For years now, I have been trying to figure out and describe what exactly is so special about German theatre. In some ways, particularly from the perspective of the English-speaking theatre world, it may seem like I’d need to draw up a pretty long list of oddities: no historical costumes, no respect for the text, no realist sets (if any), lots of music (often live), lots of nudity, lots of liquids of one kind or another, lots of yelling, Eurotrash aesthetics, everything takes forever, too few intervals, actors ad-libbing, actors talking to the audience, autocratic directors, disenfranchised authors. Lots of funding, fixed ensembles, animal masks, chickens. Pigs. Mud. And so on and so forth. Some of those things are more superficial than others. Some only happen in certain theatres or with certain directors. Some have started happening on UK stages as well. Some may seem like retreads of 1960s New York avant-garde performance pieces.

But such lists can only go so far. Instead, I want to talk about a general attitude that underpins many of those phenomena — where it doesn’t call their validity into question. That attitude is what we might describe as a total commitment to the moment, or the beat, or at most the scene, as it unfolds on stage. It’s an attitude that absolutely privileges the actor and her presence on stage, her decisions, her responses to the performative situation. All of those emerge out of a negotiation with the text; out of a struggle or a collaboration with a director; and on a set, wearing clothes, and handling props all of which were designed by someone else. That much is a given, as is that whatever happens on the night is the outcome of those collaborative processes and not simply a coincidental event. And yet, I think the theatrical event is understood here to an unusual degree as a series of moments rather than a unified whole — and the more those moments attain a kind of autonomy, the more they are driven and governed by the actor.

There are plenty of theatre artists in Germany who would disagree with this description. One hears a lot of complaints about the lack of freedom in the state-theatre system, about the pressures of the casting processes in ensemble theatres, about a lack of actorly autonomy in decision making. And there is an ideal of ownership or authorship that many here find impossible to realize within the structures of the traditional theatres. All I can say is that compared to what I see on stages elsewhere, German actors seem to take ownership of their performances, and of the distinct moments that make up those performances, to a much greater degree than actors elsewhere — and, one might say, to a degree that relegates the interests of the play, the playwright, and even the character to second or third place. What matters is the performance, not the various things performances are typically understood to serve elsewhere. The performance doesn’t “realize” a play, or an author’s intentions, or a character: the performance is.

To illustrate what this looks like in practice, let me talk about one of the most gripping shows I’ve seen in the past weeks, Karin Beier’s staging of Franz Grillparzer’s 1819 Das Goldene Vlies at the Deutsche Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. It’s not a new production: Beier won the Faust award for best director for it in 2008/9, when she staged it as part of her first season as the Intendant in Cologne, and she took it with her when she took over the Deutsche Schauspielhaus in 2013/14. Nor is it an extraordinarily adventurous show. Beier and her dramaturg, Rita Thiele, cut down Grillparzer’s trilogy of plays about the Golden Fleece to a three-hour running time, but in some ways this is a fairly straightforward effort at putting the text on its feet — and while it was justly celebrated when it opened in 2008, critics praised it mainly for its rigorous treatment of the text and its psychological nuance, not for its performative inventiveness or radicalism.

If I checked this show against the list of German theatre clichés, many boxes would remain unticked: no animal masks, no nudity, no body fluids. No yelling. Instead: a plain, sand-covered square, set at an angle in the middle of the stage; a square lighting grid suspended above it, jutting out beyond the proscenium arch into the auditorium. Two black walls, parallel with the upstage edges of the acting space, set back from it and leaving a gap at the upstage point of the acting square. Actors in modern, plain dress: black trousers and white shirts in the first half, which focuses on the story of the Argonauts in Colchis; grey and black shirts, trousers, and coats in the second half, set in Corinth and covering more or less the same ground as Euripides’ Medea. The first, brief, section of Grillparzer’s trilogy, “The Guest” (“Der Gastfreund”), is played with oversized masks and using a heavily emblematic, highly artificial arsenal of movements — but the show leaves that register of performance behind within 40 minutes, perhaps signalling the move out of archaic Colchis towards the union of Media and Jason, and their flight to Corinth as a flight towards a civilization or culture more like our own. As the program notes, Grillparzer deserves credit for an innovation Thomas Mann ascribed to Wagner: bringing together myth and psychology. Unlike Euripides’ Medea (pace the National Theatre), Grillparzer’s play is at least partly a marital drama; he is much more interested in love, desire, and despair than in the supernatural, the conflict between archaic and modern understandings of the world, or the place of the divine in the human world. Beier’s staging makes this perfectly clear: the archaic cast of the first part is at most a memory, a performative reference; it is not where the show ends up or what it is ultimately about.

And that movement, from the archaic to the modern, from myth to psychology, finds an equivalent in acting styles — and in the kind of freedom that Beier’s actors have after the first segment. If that initial staging decision establishes certain basic ground rules for the show, everything that follows deliberately breaks and discards them, signalling instead that no such rules can be assumed to exist.

Here’s one example: there are chairs on either side of the acting square. They’re on stage, but the way they’re used initially suggests that they aren’t in the fictional world of the show — that actors are “out of the play” when they sit down there. They do things we might not expect them to do otherwise: they take their masks off and have a drink from a plastic water bottle, for instance. But then, in the second part, Maria Schrader (who plays Medea) is standing next to one of those chairs, having a sip of water, when Carlo Ljubek’s Jason calls for Medea, from the acting space. And Schrader drops her water bottle and responds. Or is it Medea?

Here’s another: throughout the first half of the show, there is a cellist sat downstage right. She’s not in any way acknowledged by the actors. Everything we see suggests that she does not exist in the character’s world, that the music, the instrument, and the performer are only there for the benefit of the show and for us, literally to underscore the emotional stakes of each scene. But then Medea says “now let us be silent” — ostensibly to Jason; and when the cellist plays on, Medea suddenly turns to her, repeats the line, and signals her to stop playing. A little later, Medea’s brother, Absyrtus (played by Angelika Richter) goes a step further: he grabs the cello, runs around the stage with it, and then starts scratching away at it, wildly, also expressing a heightened emotional state but within the world of the play, as a character. He shreds the bow in the process. When the cellist gets her instrument back, she looks at the ruined bow, shrug, drops it, and picks up a new one. And continues to play, now again extradiegetically.

Now, it’s probably a bit silly to call these moments “actor-driven.” They may very well be nothing of the sort: they may be extremely rigorously timed responses to a director’s demands, anything but spontaneous. They’re very obviously not improvised. But what they do show is the total commitment to the moment and its demands that I wrote about earlier. It doesn’t matter that the cello had already been established as existing outside the world of the play; it doesn’t matter that the cellist is not a character. When the call for silence arrives, when Richter needs a means of expressing Absyrtus’ anguish, the musician and her instrument become relevant elements of the actors’ stage universe — and thus require that the rules of the play’s universe (and its relation to the stage) are rewritten on the spot. Yes, it’s consistent with what had been established before: but that doesn’t matter. What was set up before worked then; this is what works now. On the one hand, it’s a kind of principled incoherence; on the other, it’s a perfectly consistent attitude that dictates that anything available on stage can be used to make meaning or to produce an effect in whatever way the show sees fit in any given moment.

The cellist leaves when the first half ends, but the instrument returns again after the interval, when Kreusa teaches Medea how to play it to please Jason (in Grillparzer, it’s a lyre). And that scene serves as an instance of a different aspect of the commitment that I’m trying to describe. The scene is in Grillparzer. And the way it plays in Beier’s production is consistent with the text — even though Kreusa teaches Medea a different song (a German folk song) and even as the dialogue departs from Grillparzer’s verse. Angelika Richter (doubling as Kreusa) at one point encourages Schrader to try to sing along with her; she can’t get the key right, and the scene suddenly turns a bit darker, as Kreusa half-condescendingly, half in apparent delight that Medea can’t in fact fit in, ad-libs “well, actually, why don’t you just listen for now.”

As Richter and Schrader play the scene, they use Grillparzer’s lines and add their own; they use the situation he sets up and develop it. And in doing so, they thoroughly blur the line between what is text-based performance and what is performance that takes the show further or in a different direction than the text spells out. It’s the blurring of that distinction that’s the key, not the “going beyond the text” part. Thus, later in the play, Medea wants to play the song she has learned for Jason. In the show, it’s very simple: “I know a song, Jason,” Schrader says, multiple times. And the more she says it, the more he ignores her, the more she says to to herself, and the more devastatingly sad it becomes. Then he lets her play, and she sits down with the cello, scratches at it briefly, opens her mouth — and nothing. The song is gone; it was never hers to begin with. “Forgot,” Schrader rasps: raw, desperately disappointed, with awful finality. Those lines sounded so direct, so immediate, so, for want of a less stupid term, contemporary — so in the moment — that it never occurred to me that they could be Grillparzer’s. But they are, including the elliptical “Vergessen.”

The text, like the stage and everything on it, is a resource here: use it, all of it, however you see fit; but don’t feel restrained by it, don’t assume that just because you did one kind of thing with it initially you’ll have to stick to that. Make of the text in the moment what you will.

Consequently, there are plenty of times in this show when Grillparzer’s text is there, very audibly — when actors speak verse, consciously and powerfully. But they can switch from that kind of delivery to a radically different tone, a much more colloquial cast of voice and attitude to the text, often from line to line; they can take one of Grillparzer’s lines and repeat it ten times over (as when Jason tells Medea to “go away,”); they can switch out of the author’s idiom altogether, as Ljubek’s Jason does again and again (“Komm, Medea, sieh mich an” [“Go on, Medea, look at me”], “Das war’s, Medea, komm” [“That’s it, Medea, let’s go”], and so on — lines you won’t find in Grillparzer), or they can give a colloquial ring to actual lines that make them sound like anything but verse. They can deliver a rousing soliloquy, and end it by picking up a cheese sandwich. What the status of the text is, what kind of autonomy the words coming out of the actors’ mouths have entirely depends on the moment. And if the moment calls for it, if it makes theatrical sense, it’s perfectly fine for a speech to sound like a speech, for line endings to sound like line endings, for an utterance to sound like literature. But not because it is aesthetically pleasing; not because that’s how the play is written. But because it’s right in that specific moment.

Some of those moments are clearly textual “discoveries,” as when Medea asks Jason “did I for— did I FORCE my love on you?” On stage, it sounds like an actor’s intervention: Schrader hearing herself speak the ridiculous question, stopping herself. In a way, it’s the speech pattern of psychological realism. Except it isn’t: it’s Grillparzer, and it scans: “Hab ich dir Liebe auf-, ja aufgedrungen?” So Schrader is just speaking the line — except it sounds nothing like it. At other moments, though, whatever an actor chooses to do has nothing to do with the text (as in the cello lesson). At others still, director and dramaturg evidently felt that the play needed something Grillparzer didn’t provide, as when they interpolate Euripides’ account of Kreusa’s and Kreon’s horrible deaths — and have that account spoken by Kreusa herself. And at others, the show just rides the power of Grillparzer’s extraordinary lines. This is how it ends: Medea, soaked in blood, and Jason, crushed, stand alone on stage. And Schrader speaks four lines of verse:

“Was ist der Erde Glück? – Ein Schatten!
Was ist der Erde Ruhm? – Ein Traum!
Du Armer! der von Schatten du geträumt!
Der Traum ist aus, allein die Nacht noch nicht.”

“What is all earthly happiness? A shadow.
What is all earthly fame? A dream.
Poor you, that only ever dreamt of shadows!
The dream is over, but the night’s still young.”

And the lights snap off.

It’s a brutal thought: not that the dream is over. Dreams are crushed all the time. But that once the dream is over, the night still carries on. And Jason will now have to face that night, alone, and without dreams. It’s not that it’s full of terrors or nightmares: it’s that it’s entirely empty.

There, too, the show sticks to the principle I’ve been describing: for that moment, what more do you need than those lines, spoken clearly, calmly, coolly? What more do you need than that awful thought, phrased as sharply as Grillparzer phrased it? But that’s not a choice driven by the text, or by an author’s authority. It’s a choice determined by what the production needs, what is judged right in and for that particular theatrical moment. In other words, what the actors do, how they relate to and use the text, the stage, their bodies and voices, is driven not by a desire to realize a preexisting play or even a concept: it’s driven, moment by moment, by a commitment to the performance itself. The performance just is. It may coincide with the text from time to time, even frequently; it may sometimes “simply” transport the text. But when that happens, it happens because it makes theatrical sense for this show, for its director and actors, not because the text or some sort of logic of coherence or faithfulness dictates it. The moment, fully realized, is what matters.

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