Review: ‘German theatre today’

by Michael Patterson (London, Pitman, 1976)


Hugh Rorrison


Michael Patterson’s German theatre today covers the Federal and Democratic Republics, Austria and Switzerland from 1945, a wide field which is complicated by the fact that developments in the GDR are out of phase with the West. During the last ten years Western directors have conducted a critical appraisal of middle-class drama from Lessing to Hauptmann, scrutinizing their own ‘bourgeois heritage.’ Peter Stein presented Peer Gynt as a demonstration of the bankruptcy of bourgeois individualism. About the same time the GDR was relaxing in the discovery that O’Casey’s Irish socialism offered poetic, comic touches which came as a welcome relief to their home-grown Socialist Realism. No parallelism here. The present account wisely skirts the problem by isolating the GDR in a meaty chapter of its own, ‘Political theatre in the East,’ which gives a succinct, informative account of Brecht’s achievements after his return from the USA, and describes the workings of the Berliner Ensemble. Antigone, Coriolanus and Tage der Commune are analysed at length, the first two as specimens of Aneignung, literally ‘appropriation,’ in fact more or less rigorous ideological revision of an existing script, a technique which Piscator mooted in 1920 and Brecht experimented with as early as Edward II. Dr Patterson rightly points out that Aneignung, or kritische Aneignung has determined the GDR theatrical (and academic) approach to the classics since Brecht, and has on the whole produced more sober and unified productions than in the West. Duller too, often.


After Brecht, a plea for Peter Hacks, a follower of the master with a voice—many voices—of his own, ranging from the witty, mannered verse of Omphale, which offers the spectacle of Hercules in drag, to the craggy colloquialism of Die Schlacht bei Lobositz, a historical piece from the Seven Years’ War, singled out as Hacks’s best play to date. Compared to Hacks, Heiner Müller gets short shrift, though his relentless scrutinies of the GDR, naturalistic in Der Lohndrücker (to which the wrong plot is attributed on page 59) stylized in Philoktet, are performed and critically esteemed in both Germanies, as is Hacks, with whom he also shares the distinction of causing GDR officialdom intermittent unease. Both deserve to be better known.


Dr Patterson’s survey of the West opens with an examination of the set-up from which he concludes: ‘The British theatre may be like a prostitute, selling herself on a street corner, but she is perhaps preferable to Germany’s staid matron who will perform only from a sense of marital duty.’ In the GDR he might have added, the staid matron never takes off her body-stocking—in public anyhow. In fact he demonstrates that the matron still has a few kinky wrinkles up her sleeve. Peter Zadek’s rough versions of King Lear and Othello and Klaus Michael Grüber’s arcane, imagist versions of The Bacchae or Hölderlin’s Empedokles would have been unlikely to see the light of the stage in Britain. The survey touches on the German public’s reverence for the theatre and the state’s willingness to finance it (the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, we are told, in 1973/4 got a subsidy of £2 million, equivalent to the entire Arts Council grant to the British theatre!) and on the prominent role of the director, ably abetted by the dramaturg. The sketch of directorial styles is necessarily brief, but we are told that the old guard, which had served its apprenticeship in the Weimar Republic—Barlog, Buckwitz, Gründgens, Hilpert, Piscator, Schweikart, Stroux—were succeeded at the end of the sixties by a new generation—Heyme (Cologne, 1968), Stein (Schaubühne Berlin, 1970), Zadek (Bochum, 1972), to whom I would add Hollmann (Basel, 1975) and Peymann (Stuttgart, 1974). At that time too, the movement for Mitbestimmung, or participation, reached its peak, and some democratic restructuring of administrative practices took place, most successfully and permanently at the Berlin Schaubüne.


New plays in the West are grouped thematically in six chapters which bring out the progression from Hochwälder (history and myth) through Dürrenmatt (parody and the grotesque), Frisch (coming to terms with the past), Weiss, Grass, Dorst (political theatre), Hochhuth, Kipphardt, Weiss again, Forte (documentary drama), to Ziem, Sperr, Fassbinder, Bauer, Kroetz, Henkel and Plenzdorf (theatre of the common man). The author picks out and deftly analyses the central plays in each trend, Besuch der alten Dame, Andorra, Marat/Sade, Toller, Die Ermittlung, Der Stellvertreter, etc. with a nice feeling for their stage effect. Although one might quibble at emphasis, one must admire the completeness of his array of specimens. Only one gap springs to mind: Thomas Bernhard’s manic grotesques, controversial though they are, merit more than a mention in the chronological table, the best of them, Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige, invites comment. Austria indeed comes off rather badly, Hochwälder is dated and hollow, the Burgtheater gets the wrong post-war re-opening date (it was 1955, not 1945, that was when the company opened in the Ronacher) and is dismissed as ‘traditional and rather operatic’ (whereas a British audience would probably find its style congenial) and Wolfgang Bauer’s plays on the Graz/Vienna bohème of the pop era are dismissed as lurid sensationalism. Bauer’s Gespenster deserves more than this, unless one believes that the aberrations of the middle-classes are by definition more sordid than the knitting-needle abortions and fellatio of the proletariat, as shown by Kroetz.


Overall though, this is a comprehensive, lucid and stimulating account of new German plays.