PHILIP OLTERMANN

THE BANALITY OF COMEDY

BRECHT’S JOKES INFECTED HIS AUDIENCE, AND BECKETT’S MADE THEM SQUIRM IN THEIR SEATS. GEORGE TABORI, FRIEND AND COLLEAGUE TO BOTH MEN (AS WELL AS TO HITCHCOCK, CHAPLIN, AND MARILYN MONROE), HAD A DIFFERENT SORT OF HUMOR—PRECISE, PASSIONATELY HUMAN, AND FIERCELY MISANTHROPIC.

DISCUSSED: Trapezes, Automated Abattoirs, Dustin Hoffman, The FBI, Muppet Dogs, Estragon and Vladimir, Mitteleuropean Staircases, The German Hamlet, Boa Constrictors, Tight Catholic Lips, Death, Thomas Bernhard, The Third Reich, Thornhill’s Mother

At the age of three, George Tabori, a young boy growing up in Budapest (the year is 1917), goes to the circus for the first time. Drumrolls commence. A young girl climbs onto a fifteen-meter-high platform. She takes a step back, jumps, misses both the trapeze and the safety net, and crashes onto the floor, finishing in a bloody, lifeless mess. “For several years I thought that that was part of the performance,” he wrote. “When I go to the theatre nowadays, I still expect something similar, and I am a little bit disappointed when it doesn’t happen.”

*

Sixty-three years later, in 1953, George Tabori and Alfred Hitchcock go on a trip to the American Midwest to find locations for an unnamed film project. “There are parts of the American landscape which are so strange, so surreal, you just really want to build a film around them.”

Tabori and Hitchcock come across a number of enormous crop silos, scattered across the arid plains. Tabori suggests a chase sequence that would end with one of the villains falling into one of the silos from a great height. Hitchcock is skeptical about the idea.

Next, they visit a modern, automated abattoir. Cattle enter the slaughterhouse on an assembly line on one side and exit the factory at the other, the animal processed and packaged into tins. Tabori suggests a shot showing one of the villains falling into the abattoir from a great height—the next would show a pair of eyes rolling on the conveyor belt at the end of the assembly line. Hitchcock doesn’t like this idea either. Soon after, he calls off his collaboration with Tabori.

*

The first half of George Tabori’s career was remarkable only for the consistently negative outcome of his artistic endeavors. Born in 1914 in Budapest, Tabori moved to London at the age of twenty-two, where he worked for the Secret Service and the BBC. He wrote four novels: Beneath the Stone the Scorpion, Companions of the Left Hand, Original Sin, and The Caravan Passes, all extremely ambitious historical novels which were marketed incongruously as spy thrillers. None of them were particularly successful.

From 1947 until 1969, George Tabori worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood and New York, where he mingled with the rich and famous. He joked with Charlie Chaplin, smoked with Thomas Mann, canoodled with Greta Garbo, and talked literature with Marilyn Monroe. When one of his plays, Flight into Egypt (1952), finally appeared on Broadway, it was directed by the legendary Elia Kazan, who had made Tennessee Williams famous with productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. When Tabori started directing plays himself, he picked an aspiring young actor named Dustin Hoffman as his assistant.

But celebrity mattered very little to Tabori. Like so many other European émigré artists, he arrived in the States brimful of ideas about revolution and rebellion. Most of his friends were communists, or thought they were. “Lenin had said that film would become the most important of all the arts, so we all really believed that we could achieve something with cinema, content-wise.”

Tabori’s faith in content soon took a number of blows. On the night before Flight into Egypt’s premiere on Broadway, Kazan took Tabori out for a meal and told him that he would pass his details to the FBI if the play turned out to be a failure. Tabori pleaded that commercial factors like success should never conflict with artistic integrity. “You Europeans don’t understand success,” Kazan replied. “Success is when you get a call the day after the premiere.” When Tabori’s phone rang, it was the FBI.

After the disappointment in theater, Tabori tried his luck in cinema. He worked on a Hollywood version of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain with Alexander Korda’s brother Zoltan—which never moved beyond the planning stage. He became good friends with Joseph Losey, who would later collaborate with Harold Pinter on The Servant. Over the course of twenty years, Tabori wrote ten scripts for Losey. None of them were ever made into a film.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Philip Oltermann was born in Schleswig-Holstein in 1981. He has lived in London for the last ten years, where he works as a journalist. He is the co-editor of How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors (Rizzoli NY) and is currently working on a book about Anglo-German encounters.

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