The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Vienna: Lusthaus is a series of forty-four dreamlike vignettes which sometimes overlap, sometimes occur simultaneously, and sometimes fade in and out of one another. As the performance begins, a pool of light reveals a couple slowly waltzing in center stage. A crowd begins to gather while a man and a woman converse. The man recounts the surrealistic scene that ensued when an acquaintance named Leonard flew across the seats in the opera, put his hand in the man’s mouth, and pulled out two of his teeth. The crowd exits, leaving a soldier alone onstage. In a movement sequence, he makes a gradual transformation from man to horse. He lowers his body to all fours before galloping offstage.

A couple waltzes across the stage. Two women, one in a dress and the other in a man’s suit, begin a slow waltz, stop, and hesitantly begin to remove their jackets. The room comes to full light when a young man begins to tell a story about his Aunt Cissi. Women in white undergarments gather in a doorway. As they approach the man on the bench, he becomes flustered while describing his aunt’s clothing. The women laugh and wave to him as he makes his hurried exit. A harpist plays a lush melody as the six women form a line.

The women sit or kneel on the floor as one describes a sexual encounter with a man in India several thousand years ago. An older actor begins to sing in German; two women sit on the piano bench and kiss. One tells of her mother who, carrying an armful of flowers one day, forgets to hold the banister, walks through an open window, and falls to her death. The soldier from the beginning of the piece approaches her. He grooms her like a horse, then the couple ride off as horse and rider.

In the next sequence, the older woman watches a younger woman in a lyrical movement phrase while a bearded man recounts the story of how he and his daughter watched a fountain from their hotel balcony. The water, he recalls, suddenly shot up in the air and directly into his daughter’s face. When he attempted to deflect the water, a woman called out from the hotel ballroom to let the girl get wet: “Otherwise what’s the point of life?”

A couple waltzes in. They caress in a tender, impassioned pas de deux while the older woman watches. She slips into the younger woman’s place so that when the man turns he embraces the older woman instead. Two nude women sit downstage right on a white sheet, their clothes scattered about them. They perform a symmetrical movement phrase, arching their backs and rolling their heads sensuously, as a violinist plays a brisk waltz. The music stops; the lights shift to illuminate the figures of a nude man and woman in a doorway. They begin a slow, sustained embrace, then exit as a man in a top hat enters and a nude man walks to upstage center. The man in the hat tells of the miracle he witnessed while standing along the banks of the Danube. He describes the sudden swelling of the river, which overflows its banks, and an ensuing rainstorm which drenches one bank but does not fall at all on the other side, leaving it in radiant sunlight. While he speaks, the nude man falls to the floor in agonized, contracted movements.

A half-dressed soldier enters with a young girl. He sits on the bench; she sits stiffly on his lap. He manipulates her arms and legs to accommodate his caresses. She remains expressionless, moving woodenly to the...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Martha Clarke uses nudity as a dramatic device in Vienna: Lusthaus. Sometimes the actors turn shyly from the audience’s gaze and other times coldly face them as if they were voyeurs. Scenes of seduction and sexual passion are played alternately by women in layers of frilly, white Victorian underwear with men in full uniform, by nude women with clothed men, and by nude couples. The women in their lacy camisoles and petticoats are sometimes beautiful partners in acts of love and sometimes powerless victims of rape or incest. Nude women appear as objects of sexual conquest in some scenes, while in others they use their erotic presence to exert power over men or one another. Additionally, Clarke contrasts nude figures with clothed figures in scenes that simultaneously suggest beautiful and horrible images. In one scene, a gentleman in formal evening wear and a top hat describes the miracle of rain falling on only one side of a riverbank and speaks of his own awareness of witnessing this beautiful event. Meanwhile, the man who had transformed himself into a horse in the first scene stands nude upstage, gradually writhing in agony until he falls lifelessly on the floor. This kind of fragmentary juxtaposition of stage figures illustrates the relationship between man and animal, between pleasure and pain.

Another important device in Vienna: Lusthaus is the use of an ensemble rather than a cast of actors who portray specific characters. This allows the actors to change roles from scene to scene in the non-narrative framework of the performance. The...

(The entire section is 644 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Acocella, Joan Ross. “Body and Soul: A Review of Martha Clarke’s Vienna: Lusthaus.” Dance Magazine 60 (August, 1986): 40-45.

Clarke, Martha. “A Conversation with Martha Clarke.” Interview with Elizabeth Kendall and Don Daniels. Ballet Review 12 (Winter, 1985): 15-25.

Clarke, Martha. “Images from the Id.” Interview with Arthur Bartow. American Theatre 5 (June, 1988): 10-17, 55-57.

Martin, Carol. Review in Performing Arts Journal 10, no. 2 (1986): 88-90.

Mee, Charles L., and Amanda Smith. “Martha Clarke’s Vienna: Lusthaus.” Drama Review 31 (Fall, 1987): 42-58.

Sadler, Geoff. “Martha Clarke.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Schorske, Carl. Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York: Knopf, 1981.