Making Mahler funny9:00, 10th February 2017
In all of the biographies of Mahler that I read in preparation for writing my comedy show (not that many, if I’m honest), I found just one amusing anecdote about the great man. One evening in New York, Mahler’s daughter Anna refused to eat her dinner. Mahler’s answer to this problem was to tell Anna to leave the room, and then come back in as a different character – a woman with an insatiable appetite whom Mahler decided should be called Gladys. This Anna duly did: Gladys entered the dining room and proceeded to wolf down her meal like there was no tomorrow.
This brief experiment with slightly surreal, if undeniably practical, character comedy was not, alas, typical of Mahler’s personality. His famously turbulent marriage, his dictatorial conducting practices, the unequivocal yells from the scores of his symphonies – ‘Don’t Rush!’, ‘Forwards!’ – all indicate a man of intense seriousness and deep sincerity. So why on earth did I want to make a comedy show about him?
Well, I like a challenge. And while the relationship between classical music and comedy has been long-standing and fruitful, Mahler’s harmonically complex and philosophically challenging symphonic legacy ain’t exactly HMS Pinafore. So I was curious, both to see if there were any chuckles in Das Lied von der Erde (there aren’t), and to find a way of communicating the sincerity of my own love of Mahler’s music through a show that could be enjoyed by people who had no knowledge of classical music at all.
One thing I learned fairly quickly. Mahler as a character was beyond me. I toyed with an opening section where Mahler would come on to the stage and berate the audience as if they were the wayward Wiener Philharmoniker. But though a closely-studied impersonation might have amused one or two musicologists in the crowd, I would have to be very, very lucky to get that many musicologists coming to the show every night, or indeed ever.
So if I couldn’t play Mahler, who could? I hit upon the idea that Mahler could appear at various significant moments in the show, ‘portrayed’ by a different actor each time. For example, at a moment when Mahler’s heroic nature is in the foreground, he’s played by David Tennant, the most heroic man in the country. In this way, I could accentuate different facets of the maestro’s personality and significance, while crowbarring in impressions that I could do and that people would get. Plus it was quite silly.
Something else to understand was that while Mahler’s music itself isn’t all that much of a scream (the most humorous moment in his oeuvre being the appearance of Frère Jacques in a minor key), people’s reactions to it certainly are. From Maureen Lipman in Educating Rita sighing ‘Wouldn’t you just die without Mahler?’ to Diane Keaton’s ultra-snobbish character in Manhattan consigning Mahler to ‘The Academy of the Overrated’, the worshipful attitude towards Mahler with which so many of us are infected has long been a source of ridicule. As a hopeless devotee myself, I thought it would be fun to send up the pretensions I had as a teenager: trying to ‘convert’ my disinterested classmates to classical music in general and Mahler in particular, and believing that I, too, could write music as good as that of my idol.
And that’s how I found the central joke of the show: an enthusiastic but hopeless amateur trying his level best to write a late romantic symphony. My real-life quest to create an orchestral masterpiece has lasted 17 years and generated sufficient moments of failure to fill an hour’s worth of stand-up, if not quite four movements’ worth of music. It was this inability to be like Mahler that was both funny and liberating – at the end of the show Mahler (played now by Morrissey) appears and tells me that I needn’t worry too much about trying to be a musical genius. Maybe it’s better to be happy.
So in the end I made my comedy show about Mahler and I didn’t make Mahler funny at all. Instead, I kept him on his pedestal and made the best of my own inadequacies, as a good comedian should. Still, it’s only right for old Gustav to have the last laugh. Whenever I fail an audition or have a terrible gig or question quite what it is I’m doing pretending to be an artist, I’m comforted by Mahler’s wise words, accompanied no doubt by the wry smile that his daughter Anna/Gladys remembered so fondly: ‘I am hitting my head against the walls. But the walls are giving way.’
Kieran Hodgson’s Maestro is touring the UK from 23 February.
Maestro Hodgson: Are there any chuckles in Das Lied von der Erde?