Theatre Scene and Trends

Mercantile Mentalities – The Financial Crisis and the Theater

Philipp Löhle „supernova (wie gold entsteht)“, Uraufführung 2011, Mannheimer Nationaltheater; © Hans Jörg MichelClassics such as Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” are currently being performed particularly often. But when it comes to the crisis, theater makers are looking for new ways of presenting a problem that moves across the entire world in global money flows.

Going back a century to find the theatrical roots of that critical phenomenon which today we subsume under the term of “euro crisis”, we soon quickly end up with two figures: the landowner Ranevskaya, for whom the large estates of her family are only a means to the end of increasing her pleasure, and the merchant Lopakhin, who wants to exploit Ranevskaya’s bankruptcy as a means to the end of speculation.

He can be thought of as the mercantile character; she as the hedonistic society lady who finds her contemporary counterpart in the rich who no longer see the value of money in terms of the actual work done. The Cherry Orchard, first performed in 1904 at the Moscow Art Theater, is currently so often seen on German stages because it re-connects the misery brought about by ghostly sums of money migrating speculatively around the world with the agents who have set them in motion: people in social surroundings. Looking for another classic on the same theme, we think immediately of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

The nature of money

„Der Geldkomplex“ by Jürgen Kuttner and Suse Wächter, Residenztheater München, Premiere  18. November 2011; © Thomas DashuberSo far, so classical. But theaters are currently also searching for new ways of responding to the financial crisis and have ended up not infrequently in the performative field. This was the case in Munich when the moderator/director Jürgen Kuttner and the puppeteer Suse Wächter consulted an epistolary novel of the permanently insolvent writer and Schwabing bohemian Countess Franziska zu Reventlow.

Der Geldkomplex (1916) (The Money Complex) is about a letter writer who begs her friend not to think she is seriously disturbed because she sees money as a personal being. She is now undergoing treatment by a neurologist of the Freudian school, who means to cure this “grave money complex” with psychoanalytical methods.

Kuttner’s and Wächter’s dramatic presentation of the novel concerns the libidinal relationship between man and the incomprehensible nature of “money”. That the production cuts so close to the contemporary reality of the endemic financial crisis has essentially to do with the fact that the basis of its text was written at a time in which the world was exposed to similar shocks.

Swarm intelligence

Elfriede Jelinek „Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns“, coproduction of Schauspiel Köln and Thalia Theater Hamburg; director: Nicolas Stemann; photo: David BaltzerWe think unbidden of the world economic crisis at the time of the Weimar Republic, which was doubtless also the historical model for Elfriede Jelinek when she wrote, parallel to the bankruptcy of the investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008, Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns (The Merchant’s Contract). In a co-production of the Cologne Theater and the Hamburg Thalia Theater, Nicolas Stemann premiered this more than hundred-page text. Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns became the play of the hour because Jelinek quite charmingly dramatizes the swarm intelligence of money, even having it talk like a human character.

It could have been conceits such as this that inspired Chris Kondek and Christiane Kühl to bring Money - It Came from Outer Space to the stage of the Berlin theater Hebbel am Ufer in late 2010. Kondek and Kühl dispensed with a prepared text and instead mounted a Japanese sci-fi thriller, replete with statements from scientists. It is all about the autonomous life of financial markets and this eerie feeling that our world has been conquered by an alien power which is up to no good.

Gold Rush

„Money – It came from outer space“ by Chris Kondek and Christiane Kühl; © Thomas AurinLike Kuttner and Wächter, Kondek and Kühl are themselves present on stage in their production. Once again we had to do with a performative evening and were left waiting for the play on the theme, which Philipp Löhle then delivered in early 2011. Supernova (wie Gold entsteht) (Supernova [How Gold Is Made]) was premiered at the Mannheim National Theater and is a scenario about a gold rush in the northern Black Forest.

The supposed gold vein, however, is a chimera put into the world by an eternal intern. In the end we find ourselves again in Chekhov country: the starting point of the globally marauding capital flows lies in human relationships and in the greed for a comfortable life floated on bad checks.

Jürgen Berger
The author is a freelance drama and literary critic for the "Süddeutsche Zeitung", Berlin "Tageszeitung" and "Theater heute". From 2003 to 2007, he was a member of the Selection Committee of the Mülheim Dramatist Prize, and from 2007 to 2010 of the jury of the Berlin Theater Meeting. Since 2007, he has been a jury member for the Else Lasker Schüler Play Prize.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
March 2012

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