Despite the standing ovation, I cannot imagine I was alone in having mixed feelings about the play we had just experienced. My mind was a full cup of queasiness and a dollop of laughter stirred with hard questions as I boarded the stuffy school bus with a crowd of other Mennonite Church Canada Assembly folks for the trip back to Saskatoon.
The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz was written by Armin Wiebe and produced at the Station Arts Centre in Rosthern, Sask. The plot of the play, set in the tiny room of a prairie cabin, centres around an old-beat up piano, acquired along with a Russian Mennonite maestro to show the struggle of a two-year marriage that had yet to produce a progeny. An affair ensues when the young husband is caught in a snowstorm and stays the night “in town” and the maestro, suffering from the loss of a lover, Sonya, a violinist, becomes the illegitimate father.
At times, like when husband, Obrum Kehler, puts on his wife Susch’s skirt to alleviate the effects of an unfortunate use of poison ivy, laughter raised the roof. The language of inventive metaphor voiced in a mash-up of English, German, and Plautdietsch was hilarious, even to my unilingual ears. The eccentricities of the musician, Blatz, were brilliantly portrayed and the actor’s musical talent transformed the broken piano into a living character.
All of the humour did not quell my discomfort with the way the tangle of lies, betrayals, manipulation, and selfish grasping ended happily. The act of betrayal was loveless and extremely disconcerting to watch, perhaps a fitting portrayal of a horrible act. It was also, however, uncomfortably paired with humour, which simply felt wrong. Afterward, when Susch is pregnant, the incident is covered up as if “with a layer of new fallen snow.” The convenience of the child resembling his mother served to deliver a message that if you don’t get caught, any action is justifiable.
I needed to see stronger foreshadowing of consequences in the final scenes instead of the happy ending. Eventually that concealing blanket of snow will melt and expose the dirt beneath. What happens when the child grows and perhaps looks like Blatz? What if Susch’s friend, Teen, talks? How does the marriage survive the manipulation and betrayal? What will the child feel when he discovers his father is the oddball musician who leers at his mother?
When relational boundaries are crossed, there are always hard consequences, damaged relationships, and great need for redemption. In this play, the consequences are so soft they are almost missing and redemption is not even a concept.
The infidelity and the way the mentally ill Blatz is taken advantage of make The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz an unequivocal tragedy. A happy ending, with Obrum and Susch holding a baby, the neighbours oblivious, and Blatz promised a piano, a house, and perhaps another chance as a sperm donor, is discordant.
Many in the audience were left feeling off balance and unsure how to respond. The expected thing at the end of a performance is to clap, so we did, but I wasn’t ready for the standing ovation. I needed time to consider a response, but there was only time for reaction. I stood too, wanting to acknowledge the actors and not wanting to draw attention to my discomfort. It was awkward.
What redeemed the experience for me was the opportunity to debrief with a fellow pastor on the bus ride home. We named our conflicting reactions and talked about how there are many hidden secrets, dysfunctions, and sins among people in our congregations. Hidden desires, addictions, the pain of infertility, infidelity—all of these things happen among our people and hurt us through the generations. The important question is: how do we deal with them? How do we make spaces with each other for confession, forgiveness, and restoration? How do we help each other deal faithfully with longing, grief, and desire? I don’t think it is an accident that Susch’s name rhymes with hush. There is so much hidden in life that needs redemption.
I’m glad I went to The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz, because it bothered me enough to make me ask questions and it instigated deep conversation that helps me as a person and a pastor. Perhaps that is what art should do. Next time though, I won’t join the standing ovation. I need time to think so that instead of reacting, I can respond.
Playwright Armin Wiebe is also the author of three novels set in the fictional Mennonite town of Gutenthal, Manitoba: The Salvation of Yasch Siemens, Murder in Gutenthal, and The Second Coming of Yeeat Shpanst, as well as the award-winning novel Tatsea, set in the Canadian subarctic of the 1760s. For a dozen years he was an instructor of creative writing at Red River College. After spending six years in the Northwest Territories in 1980s, he now makes his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba.