Theatre Scene and Trends

Family Teichoscopy – how theater makers explore national history

Peter Handkes „Immer noch Sturm” (Still a Storm), Thalia Theater Hamburg; © Armin SmailovicThe family has always been at the center of drama. Recently, authors, directors and actors have recalled traumatic moments in the history of their homelands with autobiographical theater texts.

It is not only this personal-poetic tone of Peter Handke’s Immer noch Sturm (Still a Storm) that has made of the text the most successful theater production of the 2011/2012 season. It is also the interleaving of a family story with the national trauma of Slovenia in the time of the world wars of the twentieth century, which Handke’s imagined family constellation makes sound authentic and rooted in history. The interplay of family and national history gives the question about the state of the “family”, which has always been one of interest in drama, a historical dimension.

Handke’s familial teichoscopy (or “viewing from a wall”) is also a pilgrimage through the history of the Slovenian minority in southern Austria, and Dimiter Gotscheff has staged the epic text for the Hamburg Thalia Theater and the Salzburg Festival as a bittersweet family fairy tale. But the dramatic poem and its premier is only one example of how theater makers are operating with explorations of national history and putting their finger on sore points.

Life after

The hitherto most radical form of dramatic family research was carried out by Lola Arias’s Mi vida después in 2009. Together with six Argentine actors, the Argentine author, musician, actress and director explored their family biographies. The question was: What happened and what did members of my family do during the Argentine military dictatorship? The results were shattering. One actress discovered that her brother was abducted by the military as a child and that her parents were part of the system of oppression and torture. The family went to pieces.

A picture emerged of Argentina at the time of the military dictatorship. One also understood the havoc such family secrets that are entangled with state entities have wreaked in the time after. My Life After (Mi vida después) became the blueprint for a number of similar projects in Latin America that were shown at the Vienna Festival in 2012 under the title Life After. There were productions from Chile, Columbia and Mexico, and also Lola Arias’s Melancholy and Protest: a study of the manic-depressive illness of her mother that broke out at the time of the military dictatorship.

Traitors to the homeland

Oliver Frljić „Verdammt sei der Verräter seiner Heimat” (Damned Be the Traitor of His Homeland), Slovensko mladinsko gledalisce, Ljubljana; performance at the festival New Plays from Europe; © Martin KaufholdThe theater of family history research works not only on the other side of the Atlantic. It has also inspired theater makers in the successor states of former Yugoslavia to address the profound ethnic turmoil that erupted during and after the Balkan wars of the 1990s. What happens when authors, directors and actors seek words and images for their own childhoods in times of civil war could be seen at the end of June 2012 at New Plays from Europe, the theater biennial of the Wiesbaden State Theater in cooperation with the Mainz State Theater.

The author, director and performer Oliver Frljić was represented by two plays, and in the first one, Verdammt sei der Verräter seiner Heimat (Damned Be the Traitor of His Homeland), he quoted the last line of the now splintered Yugoslavia’s former national anthem. The atmosphere of these improvised pieces is aggressive. Frljić evokes his own childhood in summoning up memories of the time when, with the death of Tito, the multi-ethnic state began to disintegrate.

Oliver Frljić „Ich hasse die Wahrheit” (I Hate the Truth), Tatar & TD Zagreb; performance at the festival New Plays from Europe; © Martin KaufholdThis play by Frljić, who was born in 1976 in Bosnia-Herzegovina and landed at the age of sixteen in Croatia as a war immigrant, was originally performed at the Slovenian young people’s theater Slovensko Mladinsko Gledalisce. He staged his family constellation play Ich hasse die Wahrheit, on the other hand, as a chamber performance at the Croatian Tatar & TD in Zagreb. In this piece he interrupts the intimacy of the action again and again by introducing himself as the director and posing the question about the degree to which we can trust stories about the search for identity hawked by families and nations.


Selma Spahić, „Hypermnesie” Bitef Theater Belgrad; performance at the festival New Plays from Europe; © Lena ObstIn this point he converged with Selma Spahić, whose research project Hypermnesie is remarkable if only because of the circumstance that Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina all cooperated on this co-production. The participating actors came from the three republics and the underlying stories work like a puzzle of “hypermemory” whose individual parts indicate the marks left by war in the regions of former Yugoslavia on the actors’ childhoods and biographies.

Spahić staged the play at the Bitef Tatar in Belgrade. It presents rapid role changes and revue-like insights into family histories. In contrast to Frljić, who harbors doubts about the truth of narratives, Spahić, who was born in 1986 in Bosnia- Herzegovina, affirms moments of truthful remembrance. These are ultimately the poles between which the recollective realization of family and national traumas moves.

Jürgen Berger
The author is a freelance theater and literary critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, taz and Theater heute. He was a member of the selection committee of the Mülheim Dramatist Prize from 2003 to 2007 and of the jury of the Berlin Theater Meeting until 2010. He has been a jury member of the Else Lasker-Schüler Plays Prize since 2007 and, again, a member of the Mülheim selection committee since 2012.

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

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