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GoetheInstitute

14/05/2007

Escapology and the endgame

Peter Kümmel reports from this year's Theatertreffen in Berlin, the yearly rendezvous for the ten best plays on the German-language stage

What chances are left open to wrongdoers today? They get eavesdropped when they make their plans, they're under surveillance in their search for accomplices, their thoughts set alarm bells ringing before they even turn to deeds. They are in chains already, they just don't know it yet.

The latest technique is escapology. In cinema and television it already dictates the flow of the plot: the mobile phone gets tracked, on the Internet the deed can be traced back to the idea, the escape car leaves a GPS trail, the satellite camera zooms in on the city like lightning with eyes.

Soon coincidence, individual malice and escape will be things of the past – along with the interaction of determination (of the criminal) and lethargy (of society, of the people who see nothing and remember nothing) that give a deed its meaning. The job of telling the world's stories will be taken away from the humans and given to machines that never look the other way, never forget, and now create the context.



"Dido and Aeneas" based on works by Henry Purcell and Christopher Marlowe, directed by Sebastian Nübling at the Theater Basel. Photo © Sebastian Hoppe

The actors who set out to play the life of today ask themselves: How can you act that? What stories are left to tell? Of course any newspaper article about "theatre today" has to operate with the crassest of generalisations, but the big picture shows us a clear pattern. Stories of determined actions are told in television and the cinema (and these days in computer games too) while theatre tells of being attended to, being excluded, waiting. Whereas television and cinema like to go "round the outside" and follow the great global escapology performance with boyish admiration, the theatre sneaks into the silent interior of the trap for quiet contemplation. The former celebrate the destruction of freedom as a global festival of suspense, the theatre shows it as endgame.

The heroes of the thrillers are calculating forensic scientists (who can reconstruct a tragedy from a saucerful of flakes of skin) or cranky clairvoyants and X-ray thinkers (who can even foresee events yet to come). Together they tie us up symbolically. Together they embody the power of technology. Ultimately it is no longer about solving crimes, but preventing them. Being faster than the evil deed. No, faster than the evil thought!



"The Sorrows of Young Werther" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, directed by Jan Bosse at the Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin. Photo © Bettina Stöß

The legendary example of thrilling escapology on television is the American series "24", where secret agent Jack Bauer has 24 hours – told in real time – to save the world from terrorist mass destruction. Sub-plots entangle, all entwining round the central pivotal point of this world, namely, poor Jack's neck. His life is so accelerated (or so whipped towards its end) that it consists only of a succession of critical decisions and tests. Every moment is a fork in the road, every second a trap. Time is experienced as space, as an infernal engine to step inside and ride, where burning fuses show the way. "24" is so visually sumptuous that we completely forget what is actually being related here: how hostile technologies interconnect until they have eradicated every last unwatched second.

In the theatre scene, apparently, there are great fans of "24". Many of them have all the episodes in the collector's box. Logical, because the series has a gross, overflowing excess of everything that has disappeared from the stage: urgency, error, remorse, torment, sacrifice, the threat of oblivion, the deafening claim to be a portrayal of the world. German theatre – gathered again in Berlin for its biggest festival, the Theatertreffen – has found its antithesis in Jack Bauer. In the business of "telling the world's story" you could hardly be further apart than Jack and the average German stage hero.



"The Oresteia" by Aeschylus, directed by Michael Thalheimer at the Deutsches Theater Berlin. Photo © Iko Freese/drama-berlin.de

But how does German theatre tell the world's stories?

Sitting in the theatre, an anecdote from philosopher Ernst Bloch often comes to mind: "The Right Way to Eat an Olive". Three men of literature get together to cook an olive. The olive is sewn inside a thrush, the thrush in a quail, the quail in a duck, in a goose, in a turkey, in a suckling pig, in a sheep, in a calf, and finally inside an ox. The dripping meat creation is roasted on a spit. Then our gourmets take the whole thing from the flames, throw away the ox, the calf, the sheep, the piglet, the turkey, the goose, the duck, the quail and the thrush, and set about tasting the olive. After they have chewed silently for a long while one of the diners says: "I think the turkey was maybe a little old."

We are such olive eaters. The image of the olive in its coats of meat fits many German stage productions, including those at the Theatertreffen. These productions give the impression that in the moment before the curtain went up they had thrown away the ox, the pig and the quail in order to show on stage the brilliant olive of pure art. They are as gloriously bare as if they had cast off a thick meaty layer of realism, naturalism, psychologism and historicism to contain only their juices. Over the course of time our olive chefs of the theatre have also done away with the side-dishes: props, colour, extras, costumes, defined roles. All that is concealed – abstractly amplified by its absence – in the olive, the actors acting on the bare stage.

A player wants not to illustrate but to symbolise. So theatre deals with murder by dripping a little blood onto the olive. It deals with love by peeling the olive a little. It deals with war by rolling the olive heartily across the floor.



"Much Ado About Nothing" by William Shakespeare, directed by Jan Bosse at the Burgtheater in Vienna. Photo © Georg Soulek

In television and cinema situations escalate, intrigues multiply absurdly, and reality is "created" by condensing, parallelising and hystericising the events, whereas in the theatre action (and one could say even the dialogue) survives above all in suggestion, in irony.

Where action in the mimetic/illusionist sense of the word no longer exists and the concepts of "the figure" and "the role" have dissolved into thin air, "spirit" also becomes a thing of implausibility. Dialogue as a train of thought, discussion as a process of realisation are hardly to be found on the theatrical stage any more (sometimes you still see something like it in cabaret, but it appears patronising). It is almost impossible any more to watch a thought as it arises and takes effect. In classical productions this does not work because the text has been "purged" (even of thoughts), while in new pieces it cannot because from the outset the figures speak in a breathless idiom as if their reserves of air and words had long since run out.

Acting today is characterised by a demonstrative avoidance of any show of intellect. Cunning? How laughable! Plan? How quaint! Escape? How senseless!

Without a doubt we are still feeling the impact of Samuel Beckett's "Endgame", which we are still staging, from which it is difficult to move on. Yet still, yet still, what looks like frozen poses of regression and decline could in truth be something else, a reversal. A return to theatre's roots.

In "The Birth of Tragedy from of the Spirit of Music" (1872), Friedrich Nietzsche complained that the tragedy had been destroyed by the intrigue, by the self-seeking intelligence of the characters of European theatre. The Greek tragedy, he said, had still been able to transform people into "the primordial essence itself" and show us "the exuberant fecundity of the world's will." It had made us "fortunate vital beings, not as individuals, but as the one force of Life, with whose procreative joy we have been fused." According to Nietzsche we had given up this joy for the sake of dull intrigue. "As soon as the chorus was well trained to sing in the Euripidean musical key, a style of drama like a chess game arose, the new comedy, with its continuing triumph of sly shrewdness."



"Pains of Youth" by Ferdinand Bruckner, directed by Tilmann Köhler at the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar. Photo © Maik Schuck

Tragic figures have the gift of "understanding" their personal downfall as the culminating moment of their existence. Their derivatives in the intrigue by contrast merely push others over the edge. So whereas the tragic hero wishes for his own destruction, the intrigue (and the art of suspense that has grown out of it) is always about shabby escape.

Ultimately, according to Nietzsche, the insidious acuteness of the dialogue has pervaded the structure of the plays. The construction of the play is itself the work of a trap-setter. "The play becomes a game of chess".

If we look around us today and consider whether Nietzsche was right, we find that the chessboard is still there. No longer in the theatre, but in television and the cinema. German media journalists like to celebrate the dramaturgy and dialogue of American TV series with statements like: "If Shakespeare, Schiller or Moliere were alive today they would work for HBO." HBO is the trend-defining American cable TV station where the chessboard rules supreme in series like "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" or, whipped to multi-level frenzy, in the Fox series "24".



"Three Sisters" by Anton Chekhov, directed by Andreas Kriegenburg at the Munich Kammerspiele. Photo © Arno Declair

In today's theatre, by contrast, chess moves are at best hinted at. The players relate them incidentally, with the irony of one who knows that much worse is still to come. They prefer not to show the match proper at all, the slaughter of the pawns. What remains of the chessboard intrigue is the plain grey expanse of the empty German stage, the place for the endgame where the endless alternatives and possibilities of the chessboard are condensed into a last square.

The typical stage set in a German theatre is a cave, a tomb or a waiting room. The last days become space here, signifying the time that is left to the figures, the measure of their future expectations. That is why the stage has no exit. It cloaks its inmates like a final shirt that one can only leave in death. (Nice examples: Stefan Mayer's construction for the current "Liliom" production in Stuttgart, a set that descends onto the actors absolutely unnoticed during the course of the evening, a stage as guillotine. Or also the non-stage of Dimiter Gotscheff's Hamburg "Tartuffe" production, also invited to the Theatertreffen. At the beginning an enormous shower of confetti descends on the figures; they stand in it as if in a colourful trash cathedral.)

In these sets there is no sign of the other world, no pedestal under us nor cupola above. Such stage sets are the incarnation of lack of progress (as Stephan Berg wrote of Gregory Crewdson's photographs, but his statement also fits the German stage). They are there on their own account. There are no higher powers they could hold responsible. That makes them embarrassed, shameful, regressive.

"Real tragedy cannot be separated from the mystery of injustice, from the conviction that man remains a precariously unconfirmed guest in a world where the powers of irrationality exercise a dark hidden reign." Adapted to the modern age, that statement from literary scholar George Steiner could read: Man is a precariously unconfirmed guest in a world where the powers of reason exercise a dark reign; he created these powers himself.

How could one act something like that? By celebrating pain, but laughter too. The theatre needs to show us people as a kind of escape artist, a Houdini who long ago put himself in the tightest of knots and straitjackets. There he sits now, and we in the audience wait to see how he will manage to free himself. And theatre really does seem to be taking that path at the moment, the path of the bright art of acting.

It is noticeable how many fantastic young stage actors there currently are, who put themselves enthusiastically in hopeless, embarrassing situations on stage only to free themselves gloriously. Theatre Houdinis in German tombs, actresses like Judith Rosmair, Wiebke Puls, Constanze Becker, Jana Schulz, actors such as Felix Goeser, Joachim Meyerhoff, Devid Striesow, Alexander Khuon and many others. From high up they look down into the abyss into which the tragic figure must disappear, but the view also makes them laugh. These are no doormen for an almighty lord director, nor pretentious dandies either. They are our guides in a world that emerges on stage under their gaze as they play. A world is created and we are witness. And the world-destroyers of "24" do not even notice.

Brain researchers recently discovered a new type of cell, called "mirror neurons." These allow us to empathise with others, they cause us to flinch when another person suffers, they cast light on the actions of others by having us act them out in spirit. And they tell us whether and how we ourselves are noticed. Where better to stimulate these cells than in the theatre?

Recently in a production of "Hamlet" by the young director Jan Bosse (who has two shows at the Theatertreffen, here and here) at the Zurich Schauspielhaus. In the gravedigger scene, the graveyard opens wide to the audience. Behind the stage that divides the elongated auditorium like a runway hang enormous mirrors. When you look at Hamlet (Joachim Meyerhoff) you see yourself too. Hamlet goes through the rows and collects the living. He says "Horatio, how quickly it goes!" and "Hey, there goes another!" He collects extras from the audience and buries them under the boards of the stage. That is a masquerade, but also a moment where the mirror neurons glow. Hamlet's audience sees itself as funeral guests. A nightly gathering to celebrate the fact that it will never gather again. Impossible to ever bring this group together again. The first of the four hundred who are still sitting there in my memory could be dead already. I look in the facing mirror, the reflection of the mirror that hangs behind me quivers, the night yawns, and in it I see myself.

"As long as man has existed, he has been the object of his own observation. In truth for millennia he has been looking at nothing other than himself," says the Hungarian poet Peter Nadas. Only in the theatre can we watch ourselves as we direct this ancient astonished gaze at the world. Even the most minor theatre hero will be ahead of the great Jack Bauer by the knowledge gap of this gaze.


The Theatertreffen, bringing together a selection of the ten best productions on the German-language stage, runs in Berlin until May 20.


*

The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on May 10, 2007

Peter Kümmel is theatre critic for Die Zeit.

Translation: Meredith Dale

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