April 11, 1987 THE NATION
Trash, The City and Death, by the film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, has already enjoyed in its native Germany the success of a huge, decade-and-longer scandal, having first been denied performance shortly after it was written in 1974. Soon thereafter it was withdrawn from print by Fassbinder's publisher, Suhrkamp. Its most memorable non-premiere came in 1985, soon after the author's death, when members of Frankfurt's Jewish community formed a human barrier at the front of the stage of the Kammerspiele theater to screen the actors from the audience's view.
Now the play is being previewed before its American premiere in circumstances of almost dreamlike ignominy. It is hard to imagine a worthier setting for Trash than ABC No Rio on Rivington Street, a Lower East Side shopfront "theater" with two rows of seats facing a wall of leaking pipes and broken plaster glued together with posters for twenty years of lost causes and forgotten movies. At regular intervals during the performance the steam pipes upstaged the mumbling actors with shrieks and rattles as though the former occupants of the tenements were joining the protest of their Frankfurt counterparts, and in the scene in which Fassbinder is at his most strenuously offensive the pipes of an overhead toilet began to leak at a galloping temp, directing the audience's attention toward the ceiling's patchwork of sagging plaster and plastic sheeting and to the large damp area beneath. Through it all, from upstairs, a lively argument was being conducted in Spanish, leading to what sounded like an attempted murder. If Fassbinder had been looking down from heaven, one knew he would have been pleased.
The taboo whose violation has given Trash its success of disesteem is its portrayal of a character with the Expressionistically generic name of "a Rich Jew" (which Fassbinder enlarged, after early objections were raised, to "A, The Rich Jew"). A introduces himself to the audience in this wise:
Lest the audience be seduced by A's eloquence and youthful good looks (in the script A is described as ugly and obese, but the same cannot be said for David Tatosian, whose only concession to ugliness is that he dresses as an enemy yuppie in a milieu where punk is the order of the day), Tatosian delivers his first self-damning monologue with his back to the audience as he pisses into a plastic bucket that remains in place through the rest of the act, inches from the first row of seats (Hell has no proscenium).
We may gather from this that A is up to no good, and there is the added dramatic tension of wondering what plans have been made for that bucket. For it is the clear intention of the director, Nick Fracaro, to epater us with all the means at his disposal. During the entr'actes of the spoken drama, we are treated to various cabaret songs delivered with full frontal nudity, male and female, to simulations of lesbian sex and to the energetic abuse of the play's heroine, Roma B., by her pimp, Franz B. None of those spectacles constitutes a theatrical first, however, and it would have been so apposite a gesture in the circumstances, a true objective correlative, for the audience to have been dealt with literally as they were being treated metaphorically. Happily, this was a groundless fear, for in fact the bucket was being reserved for the moment in Act 2 when the cast, rising above their prevailing low spirits, joined together for the ritual humiliation and near-drowning, in that bucket, of the unfortunate Franz (the role played by Fassbinder when his play was made into a film). A little later, heroine Roma B. - who is 13, consumptive and the daughter of a former war criminal now working as a transvestite chanteuse, and, yes, there was incest between them - is garroted by the Rich Jew at the express request, because love's a harsh taskmaster, or something like that. Just as she was explaining the matter, the steam pipes staged their loudest protest.
That doesn't begin to exhaust Trash's store of silliness and calculated affronts, yet for all its effort to astonish us, the story, as against the spectacle of its enactment, fails to be interesting, because of the pervasive incoherence. The language aspires to the blasphemous lyricism of Genet, but the result is punk rock, right down to the jangle of the swastika earrings. Fassbinder's script (and much of the debate over the play's banning, as it has appeared in German newspapers, transcripts of which were thoughtfully provided by the theater) would seem to bear out George Steiner's contention that one result of the Nazi era has been the permanent debasement of the German language, in such a way that it can no longer serve as a vehicle for ordinary moral discourse.
"It's only a theater piece," Fassbinder was to argue in his own defense, insisting that "possibly reproachable" methods must be used, or else
It is the moral position of a teen-ager threatening suicide if he isn't given a camcorder for his birthday; an ego tantrum passing itself off as a tantum ergo; and it could not have received a production better suited to its merits. Fassbinder was not yet 30 when he wrote Trash, reportedly in a single burst of disinspiration in flight to Los Angeles, and he went on to make Berlin Alexanderplatz, which must be credited as an act of contrition for this particular sin of his youth. So the moral of the story isn't wholly glum: even if Youth must be heard, it does grow up.