The Trial by Fire – the 200th Anniversary of the Death of Heinrich von Kleist
The theatre is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the death of Heinrich von Kleist – but on stage the party has long been in progress.
The general impression that the great anniversaries are multiplying from year to year suggests that such celebrations are needed. We rush from high point to high point, even at the risk that the mass will level the quality and of the paradoxical consequence that for some time now we have no longer celebrated the occasions as they actually come. The more particular we are about round anniversaries, the less accurately we observe them.
In 2005, the 200th anniversary of Friedrich Schiller’s death was already extensively pre and post-celebrated, and in 2011, the anniversary of the date when the thirty-four year old Heinrich von Kleist took his life at the Kleiner Wannsee in Berlin (November 21, 1811), it will be no different. For a theatrical “trial by fire” – the subtitle of Kleist’s “great historical knight’s drama” Cathy of Heilbronn (Das Käthchen von Heilbronn) – the playwright Kleist is simply too present on German stages. The Ruhr Festival last year already focused on Kleist with readings and significant new productions and guest performances of his dramas. In the last and the second last season, major directors such as Peter Stein and Andrea Breth already celebrated their high mass for Kleist. Their productions of The Broken Jug (Der zerbrochne Krug) brought the Kleist celebrations considerably forward, dropping the wreaths early.
A febrile forerunner of modern theatre
In terms of presence, it must be said that Kleist has never disappeared from the repertoire, though it was only posthumously and then with some belatedness that he was to conquer the stage. None other than Goethe himself had shot down this disagreeable “meteor of a new literary heaven”, and this in his own production of one of Kleist’s plays. With a carefully distorted version of The Broken Jug, Goethe thoroughly exorcised any desire contemporaries had to see the work of the newcomer. The premier turned into a veritable annihilation. It was first modern theatre that perceived in Kleist its febrile forerunner and fully recognised itself in the highly problematic and fractured world view of this morbid former child soldier, for whom there was “no help on earth”. His sentences, which are so honed that one cuts oneself on them, have the limpidity of glass. One looks through them and, with a shudder, into all the human abysses and hellish pits of madness.
Not all his plays, however, have always been in demand. Of sustained topicality in recent years and decades has been above all Penthesilea, for the battle of the sexes, which it treats, is an ongoing issue, and kisses (Küsse) and bites (Bisse) rhyme not only in Kleist’s verse but also in social reality. On the other hand, Kleist’s politically incorrect plays were put away for a long time after the Second World War in the poisons cabinet, especially Hermann’s Battle (Die Hermannsschlacht), which has now been performed at the Munich Kammerspiele since October 2010. And a sensibility for the starkness of Kleist’s first play, The Schroffenstein Family (Die Familie Schroffenstein), was developed only by a generation of directors who grew up with a comic book and splatter aesthetics, and for whom the psychological realism of their fathers meant little. Pop theatre belatedly rehabilitated the early, crude Kleist as a Junger Wilde.
Kiss me, Cathy!
In the Kleist Year 2011, the chivalric fairy tale Cathy of Heilbronn, whose gothic romanticism directors have long given a wide berth, now seems to be the play of the hour. In the wake of a resurgently blazing fundamentalism, this drama about a stalker and jihadist of the heart is again very volatile in all its absolutism. In spring 2011 Cathy will have premiers at three big theatres. Dieter Dorn will make the start at the Bavarian Staatsschauspiel, followed by Andreas Kriegenburg at the Deutsches Theater Berlin, where last season he already staged Kleist’s The Prince of Homburg (Der Prinz von Homburg), and Dusan David Parizek at the Zürich Schauspielhaus.
This would bring to an end the list of larger theatres that believe they have satisfied their obligations to Kleist with productions of Cathy were it not for the laudable exception of the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin. Its intendant, Armin Petras, has in the course of his career as a director probably already staged all Kleist’s plays. Now the self-confessed Kleist addict has declared his theatre a stronghold of the commemoration and has set up regular initiatory rites: a Kleist Festival at the Gorki Theatre from November 4 to 12, 2011, will perform all the plays. Amphitryon, The Broken Jug, Penthesilea and the Prince of Homburg are already part of the repertory, and to these will be added the Munich Kammerspiele’s guest performance of Hermann’s Battle, the project The War, into which has been incorporated the fragment Robert Guiskard, new productions of Cathy of Heilbronn, The Schroffenstein Family, and a stage adaptation of the short story The Earthquake in Chile (Das Erdbeben von Chile).
“A Kleist”: the name of the Rimini Protokoll’s anniversary prank
The festival is part of the celebrations whose central scene is of course Kleist’s native city of Frankfurt an der Oder, where the Berlin troupe round Armin Petras will give guest performances. In accordance with the motto “Playing with fire”, the Kleist Festival there from October 5 to 10 in 2010 already premiered new plays by the Kleist Promotion Award winners Oliver Kluck and Ulrike Freising, hosted guest performances of the Potsdam Hans Otto Theater’s The Schroffenstein Family, the Hamburg Deutsche Schauspielhaus’s Hermann’s Battle and Oliver Bukowski’s Kleist homage Wenn Ihr Euch totschlagt, dann ist es ein Versehen (i.e., If You Kill Each Other, It Is A Mistake). And just at the end of December there was another, decentralised Cathy, this time at the Staatsschauspiel Dresden (directed by Julia Hölscher).
The theatre public awaits with excitement the contribution to the Kleist Year of the documentary theatre group Rimini Protokoll. In the Schiller Year 2005 they contributed certainly the freshest and most vital stage event of the calendar parade with their contemporary paraphrase of the Wallenstein trilogy. The performance was a high point of the festivities, the cure to the obligatory programme. Now, under the title A Kleist (Einen Kleist), they are planning a theatrical approach to the eponymous poet, and can perhaps build on their previous success. The Rimini Protocolists are always good for a prank, and with a little luck A Kleist may prove a prank of genius. The premier is scheduled for October/November 2011.
is an editor for the features section of the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Up to 2010 he was a jury member of the Berlin Theatre Meeting.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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