Versatile, talented, incredibly clever, the playwright Peter Turrini has, during his long and prolific career, drawn a comprehensive, sincere and passionate portrait of modern-day Austria. Past and present, comedy and tragedy, theatre and film blend to perfection in his works and give life to an enormous fresco of the world we live in.
The thousand faces of his Austria
Nominated as Best Television Documentary for the Franz Grabner Awards 2020, Peter Turrini – Eine komische Katastrophe, directed in 2019 by Danielle Proskar, further deepened one of the most prominent figures within the Austrian theatre scene. Yes, because, in fact, playwright Peter Turrini, active since the 1960s, is still one of Austria’s most surprising and versatile artists. And it is precisely his beloved and hated Austria that is often the focus of his works. An Austria that he has been able to portray almost like no other. An Austria that, today, is extremely proud of a playwright who can relate to dramatic stories as well as funny comedies, to the theatre world as well as the film world. Often even lending his own face to bizarre characters. And talking about film, how has Peter Turrini contributed to the seventh art so far?
To better understand his iconic personality, we need an overview of his works and his poetics. Born on September 26, 1944 in St. Margarethen im Lavanttal, Peter was the second son of the Italian carpenter Ernesto Turrini and Elsa Ressler. His father barely spoke German and therefore used to spend his days in his small workshop, far away from everything and everyone. It was precisely this non-relationship with the father figure that influenced many of Turrini’s future works. He has a vague memory of his father and has always regretted not having known him well enough. His childhood in the Austrian countryside, likewise, will forever mark the life of young Peter, who has always attacked a too conservative and narrow-minded society, guilty of a sort of ‘latent fascism’ that results in hatred towards foreigners or, in any case, towards anyone who is in some way considered ‘different’.
And, in fact, Peter Turrini himself always felt ‘different’, no matter what environment he lived in. He was ‘different’ in his native country, as he was half-Italian, just as he was ‘different’ once he moved to Vienna, since even in the big European capital, people had a similar approach to people from small towns. This feeling of inadequacy thus led him to travel a lot and live for certain periods abroad, first in Italy, then in Greece, where he worked both as a waiter and as a hotel manager.
Theatre, however, has always interested him and in fact, while still very young, Peter Turrini began to approach the Viennese avant-gardists and write his first works, feeling very close in approach and themes to authors such as his countrymen Thomas Bernhardt and Elfriede Jelinek and being part, together with them, of the artistic movement of the Austrian Social Theatre of the 1960s. His first play, Rozznjogd, dates from 1967. In it, some constants of his works are already present: the Viennese dialect (closely linked to the setting in the proletarian world), characters from the countryside, religion and, above all, a strong criticism of contemporary society.
These are the main themes of Turrini’s artistic production and, independently from the topic dealt with or the story staged, they will be present in most of his works. This is the case, for example, in plays such as Der tollste Tag (1972), Kindsmord (1973), Josef und Maria (1980) and Die Minderleister (1988). Society, latent fascism, Austria. His beloved and hated Austria is a further protagonist of his works, be they plays, essays (among which we would like to mention Mein Östererreich, 1988, and Liebe Mörder!, 1996) or even film and television scripts. It is Austria that is recounted in Turrini’s works in all its aspects. And alongside this strong criticism of his birthplace, there is also a strong fascination with his second homeland: Italy. Of Italy, Turrini has always appreciated hospitality and warmth and, of course, the fact that it reminds him of his own father. And even though the author is not fluent in Italian, he has had the opportunity over the years to collaborate with Dario Fo (to whom he has often been compared in terms of themes and approach) and to study certain authors in depth – Carlo Goldoni above all. His comedies Die Wirtin (1973), Campiello (1982) and Der Diener zweier Herren (2007) are freely adapted from The Mistress of the Inn, Il Campiello and The Servant of Two Masters.
And what about films? Author also of numerous film scripts, Peter Turrini has often devoted himself to film, playing each time a different role. First and foremost, the playwright has enjoyed trying his hand as an actor over the years. Starting in the 1970s, we saw him, for instance, in the irreverent Staatsoperette and Exit…but no Panic (made by Franz Novotny in 1977 and 1980 respectively), as well as, from 1976 to 1980, in the famous TV series Alpensaga, which he also wrote, directed by Dieter Berner. This, however, was not his only role as an actor in a television series. Between 1984 and 1987, Turrini took part in the series Lebenslinien (directed by Käthe Kratz) and in 2005 in the famous Tatort.
Every character he plays is perfectly in line with the mood of his own works, halfway between comedy and tragedy, quite remarkable even when he is only a supporting character. This was also the case, for example, in the television films Drei Sekunden Ewigkeit (Jörg Graser, 1995) and Die Verhaftung des Johann Nepomuk Nestroy (Dieter Berner, 2000), based on the novel of the same name by Peter Turrini himself.
Numerous are his plays which were later adapted into films. And while Rozznjogd (Dieter Haspel, 1986) and Josef und Maria (Vera Loebner, 1991) are considered his most significant film adaptations, equally interesting are the feature films he wrote. These include, in particular, In Another Lifetime, directed by Elisabeth Scharang in 2011 and written by him in collaboration with Silke Hassler, and Fremdenzimmer, made by Jan Frankl in 2019, his last work for cinema.
Versatile, talented, incredibly clever, Peter Turrini has, during his long and prolific career, drawn a comprehensive, sincere and passionate portrait of modern-day Austria. Past and present, comedy and tragedy, theatre and film blend to perfection in his works and create a big fresco of the world we live in, of what we are. Often lonely, misunderstood characters, who strongly desire to run far away, are the result of a strong autobiographical touch, but also the result of a strong sense of bewilderment that each of us experiences when we do not find the acceptance and understanding we need. Peter Turrini has devoted himself with passion – and also with a welcome humour – to each of them. And who knows how many more beautiful surprises he will give us in the future.