When Tom Fool, Franz Xaver Kroetz’s 1978 drama about the implosion of a working class family in West Germany, was staged at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow last November, audiences were astonished by the power of a play that gets right to the heart of family life under capitalism.
BMW production line worker Otto Meier, his wife Martha and their teenage son Ludwig appear to be a “normal” family. Otto worries about his job security and takes pride in his role as breadwinner. Martha seems content to keep the home and tend to Otto and Ludwig.
However, having set the play up to look like a standard representation of 1970s family life, Kroetz places a slowly ticking time bomb under the entire edifice of fake harmony.
Otto’s deeply felt anxiety about his place in the capitalist pecking order leads him into an extraordinary, darkly comic obsession with how to recover an expensive pen taken from him by a company boss.
Martha and Ludwig serve as lightning conductors for Otto’s frustrations. The self-styled patriarch fails to notice his wife’s rising resentment of her domestic servitude. Nor does he realise that his poor relations with his son stem from an unconscious fear of Ludwig as a threat to his masculinity.
As the play moves from one short, focused scene to the next, we see a family decompose before our eyes. The drama is reminiscent of the works of Harold Pinter, in particular his great play The Homecoming.
It a disservice to London audiences – who will soon see Tom Fool for the first time at the Bush Theatre – to give away key elements in the plot.
But suffice to say that it is only when Otto and Martha are apart that the husband begins to truly contemplate the realities of his role as a cog in the capitalist machine.
In contrast to Otto, Martha’s more conscious process of self-realisation is one of the most powerful elements in the play. It is also an astute representation of a change in the lives of many working class women, one that has accelerated since the 1970s.
Yet although Kroetz shows a strong understanding of the “double burden” of class and gender carried by working class women, arguably his best writing is reserved for Otto’s solitary musings on his position within the economics of capitalist industry.
The factory worker talks to himself, displaying an extraordinary, lyrical stumbling towards an understanding of what Marxists call “alienation”.
The term “alienation” is much misunderstood – the mainstream media and education system tend to suggest that to be “alienated” simply means to be unhappy or pissed off.
But Kroetz – an activist in the West German Communist Party for most of the 1970s – conceives of alienation as something far more profound than that.
The playwright shares Karl Marx’s definition of alienation as the separation of human beings from the products of their labour. Otto increasingly articulates his sense that, rather than making something of which he can be proud, he has become almost a machine. He has no sense of achievement in his role in the building of cars.
The great beauty of Tom Fool is that it manages to address the politics of capitalism without a hint of polemic. Kroetz relies upon the emotional dynamics and powerful poetry that are the hallmark of great theatre – rather than engaging in the diatribes and instructions of the more vulgar “agitprop”.
Nevertheless, the writer’s unambiguous sympathy with the working class and his equally obvious hatred of the capitalist system have made him a target of the far right in the past. In 1971, the premiere of two of his plays, Home Work and Persistent, was disrupted by neo-Nazi thugs.
This Citizens Theatre Company production of Tom Fool is directed, with great skill, structure and timing by up-and-coming director Clare Lizzimore. It provides a timely reminder of Kroetz’s continued relevance.
In Liam Brennan – an outstandingly disorientated but combustible Otto – and Meg Fraser – who is a transfixing, visibly growing presence as Martha – the piece enjoys two of the finest actors currently working in Scottish theatre. Young Richard Madden is an impressively dissatisfied and bereft Ludwig.
Designer Paul Burgess’s cleverly attuned sets and costumes are a bleakly humorous homage to the 1970s as the decade that style forgot, and the perfect visual partner to a truly great production of a classic work of intelligently political theatre.
Tom Fool is at the Bush Theatre, London from 28 March until 21 April. Tickets are priced £10-£15. Go to www.bushtheatre.co.uk