SALZBURG, Austria — There’s a special charge to a morality play performed in the midst of a pandemic.
The coronavirus has made death and the fear of dying features of daily life in a way that positions us to relate to “Jedermann” (“Everyman”), a pseudo-medieval allegory of fate and faith that inaugurated the first Salzburg Festival with an outdoor production in 1920, directed by the festival co-founder Max Reinhardt.
In the 100 years since, the Salzburg Festival has grown into one of the most important music and performing arts events in the world. On Aug. 22, it commemorated its centennial with the festival’s 726th performance of “Jedermann.” Persistent rain banished the performance from the cathedral square to a large indoor theater. Guests of honor included the presidents of Austria and Germany, Alexander Van der Bellen and Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
In “Jedermann,” a verse drama from 1911 by Hugo von Hofmannsthal that was inspired by a 15th-century English morality play, a rich man who is summoned by death reflects on his life of pleasure and greed. Unable to find anyone to accompany him on his final voyage, he finds salvation and meaning in the religion he has spurned all his life. You can’t take it with you, the play teaches, but the doors of the church are open to even the most egregious sinner.
At a festival that defied expectations by going ahead this year, “Jedermann” felt like business as usual. Once again, the production was Michael Sturminger’s effective, if somewhat anodyne, 2017 staging, with the charismatic Tobias Moretti in the lead for the final time. For the eighth year running, Peter Lohmeyer reprised his hypnotic portrayal of Death.
As the Salzburg Festival’s oldest tradition, “Jedermann” is very specific to the event: The play, with its poetic yet highly artificial language, is not held in especially wide regard outside Salzburg. But days before, the world premiere of “Everywoman,” a reworking of Hofmannsthal’s play by the Swiss director Milo Rau, held the promise of expanding “Jedermann” beyond the Salzburg context. (It was the second new play at this summer’s festival, after Peter Handke’s “Zdenek Adamec.”)
Rau, one of the most provocative directors today, initially turned the job down. In articles and interviews, he has expressed a conflicted relationship with Hofmannsthal’s text. (In a recent essay in a Swiss newspaper, he wrote of the “childlike pleasure” of attending the outdoor performance in Salzburg but referred to the play itself as “grandiose nonsense.”) At the time, two years ago, he had completed a monumental production based on “The Ghent Altarpiece” and needed a break from allegorical medieval art, according to an interview in the program booklet.
When he reconsidered, he joined forces with the Swiss actress Ursina Lardi, a frequent collaborator, to co-write and act in the play. They traveled to Brazil and met with Indigenous artists as part of developing a dramatic monologue that would take a globalized, postcolonial perspective on “Jedermann’s” themes. (It is a joint production with the Berlin Schaubühne, where it will transfer in October.)
The direction of the play changed radically after the coronavirus made travel to South America no longer possible. Rau and Lardi settled for something more local.
At the center of “Everywoman” is Helga Bedau, a 71-year-old retired teacher from Lübben, Germany, with terminal pancreatic cancer. The audience could be forgiven for assuming that “Everywoman” would provide a feminist gloss on “Jedermann.” But there was no trace of an agenda, feminist, postcolonial or anticapitalist.
Rau and Lardi met Bedau in a Berlin hospice this year and filmed her discussing her life while seated at a lavish table that recalled the banquet scene in “Jedermann.” Bedau shares anecdotes and memories of Berlin in 1968, reminisces about her early work in the theater as an extra and sings the praises of her favorite pizzeria (Ali Baba in Charlottenburg).
With disarming directness, she discusses her mortality. She tells us how she would like to die: in summer, after a rainfall, while listening to Bach. She would like to be buried in Greece, where her son lives, but doesn’t know if she can afford the 6,000 euros to transport the coffin. The sense of a woman at peace with herself and the life she has lived is a far cry from Hofmannsthal’s antihero who rages in the face of death. (Bedau is, happily, still alive and joined the curtain call after the premiere.)
Bedau is speaking to us, of course, yet she also directly addresses Lardi, who prompts her and even interacts with the video, which is projected behind her.
With their rigid aesthetic, those widescreen scenes contrast with the largely unadorned stage on which Lardi performs her own understated, finely honed monologues. In them, personal memories mix with reflections on mortality and the power of art and its ability to provide transcendent meaning. “I can’t deliver a moral,” she confesses early on.
For the most part, Lardi’s subdued, down-to-earth performance is stripped of sentimentality and grand gestures. Onstage with her are a piano, a boombox (which Lardi uses to play us songs by Neil Young and Jeff Buckley) and a couple of large fake rocks that suggest the Alpine landscape of Lardi’s youth. “Jedermann” itself is explicitly referred to only a handful of times, in the taped ringing of church bells that plays from the boombox as the audience take their seats and in a brief discussion of how Hofmannsthal wrote the figure of Jedermann’s mother.
“Why is there nothing new to say about death?” Lardi asks. She eloquently and effectively reflects on the casual cruelty of Bruegel’s “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” discussed by W.H. Auden in his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Somewhat later, however, both her performance and the play falter during an extended soliloquy in which she yearns for a single work of art that would explain everything and provide metaphysical meaning to life.
Perhaps the director and the actress intended this rhetorical fist-shaking as a mock imitation of Jedermann’s bombast. Yet it fails to convince. Toward the end of the evening, we arrive at the other pole of Lardi’s performance when she sits down at the grand piano and gently plays a Bach cantata, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” for the spectral image of Bedau.
It is a much more powerful response to the inevitability of death than her earlier jeremiad, although it seems ironic that Rau and Lardi should choose a liturgical work for the climax of their insistently secular interpretation of “Jedermann.”
With this musical gesture, Rau and Lardi seem to reaffirm the power of art in the face of injustice and woe, in much the same way that this festival, founded in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, has for most of its century-long history.
The Salzburg Festival continues through Aug. 30. “Everywoman” transfers to the Berlin Schaubühne starting Oct. 15.