Radka Denemarková: Who’s Afraid of Ivana Trump?
If Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Ivana Trump were locked up together in one room, what would happen? In the world of theatre, anything is possible, and in Radka Denemarková’s “Spací vady“ (Sleeping Disorders) this is exactly what happens. David Vaughan talks to the author about her remarkable play.
Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath represent two generations of outstanding woman writers – Virginia Woolf in the first half of the twentieth century, Sylvia Plath in the second. Both sought independence and struggled to reconcile their impulse to write with the countless pressures and constraints of their time and the ghosts of their own past; both ultimately took their own lives. In Radka Denemarková’s play, they are thrown together in one room. As they look back on their lives as a whole, they cling onto their illusions. Much of the time they spend bickering over their respective qualities as writers and poking cruelly into each other’s past lives – with only occasional hints of empathy – until the various protective facades with which each had surrounded herself, begin to crack.
Then in comes Ivana Trump. She is the most obviously fictionalized of the three characters. After all, the real Ivana Trump – the glitzy Czech-born socialite, former athlete and fashion model – is still very much alive. In the play, Ivana is also a writer – although of a very different kind, working mostly through a ghostwriter. She is a tough, successful twenty-first century businesswoman, at home in the world of money and marketing. She turns the lives – or should I say afterlives – of her two unwilling roommates upside down.
“I think of it as an autobiographical text, although that may seem a paradox, given the way it is written. But I don’t like it when writers just write about themselves – showing off their ego, what happened to me, how I got ill, who I slept with etc. I prefer to make it more general, to conceal my questions behind specific situations. There are several different themes. I wrote it after what was, luckily, an unsuccessful suicide attempt, and at about the same time my father died. I felt the need to sum up everything I’d lived through in my 40 years so far. I think you can sense that energy in the play. Even though it’s highly stylized, I see it as an autobiographical text. Many prose writers when they get to about my age write something that looks back to their roots or their childhood, but for me, funnily enough, it took the form of a play.”
And maybe because of that, the play, both on the stage and as text, is so full of energy.
“Yes, it was just like that. I’m not going to give up. I look at things differently now. I can laugh about suicide, no one can begrudge me that. Everything is complicated, nothing is black and white, and that doesn’t mean that some things should be taboo or hidden. None of us knows what might happen in our lives. I think it happens to each of us, whether it’s fate or whatever, that we suddenly doubt our whole life, our life partner, friends, what we do or don’t do. And you have to work through that somehow.”
It’s almost like a kind of post-suicide note…
“Originally it was going to be a prose work, but what happened was that the characters kept talking to one another, kept fighting each other in a battle of words, so I decided to write it as a play, although it’s not really a play in the classic sense either. Certain things were important. They were dead, Virginia and Sylvia had chosen to end their own lives, and they were writers who took their writing seriously. It’s not just scribbling, but they are writing because the world is impossible to read, and remains impossible to read. Also I like the grotesque and black humour. I think that of all the things I’ve written, it’s the one with the most humour. It’s as if they were part of one woman. Virginia and Sylvia are both struggling for a kind of independence, to be able to make their own decisions about their lives. Then, after death they meet someone who really is emancipated and independent, and they look at Trump with astonishment and say, ‘Is this what we wanted? Is this what it looks like?’ I wanted also to confront the things that bother me in the world of literature. When you start writing and publishing, to your horror you recognize everything that’s going on in the business, and you want to detach yourself. It takes a lot of strength. Otherwise you lose touch with your inner self and end up succumbing to the time you live in, to what the critics and other people in the industry think. I wanted to laugh at all this a bit. “
But Ivana Trump in the play is far from being just a figure of fun.
As I watched the play, I found myself hoping for some kind of transcendence, or at least reconciliation – or even just a hint of understanding between the protagonists. At times something really does seem to be round the corner.
“On several occasions the words empathy, sympathy and humility appear, but the protagonists just aren’t capable of it, even towards themselves. Virginia and Sylvia are capable of a huge amount of self-reflection when it comes to their writing, but not in their lives. Sylvia is trying to be equal to Virginia, but she can never manage it, because of the different worlds they came from. It was predetermined. Instead she is like a little child. She needs to cling on to someone, to be praised. Sometimes she resists, sometimes she fails. Situations from during her life repeated themselves – round and round in circles. But there is a point in the play when they don’t need to do this anymore, and they can be themselves; when I was writing, I thought I’d reach a moment when they’d succeed, but it just didn’t happen.”
So there’s no happy ending, although you are left with a sense of something that could have been. And at the very end there’s a further twist, but that would be spoiling the story.
The production at the Theatre on the Balustrade, now, unfortunately, at the end of its run, was directed by Slobodanka Radun and featured Magdaléna Sidonová, Marie Spurná and Jana Hrubinská, as Plath, Woolf and Trump respectively. To end our interview, I asked Radka Denemarková, who herself has long been associated with the Theatre on the Balustrade, whether she was involved in the production – especially given the strongly autobiographical nature of the play.
So far, Spací vady has yet to be translated into English. But it is an important work by one of the Czech Republic’s leading contemporary writers, so I hope that English-speaking readers – and theatre-goers too – will not have to wait too long. For the time being, you can read Radka Denemarková’s novel, “Money from Hitler” in an English translation by Andrew Oakland, published by Women’s Press in Toronto.