Eating at an Irreal Café: the Plays of B E Turner

Still from Timbuktu
A still from the video of “Timbuktu” by B E Turner, posted by Mark Perry

At The Café Irreal we are most interested in publishing work that plunges us into the Kafkan fantastic and which also seems to be engaged in a search for meaning. Because, over time, we have often found these tendencies in the work of New Zealand author B E Turner, he is one of our most-published authors. His work has made ten appearances in our webzine, and four of these have involved his short plays. Most recently, we published “Timbuktu,” a one-act play set in an irreal cafe. Here are the first four lines of “Timbuktu”:

 DINER: It’s irreal is it?

WAITER: Indeed so.

DINER: Is that Theatre of the Absurd?

WAITER: Worse.

I’ll talk more later about how Turner’s work compares with Theatre of the Absurd, but as part of this Year of Reading at the Irreal Café, I wanted to comment on his plays because, in addition to the presence of a search for meaning and philosophical depth, they are also very witty and engaging. But first, a little about how they exemplify a Kafkan sort of fantastic literature.

When GS Evans and I were putting together The Cafe Irreal, we came upon a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre that would eventually grace our home page. This same quote also inspired the name of our publication because this is where Sartre described the café topsy-turvy – a concept that is for us the essence of the irreal. In such a cafe the means, such as coffee cups and doors and even waiters, evade the human ends we assume they were designed for, or to give one of Sartre’s examples, something as utilitarian as a door might work very differently than expected: “It is there before us, with its hinges, latch and lock. It is carefully bolted, as if protecting some treasure. I manage, after several attempts, to procure a key; I open it, only to find that behind it is a wall.” But what is there about this particular door that makes it irreal and not simply an absurd obstacle?

Answers can be found in an article by Jo Bogaerts called “Challenging the Absurd? Sartre’s Article on Kafka and the Fantastic,” (which is available behind a paywall at In it Bogaerts shows that Sartre was determined to distinguish his own brand of existentialism from the absurdism of Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka was the “figurative ‘prism’” that allowed Sartre to challenge other versions of existentialism.

In Kafka’s work Sartre found what he called “le fantastique,” and though this was later misinterpreted as an attempt to link Kafka with writers of fantasy literature, Sartre actually dismissed the fantastic elements in the work of writers such as Edgar Alan Poe and Lewis Carroll as “mere trickery.” Instead, Sartre believed that the work of Poe and Carroll represented an attempt to escape the human condition, whereas Kafka’s work, rather than being escapist fantasy, represented a search for meaning.

Bogaerts elaborates on this Sartrean notion of the fantastic: “In our normal dealings with the world, matter is endowed with human signification and serves human purposes… In the fantastic universe, on the other hand, objects refuse to answer to this rigorous utilitarian logic and man can no longer project his proper possibilities in the world.” The relation between means and ends is thereby reversed, and as Sartre concluded in the quote we now know so well: “… if we have been able to give [the reader] the impression that we are talking about a world in which these absurd manifestations appear as normal behaviour, then he will find himself plunged all at once into the heart of the fantastic.”

The Three Short Plays by Brian E Turner (now B E Turner) that appeared in Issue 9 in 2004 all take place in a café setting and all show a keen understanding of the revolt of the means against the ends.

In “Get On with the Play” two actors, X and Y, ask their waiter, Francisco, for mixed drinks and Turkish Delight. They receive what the waiter assures them is appropriate fare for actors in a play: water, flat ginger ale, and an empty plate. Yet they can’t seem to resign themselves to the fact that they are simply means serving the ends of the audience’s enjoyment, rather than being ends in themselves.

In “Furtive Love” a young man, who changes his name frequently, shares a restaurant table with Captain Nemo. These characters also have ideas of their own about how the meal is supposed to transpire, yet they can’t order anything because the author has decided not to include a waiter in the cast of characters. This play also touches on our (admittedly often violated) dictum that irreal writers shouldn’t try to make us care about the characters they create. The young man says, “The problem is neither of us have characters, we don’t have a past, I don’t even know my own name. It can’t be a realistic play.” And in fact, it isn’t.

And finally in “A Cup of Tea” Hank asks Francisco the waiter about the tea that’s available. He learns that there’s also art on the premises — two mirrors covered by curtains. When Hank asks Francisco what he will see when he looks in the mirror, the waiter says, ” I do not know what you see. Certain philosophers will say that what we call reality is merely an illusion. Perhaps you should inspect the exhibits and make your own decision.” And, of course, the play offers itself up for the same kind of inspection.

Turner’s “The Comedy of Art” appeared in Issue #11, as well as in The Irreal Reader.  This short play draws its characters from the Commedia dell ‘Arte tradition. Again we find lots of wordplay, and there’s some commentary on the nature of art and realism from Magnifico, “[p]laywright, philosopher and master of illusion.”

In a short monologue, Magnifico says: “All who enter here be warned that the safe square of reality is to be clucked away by a poor chook. What you think of the play realistic may be extolled or may not according to the moderator’s whim whether or not he or she (as the case may be) is of unsound mind or otherwise inclined to be interpretative of games, play and other pastimes, whether cyclic or palliative. And what you may think of the play unrealistic is left to the opine of the adjudicator.” Here he is rephrasing, in an enjoyably euphuistic way, Francisco’s advice that “you should inspect the exhibits and make your own decision.”

Most recently, in Issue 68, we published “Timbuktu,” a short play that’s also set in a café which is of course topsy-turvy.  Turner seems to reflect Sartre’s description of what might happen in such a place.

DINER: … Have you written my order down exactly?

WAITER: Indeed sir.

DINER: I hear that this establishment sometimes fails to make correct notes and that on these occasions the diner fails to receive the correct menu.

WAITER: That is if the diner does not order the correct menu. I shall request the Chef to confirm. [Exit]

The wordplay in “Timbuktu” is gentle but lively, a regular feature of Turner’s work. Just a note, by the way, about the importance of wordplay and nonsense in the irreal: For one thing, you can find wordplay in a number of works that we consider to be irreal, especially Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, in which reality is undermined partly through the use of language. (Here I should also say that we disagree with Sartre’s assessment of Lewis Carroll’s work and do consider it to be irreal. And for an interesting perspective on Carroll, see “Slaying the Snark: what nonsense verse tells us about reality.”) In addition, we sometimes describe irreal works as evoking the dream state, and it’s important to remember that puns and nonsense can occur in our dreams.

And as always in Turner’s work, there is that subtle search for meaning as in the following short monologue :

CHEF: Within the psyche is the mind and within the mind are the two moieties, the real and the irreal, the left and the right. In the real we cling to the wreckage of safe certainty but in the irreal we enter the unsafe world of dreams, absurdities, impossibilities, the place where the accepted laws of nature and logic are broken. And why should we enter this realm which we are so reluctant to experience? Because it is the centre. It is the source of creation and the next step on the way we should all have the courage to follow. Enough. He has said his piece.

In Issue #61 we published a play by Turner that I would say is more absurdist than irreal. “Knitting” reminds me of Edward Albee plays such as The Sandbox or Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. In it we find the dark humor that is a feature of Albee’s and Beckett’s plays and the same disturbing conflict among people who seem to depend on one another. Jo Bogaerts notes that Sartre had the following to say about this literary approach: “But absurdity means the complete absence of ends. The absurd is the object of clear and distinct thought. It belongs to the right-side-up world, as the actual limit of human powers.” In an absurd universe everything, ultimately, is meaningless.

In “Knitting,” the repetitive dialog of invalid Bertha (“Knit two. Purl two.”) at first gives us the impression that this is a homey and easy-going situation. But Rose, despite her assertions that she takes care of Bertha, seems only to taunt her and offer her meals of cooked rodents. There is bleak humor here, and Bertha’s visitor Mr. Pottz also tends to repeat himself in a scattered sort of way (“…what he says he cannot tell. And what he tells he can’t always remember.”). Bogaerts says, “The complete absence of a goal in the absurd novel led to a picture of human activity as tedious and undifferentiated,” and in fact the repetitive dialog in “Knitting” contributes to a similar effect.

Despite the bleak humor in this play, we get the distinct impression that Bertha, Rose, and Mr. Pottz have given up on trying to understand their world. More importantly, unlike what happens in the irreal universe of Kafka, there is no transcendence in “Knitting” – means are not associated with ends, so there is no meaningful activity. Instead, we find an outcome as distressing as anything Nell and Nag experience in Endgame or the fate that comes to Grandma in The Sandbox – all are trapped in a hopeless stasis, waiting for the inevitable.

B E Turner has been active in community theatre as playwright, actor, and director for many years. Reading his plays is enjoyable and worthwhile, but they are of course meant to be performed onstage. You can see a video of one production of “Knitting” (in it Mr. Pottz is Mrs. Pottz). Note especially the knitting Bertha has been working on for five months, which looks like a misshapen multicolored patch of despair. You can also watch a dress rehearsal of “Timbuktu” and see for yourself what it’s like to be a patron at The Café Irreal.

Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe

[posted by Alice]

The Cafe Irreal in 1999

Yes, I know, The Cafe Irreal Coeditors have been ignoring this blog shamefully of late, but that’s about to change.

First off, a little history: In June of 1998, G.S. Evans and I uploaded what we called Issue 0 of The Cafe Irreal to the internet. That was a long time ago in internet years, and it’s worth noting that next year we will celebrate our twentieth anniversary of tending this small but influential webzine. Though Issue 0 itself no longer exists (it was basically a call for submissions), you can get a very good idea of what The Cafe Irreal looked like back then — built with all those awkward old HTML 4 tags, some animated gifs, and a boundless enthusiasm for the irreal — by going to this Second Issue page.

Now flash forward almost twenty years: We have a responsive HTML 5 site that uses more static graphics, but we still have boundless enthusiasm for the irreal. And that’s why, to celebrate our upcoming twentieth anniversary, we are launching our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe. It actually began on February 1 of this year (hey, I had to read something to comment on before I could make this announcement), and it will conclude on February 1 of next year when we present our twentieth anniversary issue. Look for commentary on collections of short fiction — and maybe some plays — by contributors to The Cafe Irreal, beginning on February 9 February 10, 2018.

Vaclav Havel’s Film, Odchazeni (Leaving)

(posted by Greg)

The film version of Vaclav Havel’s play Odchazeni (Leaving) – directed by Havel himself – premiered here in Prague a few weeks ago. I hadn’t had a chance to see the play, which Havel wrote in 2005 and which has been the only play he’s written since turning to politics in the wake of 1989. I was quite interested in seeing the film, in part because Havel’s political career, to the surprise of those who knew his earlier work, has taken such an “establishment” turn. He has not only fully backed the policies of the world’s sole superpower but, in addition, the politics of some of its most conservative, and powerful, political groupings (such as the neoconservatives). Thus, he fully backed the United States invasion of Iraq, the stationing of American soldiers and radars on the soil of the Czech Republic as a part of a Star Wars anti-missile system (and opposed the holding of a referendum on the issue), and has refused to condemn the American policies and practices in the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. How then, would this film, which was about the chancellor of an unnamed country leaving office, as Havel had just done, play out, given Havel’s continuing accommodation to the kind of establishment forces that he treated so ironically in his earlier plays? Curiously, in the play, no accommodation is made to these forces at all. It is in fact quite savage in its treatment of all the compromises and deceptions that one must make to keep one’s position in the world of establishment politics. Havel does this quite brilliantly, and the fact that he utilized the best traditions of Absurdist Theater and the Theater of the Grotesque to accomplish this goal was quite gratifying for an irrealist such as me.

But the film does raise the question as to whether Havel, who continues to this day to play the same political game (now in the role of the revered ex-President statesman, very similar to what the protagonist in Odchazeni, Chancellor Vilém Rieger,  was aiming for) that he so savagely condemns in the film, might not be a terribly conflicted person.

Some News from Prague

[posted by Greg]

Last week I had the good fortune to attend and read at one of the two book launch parties for the monumental anthology The Return Of Kral Majales: Prague’s Inter­national Literary Renaissance 1990-2010 (ed., Louis Armand, Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2010), whose 960 pages detail and present the literary and artistic activities of the English-language community in Prague — perhaps the most coherent, successful, and self-aware English-language expatriate community of the last fifty years. Both Alice and I have pieces in the anthology, and there are several translations originally published in The Cafe Irreal that are also included. In fact, the whole thing got me thinking about Prague, its influence on us, and our irreal project, and so that is something I will be writing on soon, and at length.

And, speaking of Prague and at least one of its influences on The Cafe Irreal, Franz Kafka, I finally made it to the Divadlo Komedie’s presentation of a stage version (in Czech) of The Trial. This play, which has been running since 2007 and won awards that year for best staging and best actor, made me think of something John Updike wrote some years ago when he first saw the film version of his novel Rabbit Run. He recalled how impressed he was with the quality of the film but he said that, even as he was watching it, he wondered why the filmmakers didn’t just drop the pretense of making a film from his book and make their own original film; it was obvious to him that having to fit the film into the strictures of his book had hurt the film, while at the same time the film completely failed to capture any particular aspect of his novel.

In the same way I was left wondering why the producers and director of Proces didn’t just write their own play about a guilt-ridden and socially estranged guy having to deal with an arbitrary process of judgment. If they had, I wouldn’t have entered the theater with expectations based on having read Kafka’s work and so wouldn’t have been so disappointed by what they had made of his novel; I might have even praised the play for having had a rather Kafkan theme. But of course they didn’t write their own play, they chose to essentially rewrite Kafka and then go out and print up a bunch of flyers that boasted about it being “The Trial by Franz Kafka.” And so I wasn’t expecting, as such devices were very much eschewed in Kafka’s work, the play’s use of the classic song “Stand by Me” to emphasize the loneliness of the characters (talk about giving us something we can comfortably anchor ourselves to!), the emotional outbursts of the tormented, and ultimately suicidal, Joseph K. (also called, in the play, “Mr. K”), or a periodic personal, first person narrative delivered by him (so much for the narrative distancing of the original).

And this brings up another point: if you add a lot of your own material, dialogue, and so on, as they did here, can you really put forth the play as being “by” Franz Kafka (even beyond the fact that Kafka wrote a novel, and not a play, called The Trial)?

A little while ago I wrote in a post that when we watch these various remakes of original material, we need to set aside our expectations of the original and just focus on the new version, rather as if it had sprung up out of nowhere. But quite frankly I’m getting tired of having to do this; perhaps the people doing these remakes should save us this trouble by eliminating the middle man. They’d have more artistic license and give us something new. And this, I would argue, is especially true for remakes of works that have strong irreal elements, as those elements are easily washed out once more standard dramatic devices are introduced.