineers of that most horrendous human tragedy, the Holocaust. And it is this ironic tension, between the sublime aspirations and the base actions of a great artist and a flawed man, that forms the dramatic and emotional core of Daniel Klein’s new one-man play, “Mengelberg and Mahler.’’
Robert Lohbauer, longtime weapons master at Shakespeare & Company, plays Mengelberg with passionate commitment in the company’s handsome premiere, directed by Dutch filmmaker Emile Fallaux. Klein and Fallaux had originally written the story as a screenplay, which never sold; Klein then decided to remake it as a solo piece for Lohbauer to perform onstage.
This format allows us inside the self-justifying, sometimes claustrophobic interior world of the conductor, but it also produces too many “conversations’’ with the other key character, the composer Gustav Mahler. “What’s that, Gustav?’’ Mengelberg says to the air, then launches into a new diatribe.
Certainly the two men have much to argue about: Mengelberg had been an early champion of Mahler’s work, which the Nazis then banned because the composer was Jewish, so if Mahler had lived to see Mengelberg agreeing to the removal of Jewish musicians from his orchestra, he surely would have protested. As a dramatic device, however, the repeated invocation of a deceased and invisible sparring partner grows tedious.
As Klein presents him, too, Mengelberg is a sometimes tiresome companion for a 90-minute play. His self-pity and self-absorption make it difficult to engage fully in the arguments that lie at the heart of the drama; if we don’t trust the debater, it’s harder to ponder the questions he raises, of moral action in an immoral world and of the competing claims of art and survival.
Even so, Klein thinks through the arguments themselves with enough nuance and detail to make them well worth pondering. His Mengelberg clearly believes that art is essential to what makes us human, and that to compromise art-making for the sake of mundane political or personal concerns is to betray our humanity. Though unstated, the opposite argument is equally clear: that to sacrifice individual lives to the abstraction of art is a betrayal as well.
To his credit, Klein doesn’t let the play fall solidly on one side or the other, but rather allows it, and us, to dwell in complexity. His background as a philosopher who can make abstruse concepts accessible — he’s the coauthor of the best-selling “Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar’’ — serves him well in laying out these ideas with concision and style. And his use of Mahler’s music to weave the different sections of Mengelberg’s monologue together is sophisticated and enlightening.
Lohbauer, too, uses silences effectively to let the counterarguments to Mengelberg’s rationales fill the air. He also finds flashes of charm and sly humor to bring us closer to the character. With a bit of judicious editing — and less reliance on projections of vintage black-and-white film clips and stills, which help set the scene but sometimes pull us out of the theatrical moment — “Mengelberg and Mahler’’ could realize its full potential as a humane work of art about the making of art and of human values.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.