Today, the Berliner Festspiele announced the jury’s selection of the most “remarkable” German, Swiss, and Austrian theatre productions of 2014, the shows that are being invited to the annual Theatertreffen in Berlin. The now 52-year-old festival always provides an occasion for vigorous debates: there are too few shows from smaller theatres, the complaints go; there are too many productions directed by the same old usual suspects; the jury doesn’t pay enough attention to production from the “Freie Szene,” the rich pool of theatrical work not created at one of the major state-subsidized theatres. But even so, the jury’s selection is usually broadly representative of the ever-shifitng status quo. It may get things wrong; it may ignore worthy candidates; it may invite the odd howler; it may be slow on the uptake. But by and large, the festival reflects what is happening in Germany’s more cutting-edge theatres fairly well — or at least as well as a 52-year-old behemoth of an organization can be expected to.

Personally, I find the Theatertreffen a very helpful institution: I travel around a fair bit when I go on my theatre research trips to Germany, but it’s nice to be able to just stay in Berlin and have the shows come to me. And since I do find the jury’s work reasonably representative, I have no problem relying on the festival to give me at least a rough annual overview of things.

Which is why I find this year’s selection seriously troubling. Here it is:

Atlas der abgelegenen Inseln (an adaptation of a 2009 novel, directed by Thom Luz, Schauspiel Hannover)
– Baal (Brecht, directed by Frank Castorff, Residenztheater Munich)
Common Ground (created by Yael Ronen & the company, directed by Ronen, Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin)
Festen (adapted from the film by Thomas Vinterberg, directed by Christoph Rüping, Schauspiel Stuttgart)
Die lächerliche Finsternis (Wolfram Lotz, directed by Dušan David Pařízek, Burgtheater/Akademietheater Vienna)
Die Schutzbefohlenen (Elfriede Jelinek, directed by Nicolas Stemann, Thalia Theater Hamburg)
die unverheiratete (Ewald Palmetshofer, directed by Robert Borgmann, Burgtheater/Akademietheater Vienna)
– John Gabriel Borkmann (Ibsen, directed by Karin Henkel, Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg)
– Waiting for Godot (Beckett, directed by Ivan Panteleev, Deutsches Theater Berlin)
Warum läuft Herr R. Amok? (adapted from the film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, directed by Suzanne Kennedy, Kammerspiele Munich)

The titles in bold? Those are brand new works. The ones in italics, adaptations of films or recent books. The ones missing from the list are plays written before 1896.

In Britain, this kind of selection may not raise an eyebrow. In Canada, it would be unusual only because it does have a text written before WWII on it, and because of the radical idea that films can be turned into actually theatrical theatre. But for the Theatertreffen, this list of picks is a drastic change of pace. Over the last 30 years of its history, the only other year in which new plays dominated the festival like this was 2010, when 8 of the 10 invited shows were new, and when the oldest play on offer was Horváth’s Kasimir und Karoline — in fact, that year was possibly even more cut off from theatrical and dramatic history than this year’s selection.

There’s much here to be praised: five of the directors have never been selected for the festival before, seven of them are under 40 (take note, Canada: these are directors at the top of their profession, in their 30s), and three of them are women. It’s a deliberately political selection of shows. As Sascha Krieger notes, it’s a showcase of sorts for a new “generation of theatre makers that is not content to follow established paths but seeks its own way.” But what he adds to that assessment is revealing, and to me, troubling: “It is fitting that half the plays are by contemporary authors…. The theatre can only benefit from this.” Which may sound like a reasonable conclusion, certainly to English ears. And yet it marks a bit of a sea change.

One of the jurors, Barbara Burckhardt, compared this year’s flood of new plays to the “days when Botho Strauss and Peter Handke were writing their plays” — in other words, she seems to be predicting a new golden age for German dramatists. An interesting perspective, to be sure, and a forecast that raises the question of what has happened to the postdramatic: has it been absorbed? Overcome? Posted? Judging from this year’s Theatertreffen, the dramatic seems to be back.

And yet, there’s a huge difference between the halcyon days of Strauss and Handke (and, one should add, Kroetz; and Bernhard) and this year: even when those dramatists appeared at the Theatertreffen year in, year out, they never dominated the selection. Take 1979, a year when two productions of Strauss’s Groß und klein were invited (the Schaubühne’s and the Munich Kammerspiele’s). A pretty remarkable year that was: besides the two takes on Strauss, there were two other new plays, Robert Wilson’s famous Death Destruction & Detroit and Thomas Brasch’s Lovely Rita. And then the jury had picked three different productions of Hölderlin’s version of Sophocles’ Antigone — three! (From Berlin, Bremen, and Frankfurt.) Plus two Schillers (Maria Stuart and The Robbers) and Lessing’s Emilia Galotti. With an average age of 39, the directors that year were similarly young — though some of them were seasoned Theatertreffen veterans already. And clearly they thought of new plays as one way of doing new theatre. But alongside (and perhaps in some sort of competition with) those new plays, the same young directors also grappled with the classics of the European dramatic canon. Not in order to take a break from the present — but precisely to say something topical, to speak about and to the present moment through a performance refracted through the old text.

It is this twin focus that has always been typical of the Theatertreffen, and of German theatre. Using the classics to speak to the present is a German habit that goes back at least a hundred years: Leopold Jester caused a massive political scandal in Berlin in 1919 with a production of Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell that stirred up conflict between left and right wing audience members as effectively as any play by a contemporary author, like, say, Ernst Toller, could have. And the return to a relatively small canon of texts has been a constant over the decades of theatrical revolutions and upheavals in both parts of Germany: reasons for staging particular plays changed, approaches changed, what acting means may have changed — but the text through which to exercise those widely divergent attitudes and intentions remained the same.

To my mind, that is the single greatest strength of German theatre — not to the exclusion of new works, mind you, but as a parallel strand of theatre making, and as a use of old texts that necessarily informs attitudes to new texts. If works of the past can be used to speak to a particular situation in the present, then presumably works of the present can be put to use as well, and do not need to be followed or simply “realized.” So the German reliance on a canon of classics plays a key role in authorizing actors to play with their text, and directors to put that text to whatever purpose they choose. And perhaps most importantly, the habit of saying something in and about the present with a text of the past ensures a degree of distance, a kind of metaphorical relationship between show and reality; what happens on stage may seem familiar, may feel burningly relevant, but it will always be strange, at a remove, not quite the thing it appears to stand in for or gesture towards.

What troubles me about this year’s Theatertreffen is the absence of that distance. There’s the Residenztheater’s Baal, and the Hamburg Ibsen, and I’m looking forward to both of them. But Castorf is in his 60s, and Karin Henkel has six festival invitations to her name. It’s the more senior directors (if it’s OK to call someone in her mid-40s “senior”!) that still turn to classical works — though anyone who knows Castorf’s style will realize just how little that “turn” has to do with “serving” the work. But I fear Krieger may be right that there is a bit of a nexus between the younger generation of directors and the idea that they can best speak to the present moment with new works, or at least with works based on books or films from the last few decades.

I’ve had that feeling for a while. There used to be a lot of talk at the Theatertreffen and in German theatre discussions about the challenge of the Freie Szene and its more contemporary productions — the way those independent artists had of flirting with the real without the filter of great if unwieldy dramatic texts. Last year, I listened to the artistic director of a large (if provincial) theatre lament the need to service the high school curriculum and stage Schiller and Goethe — as if that were now a burden rather than an opportunity. And when Oliver Reese, the new artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble was appointed a few months ago, he announced that he wanted to turn the BE into “a theatre of contemporaries,” for which he wanted to assemble an international team of playwrights: going to the theatre, he proclaimed, should be like going to a “new, exciting film.”

Hearing theatre described thus — as an art not of startling rediscovery, of reinvention, but of straightforwardly new plots, stories, plays that are exciting because you simply have no idea at all what’s coming (in other words, as an art form that theatre has never been, probably not even in ancient Athens) — was particularly jarring given Reese’s track record as artistic director in Frankfurt, where Michael Thalheimer has directed some of his most successful recent stagings of classics, and as a dramaturg at the Deutsches Theater, where he worked with precisely the kinds of directors that excelled at putting classics to astonishing theatrical use.

This year’s Theatertreffen selection, then, strikes me as a bit symptomatic of a growing desire for greater immediacy in German theatre — more immediate relevance, a more immediate connection between text, actors, and audiences, a less mediated take on the present. I understand that desire. But it also fills me with a good deal apprehension. German theatre has for so long mined old drama for revolutionary effects — Jessner’s Tell, Stein’s Tasso, Zadek’s Measure for Measure or Othello, Peymann’s Hermannsschlacht, Ostermeier’s Ibsens, Gosch’s Chekhovs, Karin Beier’s Shakespeares, Thalheimer’s Galotti or his Hauptmann productions — and Castorf after Castorf — and so on. Doing new things with old texts is such a central aspect of the German theatrical tradition (and its tradition of revolution) that the prospect of a generation that would rather make theatre without wrestling with the past feels like a massive loss to me.

Let me be clear: new plays are totally necessary. Adaptations of new novels and recent films? I’m fine with those. A theatre that only ever restages different versions of the same texts is doomed. Obviously. But I would argue that a theatre that doesn’t wrestle with its own past, openly, repeatedly, continually, also lacks a vital element. I remain convinced that what is so vital about German theatre, and so vitally different, is that commitment to the struggle: the Auseinandersetzung with the works of the past. Auseinandersetzung is a great word: it means both fight or debate or argument and analysis or coming to terms with something or attending to something. To come to terms with a play from the 18th century, to terms that make sense now, isn’t easy. It requires commitment and seriousness; and in the theatre, it requires playfulness and openness and daring. It requires a dedication to bridging an unbridgeable gap. The staging of an old play can feel and look like a fight to the death with the text. Nothing, to me, is more exciting than watching that struggle — that impolite encounter between a classic play and a modern actor or director, free of deference or compromise. But unfortunately this kind of fight needs a worthy opponent. The advantage of the classics in that regard is not just their inherent difficulty, the strangeness produced by historical distance, it is also that they come preselected: a classic is a text that has proven its ability to survive battles. Contemporary texts need to create that distance, that difficulty, that recalcitrance. (I’m a bit perplexed by the martial metaphorics I’ve slipped into. Not quite my natural habitat.)

Anyway: what am I worried about? I am worried that in its desire for immediacy, German theatre may risk losing the deep investment in mediated forms of theatrical expression that has so long been one of its two core preoccupations. Speaking directly to the present is something other art forms already do, and do extremely well. It’s also something other countries’ theatre cultures are very good at (though that doesn’t necessarily make their theatre, as theatre, more exciting). So what I worry about when I see a list like this year’s Theatertreffen’s selection is that in running towards the present, German theatre artists may forget to grapple with the past, may lose that wonderful ability to speak with and against and through the old to the now.

Tagged with:
 

5 Responses to German Theatre, the Old, and the Now: Theatertreffen Troubles

  1. Totally. I don’t mean to conflate the two kinds of conversation or to suggest one’s worthier than the other. I’d suggest just that they both have a lot to offer a theatre audience who “overhears” them or for whose benefit they’re conducted — how I’d defend a new writing bias (or at least a new writing presence) at a festival like the Theatertreffen, in theory.

    I really liked your Seagull/Canadian Stage post, by the way. My own questions about that production are less about its lack of clear contemporary referents, more about whether the play isn’t much more ironic about suffering, much *funnier*, than what those excellent actors showed us. Konstantin — and I say this as a young man who might resemble him in some ways — is nothing if not a comic figure. I don’t think it cheapens the pathos to be clear about how wonderfully ridiculous some of the play’s situations are. If anything, it makes the pathos possible. Chris, whose work in general I adore, once said to me something very shrewd and perceptive about Ibsen, how he thought Ibsen’s plays have a lot more dark laughter in them, are a lot more biting and brutal in their comedy than is typically brought out. I think that’s just as true of Chekhov. He’s European. He’s *Russian*. I feel like most Anglo productions of his work that I see read a lot of Anglo sentiment into him.

  2. This is a fascinating piece. I agree with much of it but don’t reach the same conclusions, I think because I see new writing (the best of it) as just as much a grappling with tradition as is the reinterpretation of old plays. Is Gosch’s confrontation with Chekhov more urgent or revealing than Annie Baker’s confrontation with Chekhov? Than Raymond Carver’s? I think that dialogue with the notable dead is just as alive whether it’s the writer or the director who’s holding the phone in the present.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Right. Interesting. I guess what I’d say is that one writer engaging with another writer’s work is a writerly conversation, and has different parameters and conditions than the engagement between a director or an actor and a text. For one thing, even if German directors and dramaturgs habitually cut, shuffle, and add to classic texts, they don’t completely rewrite them: Hamlet may not speak the speeches when you expect them, or all of them, and sometimes he may say things you wouldn’t find in Shakespeare, but on some basic level, you’ll still hear a lot of Shakespeare (or, to leave out the thorny question of translation, a lot of Schiller) — and the challenge is to force the work into the present, and to make it mean something through the actors’ bodies without in fact simply leaving the work behind or substituting a completely rewritten text for it. It’s not that a writer’s grappling with a classic text is less urgent or less interesting than a director’s: it’s just really quite different. I think.

      • Totally. I don’t mean to conflate the two kinds of conversation or to suggest one’s worthier than the other. I’d suggest just that they both have a lot to offer a theatre audience who “overhears” them or for whose benefit they’re conducted — how I’d defend a new writing bias (or at least a new writing presence) at a festival like the Theatertreffen, in theory.

        I really liked your Seagull/Canadian Stage post, by the way. My own questions about that production are less about its lack of clear contemporary referents, more about whether the play isn’t much more ironic about suffering, much *funnier*, than what those excellent actors showed us. Konstantin — and I say this as a young man who might resemble him in some ways — is nothing if not a comic figure. I don’t think it cheapens the pathos to be clear about how wonderfully ridiculous some of the play’s situations are. If anything, it makes the pathos possible. Chris, whose work in general I adore, once said to me something very shrewd and perceptive about Ibsen, how he thought Ibsen’s plays have a lot more dark laughter in them, are a lot more biting and brutal in their comedy than is typically brought out. I think that’s just as true of Chekhov. He’s European. He’s *Russian*. I feel like most Anglo productions of his work that I see read a lot of Anglo sentiment into him.

Leave a Reply