In Tales from Red Vienna, a Manhattan Theatre Club presentation at New York City Center, a financially strapped Viennese society lady whose husband was killed in World War I is forced to take up prostitution in the former capital of the collapsed Austro-Hungarian empire. The production, directed by Kate Whoriskey, features a cast headed by a formidable troika of New York actresses: Nina Arianda (Tony Award winner for Venus in Fur), Tina Benko (Jackie), and Kathleen Chalfant (an Obie Award winner for Wit). The playwright, David Grimm, has a flair for bringing a witty and theatrical perspective to noteworthy moments in world history, and his work shows eclectic range: Kit Marlowe, a spirited bio of the rakish Elizabethan playwright, spy, and sexual outlaw; Measure for Pleasure, a the bawdy, gender-bending Restoration farce; Steve and Idi, in which the ghost of the notorious African dictator commissions a play from a struggling gay writer; and The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue, a Moliere comedy reset in Jazz Age New York. Most recently, he provided additional dialogue for River of Fundament, Matthew Barney’s visionary take on Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. “I can’t see a rock that I can’t pick up, look underneath, and say, ’Take a look at this—let’s put that on stage,’” says Grimm about his interest in poking underneath the surfaces of history. When I met with the playwright, I asked him about the origins of Tales from Vienna and his interest in carnal activities in the context of world history.
Would you say that you’re fascinated with the interplay of sex and history?
Yes, I think sexuality is such an integral part of what makes us human. It’s what is in the most vulnerable part of us. And it also makes for good drama. So I’m interested in finding something very specific and vulnerable in a character, and expressing sexuality in different guises and different manifestations and different attitudes against a large canvas of history. History without sex can be very dry.
You might even say history is about sex…
Exactly. Who is fucking who—either literally or figuratively, in terms of who they are fucking over. If you think about it, the Church of England wouldn’t exist if some fat guy didn’t want to fuck a younger woman.
What did you have in mind when you started writing Tales from Red Vienna?
It was a really wonderful conflagration of different impulses. First of all, this is the centenary year of the beginning of World War I. I think that was such a pivotal point in world history in so many ways—in terms of nation states, the role of women in society. There was also an element of my wanting to write about the Iraq War. But I do tend to use theatrical metaphor, so in this case it is focusing on Vienna, a city that was part of an empire that collapsed as a result of a war of choice—and there was a lot of economic and social fallout as a result of that. And we were seeing that happening here over the course of the last few years too. I think there’s a certain degree of national shame around this war of choice and rightly so. What do you do with the people who died, the people who lost everything? The economic collapse—you know it’s all connected.
I’m also a big fan of German Expressionist painting. There was an exhibit at the Neue Galerie and I started looking at these paintings by Oskar Kokoschka, Kandinsky, and Otto Dix. There were a couple of paintings of war widows in full mourning who, underneath their veil, were garishly painted up as prostitutes. The images were so haunting to me. There was this phenomenon in Vienna where for these women of a certain class and social status, their whole world collapsed when they lost their husbands, their fathers, their brothers. They weren’t prepared to be able to support themselves in a male-dominated society. They were following this cultural tradition of mourning, but how do they survive? Many of them were apparently turning to prostitution as a way of making ends meet. I found that so potent and exciting, and so that’s where the play began.
The character Hélena, played by Nina Arianda, is one of these war widows…
She is one of the most favorite characters I have ever written, I think. There are so many sides and aspects to her. She’s a survivor who’s not equipped to survive. I mean, she wasn’t raised to be able to deal with what she’s dealing with, and she does it with a courage, grace, and vulnerability that I find quite beautiful. It’s a journey of finding her way, but it’s not a clear-cut line. It’s full of stumbles and mistakes. Because when somebody dies there’s also something in you that dies. You go away from the world. Ostensibly mourning is supposed to be a time of healing, but this introspection is also a very dangerous time; it can go so far that you stop your engagement with the world around you. So how do you find the strength to re-engage?
The time period of the play, when the city was governed by the Social Democrats and referred to as “Red Vienna,” was a unique moment, wasn’t it?
Historically, I think, it was a really fantastic wonderful experiment, a time for really exploring new ways—of living, government, social and cultural—which all came to a grinding halt with the rise of fascism. One wonders how much further along the world might be if those things actually had a chance to really grow and blossom. I guess I consider myself something of a socialist. I believe that the common good is something that needs to be taken into account and one needs to care about our veterans, the homeless. We are part of the social contract and I think anyone who turns a blind eye to that does that at their own peril. Even so, within the play there’s a character who comes from that world and we see that there’s just as much hypocrisy in that world as there is in any other social construct. It’s a complicated business.
Did you spend time in Vienna before writing the play?
I’ve been to Vienna a number of times over the years. It’s always a shock coming from New York to some of the Western European countries and going “Oh, yes, that’s right—your subway system operates on an honor system.” You get your card and they trust that you are a responsible member of society, and part of that is because they give you health care; they respect you as a citizen and you shall respect back—social contract. But I have a pretty complicated relationship with Vienna. I’m a first-generation American. My mum was born in Budapest and grew up in hiding during the war. My grandfather was sent first to a forced labor camp and then to a concentration camp, from which he was liberated.
You were born in Ohio, but traveled around the globe in your formative years. Do you think that has something to do with your particular view of the world?
I think so. I lived in Israel for six and half years when I was growing up and spent a fair amount of time around Europe. When you’re growing up, you don’t think that you have a different perspective. But I think I did I have a little bit more awareness—that there are actually other countries in the world. And they aren’t just made up of tourists. They actually have legitimate lives, histories and cultures. That has informed me in many ways. I think, at the moment, Americans tend to be myopic. I don’t think we always are. But as a result of the economic crash, because of the fact that we were in two unsustainable wars, and that we had a president who was actively lying to us, I think we have nationally closed in on ourselves, sort of like going into mourning.