Jelinek’s Sports Play as Satirical Polemic

Cyrus Lane*


Elfriede Jelinek’s Sports Play is widely accepted within the canon of postdramatic works, as defined by Hans-Thies Lehmann. It has no dramatic plot, and its sprawling speeches are assigned to choruses, both group and individual, rather than differentiated characters. At 121 pages of non-dramatic non-narrative text, the sheer volume of words and number of speakers has led scholars to see the play as presenting a wide range of conflicting perspectives on the theme of sports. Karen Jürs-Munby even views the play as a version of the ancient Greek notion of agon, in which differing points of view are allowed to compete, thus engaging in the conflict inherent in democracy, without the violence of antagonism. This essay refutes that point of view, however, and approaches the play from an angle suggested by Jelinek herself. Having described her writing for the theatre as both polemical and satirical, this essay argues that Sports Play is a satirical polemic that argues a single point of view, which can be roughly summed up as, “sports are destructive.” Linguistic satire supports this polemic by comically undercutting and disallowing the opposing point of view. Jelinek’s anti-violence text is then, ironically, best understood through its combative generic categories. Sports Play’s language, along with Jelinek’s transgressive presence within and outside the text attack and undermine sport and its attendant ideologies, while its chorality gives the play the semblance of agon and plurality of perspectives where none exists.

Keywords: Elfriede Jelinek, postdramatic theatre, violence, agon, Sports Play

In her 1998 theatre text Sports Play, Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek has the speaker Man say, “Apparently I can’t persuade you to the opposite point of view” (71). With this line, Jelinek sends up her own text, in which her refusal to change her point of view is the defining structural element. Rather than viewing Sports Play as agonal, like Karen Jürs-Munby (“Agon”) or as containing a wide cross-section of conflicting perspectives, I propose that Sports Play is an example of what Lehmann calls the “‘monologization of dialogue’ in drama,” where a text is built around the “excessive consensus of the speakers” and “figures talk not so much at cross-purposes but rather in the same direction” (129). So, in which direction are the figures in Sports Play talking? And how does the piece give the impression of arguing multiple points of view, when, in fact, the play’s language is all working to prove a single point? How does consensus look like dissensus?

Elfriede Jelinek. Photo: Web/Wikipedia. Accessed 6 April 2022

Taking my cue from Jelinek’s statements that her work is in the Austrian-Jewish satirical tradition following her predecessor Karl Kraus (Pizer 500), that she works in a “polemical, satiric, exaggerated manner” (Scheffer 30) and that her plays, specifically, are “essays” (Honegger, “Trümmerfrau” 29), I am viewing Sports Play through the lenses of polemics and satire to understand both the play’s structure and the way its choral figures and language give the impression of a plurality of perspectives. Importantly, polemic and satire are both grounded in the idea of an attack on a particular aspect of society. With its root in the ancient Greek word for war, polemos, a polemic is “an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another” (“Polemic”). The definition of satire Scheffer applies to Jelinek’s writing is “aesthetically socialized aggression,” in which “two things are essential . . . one is wit or humour, the other an object of attack” (Frye qtd. in Scheffer 4). The tools of satire are found at play on every page of Sports Play: “parody, irony . . . grotesque, or word games” (Scheffler 4).  As both categories contain the notion of attack, one might see the polemical lens as redundant and only view Sports Play as satire, since the category employs both attack and humour. But I maintain that the overall structure of the text is polemical and that all of its parts fight to prove Jelinek’s argument that sports are socio-culturally destructive, with its linguistic satire working to undermine opposing points of view.

Putting the terms together, then, I propose that Sports Play is a satirical polemic and that, ironically, Jelinek’s anti-violence play is best understood through its combative generic categories. Sports Play’s satirical language, along with Jelinek’s use of autofictional masks attack and undermine sport and its attendant ideologies, while its chorality gives the play the semblance of agon and plurality of perspective where none exists.

In order to understand how Jelinek’s text functions, it’s useful to first pry apart its polemical and satirical elements and examine them separately, before demonstrating how they work in concert.

Polemic and the Semblance of Agon

As a polemic, all the elements of the play work to prove a single point. Arguably, that point could fit into the nutshell statement: “Sports are destructive.” Evidence of this point of view is not difficult to come by. Describing the ideological link between sports and broader societal violence, Jelinek is quoted as saying there is “an essentially violent and fascist politics of the body in the everyday and seemingly harmless cultural phenomenon of sports” (Fleig 1991). Elsewhere she calls sports “the organized form of supreme banality” (1992). In her foreword to Penny Black’s English translation, Jürs-Munby sums up Jelinek’s views of sports as found in Sports Play, saying the text is

Jelinek’s most systematic treatment of . . . sports as a mass phenomenon, especially the drives and mechanisms that turn individuals into uniformly behaving crowds with a potential for violence . . . Rather than regarding sports as a civilising force, she presents it as an “embodiment of war in peacetime” . . . Sports Play is furthermore concerned with the cult around the body and around sports personalities in the mass media . . . For her, the daily consumption of sports personality gossip contributes to dangerous popular sentiments and underpins a sense of national identity and xenophobia. . . .


In short, when she wrote the play, Jelinek saw no good in sports. She speaks to this blind spot in a 2012 interview with Simon Stephens: “At the time, I did not realise that football, for example, can also play an incredible political role (and a peacemaking role—as much as football can cause war, it can also cause peace; football is a kind of Geiger counter of civilisation, or rather a moment of acceleration, a catalyst), in a good way as well as a bad” (Jelinek and Stephens 15). Having entertained a positive political element to sports, Jelinek then elaborates on what she calls the “psychoanalytical component,” saying “I see sports as everything: transfer, counter-transfer, yes, also catharsis, as in Greek tragedy. When I wrote the play, I still underestimated this” (15). So, clearly, by the 2012 Just A Must Theatre production of Sports Play in London and her interview with Stephens, Jelinek’s views had expanded to allow that sports might have an up-side. However, this more balanced view is nowhere to be found in the text, first published in 1998. Sports are given no footing, allowed no value; any argument in their defense is utterly undermined. And yet, the play seems to give equal strength to arguments both for and against sports, with Jürs-Munby going so far as to describe the text as a “reworking of agon” (“Agon” 11). This widely encompassing ancient Greek notion refers to a democratically healthy place, arena, assembly, action, struggle or contest that “removes the violent and destructive aspects from the antagonistic and transfers the enemy-other into the adversary-other” (Mouffe et al. 971). Vital to agon, then, is the idea of adversaries, opponents of comparable force engaged in competition that affirms and bolsters the democratic project. Elsewhere, Mouffe explains the difference between agonism and antagonism. She writes:

While in an antagonistic type of political relation the conflicting parties perceive their opponents as “enemies” to be destroyed, in the agonistic one they treat them as “adversaries,” i.e. they recognize the legitimacy of the claims of their opponents.

Mouffe and Martin 211; my emphasis

But in seeing sports as purely destructive, Jelinek delegitimizes the claims of her opponents and the ideologies embedded in sporting and fitness culture. Rather than allowing for agon in which the positive and negative aspects of sports are allowed to do battle, Sports Play is a polemic against sports. Jelinek tells Stephens that she lets “ideas and ideologies compete against each other” (Jelinek and Stephens 18). But, to use a sporting metaphor, the fight is fixed.  

Video from 1998 premiere directed by Einar Schleef at the Burgtheater in Vienna. Accessed 5 April 2022
Language Surfaces and the Politics of Quantity

A discussion of Jelinek’s polemic has to begin with her central preoccupation: language (Jelinek and Stephens). Like Karl Kraus, the object of her satire is “the language that mediates the event” as much as the event itself (Linden 521). A great deal of critical attention has been paid to how Jelinek’s self-described “‘Sprachflächen’ (surfaces or planes of language)” (Jürs-Munby, “Resistant” 46) function in terms of their “quotation without quotation marks” (Linden 523) and intertextuality, but there is very little attention paid to the larger elephant in the room: the sheer quantity of text. Jelinek has said “you can’t simply say that my plays are a kind of prose since they don’t narrate anything. They talk” (Jelinek and Stephens 16). Just how much they talk is, without question, one of the first things a reader of the play grapples with. At 121 pages, Sports Play is an overwhelming quantity of non-narrative non-dramatic text; “Talking talking talking talking,” Woman says on page 111, “not one night can the woman separate herself from talking” (Jelinek, Sports Play 111). But while Jelinek glibly satirizes her own verbal bombardment, it is not glibly undertaken; it is inseparable from her polemical goals. Stalin said, “Quantity has a quality all its own”; in Sports Play, quantity has a meaning all its own. That meaning is inextricably tied to Jelinek’s feminist politics and the traditional position of women in Western society.

Silence, Jelinek insists, is the culturally specified domain of woman; should a woman nevertheless choose to speak—in writing or out loud—every word she utters or writes will bring with it disorientation or even violence. In an interview, Jelinek says: “Even writing is violent act for a woman, because the female subject is not a speaking one . . . In order to speak, a woman must borrow a male subject, which she herself can never be.” . . . In her texts, she uses language as a weapon”.

Scheffler 28

The polemic of Sports Play is profoundly understandable when viewed in the context of Jelinek’s position as a subject who has endured continuous public attacks and attempted silencings. One attack in the widely read right-wing Austrian newspaper Die Kronenzeitung, for instance, came in the form of this poem by Wolf Martin: “Once again, Ms. Jelinek/ in one of her pieces/ throws dirt on Austria. But because she is too cowardly/ this rubbish is only seen abroad/ if character were an article of clothing/ she’d be running around Austria naked” (qtd. in Scheffler 21). In an extended interview with Gita Honegger, “I am a Trümmerfrau,” Jelinek describes herself as being “executed” (22), “clobbered” (22) and “pilloried (26)” by the press, quoting German journalist Henryk M. Broder’s comments after her 2004 Nobel Prize win: “what did Broder call me—a schmuck—a schmuck of the month. That means asshole” (34). As the subject of right-wing polemics aimed to shame and silence her, the tens of thousands of words in Sports Play, meant to be spoken in public to the public, are the opposite of silence. Talking and talking and talking through her theatrical writing is Jelinek’s Olympian-level refusal to be silenced. At the end of the play, the autofictional speaker The Author/Efli Elektra says, “They have wanted to silence me for some time now, but what I still want is for everyone to listen” (Jelinek, Sports Play 160). Jelinek decides when the hush comes, when there’s to be no more talking. Until she decides, she blanket bombs her target with language, using and subverting the target’s language on itself.

Choral Figures and Satirical Language

But to a casual reader (if Jelinek has such a thing), the text’s polemic singularity of purpose—demonstrating that sports and its attendant ideologies are destructive—might not seem apparent. The text seems to represent the full spectrum of positions on the theme of sports. This brings us back to Lehmann’s notion that in postdramatic polyphony there may be many speakers, but they are in talking in the same direction. Any sense of plurality of perspective (or competing perspectives) is an illusion brought on by Jelinek’s use of choruses.  In the text’s first stage direction, theatre makers or readers are instructed to keep “the Greek Choruses, as individual, or en masse . . . The Chorus, if possible, should all be the same, all Adidas or Nike or whatever they are called, Reebok, Puma, or Fila or so” (Jelinek, Sports Play 39). As Lehmann says, “it hardly takes any directorial effort to make the audience associate choruses on stage with masses of people in reality (of class, the people, the collective)” (130), so Jelinek’s chorus instantly tells the story of sports as a mass phenomenon, of individuality thwarted or subsumed by a collective drive. Even if some figures are named in the text (Elfi Elektra, Andi, Hector, Achilles), only Elfi Elektra’s name is ever spoken onstage, so, for audiences, the figures remain deindividuated in identical corporate branding. To appropriate some social media slang, as Jelinek might, they look like corporatized “sheeple.” But her caveat—“as individual, or en masse”—indicates that all the figures onstage are choral (39). None represent individuals but are rather what Revermann calls “conceptually choral,” in that they “transcend the individual and particular and . . . move towards highlighting the typical, the situational, and the societal conditions under which characters act and make decisions in the first place” (153; my emphasis). The societal conditions in question in Sports Play are ideological and these figures (Victim, Perpetrator, Man, Woman, etc.) are “text bearers” (Barnett 18), presenting language surfaces from a range of ideological perspectives, all of which are satirically subsumed into Jelinek’s polemical goal.

In the choral figures representing the dominant pro-sports ideology, we especially see how every aspect of Jelinek’s text serves her polemic. Staying with his theory of Brechtian chorality, the pro-sports-mob-joining-war figures in the text (Man, Young Man, Young Sportsman, Achilles, Hector, First, Second, Other) are what Revermann calls “negative inversions” (168) of classical Greek figures and choruses. They represent the worst of society. In their inversion of classical ideals, “collective wisdom becomes collective ignorance, stupidity, and viciousness; the survival of the chorus . . . turns into the demise of the chorus” (168).

Like Brecht’s chorus in Revermann’s taxonomy, Jelinek’s chorus sets up societal norms, ideologies, and power structures, only to knock them down as “hollow…and ridiculous” (168). And just as Brecht’s did, Jelinek’s inversions weaken her opponents’ position to strengthen her own; the parodic enforces the polemic. If the choral figures (or groups) in Sports Play even once embodied and gave voice to a perspective that allowed audiences to engage with positive aspects of sport—the thrill of virtuosity, the engagement with a community, the fun, the healthy adversity—they would experience the agon of the sports-positive viewpoint in equal combat with the anti-sports position. But in making these figures mouthpieces for self-defeating satirical language, Jelinek makes them strawmen that push themselves over in service of her polemic.

Invisible Ideologies Made Discernable

How does this linguistic satire function? Jelinek uses “parody, irony . . . grotesque or word games” (Scheffler 4), along with Hohn, an Austrian term encapsulating scorn, sarcasm, and derision (Honegger, “Trümmerfrau” 24), in a process of making invisible ideologies discernable. “She exposes and subverts the ideological underpinning of the concept of ‘reality’ through irony and exaggeration. The sentence is at the same time nonsense and sense: ‘reality’ must be distorted/disfigured, Jelinek writes, in order to become discernable, in other words, to become ‘real’” (Scheffler 30). And though, like Kraus, Jelinek’s linguistic satire does not pursue a “corrective aim” (Hutcheon qtd. in Linden 521), by rendering these accepted, invisible ideologies discernable, she forcefully exposes them to critique and questioning. Visibility is, after all, the enemy of ideology. Take for example the following fragment of the Chorus (which is, incidentally, the only moment a named Chorus speaks in the play). The Chorus’ text comes from the dominant side and rebukes the speaker Woman who is mourning the loss of her son to sport:

I can show you someone who wasn’t nourished by a dark womb or motherly night: magnificent, a bright blonde child, a goddess could not have given birth to better: Franz Linser, the counterpoint to the EU-commissioner Franz Fischler. What do people say about him? He is slim and well-toned and what’s more, an idealist, whereas Fischler could be thought of as a bureaucratic prototype. Or here, further on: Gail Pallas Athena Devers . . . So, this body has been formed, now it only has to submit to the sauna and be skinned. How do you make it clear to a young man that he has to go to war if he’s not done any sport before?

Jelinek, Sports Play 51

This excerpt sharply illustrates how satire serves Jelinek’s polemic. It “is a dense texture of appropriations from multiple sources in unexpected, quickly changing combinations, which makes it nearly impossible to follow in a linear fashion” (Honegger, “Staging” 291). But linearity is not how Jelinek’s satire works. Her play is, as Anne Fleig so aptly describes it, a vast intertextual “collage of sound and text” (1991), with seemingly bottomless bits, scraps, clips, and quotes of linguistic satire filling the massive canvas of her polemic—“Sports are destructive.” If Jelinek’s satirical collage was made physical, the small quote above would be about the size of a postage stamp and yet it is, nevertheless, astonishing in its range of targets and its satirical density (for me, it required seven Google searches).

Jelinek begins with a parody of Franz Linser, an Austrian ski coach, doctor of sports science, masseur, entrepreneur and politician who represented the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria in the European Parliament in the late 1990s. Jelinek makes a grotesque of Linser by assigning him a Christ-like virgin birth, then describes him as magnificent and blonde, words drawing quick associations with the Nazi party’s efforts to foster a so-called Master Race. This is followed by a comic false equivalency drawn between physical fitness and idealism. She then says Linser is “counter point” to Franz Fischler, another Austrian politician, but this time from the Christian-democratic Austrian People’s Party. She roasts Fischler by calling him a “bureaucratic prototype,” with prototype implying that he’s not only robotic (or a weapon), but also the model from which all other bland bureaucrats were fashioned (Jelinek, Sports Play 51).

In the next line, “Or here, further on: Gail Pallas Athena Devers,” Jelinek hybridizes the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare, Athena, with Gail Devers, the multi-gold medal winning American Olympic track and field star. This hybridization is stunningly condensed satire. In four words, Jelinek comments on the tendency to treat athletes like gods and sport like religion, while hinting that service of the god of war is the endgame of athletics (Jelinek, Sports Play 51). (This does not even take into account the bottomless referential depth of Athena alone.)

Skipping ahead, the fragment ends on several of what Jelinek calls höhnischer jokes–bitter jokes (Honegger, “Trümmerfrau” 24). The first grimly suggests that the final step of developing your body is to have a nice sauna before offering it up to the state to be skinned. This leads in a surprisingly linear fashion into the next bitter joke, “How do you make it clear to a young man that he has to go to war if he’s not done any sport before?” which is one of the text’s many sour refigurings of Jelinek’s main argument (Jelinek, Sports Play 51). Line after line, Jelinek employs the tools of satire to undermine the ideologies running through sport and war by distorting them and making them discernable, laughable. The dominant choral figures speak their own diminishment.

Much of these dominant figures’ language is delivered while kicking the choral figure Victim. This figure is first described as a dehumanized “person-bundle” (Jelinek, Sports Play 45), getting pummeled by Young Sportsman and Woman early in the text. Later, when Victim speaks, their language surfaces are usually preceded by a stage direction such as, “Whilst being hurled around and kicked, is still doing banal everyday tasks, like dusting and putting away, tidying up etc.” (78). “Banal” is the keyword here, as Victim’s near non-response to being beaten is a dark physical spoof on the banality of the violence attached to sporting ideologies. Victim hardly notices they’re being kicked; the perpetrators hardly notice they’re kicking. As a choral text-bearer, Victim (be they an individual or a group) aids Jelinek’s polemic by linguistically mirroring the physical satire of simply “taking” the beatings. They do not fight back verbally; they talk and talk about violence, sport, teams and murder, but from a position of passive acceptance. In one instance, Victim is being kicked to death while reasonably addressing their murderer: “Before you kill me off for good, may I offer you the maxim that you can only exist and act as a team? . . . Did you fulfill a childhood dream by entering this group, a dream that even today has not lost its fascination?” (78). Before Victim is effectively silenced for the final third of the piece, they speak directly to the unconscious banality of sports-adjacent violence and say, “You cannot reconcile self-interest with this deed, but you can carry out what you’re doing to me in a climate of normality . . . Let’s all party!” (116). Where other choral figures’ language makes unseen ideologies visible, Victim makes the not-seeing itself visible.

Autofictional Masks

In giving voice to language opposing sporting/warring ideology, Jelinek also presents a variety of choral speakers that are autofictional masks (Fleig 1994). Speaking text that purports to be both fictional and autobiographical (Gronemann 241), Woman, Elfi Elektra, The Author, and Madam Author seem to read as Jelinek’s own voice (Jürs-Munby, “Resistant” 46). Yet each is a Jelinek/not-Jelinek linguistic mask speaking in service of her polemic; in these masks she is both absent and present, ‘real’ and fictional (Fleig 1999). Unlike Kraus, who included the autofictional Nörgler (the Grumbler) in his anti-war satire Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind) in order to make his satire one “in whose clutches nobody is absolved” and therefore “absolute” (Linden 530), Jelinek embraces satirical impurity and mobilizes these autofictional masks against sports and sporting ideology, while exploiting public views of herself to wrest control of language aimed at her and redirecting it to suit her polemic.

Karl Kraus, the Austrian satirist. Photo: Web/Wikipedia. Accessed 3 April 2022

The first autofictional mask we meet is a mash-up of Jelinek’s childhood nickname and Sophocles’ Elektra, Elfi Elektra (Fleig 1995). It is instantly noticeable that, unlike the negatively inverted figures representing the dominant point of view, the satire from this choral figure is not directed back at the speaker’s point of view but is directed out at the dominant ideology. In other words, Elfi Elektra’s language does not undermine Jelinek’s polemic. The joke is still on them. Nearly paraphrasing Jelinek’s own statement on sports and violence—“what causes me fear (and this is perhaps a kind of obsession) is the way the masses get charged up through sports events, something that at some stage gets out of control” (Jelinek and Stephens 14)—Elfi Elektra plainly states the play’s central argument on the first page: “Meanwhile and for a while the behaviour of the masses is drawing my attention. So many people with personal drive. Then, all at once, as if the stroke of an invisible clock had smashed something in their skulls and reset them to an imaginary time, they are all ticking to the same beat. They grab their sports equipment and thrash each other . . .” (Jelinek, Sports Play 40). Here, the speaker partitions themself from the masses and sets themself up as the source of the polemic to come. Their satire is obviously directed against their target: the brain-washed masses are mechanized, turning them into synchronized clocks, who turn into violent drones with sports equipment.

 A few pages later, the central argument is restated in another höhnischer joke: “Nothing but sport and sport and sport on our minds! . . . But we don’t need to criticize anyone anymore, because these sportsmen and women coming on stage, heavens, are a triumph of will and beauty” (Jelinek, Sports Play 43). Again, the satire is directed away from the speaker and at the play’s target. The “nothing but sport . . . on our minds!” implies sport to the exclusion of all else, a total ideological success (43). Evidencing the extreme satirical density found on every page, the speaker then says that they can stop criticizing Austrian culture because the athletes coming on stage are “a triumph of the will,” quoting the title of Leni Riefenstahl’s iconic 1935 Nazi propaganda film and coupling sports and beauty ideals with fascism. Unfailingly, when these autofictional figures speak, their linguistic satire is directed outward, not back at themselves, and the position they represent is undiminished by it. They assert the polemic in positive terms; the dominant speakers assert the polemic through negation of its opposite.

Nazi propaganda poster: the ideal Nazi subject, a repeated satirical motif in Sports Play. Photo: Web

Jelinek also employs these masks in a form of satirical prolepsis—“the pre-emption of an opponent’s objections by answering them before they can be made” (Childers and Hentzi). By mocking herself via her autofictional speakers, she neutralizes her opponent’s attacks. In the Stephens interview, she admits, “I am a sort of justice fanatic and I always have to give voice to those who get a raw deal” (Jelinek and Stephens 15). In 2020s parlance, Jelinek is a Social Justice Warrior. Co-opting this easy dismissal of her character and arguments, about 20 pages into Sports Play, Jelinek has Woman says,

One moment! Quiet please! Today it’s my turn to totally condemn the killers. I’m ready at any time to ban them and boo them. I always turn my light towards them because I’m a lighthouse and pleasantly pass on each beam of light, but of course I’m the one who actually sees the most. I suffer terribly under that which is happening all the time!


Jelinek satirizes herself through Woman as a “virtue signaller” more than a decade before the term’s coinage. But rather than deflating her polemic, it disarms her critics and wittily humanizes her; it is yet another mode of wresting power.

But the most complex autofictional mask is Madam Author, a choral figure who is derided by multiple speakers for her criticism of sport and, more generally, Austria. And like the actual attacks on Jelinek herself, they are vicious, misogynistic and committed to silencing Madam Author. The Victim says, “Haha, the stupid cow thinks she’s a queen just because she’d cut off her breasts in order to get a headline . . . There are so many upright people in this country who don’t give any cause to be talked about. So why does she, non-stop? . . . Unwomanly, excuse me, unnatural, a stranger to the rest of humanity….” (Jelinek, Sports Play 66). In a nearly identical vein, Sportsman says, “Can’t you just be quiet for once? Out of you gushes repetitively a law, like some sort of endless puke sausage, without interruption, it’s tedious . . . Unfeminine! So unnatural, you stupid old cow! Alien to the rest of the human race!” (106).

In paraphrasing and giving voice to her detractors and offering up an autofictional effigy for burning, Jelinek appears to be mounting a vociferous counterattack to not only her polemic but also to her public persona and work in general. But who is embodying Madam Author onstage during these tirades against her? Who is physically taking this abuse? No one. Jelinek gives no indication that Madam Author is an embodied stage figure at all. The figures are, therefore, attacking their own absent but omniscient-in-the-play-world creator. They are linguistically swinging at vapour. By appropriating the words of her detractors and recontextualizing them within her own polemic, Jelinek simultaneously casts herself as victim and dominator, silenced woman and defiant talker; or as Anne Fleig describes it, a “process of simultaneous empowerment and disempowerment” (1997). But where her real-life detractors attacked Jelinek from above in Austria’s power structure, in her play, she is looking down into the world she created, and they are squeaking up at her from within it. She is Gulliver among the Lilliputians. What seems to be the agon of presenting language that undermines her position is nullified because Jelinek reminds us that she is literally putting the words in her detractors’ mouths.

Intractable Polemic

Despite breezy stage directions such as “Do what you like” (Jelinek, Sports Play 39) or “This is just one possibility among many, any of them is fine by me” (46), Jürs-Munby is correct in her observation that “Unlike much postdramatic theatre, Jelinek does not seem to put an end to the ‘primacy of the text’” (“Resistant” 47). Jelinek’s text is slyly, decidedly dominant. If viewed simply as a flood of language around the theme of sports, it would be easy to see the text as so much verbal Play-Doh for directors to shape however they saw fit. Jelinek herself has said that, “A play is never the product of the author, it is at most half, if at all, his or her work. In only comes into being through collaborative teamwork” (Jelinek and Stephens 16).

But Jelinek’s text is not just “resistant” because it lacks “a dramatic plot, psychological characters and…the form of a dialogue” (Jürs-Munby, “Resistant” 46). It is resistant because no matter what you do to it, it does the same thing. It is completely intractable and singular in its polemic. And unlike a linear argument which can be dismantled by interrupting or changing the order of its points, Jelinek’s polemic functions regardless of the order it is experienced in. A continued study of Jelinek’s polemic and the way satire supports it would necessarily include the text’s stage directions and her use of slaptick, mimicry and physical grotesques. It would also have to consider a secondary function of her language; namely, its tendency to “make the familiar strange (Verfremdung)” (Barnett 17) which, like satire, distorts ideology in order to make it discernable.


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*Cyrus Lane is a professional actor with over 23 years of experience. In his six seasons at the Stratford Festival of Canada, his roles included leads in As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and Possible Worlds, along with appearances in Macbeth, Peter Pan, and The Changeling. He also works regularly in Toronto theatre and plays Rupert Newsome on CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries. As a writer, he is currently completing a playwriting commission from Talk is Free Theatre. An MA student in Theatre at the University of Ottawa, Cyrus will be publishing a chapter in Kathryn Prince’s upcoming Palgrave book Shakespeare and Emotion in Practice.

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