Theatre Scene and Trends

The Fall of the Berlin Wall in the Theatre

Peter Gross in one of the eight scenes of the play *Wessis in Weimar* by Rolf Hochhuth at the Hamburg Ernst-Deutsch-Theater on 25.02.1993 © picture-alliance/ dpaIt was one of the most productive quarrels in recent theatre history. Einar Schleef’s premier of Rolf Hochuth’s Wessis in Weimar at the Berlin Ensemble in 1993 created a scandal that encapsulated numerous cultural misunderstandings between East and West German ways of thinking. On the one hand, a play by a West German author who felt himself called upon to defend the poor ossis against the invasion of capitalism in drastic dramatic scenes; on the other hand, a director from the former GRD who used extreme theatrical means to show what colonial arrogance lurked behind this gesture. As a state trust exercised control over East German assets, so authors such as Hochuth sought to gain interpretative jurisdiction over the history of the GDR.

Using martial choruses of actors who, stripped to their boots and army coats, cried Hochhuth’s text in the rhythm of recruits being trained, Schleef succeeded in presenting the assault and infringement constituted by the play’s apparent concern. This led to a lively discussion in the features pages about how much structural violence lurked in the process of reunification and how it should be treated in art.

Dramatic conflicts shortly after the fall of the Wall

Photo shooting for the play *Heaven (for tristan)* (2007) on the stage at the Maxim-Gorki-Theater in Berlin. Theatre play by Armin Petras © picture-alliance/ dpaThe conflicts on stage, however, only sporadically brought forth convincing fruits. The forced marriage between “ossis” (East Germans) and “wessis” (West Germans) following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 created internal conflicts at all the theatres of the former German Democratic Republic, but the treatment of the “Wende” on stage often amounted to nothing more than “ostalgie” (nostalgia for the good old days of the GDR), didactic demands and other superficial results. Only the Berlin Volksbühne made aggression and incomprehension into a programme and repeatedly showed the deformation resulting from the collision of two worlds. Under the superintendence of Frank Castorf, classics, adaptations of novels and independent projects were staged in the perspective of a swamped and disjointed sense of the present, and this went on for years with such brilliance that the grey bastion on the Rosa Luxemburg Platz became the leading theatre in Germany.

In the first years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the antagonist to Castorf’s theatre of wild, glowering writing-on-the-wall was the director Leander Haußmann, whose works celebrated a cheerful and somewhat naïve optimism. As theatre and film director and during his five-year stint as superintendent of the Schauspielhaus Bochum, he mixed euphoria at the new freedom with a sunny look back at a youth in the GRD that made the former regime seem like the backdrop for a picaresque novel.

Rehearsal of the play *Als wir träumten* by Clemens Meyer in an adaptation for the stage by Armin Petras and Carmen Wolfram at the Schauspielhaus Leipzig (2008) © picture-alliance/ dpaBut many other directors who passed their youth under “real socialism” also became permanent features of the reunified German theatre scene: Andreas Kriegenburg, who made his name with Castorf and is today superintendent of Germany’s most successful theatre, the Thalia in Hamburg; or Sebastian Hartmann, who after stations in Hamburg, Berlin and Vienna, has been head of the theatre in his hometown of Leipzig since 2008. They may stand for an artistic reunification that, if it shows no signs of a difference in quality, will also soon no longer show any traces of its origin in two different political systems.

The nineties up to today

*Helden wie wir* by Thomas Brussig at the Deutsches Theater (1996) © picture-alliance / ZBOne exception is Armin Petras, who has reflected on his time under the GDR as a director and dramatist. His collage-like and associative productions and texts insist upon the significance of an underlying history, which he presents without accusations of guilt and with political aplomb in the form of comic human tragedies. Particularly Petras’s texts highlight the remarkable circumstance that, twenty years after the division of Germany came to an end, nearly no dramatic work has survived which takes this event for its subject. Thomas Brussig’s farce Helden wie wir (Heroes Like Us) and Klaus Pohl’s Karate-Billi kehrt zurück (Karate Bill Comes Back) from the nineties have remained phenomena of the post-Wende zeitgeist, so that only Heiner Müller’s work gives occasion for coming to grips in the theatre with the complicated past of the two German states.

Play *Helden wie wir* by Thomas Brussig at a rehearsal at the Deutsches Nationaltheater in the production by Dirk Diekmann (2000) © picture-alliance / ZBMainly only a myth remains of the creative and euphoric mood of change in the 1990s, which developed out of the collapse of two worn-out uses of forms. The flagging West German aestheticism and the East German art of critical masquerade both gave way to numerous new directors from the German-speaking world who at least partly broached the issue of the rupture. German theatre is still living off this phase of renewal. What was then gained in freedom is now being refined.

Still, with the historical distance that has since been gained, it is perhaps finally time to cast the great theme of the Germany’s refounding in a serious dramatic form. Germany is still waiting for the great German-German drama.

 After the Fall - Europe on stage

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, a cross-border theatre project of the Goethe-Institut explores its implications for Germany and Europe: After the Fall. 18 dramatists from 15 European countries examine the socio-political change since the fall of the wall in their homecountries. The first world-premiere takes place in Chişinău in the Republic of Moldova on 28 November 2008.
Till Briegleb
The author is a theatre and art critics, and a jury member of the Berliner Theatertreffen.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion

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November 2008

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