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What can language do? This is the question that Jesi Bender seems to wrestle with in her new drama Kinderkrankenhaus. Situated in a peculiar children’s hospital, the play revolves around the Kinderkrankenhaus’ newest patient, Gnome. Like the other children in the hospital, Gnome has no pronouns and is suffering from the same condition, or is it an accusation, of not thinking nor communicating in the socially accepted way. For in the Kinderkrankenhaus, normality is the only cure, and it is to be measured out by the systemic comprehension of language and ingested through its socially prescribed meanings. As figures of social normality, Gnome’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Liebschutz, and Dr. Schmettetling are the only characters to be given gendered pronouns. Under the scrutiny of Dr. Schmetterling, Gnome must come to terms with the vague diagnosis of being abnormal. For in the Kinderkrankenhaus, normality is the only cure, and it is to be measured out by the systemic comprehension of language and ingested through its socially prescribed meanings.
The play plugs into Gnome’s arrested development as a way of deconstructing the standardisation of intelligence and of exploring alternative ways of expressions. The effect of this is a fractured narrative, which Bender attempts to build out into a formal failure of language, and in doing so tries to reveal the faults and limits of representation itself.
Through the relationship of Gnome and his fellow patient, Cinders, the play explores how much of language reaches down into personal experiences. As Cinders remarks, “We live in a very narrow language. Names are everywhere. But meaning is mall-able.” It is a comment that, if fully fleshed out, could have been an interesting lean into the philosophy of Wittgenstein’s language games. Wittgenstein’s concept deconstructed the word game to show how it has no real meaning and that words are subjective and, therefore, not the objects to which they correspond; rather, the meaning of words is in the use that they are made of in what he referred to as the “stream of life.”
Cinders touches on this concept by teaching Gnome a couple of different words in French and German. Gnome is asked to listen to the words without their meaning and “to tell [her] what sounds prettier – ich liebe dich or j’taime,” seemingly to demonstrate how quickly language, even without its formal meaning, can pull emotions into a reality. The threads of these ideas are started, but because this is a play where ideas are quick to jump in and out, it is hard to weave it into anything more substantial. Indeed, the point is rather cliched when viewed through a comparative lens of German and French. Inevitably, Gnome chooses French as the prettier language. To have strengthened the argument on the importance of having diversities in understanding, Bender could have done well to have stepped away from the cultural stereotypes of the harsh German and the nice-sounding French.
There is a playfulness in the play’s deconstruction of the preconceived notions of language. The work cheekily trips the reader up into attaching pronouns to the characters, which aside from the gendered Dr. Schmetterling and Gnome’s parents, are only ever referred to by their ambiguous names. It is a subtle and clever way of showing how false, preconceived assumptions can create a mirage of language, a distortion of identity. Our eyes are also toyed with through homophones. Initially, it feels like we are being let in on the joke, but the humour quickly dissipates into a much wider, worldly consideration of how what is heard doesn’t necessarily correlate the same meaning to what is seen. Or perhaps the less poetic approach is to underline the elasticity of grammar and spelling, in that if one can comprehend what is going on, regardless of the rules, then is it necessary or indeed truly effective to measure intelligence by something that Bender seems to consider as arbitrary as the standardisation of language?
The point is also hashed out in the play through the way the children, in particular Nix and the Shadow, repeat a word that has been uttered and then flesh it out into various phonetic spellings. An example of this is when Nix hears Cinders say malleable and walks away repeating, “Malleable. Male-he-able. Mmm-ale-e-al. Mallet. Malicious.” It could be inferred that, spoken in this hypnotic-induced trance, Nix’s constant repetition is rendering reality meaningless and unreadable, interrupting the narrative and blurring and jumbling its very existence. Yet instead of inviting speculation, the work leans on the crutch of hyperbole. Whereby Nix’s whimsical entries into the text to constantly repeat various words seem so overly insistent on making a point that they become more of a tedious distraction.
Indeed, part of this reader’s fatigue arises from tripping over the various spelling and grammatical mistakes littered throughout. These seem to be genuine errors, rather than stylistic flair, clogging rather than freeing up the narrative, like the “shed skins of different snakes.” But perhaps that is the point, intentional or not, that we shouldn’t focus on the rules of language but instead apply ourselves to excavating the infinite meanings that can be derived from words. Needless to say, the piece could have done with at least one vigorous edit to sharpen up what at times is a lacklustre interrogation of language.
Stylistically, Bender is innovative in coupling the play’s exploration with the aesthetics of the drama’s format. The opening scene of Gnome’s parental abandonment at the hospital begins much like a script, before the narrative slowly unravels to include elements of poetry and prose. The structure of the piece works like the story itself: As Gnome delves more and more into rethinking language, the text itself starts to reconsider what exactly can be defined as a script. In doing so, Kinderkrankenhaus sets itself up in conversation with the historical and innovative form of closet dramas. Originally created by people who were barred from participating in theatre because they didn’t fit its status quo, closet dramas don’t necessarily have to be performed in any traditional sense but function and read as pieces of literature. By engaging with this concept, Bender demonstrates how difference can flourish outside of the systems of the status quo.
However, Bender does not quite push experiments in the form far enough, and the overall approach is hesitant in its attempt to overcome formal limitations. The main reason for this is that, although the script incorporates different styles of writing, it seems less consideration has been given to the overall presentation of the pages. Where are the variety of type fonts, the playful uses of text sizing, or the sentences that contour down and across the pages? Instead of a narrative that is uplifted through eclectic typography, we are left searching for a break within the claustrophobia of pages that are pulled down with competing styles.
It is through the pragmatic Dr. Schmetterling, representative of social norms, being broken down by Gnome’s questioning of these social values that the play ultimately seeks to undermine the assumed etiquette of communication. Through Gnome’s needling of Dr. Schmetterling – “You know if I say this then it is true. This or it – which is true?” – Bender tests the limits of how language is regulated with the ambition of destabilising the social systems that hold language together. The effect of this sets up the turning point in the play when Cinders urges Gnome to “move beyond the actual words.” It is then that the children rebel against how Dr. Schmetterling – aka society at large – defines them and launch themselves into a space of nonmeaning. The theory Bender proposes is that away from social labels, we can find the freedom to create our own language, to define ourselves.
However, I believe this is more of a conundrum than a liberation. The failure of language is that it enforces an essentialism of identity, like being called black or white, or there being a binary of gender. Language fails because it tries to bolt a fixed identity to the floor. Language fails because it cannot contain all of the experiences that, with every second, alter a person. There is no such thing as an essential identity. Thus identity is a falsehood that binds us when we allow it to imprison us, but equally it remains a lie when we think we’re free to choose our identities at will.
By Jesi Bender
Sagging Meniscus Press, 74 pages
About Jess Cole
Jess Cole began her writing career as journalist writing for publications such as The Guardian, The New York Times, I-D and Vogue. In more recent years, Jess has expanded her practice to include poetry, prose and drama.