Shock, Success and Beckett

October 27, 2000

Batman, Charles Darwin, Donald Duck, William Shakespeare, Mickey Mouse and Richard Wagner. Believe or not, all these characters met. They did in Mattogrosso, one of the biggest success of Brazilian director Gerald Thomas.

In the play, Mickey, Batman and Donald are old and decadent when they meet the three historical characters. They do not talk, dance or sing. They just walk looking at each other while the music becomes louder while Thomas himself says some of their lines.

"Mattogrosso is one of the best examples of the postmodern theater",says critic David George. Gerald Thomas wrote and directed a play in which the audiovisual elements are more important than the verbal.

Thomas is considered one of the best examples of this theater, which started 50 years ago. Even though he was in born in Brazil, Thomas lives in an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, surrounded by rock and classical CDs and books of Bertolt Brecht, Gabriel García Márquez and, of course, Samuel Beckett. Thomas worked with Beckett, considered as the most important figure of the absurd theater, and he cannot help a big smile when he remembers him.

"He was great, " he says lifting his glasses up. "He was generous, funny and more concerned about who was sleeping with who in New York than about what people thought of his plays."

Just like Beckett, Thomas doesn't pay much attention to the critics' opinion. At least, that's what the 46-year-old director says. However, he keeps almost everything that has been published about him: books, articles, reviews and many interviews, both in newspapers and in publications that have nothing to do with the culture. He even wants to keep the interview that Hola, a Brazilian gossip magazine, made him a month ago and that is going to be published next week. "I know they are going to take my words and turn into gossip, but I don't mind", he says. "I need it to get to the public. It's just my voice in another clothing."

However, the usual clothing of his voice is not that far away from the uninhibited tone of some of these magazines. Even though he shows an evident love for his work, his expression doesn't change when he talks about all his prizes. He uses almost the same tone he has used a minute ago to order a cup of coffee. He even takes more time to order the drink than to talk about his prizes, even though he has won three Molière prizes, the French Tony's and one of the most prestigious theater awards in the world.

Two years ago, Thomas used to direct six plays and six operas every year, but he decided to cut back. Now he "only" directs six plays and one opera every year. "I had to stop," says while he exhales a long and proud whisper and lifts his glasses up one more time.

Thomas has written or directed more than four dozen operas and theater pieces in Germany, Denmark, Italy, France, Argentina, the United States and Brazil. He said he likes to perform his plays in different parts of the world. In his personal notebooks, he often includes comments about where he would like to perform a play. In the notebook he has about "M.O.R.T.E." he describes a scene in which five people representing the five human senses surround the play's main character. In the right margin you can read "I have to do this in New York." Unfortunately, "M.O.R.T.E." was never performed in New York.

Thomas' notebooks include a lot of details and ideas about his plays and his work. Just after a drawing where he gives plenty of details about a scene, Thomas wrote the whole monologue of "Hamlet." Perhaps because it is the best representation of the human doubts, Thomas filled the next page with doubts of his own. "Why can't I do normal plays? Plays in which the characters say things, feel things, live things?" he asks. He comes with an answer two lines later: "I'm successful after all."

It is this success that leads Thomas to spend a lot of his time flying between Brazil and New York. Forty-eight hours ago he was still in Brazil, directing a new performance of his company, Dry Opera, which is headquartered in Rio de Janeiro. He said he does not mind travelling that often. "I have to do it," he says. "It's good for my work."

Gerald Thomas' career is based on a combination of shock and success. The critics say he has no respect for the icons of the classical theater, and he looks proud of it. Some of his scenes are closer to the horror movies, like "Friday the 13th," than to Beckett's "Waiting for Godot". In "Flash and Crash Days," for instance, a woman makes her daughter masturbate (like Linda Blair with the crucifix in "The Exorcist") just before trying to poison her. "In Rome, we had to stop the performance after this scene," Thomas remembers. "People were furious. They were even jumping on stage."

But when you look at him, he does not look like a gloomy guy. He does dress in black, but that is the usual style of the artists that live in Williamsburg. It does not reflect a negative conception of the life. He says he enjoys life, art, theater and music. That's why he says he feels closer to the Spanish culture than to the Portuguese one, in spite of all the cultural links between Portugal and Brazil. "Portugal is a country in black and white," he says. "Spain has much more color."

Controversy included, "Flash and Crash Days" was a great success in Berlin, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Cologne and, of course, all the big Brazilian cities. The play was also performed at Lincoln Center in New York in 1992, during the Serious Fun Festival. By the end of the tour, more that 100,000 people had seen the production.

The end of "Flash and Crash Days" was also quite controversial, because the girl literally eats her mother's heart in front of the audience. With scenes like these, Thomas represents the change that the Brazilian arts experienced after Getulio Vargas' military dictatorship. Critic David George says that Thomas pushed this change into its maximum expression. That is why he is loved and hated. Half of the audience finds his plays disgusting, but the other half thinks he is the only active presence in the Latin American Theater.

Thomas' controversy is also due to his personality. He wants to have full control over a play and he doesn't allow any interference in his work. "If someone hires me to direct a play, it is because they want my world and my way of working," he says. "I cannot accept someone who wants me to direct a play and he then tries to change everything."

Thomas becomes serious when he talks about that. Only a minute later, he drinks some more coffee and smiles like a naughty kid when he admits that he has lost many sponsors because of his intransigence. "Volkswagen sponsored me some years ago for a tour in Germany," he remembers. "After the play, I came on stage and I said to the audience,'do you know that Volkswagen collaborated with the Nazism?' Everybody was stunned, and I lost my sponsorship."

However, he shows no sign of regret. "I'm Jewish and I don't want people to forget that everybody accepted the Nazism," he says. Thomas' parents had to flee Hitler. That's why Thomas was born in Rio, although he spent his late teens in London. His father was a German communist and his mother was a Jewish-Welsh psychoanalyst.

Thomas doesn't talk much about his family, but he likes to talk about anythibg. Himself, his work, Becket, theater, cinema or even history. Anything is a good conversation with him. That's why is so shocking that one of the most characteristic aspects of his plays is that there is virtually no dialogue. "Text is only one aspect of theater," he says. "The other aspects are the setting, the sound effects, the music, the lights..."

"My plays are like live films," he says.

Now Thomas usually directs his own plays, but he also adapts other writers' plays. When this happens, he feels completely free to change whatever he wants. In 1988, he directed "The Kafka Trilogy," which included "A Process" and "A Metamorphosis," two of the most famous Kafka's stories, and "Prague," a play inspired by the writer's personal life. Thomas ignored the original texts. "I don't need Kafka's lines," he says. "I just need his ambiance."

He doesn't even respect his beloved Samuel Beckett. In the next months Thomas will restage some of the Beckett's plays and his admiration for the author of "Waiting for Godot" won't stop him from changing lines and settings, if necessary.

The "problem" may come when another author also wants to do a free adaptation of Thomas' own plays. Thomas Meinhart, a young writer from Hamburg, adapted Thomas' "Electra Com Creta" a couple of years ago and he changed everything, the director says. "I was furious," he admits without showing any sign of anger. "I didn't like his play at all, but I did nothing to stop him."

Meingart is perhaps the only artist that Thomas mentioned who is not a close friend of his. The director does like to talk about his friends, especially the famous ones. He remembers his relationship with the Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar ("All About my Mother") and he says he will play himself in the next Almodóvar's movie. He also likes to reproduce some of the conversations he usually has with the writer Paulo Coelho, author of the best-seller "The Alchemist." "I once was with him while he was signing books," he says. "At the end of the day he signed so many books that he had cramps in his hands. He looked just like Beckett, who had arthritis, and I told him'I knew you wanted to be like Beckett.'"

But none of his friendships makes him smile like his memories of Beckett do. Thomas intensively worked with Beckett in Paris, editing his work. They always met in the lobby of the Paris-Marseille-Lyon Hotel. "It was an extremely ugly place," the director remembers. "But it was very close to Beckett's house, and he didn't want to go further."

Thomas spent long hours waiting for Beckett, who was not very punctual. Now he is taking advantage of these waits and he is writing a play about the writer which is called "Waiting for Beckett." It's a kind of homage to "Waiting for Godot," Beckett's best-known work in which the two protagonists spend the whole play waiting for a character (Godot) that never comes.

However, Thomas' plays are very different from the ones written by Beckett. He knows it, but he still says he is his biggest influence. "Beckett would despise my theater," he says shrugging his shoulders. "He wanted the actors to say the text without almost any moving, and I like almost the opposite. That's what I do and what I want to keep on doing."