I bump into my favorite professor from grad school, Marvin Carlson, in the lobby at this year’s Theatertreffen—the festival of German-speaking theater held annually in Berlin each May. His first Theatertreffen was in 1985 (it began in 1963), but he’s been flying in from New York to see it with regularity for 15 years and writing about it for just as long. And yet, he says, casting a bemused expression my way and scratching his head, “How do you describe German theater to Americans? It’s like another planet.”
The Theatertreffen is the culmination of a seven-person jury’s year-long quest to discover the ten most “noteworthy” German-speaking productions in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. This involves a Herculean effort of consensus. Each member of this jury, which changes its composition with some regularity and has now reached gender parity, sees between 70-100 productions at the major state-subsidized theaters and for the last 10 years, also attends “free” (independent) theater productions.
How to describe German theater as represented by the offerings at this seminal German cultural event? I’m going to broach this subject from the standpoint of the playwright, because I am one, and because we have lately witnessed in the United States an unprecedented wave of attention—with studies, books, online forums, and conferences, addressing the crisis facing the American playwright, the crisis of the new American play, and following on from this (because of the nature of our particular play-centered theater tradition), the crisis of the American theater, itself.
And here we land on that other planet, rife with paradox. In Germany, the playwright, if there is a playwright involved at all, provides the “stuff” out of which a Gesamtkunstwerk (a total theater experience) is inspired, nothing more—or less. As such, it is a tradition in which the understanding of the potential of a play is perhaps the most exciting around, including a world of ideas and thematic variety contained in a play, while leaving the integrity of the playwright’s work completely out of the picture. One might say the German-speaking world is both the worst and best possible place to be a playwright, and perhaps this might offer some insights into our own very American crisis.
While in the States we are legally assured that our words will reach the stage without being tampered with, we also know that there are few artistic directors hungry to hear what we might have to say, few directors excited to employ transformative measures to create a jolting piece of art (and little money to make it happen should the impulse be there), and no audiences or critics demanding that theater be a place of debate. Theater is too often a mildly entertaining dessert to cap an evening in which the highlight is the meal eaten before or after attendance. God forbid it should produce indigestion or indignation or food for thought.
In Germany, average theater-goers attend a play expecting to be provoked, prepared to have all their senses stimulated—and assume that they will come away mentally enlivened, bewildered, even (and often) bludgeoned by the ideas brought to the text. Another planet, indeed.
So imagine you are the playwright, Kathrin Röggla, whose play Die Beteiligten (The Participants) in a production directed by Stefan Bachmann for the Burgtheater in Vienna, has been invited to the festival. You’ve written a play about your society’s obsession with the young Austrian woman, Natasha Kampusch, abducted at age 10 and held by her captor as a slave-child-lover for 3,690 days (the title of the memoir Kampusch wrote after her escape). You create a group of iconic characters—the journalist, the neighbor, the social worker, etc., who speak about Kampusch as if hers were their own experiences, thoughts, and feelings—but in an alienating third-person form.
Now, imagine you arrive at the premiere of your play to discover the director has written a prologue for it employing the story of Little Red Riding Hood and a long companion-scene in voice-over which becomes the eerie centerpiece of the play where the abductor is imagined as the Wolf. And imagine that this director has added the borderline-offensive gag of costuming all the participants in the iconic outfit worn by Kampusch in her first TV interview. And imagine the director has also created a cartoon-like pantomime ending to your play, turning the victim into a mass-killer, wreaking vengeance on the participants in her story and providing her with a potentially hopeful ending—carried offstage as she is, in the arms of a life-sized smiling troll doll.
What he’s also done is to create a gorgeous and exciting symbolic landscape with projections and music, tying the Kampusch story to Austria’s particular repressed fascistic familial ethos with visual images of Alpine scenery, The Sound of Music, a flying SS officer (deliberately kitschy and provocative) lip-syncing Falco’s song, Jeanny (a hit Austrian pop song about a man who abducts a young girl)—all this to “fight against the exhaustion with the Natasha Kampusch story,” as the director reveals in the post-play discussion.
As Kathrin Röggla, how could you be anything but horrified by the abduction of your probing, intellectually challenging text of monologues by the director?
But guess what? Röggla, while thoughtful about it, is not upset. She’s been invited to the festival, after all. She is one lucky German playwright. And despite the fact that there is no acknowledgement anywhere as to the director’s having written scenes into the play, utterly transforming its emphasis and meaning, her play has now become part of an energetic discourse about the cannibalistic victimization of victims and has achieved its aim. And she knows, too, that there is at least the chance that her text will be taken up by another director down the road and totally re-imagined. And everyone else knows this, too.
I chose to see three contemporary/new works in a festival most often dominated by classics—though this year’s festival is proud to host five productions of “new work”—primarily to get a sense of what constitutes a “noteworthy” contemporary play in Germany, to see what’s happening to playwriting here.
And I discovered that what is noteworthy is the production, always. It’s not about the playwright, stupid, as was pointed out to me in the post-festival jury discussion. But one does also get a glimpse of what goes for contemporary writing for the theater. And now I am going to concentrate on one production, Das Werk/ Im Bus/ Ein Sturz (The Work/ On the Bus/ A Fall) “by” Elfriede Jelinek to see what Jelinek’s play and its production might tell us about this other planet and how any of this might potentially offer food for thought regarding the acknowledged crisis of our American theater.
Elfriede Jelinek, world-renowned since winning the Nobel prize, writes wildly complex texts that are intellectually and politically challenging, but also musical and repetitive and imagistic. This Schauspiel Köln production, which had the honor to open the festival, is directed by Karin Beier, currently Germany’s hottest director, soon to be leaving her position as artistic director of Cologne’s state theater to run Germany’s most prestigious theater in Hamburg.
Being Nobel-prized is no protection against dramatic liberties taken by directors. Jelinek knows and seems to relish this fact. And when you think about it, might not the knowledge that a director will take whatever they want of your text and do with it what they will, actually free a playwright’s imagination and energy? Why worry about rewriting, refining, and cutting when someone will be cutting, adding, rearranging your play at will, in any case. It might just focus you on getting your ideas/theme/story across, no matter what.
Das Werk/ Im Bus/ Ein Sturz is a trilogy composed of two longer pieces and a short comedic interlude. Das Werk, the first, describes the hubris, the technical genius, and the resultant deaths of what is considered the greatest construction project of all time. This was the building of the hydro-electric power station into the side of the Alps. The project took decades and more than a hundred lives. The second short clown piece, Im Bus, taken from a eulogy Jelinek posted on her website for a fellow theater artist, narrates the real-life event of a bus falling into a hole that opened up in the earth near a subway construction site in Cologne, leaving several people dead. And the third text, Ein Sturz, is based on the real event of the collapse and flooding of the city’s archival center, but becomes a quite stunning warning about our destruction of the earth, with the earth personified by a dirt-covered elfin-like actress who roams the office of the archivists ignored, harangued, and eventually raped and drowned by the flood caused by nearby construction which no one saw coming and was famously (as all man-made catastrophes are) no one’s fault.
So, on the page, you have three wordy (if heavily cut from the original), heady, repetitive texts on the complex theme of our will for progress at the cost of the destruction of the planet which might be summed up by the opening line of the chief Engineer in Das Werk:
“The construction site is a battleground, practically a war.”
And then over the course of the evening, voice-over is employed to give voice to Jelinek’s circular riff, and there are speeches into microphones, repetitive rituals using bottled water and familiar office routines, song, a group of on-stage musicians, a repeating refrain in which a construction worker in hard-hat drills a hole on stage, a 60 person-strong chorus, slapstick and scenes of carnage and destruction, choreographed dance (including two brutal dance-rapes), and ultimately, earth falling down from the ceiling in a mesmerizing stream as the workers (no longer engineers but now archivists—digging downward metaphorically into the past) sit below it staring into their screens or eating lunch obliviously, and then the trickle and flow of earth becomes an avalanche and water dripping from a pipe begins to pour forth and water rises from the bowels of the stage, drowning the pathetic doomed body of the earth.
Interestingly, it is Jelinek’s text that dominates the evening, despite the immense performing talent and the costly effort of the effects, and one wonders how it would have been had the actors simply read her words. The evening would have been less entertaining, for sure, but not noticeably different. And by the way, as in Die Beteiligten, not one word is exchanged between the characters on stage. This text without dialogue is piped in, recited, sung.
And you can’t help concluding that the human exchange is of less interest to German theater practitioners, including the writers—or that the exchange is something very different, taking place between the materials of the stage and the audience. But how to describe this exchange?
This other planet, German theater, remains a riddle to me. My professor’s question remains open. But I have observed that the text, the play, is a vehicle oddly and paradoxically intensified by its distortion. The crimes perpetrated on the body of the play, the director’s attempts to bloody it, even rape its meaning, somehow always fail. Because the play’s the thing, even here. And that’s what’s fascinating about it.