The Lulu Plays, by Frank Wedekind, Illustrations by William Kentridge, Arion Press (2015)

The latest publication from Arion Press, just released as their 104th work, is The Lulu Plays by playwright Frank Wedekind. Wedekind (1864-1918) became a major influence on what was to become German Expressionism and on the development of epic theatre.  His plays were quite scandalous when released for their frank depictions of violence and sex. Based on my first time reading, I would claim his writings are sensationalistic, innovative, unnatural stylistically, and certainly heading towards what would later become known as The Theater of the Absurd. Arion Press tells us, in their prospectus for this work, that Wedekind was:

…a celebrated radical who was censored, banned, and even jailed for his stage expressions against conventional behavior, although he aspired personally to upper-class respectability. His borrowings from circus, panto-mime, vaudeville, and Grand-Guignol aimed to give pleasure and immediacy on stage rather than a distanced literary satisfaction. An accomplished actor, Wedekind would demonstrate, when directing, a harshly stylized technique of disjointed actions and puppet-like movements, using, according to Berthold Brecht, his “metallic, hard, dry voice” in a riveting manner. He influenced Expressionism, Dadaism, and the Theaters of Cruelty and the Absurd. In Brecht’s estimation,Wedekind “belonged with Tolstoy and Strindberg among the great educators of the new Europe”.

The “Lulu” plays are the pairing of two related and continuous works (originally planned as a single work), Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904). Wikipedia sums it up nicely as “a continuous story of a sexually enticing young dancer who rises in German society through her relationships with wealthy men, but who later falls into poverty and prostitution.”  These plays inspired the silent cinema classic Pandora’s Box and the Alban Berg opera Lulu.  The plays are violent (even Jack the Ripper plays a role!) and sexual, though in today’s terms hardly shockingly so. There is a strong cloud of fatalism that hangs over the characters, and generally a bleakness to the settings which pervades the mood of the story.  Lulu herself is in some sense similar to the Camille of Alexandre Dumas, fils, willingly destining herself to a disreputable life of being in the pay of men driven by lust and greed. Yet, unlike Camille, Lulu generates little sympathy from the reader, seemingly playing an active role in her own degradation, seeking the every destruction that she ultimately finds. Is the play misogynistic (e.g., each man sees her as he wants to see her and uses her based on his needs) or is it a pre-cursor to the 1960’s women’s sexual liberation (e.g., Lulu using female sexuality to gain advantage while seeking release from a patriarchal world)? After reading the play, I certainly cannot answer that. I am not sure it is meant to be answered.

Like a lot of writing that begat modernist forms, I find the writing stilted at times, the sense of nihilism overly negative on the human condition, and the absurd scenarios….well, nearly absurd! However, it kept my attention from its interesting and unique style, while its almost insane plot and characterizations did keep me thinking. So it may come across as a bit different from much of what I prefer, but “interesting” and “thought-provoking” are always good things for a reader, and Lulu certainly provides that. Most of all, however, it is hard not to want to soak in every page of a book that is built like this edition!

I have said it before and will say it again: Arion Press deserves massive praise for not only the quality of their work, but for their selections. Looking over their 104 publications, there are plenty of true canon classics (works by Shakespeare, Melville, Fitzgerald, Doyle, Sterne, Yeats, Joyce, Dickens, Stevenson, Brillat-Savarin, Milton, Molière, Wells, Whitman and Cervantes, as examples) to keep classicists like myself very happy. Yet, they mix it up well with important works, such as The Lulu Plays, that push me outside of my comfort zone (notably Flatland, The Maltese Falcon, The Big SleepBiothermPale Fire, Kora in HellCaneThe Voices of MarrakeshSouth of Heaven, and others). I likely would have never read these works if Arion Press did not publish them, and I am better off having read them. I am thankful that they “mix it up.”

As for this edition, it is splendid. The format is somewhat large, 13-1/2″ x 9 1/2″, with a unique, and I believe apropos, color scheme with the actors’ lines in red bold and the character names and direction in black regular weight. In discussing this choice with Arion’s Andrew Hoyem, he mentioned for the red (representing the luridness of the plays) to hold, it needed it in bold. When I first heard about the planned use of red type, I was somewhat skeptical thinking it would be overwhelming to the eye. All skepticism vanished when I got the book. It just works well, especially on the pages with a full page illustration on one side.  Mr. Hoyem mentioned that printing this was a challenge, due to needing separate runs for the red and black and to get them to perfectly overlap. They met the challenge, and you will find this easy, if not unique, to read. It certainly does not hurt that the types are well-chosen. The types are from the period of the composition of the opera and creation of the above-mentioned film: Eric Gill‘s Perpetua and Gill Sans in Monotype composition, with handset Perpetua, along with Rudolf Koch‘s Claudius and Neuland for display. The Hanemühle Biblio paper also plays an integral role. It’s slight cream color helps offset any harshness in the red, and it frames the illustrations perfectly. Not to mention the tactile soft feel of it is gorgeous on the fingers!

The book contains 67 drawings by South African artist William Kentridge, derived from brush and ink drawings for projections for Kentridge’s 2015 production of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu (more on that below). The Arion prospectus further elaborates:

Kentridge drew with brush and ink on dictionary pages. The definitions are in the background but the opening and closing words, in larger type, can be read. Often, after drawing, Kentridge moves the sheets, rearranging elements of the drawings so that they become collages and can resemble moving pictures. The appearance of the drawings on pages of the book is very different from the much larger versions in the opera set, where sometimes only a detail is used and images can be altered by the surfaces on which they are projected, as well as fractured or distorted by the planes and interfering elements of the scenery. 

Many illustrations highlight the characters, some the settings.  While images are not strictly sequential or narrative based, they are impressive in their conveyance of the spirit, the tone and the mood of the story. Some of the images come across to me as intentionally somewhat emotionally cold, perhaps pre-expressionistic or even hinting at absurdity in their use of historical figures representing certain characters, like the story itself. Others come across as powerful in the sense of loneliness and emptiness they convey. The reader finds themselves constantly referring to the pictures and transposing (perhaps intermixing is a better word here) what Kentridge visualizes with what Wedekind had verbally implanted in your mind’s eye. I cannot say enough about Mr. Kentridge’s work here. I have found myself repeatedly going back, looking at the images over and over, each time getting more from them. Once again Arion presents me with an artistic style I have not had familiarity with, and once more I have gained an appreciation of another stylistic form.

The hand-binding of the book is handsomely done in a style again very apropos to the bleakness and luridness of the plays. The book is handsewn with linen thread over linen tapes, with handsewn silk headbands in black and red, and bound in full gunmetal grey cloth, in a slipcase covered in the same cloth; Both book and slipcase cloth have titling in type and imagery drawn by Kentridge printed by silkscreen, the word “Lulu” on the front cover of the book and a Rorschach of black blood across the sides and back of the slipcase.

The translation, somewhat modernized by Arion editors, is that of Samuel A. Eliot, Jr., from 1923. Besides his translations of Wedekind, Eliot is most famous for being the grandson of Charles W. Eliot, the former president of Harvard University.

All in all this is another excellent example of the fine book craft from Arion Press. Well-designed, nicely executed, a pleasure to hold, look at and feel. It is a courageous choice of a work from Arion, not one I would have chosen or frankly even requested. But, there is no question of the importance and influence of The Lulu Plays. Arion Press is right to challenge us occasionally with such works. It is an easy challenge to take up when handed such a high quality and unique production!

Concerning Alban Berg‘s opera, Arion’s prospectus informs us:

Alban Berg’s Lulu (1937 / 1979) is a masterpiece of twentieth-century opera. The Austrian composer Berg (1885 –1935) began to teach himself music when he was fifteen and later studied with Arnold Schoenberg for six years. In 1905, at the age of twenty, he had seen a production of Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box, staged in Vienna by his friend Karl Kraus, and determined to create an opera version. But work on his other opera, Wozzeck, intervened, as well as instrumental, orchestral, and vocal pieces, so he did not begin his Lulu until 1929. The opera was left uncompleted at his death in 1935, although he had finished the third act in particell format (short score). His wife Helene Berg forbade completion of the final act and allowed only performances of the first two. But after Helene’s death, the opera was completed by Friedrich Cerha and premiered in 1979 in Paris, conducted by Pierre Boulez. Berg himself had written the libretto, which was very faithful to the two Wedekind plays, even down to constructing the scenes in the three-act opera to follow the seven acts in the two plays. As a composer, Berg was influenced by his teacher Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and by his theory of developing variation. They were lifelong friends, and Berg dedicated Lulu to Arnold Schoenberg in honor of his sixtieth birthday.

There are some upcoming Events, in New York City, surrounding the Kentridge production of Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera and the Arion release of this edition that you should be aware of.

  • The Kentridge production of Lulu opens at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on November 5, 2015, sung in German and conducted by James Levine.There will be eight performances, through December 3. This is a co-production with the Dutch National Opera and the English National Opera.
  • On October 13, 2015, Kentridge and Hoyem will speak about the Lulu project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, at 6:30 p.m in New York City. Tickets are available online. For an invitation to the reception to follow, contact arionpress@arionpress.com.
  • November 2: Launch for The Lulu Plays at the Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, Third Floor Gallery, along with show of Kentridge drawings. For an invitation contact: arionpress@arionpress.com.
  • Arion Press’s The Lulu Plays will be on view in September in San Francisco and at the IFPDA Print Fair at the Park Avenue Armory (at East 66th Street) on November 4 through 8, 2015.
Get the book! Go to the opera!

About the Edition

  • Designed by Andrew Hoyem
  • 67 drawings by William Kentridge, derived from brush and ink drawings for projections for Kentridge’s 2015 production of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, which was based on the two Frank Wedekind plays from the turn of the century, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box
  • The drawings were printed by four-color offset lithography under the direction of Susan Schaefer
  • Text printed by letterpress, on a two-color Miller cylinder press, in black and in red
  • The types are from the period of the composition of the opera and creation of the Pabst film: Perpetua (1929) and Gill Sans (1928) in Monotype composition, with handset Perpetua, Claudius (1937), and  Neuland (1923) for display
  • Hanemühle Biblio paper
  • The book is handsewn with linen thread over linen tapes, with handsewn silk headbands in black and red, and bound in full gunmetal grey cloth, in a slipcase covered in the same cloth; Both book and slipcase cloth have titling in type and imagery drawn by Kentridge printed by silkscreen, the word “Lulu” on the front cover of the book and a Rorschach of black blood across the sides and back of the slipcase
  • 176 pages, quarto format, 13-1/2″ x 9 1/2″
  • Limited to 400 copies, numbered and signed by the artist
  • 40 of the copies come with an extra set of prints: with four linoleum block prints on Somerset Satin soft white 300 gm, 63 cm by 49 cm, made by Kentridge, based on images in the book and titled somewhat differently; The suite was editioned at M. K. & Artists Print Workshop by Mlungisi Kongisa in Johannesburg, South Africa; The prints are interleaved and are presented in a full-cloth portfolio with a title page giving documentation

Pictures of the Edition

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{Ed. Note: You can click on any image for a close up view.}

The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Slipcase (pen for scale)
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Slipcase (pen for scale)
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Book in Slipcase
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Book in Slipcase
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Spine and Covers
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Spine and Covers
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Spine Macro
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Spine Macro
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Front Cover
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Front Cover
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Macro of Side View
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Macro of Side View
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Front Endpapers
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Front Endpapers
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Macro of Frontispiece
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Macro of Frontispiece
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Macro of Title Page #1
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Macro of Title Page #1
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Macro of Title Page #2
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Macro of Title Page #2
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Text #1 (Contents)
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Text #1 (Contents)
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #1 and Text (Introduction)
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #1 and Text (Introduction)
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Macro of Introduction Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Macro of Introduction Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, 'Super' Macro of Introduction Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, ‘Super’ Macro of Introduction Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Text #2
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Text #2
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #2
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #2
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #2
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #2
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Text #3
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Text #3
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Macro Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Macro Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Macro Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Macro Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #6 and Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #3 and Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Text #4
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Text #4
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #6 and Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #4 and Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Text #5
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Text #5
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #13 and Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #5 and Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #18 and Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #6 and Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #22 and Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Sample Illustration #7 and Text
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Colophon
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Colophon
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Back Endpages
The Lulu Plays, Arion Press, Back Endpages

4 thoughts on “The Lulu Plays, by Frank Wedekind, Illustrations by William Kentridge, Arion Press (2015)

  1. The Kentridge production of Lulu will be presented in the Met Opera’s Live in HD series on Saturday, November 21, at 12:30 pm ET. I suspect most of your readers can find a local theater showing it. There is usually an encore broadcast in a later evening, and PBS typically broadcasts the Live in HD productions a few months after the original performance.

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