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Tabori, George 1914–
Tabori, a novelist, dramatist, and screenwriter, was born in Hungary but has lived in the United States and West Germany. While his novels and plays usually present a provocative moral dilemma, critics have commented on the lack of satisfactory resolution. In addition to his original plays, Tabori has adapted the works of Brecht, Frisch, Strindberg, and Shakespeare. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4.)
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["Beneath the Stone" is] one of the most moving, convincing, poignant between-the-lines and in-back-of-the-lines novels to come out of the war. The author is a master of imagination. So much of this novel is so extremely fine that one feels the ending should be forgiven or, better yet, forgotten. It involves a conversation by Major von Borst and, although George Tabori has built up a background for it and has done so very well, the change-of-heart business is as obvious today as it was a decade ago or, for that matter, a century ago.
"Beneath the Stone" is distinguished, among less tangible qualities, for the dimensions of its conception and for the skill with which these distances are knit together….
The puzzle of war, the puzzle of the human or inhuman millions, receives a powerful answer in this book.
Kenneth Fearing, "Two Philosophers," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1945 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 26, 1945, p. 7.
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[Beneath the Stone is] a slick, sophisticated, competent job. (p. 356)
Despite its trivial plot, the novel has political implications which deserve discussion. Borst is represented as a person of fairly decent impulses; his Prussian arrogance appears as a compensation for his feeling of inferiority vis-à-vis the English. He is sensitive and almost cultured, much more interesting than his English prisoner. It is dangerous, I think, that the Englishman never answers Borst's contentions that the German aristocrats are a higher race, far superior to the "stupid bourgeoisie" who control the democracies. And does Borst's suicide imply that the traditional Prussian officer is a good German after all, or merely that the game is up for Prussia? Presumably the latter, but Mr. Tabori could express things a good deal more clearly.
The Gestapo agent is an incredible mixture: he knows philosophy and literature, has an almost Proustian memory, and converses with a brilliance that is strictly ersatz Koestler. There may be some symbolism in all this; it baffled me. Mr. Tabori knows his Central Europe; he has a certain wit; and he has put in plenty of sex and sadism. His novel has the glitter and the intrinsic value of a ten-cent-store diamond. (p. 357)
H. C. Hatfield, "Germans: Good and Otherwise," in The New Republic (© 1945 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 113, No. 12, September 17, 1945, pp. 356-57.∗
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"Original Sin" is a written monologue—partly what is written, partly what is thought while he is writing—by an aging Levantine who runs a sleazy boarding house in Cairo….
An astute craftsman (as those who read "Beneath the Stone" and … "Companions of the Left Hand" know), Mr. Tabori has executed [the design of "Original Sin"] with only a few flaws. In fact, he succeeds in many places where it is quite usual for authors to fail. For example, he avoids the more-sinned-against-than-sinning tone into which the psychoanalytic school, those heirs of mid-Victorian bathos, commonly slither: this novelist is trying to explain it away. Likewise, he avoids the very popular opposite error in which the heirs of the Late Victorian decadents present evil as a kind of baleful jewel and lovingly twist all the circumstances and all the characters into an artful setting for it.
But it must be said that Mr. Tabori … has been somewhat parsimonious with events. There are enough solid incidents for an active short story; no more than that. The bulk of the book is filled out with little particles of atmosphere … numbingly repeated.
To explore the problem of evil is difficult: it is a problem that has galled the minds of saints and schoolmasters ever since man began to reason about his nature. No one will blame a working novelist for not solving it. But it is too bad that Mr. Tabori chose the documentary method. Telling his story form within a diseased soul, so to speak, may have enabled him to put the question to his readers more terribly than any other way, but it surely made it impossible for him to contribute very much toward an answer. The weakest part of the novel is the last part. And yet the reader must share the blame for this with Mr. Tabori. "Original Sin" leaves its readers, wise in our generation, feeling the incompleteness of our own moral thought.
Donald Barr, "Monologue on the Power of Evil," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1947 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 15, 1947, p. 5.
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A strictly private affair, ["Original Sin"] concerns a man's struggle for understanding of himself after he has pushed his wife's head far enough down beneath the bath water to give her everlasting peace….
[Mr. Tabori is not content with the obvious motives.] Unfortunately for the book, its author digs … deeper in his search for motives and uncovers a ganglion of complexes in Tristan Manasse. It is in this part of the story, where the author forsakes the outward facts to probe into hidden guilts and fears in Tristan's subconscious, that the theme of murder trails off into ambiguity.
Yet "Original Sin" cannot be dismissed too lightly because it has not been well enough thought out, for, despite the muddled analysis, it contains writing which puts Mr. Tabori's talent beyond question. Not easily to be forgotten are the sand-strewn streets where stunned passers-by search the sky for a token of relief; the richly furnished tomb, like a drawing room, where Tristan's father is buried; and the many scenes in the Manasse bedroom where Tristan and Adela are forced to share the dirt, the prickling sweat and busy beetles and that wide bed in which they lie together, each unalterably alone.
Virgilia Peterson, "The More Recent Summer Novels: 'Original Sin'," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation), July 13, 1947, p. 4.
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The double core of "The Caravan Passes" is this: Is the murder of a tyrant justifiable and what kind of a man should a real man be? Mr. Tabori divides his work into two parts, one: "The Question"; two, "The Answer."…
"The Answer," unfortunately, is not the answer to the question of part one at all. Instead it is an heroic portrait of a messianic man, the kind of man Varga should be but is not….
Part two is a re-examination of the same events as part one, this time with Marouf replacing Varga at the helm…. Marouf is never asked "the question," and since Varga answered it only in a negative fashion, this novel's moral dilemma is still left hanging at the end. Thus Mr. Tabori splits his creative core and the reader's interest is left unfulfilled.
A more vital flaw perhaps, is that the conflict within the chief characters is never brought into a living tension. Varga, by nature a refugee from responsible intimacy with the human race, is never really tempted. And with Marouf there is never any course but the Right One.
These blights aside, it is an engrossing novel. For Mr. Tabori … can write. A native of Hungary now living in America, he is painfully but successfully learning to write in English. He uses this new (to him) language at times too lushly, but always, one feels, with love.
Hugh McGovern, "A Tyrant's Time to Die," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1951 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 11, 1951, p. 4.
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["The Caravan Passes"] is a rich and violent book, a book of trenchant ideas, stormy action, and urgently human beings. This is a say that Tabori thinks provocatively, writes strong narrative, and has the indispensable gift which makes a novelist good: everyone on whom his writing touches, be it only for a paragraph, comes to life….
It is a minor failure of the book that [the central] dilemma exists for the reader but not for the doctor. The only appeals which reach Varga are bribe offers by the selfish and the vengeful; the voice of general suffering speaks a language which he does not understand.
Another more substantial failure is one of construction. During half the book we follow Varga, the officials, the neurotic Europeans; their story concluded we go back and follow Marouf and the lesser members of the populace over the same events. There may be a gain in irony, and it is possible, too, that the author wished by this method to emphasize the great distance between the viewpoints of the handful in command and the multitude commanded. But the method is a synthetic one, weakening the effect of organism. Instead of plot and counterplot building to a double climax in a big book we are presented with two circumstantially connected, slighter books. But that both have strength is proof of Tabori's enormous ability.
Tabori's control of English, a language to which he wasn't bred, is superb. He handles it with the unlabored eloquence and reckless accuracy of a poet….
The breadth and depth of the author's understanding match his ability to express it….
Tabori believes that mass-will moves towards justice. He denies that Western progress has much to offer Arab life. He has a strong sense of the power of the accidental…. He treats sex as a powerful instrument of wounding and healing but not an all-powerful one. He tries to show that "every life that [is] not saintly … is, in fact, criminal." These and a dozen other well-defended concepts may be found in or deduced from "The Caravan Passes."
Of the people writing seriously today George Tabori is very much a man to watch. He's very much a man to read, too.
Vance Bourjaily, "Death for a Tyrant?" in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1951 by Saturday Review; copyright renewed © 1979 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 34, No. 11, March 17, 1951, p. 26.
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Unable to make up his mind whether what he had in hand were the materials for comedy or tragedy, Tabori has managed [in The Emperor's Clothes] a hybrid that gets nowhere as either and that is further so muddled by a variety of writing styles that it seems to be the combined work of four or five different men, all of them with a different purpose in view and none of them in consultation with one another.
The story, laid in the dawning police state of Hungary and in 1930 Budapest in particular, has to do with a college professor out of a job for his political opinions who has taken up as a means of livelihood the translating of lurid American Wild West stories and with his small son who sees in him, despite his timidity and even cowardice, traces of the heroes that figure in the sensational tales. So great becomes the youngster's bragging and boasting of his father's imagined exploits that the police, unacquainted with the literature in question, take the old man into custody as a suspected revolutionary….
It is possible that the Hungarian author's recollection of the terrors of Budapest in his younger years prevented him from treating as such what is essentially the stuff of comedy, even perhaps of farce, and caused him willy-nilly to see it in terms of tragedy. But, whatever the reason, the intended tragedy has such a time of it battling against the basic protest of comedy that it fails of any conviction and collapses from its own constitutional bewilderment.
George Jean Nathan, "Naked" (reprinted by permission of Associated University Presses, Inc., for the Estate of George Jean Nathan), in Theatre Arts, Vol. 37, No. 4, April, 1953, p. 28.
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["The Niggerlovers"] is as brash as its name. It is a piece of imitation Brecht, which means that it is interlarded with songs, dances, tumbling, and, in this instance, more complex calisthenics. The tone is gleeful contempt—second-hand gleeful contempt. The target is liberals, and the action is designed to expose their disgraceful collapse under pressure. This action consists of two scenes, barely related…. In the first scene, [The Liberal] is an old professor … who plans to go to Mississippi to help out. A woman photographer persuades two Negroes to give him some idea of what lies in store for him. For purposes of demonstration, the blacks pretend to be whites, or whatever color you would call rednecks, and the professor a black. The rest of the act is given over to brutal and ritualistic samples of savagery…. There is no denying the force of these episodes, but their effect quickly evaporates. They are synthetic, and they tell us nothing that we didn't already know about the horrible plight of Negroes. The second act consists for the most part of a conversation between a timorous man of high principles but faint heart, and his police dog, a sentimental Viennese bitch with the soul of a Nazi. (pp. 152-53)
The lyrics for the songs were written by Mr. Tabori, who is not Bertolt Brecht, and the music was composed by Richard Peaslee, who is not Kurt Weill…. (p. 153)
Edith Oliver, "Down, Way Down, by the Seaside," in The New Yorker (© 1967 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 43, No. 34, October 14, 1967, pp. 151-53.∗
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["The Cannibals"] is a nightmare fantasy—an attempt to dramatize the agony and guilt of Jews in concentration camps who betrayed their own people…. The action itself can be most quickly described as hand-me-down Brecht—full of arbitrary movement, ritualistic behavior, pranks, and whimsey. At one point, there is a small charade in which a boy's arm is sold as liverwurst, and the company breaks into "Yes, We Have No Bananas." Much of the verbal imagery is of food…. [The] survivors behave like a Jewish vaudeville team, talking of Howard Johnson's and banana splits and their ailments and their doctors. The voice of morality, on and off, is that of a character called Uncle Tabori. (There's whimsey for you.)…
The play fails—or, at least, it never got to me, who ordinarily collapses at the very words "concentration camp"—simply because it isn't good enough…. The gloating facetiousness of style in writing and performance—another bequest from Brecht—may have been at one time an effective means of expressing the inexpressibly painful, but it is now worn out. It might also be said, though, that while "The Cannibals" is inadequate to its subject, there is no question of the play-wright's sincerity, which is made manifest time after time. (pp. 118, 123)
Edith Oliver, "Off Broadway: 'The Cannibals'," in The New Yorker (© 1968 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 44, No. 38, November 9, 1968, pp. 115-16, 118, 123.∗
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Tabori is obsessed with the horror of Hitlerism. Nearly all his writing deals with Fascist savagery…. One of the merits of The Cannibals is that in it Tabori has disgorged the very essence of that which torments him. He has also strived to make a statement beyond the bloody events.
Even in the midst of hell, Tabori tells us, where because of intense suffering everything becomes possible, a few men are able to retain the remnants of their stature as human beings. The starved inmates of a prison camp choose to go quietly to their death rather than (on the orders of their Nazi overseer) to eat the grotesque fellow prisoner whom most of them have joined in killing. Two men consent to eat, they are the survivors who later become prosperous American citizens.
The fault here is not the atrociousness of the material nor even the fact that we, well fed, who sit in the audience cannot conceive of the hunger pangs that might press people to such brutishness. Tabori mitigates the sheer disgust of the incident by "alienating" the scene through having his characters pause to comment on it and by having all the physical cruelty coldly stylized. What is wrong is that the whole process of his play has been rendered as a naked account of the facts. We may be shocked, we are not moved. It is still another item, fiercer than most, but not different in kind from any of those previously related.
For his play to have accomplished something more than an attack on our nerves, Tabori, who is basically of a gently romantic temperament, should have fleshed his characters, giving them more of the emotional eloquence of which he is capable. As it stands, the play is a diagram of hideousness. The actors grovel, howl, curse and emit obscenities which fail to convey more than vile information—to which within a very short span of time in the theatre we have become inured.
Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'The Cannibals'," in The Nation (copyright 1968 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 207, No. 19, December 2, 1968, pp. 603-04.
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[George Tabori] sets The Cannibals in Auschwitz concentration camp and relates it to the New York of the 'sixties by the device of survivors. The play is a deliberate attempt to shock us into a realization of what we as human beings are capable of. First staged off Broadway in 1967, it uses the ritual, symbolism and obscenity which were then the new vogue of the American fringe, literally to ram home the author's angst, with some sideswipes at the modern American way of life. Tabori is involved intellectually and emotionally in his theme…. One feels one ought to be engaged as much as he with the horror and the filth, but, not having had his experiences, we have to rely on the play. And this, powerful though it is, does not quite join us with him. Maybe we have less need of this particular catharsis; certainly there is no escaping it here.
John Coleby, "Plays in Print: 'The Cannibals'," in Drama (reprinted by permission of the British Theatre Association), No. 114, Autumn, 1974, p. 84.
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[Tabori's production of The Merchant of Venice] is billed as "improvisations" on the Shakespeare, and as a title it uses a snatch of Shakespeare's dialogue: "I wish my daughter lay dead in the street and wore the jewels in her ears."
This response by the shattered Shylock to fate's abuse encapsules Tabori's approach to the play. Shakespeare tortures Shylock without making him tragic. The "Jew" is stripped not merely of the money, the land, and the rights that are his. His daughter abandons him to marry a Gentile; he is forced to convert to Christianity. This excess of revenge is silly, and Tabori capitalizes on Shakespeare's absurd hatred.
The "improvisations" make Shylock the central character, which Shakespeare didn't intend but couldn't help suggesting. For Shakespeare, Shylock was a grotesque whose implications the playwright finally noticed, but hadn't the patience or sensibility to explore. Indeed, at one point Tabori has all 12 actors in the company play Shylock, and they fan through the audience in black broadbrim hats and frock coats and beards and oversize, crooked, putty noses. It is a moment of chilling effect….
The actors change into everyday street clothes to play out Shakespeare's story. Though, according to Tabori, 90 percent of the words are Shakespeare's, the scenes are interspersed with references to Goebbels and the Brownshirts; there are savage mutilations of Jew-puppets; there is, finally, the unbearable sight of Shylock being baptized.
Martin Gottfried, "Theatre: 'Merchant of Venice' in Munich," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1979 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 6, No. 3, February 3, 1979, p. 36.
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