Children’s literature, television, entertainment (in general) used to be weird. We could go all the way back to William Blake, Lewis Carroll, and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” sure. But then, when I was in graduate school, I was sent reeling one day when some of my peers were angered and even confused by metafiction because, uh, you know, The Muppet Show, which they had also grown up with, was meta, as were several episodes of Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies, and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (which we’d all seen, though they first appeared between the 1930s-1960s). Add to those the trippiness of The Banana Splits, The Electric Company, Gumby, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and you’d think you’d end up with a generation (or a few generations) raring for mind-blowing art.
That doesn’t always appear to be the case, however.
Someone who obviously did embrace the weirdness (instead of, I guess, thinking it was all just for the youngins) is Jesi Bender, whose marvelous play, Kinderkrankenhaus, is rather like an episode of The Letter People if Edward Gorey were asked to direct a script written by Jacques Derrida. Gorey and Bender would likely get along wonderfully, since Gorey claimed he didn’t write children’s books and Bender’s work, though it focuses on many kids, isn’t exactly for children either. The beginning of the play does seem like it could be for children, though, seeing as how we open on a mother and a father who are worried about their offspring, and thus deposit him in Das Kinderkrankenhaus (which Google Translate informs me means “The Children’s Hospital”), a place that is intensely gray (like Kansas at the outset of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and like the squalor found in the early part of Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). Normally, through some combination of imagination and innocence, kids are called upon in such stories to bring a vibrancy to life, to bring color.
Maybe Gnome’s goal is ultimately the same, but with the hospital’s dark secret (which I won’t reveal here), it’s going to be tough sledding for our diminutive hero. Luckily, upon arriving, Gnome does meet some potential friends: Cinders (the oldest of the children and perhaps the most amiable), Eros and Nix (who both enjoy morphing words into other words), the Shadow (who doesn’t talk much, but is always there), and Python (who’s the youngest, but also a kind of mathematical oracle).
If you’re wondering why all these kids have such strange names, it’s because they’re given names by Dr. Dorothy Schmetterling when they’re checked in to Das Kinderkrankenhaus, names that are supposed to say something about them, names they’re more or less forced to accept (though whether they do on the inside is a different matter). Of course, this plants us firmly in the dystopian literature that’s wildly popular right now, but what comes next is a departure from that genre, since there aren’t any battles to the death.
That said, if you’re now wondering what’s wrong with our protagonist, if you’re wondering why Gnome was dumped by his parents into this gray hospital, well, so is he.
According to Dr. Schmetterling, Gnome isn’t “able to understand what is appropriate and what is not appropriate,” a condition which leads to “deviant social behaviors and an inability to relate to [his] peers.” What is deviant about Gnome’s social behavior? The fact that he supposedly isn’t able to understand symbolic cues and therefore isn’t able to communicate:
Gnome concerned, staring intently at Dr. Schmetterling’s face: I didn’t know I wasn’t reading faces the right way. I guess I didn’t know I was supposed to.
Dr. Schmetterling: Yes, well, you wouldn’t, would you? People like you don’t understand those things. You’ll see children here like you, without autonomy over their own minds. Children that have a hard time expressing themselves. Some that don’t talk at all. The whole reason people speak is to kindle recognition of meaning in another. There is a madness in silence. You see, we are social creatures. We need each other. Silence takes everyone else away. Those who cannot communicate cannot be thinking rationally or symbolically. They are just feeling, not thinking creatures.
Gnome: How do you know?
Dr. Schmetterling: How do I know what?
Gnome: What is happening inside their mind? If there is a language in there or not? I think I think in language.
And this brings us to the crux of the matter. Other people (those outside of the hospital, for instance) supposedly use language to communicate, while children like those in Das Kinderkrankenhaus question how well we can communicate via language since we are always limited by whatever language we speak. Nix and Eros, with their word play, show us how a minor slip of the tongue can turn one word into another word into another word; the Shadow, at one point, becomes obsessed with apostrophes (which create completely different words themselves); Cinders, apparently a linguistic savant, can pick up a foreign tongue just by hearing it once, a knowledge that leads to his often polyglot dialogue. But all of these linguistic games make it so the children have trouble interacting with those who accept language blindly, who ask no questions of their tongues. Since the kids are unable to interact with their fellow humans, at least according to Dr. Schmetterling, the children are effectively mute and therefore insane.
But wait a minute. How could a play that so obviously celebrates language, even using the children’s TV show trope of hauling out the vocab words for the kiddies to learn (including words in other languages for those of us who grew up with Sesame Street), how could it seem to be so confrontational toward language? Has Jesi Bender, none other than the Jesi Buell who runs KERNPUNKT Press, given up on the written and spoken word?
Of course not. Instead, I think we can find the answer to how Bender is approaching language in Act II, Scene 1, where Python recites π, while Dr. Schmetterling says, “Nonsense, utter nonsense.” Did the good doctor miss that day in geometry class? No. The problem here is that our oddly rigid social butterfly of a physician refuses the infinite because language can never truly give us the infinite. Math, on the other hand, can. And, Kinderkrankenhaus argues, this isn’t the only limitation of language. Since we are incapable of thinking outside of the words we know, our words control us. This linguistic determinism means we can’t follow Python’s advice: “No U Elf,” which is also the Oracle of Delphi’s: “Know yourself.” Python, on the other hand, has learned to live outside of language and is therefore free:
Cinders: No, no. Python is free—inside a mind without end. Haven’t you felt the limits of your own mind? Its walls? Python’s mind is as open as the nighttime sky. A place so deep no shadow can be cast. It can read everything. Even what we can’t see.
If this all sounds heavy, remember that Kinderkrankenhaus conforms (more or less) to the plotline we often find in stories for children: our protagonist (Gnome) is faced with a problem (Das Kinderkrankenhaus/Dr. Schmetterling), makes friends with the locals, has a falling out with his best friend, finally comes up with a solution to the problem, reunites with the best friend, and then … and then …
Can we ever truly be free of language, free in a way that would actually let us know ourselves? I’m not so sure we can. But, like Bender, I do think we can question language, we can twist it around, toss it back and forth, laugh at it, play with it (oboy can we play! yes we can play!), we can play with it as we might if we were children hanging out with our friends using our imaginations to color the gray world.
Kinderkrankenhaus, by Jesi Bender. Montclair, New Jersey: Sagging Meniscus Press, December 2021. 74 pages. $15.00, paper.
Andrew Farkas is the author of The Big Red Herring (KERNPUNKT Press), Sunsphere (BlazeVOX [books]), Self-Titled Debut (Subito Press), and The Great Indoorsman (forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2022). He is a teacher at Washburn University and the fiction editor for The Rupture.