Thinking Left-Handed (Der Linksdenker)

Valentin

He’s a spirit, but a Muenchner[1], nevertheless.

Alfred Polgar

That was a merry farewell to Berlin. Six weeks on the Panke[2], and one evening with Karl Valentin[3], the accounts balanced perfectly.

I got to the theatre late, it was already warm and full of laughter. It must have just started, but the audience was already as animated and amused as normally only after a good second act. On a podium on the stage, in the middle of the provincial band, sat a man with a wig. He looked just how one would perhaps imagine a provincial comedian. I stared at the scene, and couldn’t see anything funny about it. But the audience kept laughing, and the man hadn’t said anything. Then my gaze fell on someone in the first row whom I hadn’t noticed until then. And it was him. Tall, thin as a rake, with spindly, pointy Don Quixote legs, angular, sharp knees, and a little hole in the trousers of his worn, shiny suit. He rubbed insistently at the hole in his trousers. „That won’t help!“ said the band leader severely. „A drop of paraffin would sort it out straight away“, he mumbled. He said it quietly, very quietly, as is his way. He is gentle and vulnerable, and glistens in all the colours of the rainbow, like a soap bubble. If he were suddenly to burst, no one should be surprised.

„Ready!“ tapped out the band leader. One, two, three… Exactly one sixteenth of a beat before four, the thin horn player makes a severe sign to the band leader with his index finger, and says, “Me tie’s come loose!” Irritated, he stuffs it back in.

„Ready!“ One, two, three… Exactly the length of time which an eye needs to raise and lower its lashes before the band strikes up a blaring fanfare, and the tall fella gets up and has a little look around. The bandleader taps an interruption. What is it this time? „I had to cough“, says the tall fella. Pause. The band waits, but now he can’t any more: one, two, three – tatarata, and off we go!

And the most curious humour that we have seen on the stage for ages, begins: a danse macabre of reason around both poles of madness. He is a timid soul, this horn player, with his trade union magazine, pay scales, and weekly night out and gossip with his mates. He is defensive of the position he has achieved, and perhaps a little more than he deserves, and with an eye to his own advantage. „Play exactly as it is written“, says the bandleader, „not too much and not too little!” “It certainly won’t be too much!“ said the trade unionist.

Up on the stage, the curtains don’t want to open. „Someone go to the upholsterer“, said the bandleader, „straight away, and ask him if he wouldn’t mind coming, when he has time.” Someone goes, and the upholsterer seems to have time immediately, because he doesn’t mind crashing into the singer. He climbs onto the stage with a step-ladder, while the singer cries, „How I loved my life in those days“, and gets his tools out. He taps and hammers, and busies himself… Would you look at Valentin! There’s no holding him. What is it? What’s the problem? He has the curiosity of the simple folk. Still playing his fiddle, as is his duty, he leans forward, gets up on his chair, and stretches two necks, his own and that of his violin, gets back down, wanders through the band, up on to the stage, climbs the step-ladder behind the upholsterer, fiddles, and looks, works, and sees what there is there of interest. It’s an awful long time since I heard so much laughter in a theatre.

He thinks left-handed. Years ago, in a beer cellar in Munich, he once told the tale, „The day before yesterday I went to see the opera Lohengrin with my grandmother. Last night she dreamt the entire opera all over again. If I had known that beforehand, we needn’t have gone to the theatre in the first place!”

But this writer who earns a bit extra by moonlighting in the evening, suddenly becomes transparent, unearthly and subterranean, and begins to glow. Do those long legs still touch the earth?

The difficult problem of moving a kettledrum from one end of the stage to the other, arises. The task is assigned to Valentin. “I’m actually a horn player!“ he says. Horn players don’t move drums. But, oh, well… He wanders over. He can’t do it on his own, his colleague will have to help. And now the task descends into pure lunacy. „Bring the drum here!“ calls the bandleader impatiently. “Does it have to be straight away?” mumbles the colleague into his beard. The bandleader, “Bring the drum over here!” Valentin, „Anderl would like to know when.“ „Immediately!“ They circle the drum for a little while, until Anderl finally says that he must stand there, because he is left-handed. Left-handed? The drum, the bandleader and the performance are forgotten. Left-handed! And now, suddenly all Shakespearean, „You are a left-hander? You do everything with your left hand? Writing as well? Eating as well? Swallowing as well? Thinking?“ And then, triumphantly. „Anderl says he’s a left-hander!“ How earthly one is, how heavenly he is, how different, how separate, how distant! A fellow human being? More a sort of neighbouring human being.

I am sure that we interpret the philosophical bits into it ourselves, and that Valentin never had these theoretical thoughts himself. But show me another comedian who can be the vessel into which one can interpret such thoughts. One would never think it of Herr Westermeier. And now, as an encore, there is a sketch about coincidence, a to and fro of little, magical sparks, which are struck in a bizarrely constructed brain. He was walking down Unter den Linden with a friend, and they just happened to be talking about a cyclist, and what do you know? One came round the corner. Now that’s a coincidence. The bandleader goes mad, „That‘s not a coincidence, that’s nonsense. A thousand cyclists ride past there every day.“ „Well, yes“, he says, „but exactly one came!“ I can’t imagine how one comes up with something like that, writes it down and rehearses it. The comedy of unreal sentences raised exponentially, the monstrous deconstruction of the sentence, „I can see that he’s not there!“ (it is impossible to say what is revealed!) The calm stupidity of this joke, which is completely irrational and doesn’t contain the slightest trace of corrective common sense. In the meantime he drinks a beer, nibbles at something that he had in his pocket, thinks with his index finger, and enjoys a little private joke when the bandleader makes a mistake. A modest soul. When Hans Reimann once made a survey of what people would answer if a fairy gave them three wishes, Karl Valentin answered, „firstly permanent good health, and secondly a good doctor.“ A modest soul. And a great artist. As long as the Berlin agencies don’t get hold of him! The secret of this primitive ensemble is its powerful naivety. That’s just the way it is, and if you don’t like it, don’t look. God help us if it is reduced to duets and comical ditties! With these disgruntled, tormented, nervous directors and producers at rehearsals, who don’t listen, and always say no to everything first. With all the trappings of disagreeable Berlin sorts who claim to know what the audience, with whom they identify their own not very cheerful circle, with these overworked and mirthless characters, who can no longer laugh heartily about simple things, because it’s not original, wants. They themselves are certainly anything but original. Karl Valentin, on the other hand, is unique, because he is a rare, sad, subterranean, endlessly amusing comedian, who thinks left-handed.


[1] Someone from Munich

[2] Tributary of the Spree, the main river in Berlin

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