In 1819, a music publisher, Anton Diabelli, developed a scheme that he was sure would be a great money maker for his firm: invite the fifty greatest composers of Vienna to compose a variation on a waltz that the publisher composed himself. Forty-nine composers agreed to contribute to the volume, including Schubert and Weber, but one did not: Ludwig van Beethoven. After Beethoven initially refused the invitation, he began to tinker with the theme composed by Diabelli and created a set of 33 variations, which became Beethoven's last great work after the Ninth Symphony. Along with Bach's "Goldberg Variations", Beethoven's work serves as one of the greatest lengthy set of pieces written for solo piano.
Moises Kaufman's play, "33 Variations," now playing at the Ahmanson Theater, focuses on an academic obsessed with the genesis of Beethoven's Opus 120, the "Diabelli Variations."Why would Beethoven devote so much time to such an insignificant piece of music in the closing years of his life? Dr. Katherine Brandt, played by the regal Jane Fonda, sets out to answer her question while illness chases her down. The similar obsessions (Beethoven's with the waltz and Brandt's obsession with the work) intersect as the play cuts between the two plots, showcasing the similarities between the scholar and the composer.
Similar to his previous plays, "The Laramie Project" and "Gross Indecency," Kaufman weaves the words of his historical characters into his work. In "Laramie Project," he used the words of inhabitants of Laramie, Wyoming in the aftermath of Matthew Shephard's killing. In "Gross Indecency," the transcripts of Oscar Wilde's obsecenity trial served as the basis for a majority of the dialogue in the second act. In "33 Variations," Beethoven's words are used throughout but in the most ingenious use of historical texts in a recent play, Diane Walsh plays excerpts from the variations throughout the play. When the characters discuss, often in quite technical language, the development of chord progressions in the work, the themes are played for the audience to hear.
The thrill of academic work is evident in the play, perhaps the best cultural representation of what a scholar does. The frustration and exalting possibility of the archives is expressed by Katherine repeatedly. The tantalizing notion that all of our academic (and even personal) questions can be answered by the dusty papers in those archival boxes and the concomitant feeling that the papers are not saying what you want them to say. This feeling of dejection by the sources gives way to Katherine (and to all of us who have worked in archives) when she allows the sources speak to us, rather than speaking for them. Her discovery is made and her questions are answered (in a fashion far different form what she predicted) and with this discovery she achieves some sense of peace.
The piece takes on true tearjerker qualities when we discover late in the first act that the illness from which Katherine suffers is ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease). The rare disease (apparently it affects only 30,000 people in the United States and because of this drug companies are wary of soending money on clinical trials for treatments) results in a loss of motor function, and the second act of the play showcases Fonda's formidable talents as she begins to lose her ability to walk and even speak.
Both Beethoven and Katherine in the final scenes fight to finish their work before their health renders them incapable of it. By the early-1820's, Beethoven was fully deaf but fought to still create further works. Katherine as she is unable to move dictates the final edits on her monograph. It is heartbreaking to see two great minds lose their ability to create the works that formed their identity. Along with Margaret Edson's "Wit," "33 Variations" may serve as one of the finest plays about academic work.
The play with a breathtakingly simple and beautiful set composed of coat racks with curtains of sheet music form the backdrop of the emotional turmoil of the cast. (The set won a Tony Award in 2009). The simplicity of the production values contrasted nicely with the intricacy of the music analysis that served as much of the dialogue and the intensely complex characters of Katherine and Beethoven.
The intersection of personal and academic questions frames the work. Why would Beethoven become so obsessed with a trivial and seemingly "mediocre" piece of music, such as Diabelli's waltz? Similarly, why does Katherine's daughter seem to embrace mediocrity? It is the intersection of all of our creative interests that help form the way we approach the relationships that shape our lives. The link between the two is irrevocable and at times blissful, and at times painful.