On Ingeborg Bachmann’s 50th Death Anniversary
In memory of the great poet & writer Ingeborg Bachman who died 50 years ago today, here is an extract from the final act of my play The Agony of I.B., set during the days of her final coma where she is visited by Paul Celan. The play was commissioned and then produced in 2016 by the Théatre National du Luxembourg.
(A light switch clicks on and the dim neutral hospital neon light comes to full power and bathes the stage; we perceive the shape of IB behind the oxygen tent. Her belabored breathing comes through over the afore-used loud-speaker system. The battery of red control lights above the bed may coordinate with the breathing. NURSE enters from stage right, checks on IB, fiddles with the buttons on the oxygen tank, looks at the patient, takes her pulse and lingers for a moment while in her office, off-stage the phone starts to ring. She runs back to her office and picks up the phone.)
(voice from afar through metallic, distorting long-distance telephone; still, the voice is booming and demanding, with a perceptible German accent.)
This is Henry Kissinger in Washington D.C. I am calling to inquire about my good friend Ms. Ingeborg Bachmann. I was informed that she is in your hospital. Can I talk to her?
Che la media notte, signore, how come the receptionist allowed your call to be forwarded to this room?
(clearly irritated that his authority is being challenged, raises his voice nearly to a scream)
I am Henry Kissinger and I am calling from the White House in Washington D.C. My calls always get forwarded. Let me speak to Miss Bachmann.
I’m sorry, I don’t know any Kissinger, so whoever you are you have to call back in the morning when the doctors are here.
(tries to be calm, but has a hard time hiding his irritation.)
Kissinger. Henry. Secretary of State. National Security Advisor to President Richard Nixon. The United States of America. The White House in Washington. Washington D.C. I am an old friend of Ingeborg Bachmann’s. I want to knwo how she is. Can you give her a message? Go tell Ms. Bachmann that Henry called from the White House?
(reflects for a moment, then takes a decision and says forthfully)
La signora Bachmann cannot take your message. She has been in a coma for ten days now. That is all I can tell you. Buona notte, signor.
(We hear an audible click as the nurse hangs up the phone. She gets up and turns off the light. After a short moment in which we can only hear the shallow breathing of IB, a slide of Place de la Contrescarpe comes up slowly, bathing the stage in an autumnal light, projecting some of the buildings and pawlanias against the backdrop.)
(from behind the vertical bed.)
But Paris, my dear Inge, was a moveable disaster — at least for me and you!
For you it was life, too, Paul. Gisèle and Eric. Stop complaining. We are out of Egypt, thus somewhat closer to a promised land, maybe, no?
No land is promised. No people is chosen. No man, no woman — all is given, even death, the one thing we cannot choose, or can we? I did and I didn’t. I went into the water and after a long bleak corridor, what you called the barzakh, the path the spirit has to travel between life and death, between this here and there, I came out… in the desert of Egypt, of all places, drawn in, pished out through an early poem, a captive of you, who called me there into that desert-coma…
We are out of Egypt, I said. I don’t know if it is good for me. I had to leave Franka behind. You said she too was dead, skull split on stone. I did write that, but I know it is unfinished. Maybe, with time, I would have gone back and changed that. Or maybe that was me. Maybe it is too late, maybe I am dead? No, no, not yet… I am elsewhere, we are together, back in Paris. Remember that hotel room?
Let’s walk a bit, moving does you good, and this square is home. Let’s not think of any rooms. All rooms are lonely, are cells, for monks, for sick people, or writers. Out of desert sand to walk tall and talk under pawlonias. My best memories. To do it today with you, or have you make me do it. An impossible gift. Near bliss.
Remember, Paul, we are the dreamed ones. We dreamed each other more substantially than blood and flesh. Though that too was there, is here. I can feel the chestnuts under my foot. I can smell the roasted chestnuts from the vendor at the corner. I’m tired, that walk through the desert has exhausted me.
Let’s walk up to La Chope, sit down at a table in the sun. A drink will do us good. Here in the sun.
(They sit down at a café table set up front stage right. A waiter appears silently from stage right.)
Maybe. Maybe. Order me a whisky. With ice.
Okay. Me too.
(PC orders the drinks. His lips move but we don’t hear a sound. The waiyer disappears)
I’d prefer a good schnaps but here they don’t have that. So. Alcohol. The marriage of opposites. Fire and water. Us. The impossible union.
(The waiter reappears, puts down two whiskey’s in front on the table.)
Let’s drink to it!
(They clink glasses, look each other deeply in the eyes.)
INGEBORG BACHMANN (Continued)
Firewater: Nothing more contrary in the material realm than water and fire. They are the only true substantial contradiction. But what realm are we in? Here the contradictions unite, water marries fire, fire marries water, the one desires the other.
(She takes a deep sip from her glass. Then, staring into the glass, she says:)
INGEBORG BACHMANN (Continued)
Why did we never marry?
Because we are the same. And the same cannot marry — you just said it, only opposites can marry and survive. The same marrying the same would mean you disappear into me and I disappear into you. No one remains. To have solved the elemental attraction that was you and me through marriage would have been to dissolve it. Us. Solution as dissolution. Solve but no coagula.
(A moment of silence)
We would have disappeared each other. Like ice in whiskey. Maybe. But the fact remains that I loved you more than my life. I wrote that after you left, I mean after you went into the water. I had to write you into the book of my death, I mean my life. I called you, but you only came in a tale, I had to invent you with my mouth and with my hand, I had to talk you, I had to write you back into existence. My existence.
Oh, come, come put a veil over the future!…
No, no, a sail, a sail to go East, sail home, even if we can’t get there.
… E subito you pick the voyage up again, as if after a shipwreck…
…I asked Gisèle to die with me. She couldn’t of course. There was Eric. But we can do it, that’s why I came back when you called. I am in your coma & we can journey through it, beyond it together. Be together the way we never could for more than a day or two, a night or two, before now.
Release me. I cannot keep on dying.