Novels in the theatre Bestsellers ready for the stage

Franz Kafkas “Amerika” at the Munich Kammerspiele;
Franz Kafkas “Amerika” at the Munich Kammerspiele; | Photo (detail): © Münchner Kammerspiele

There are more and more productions of novels on the German stage. They bring a new and younger audience into the theatre, but are not quite convincing.

Since there have been films, directors have used novels as models. Early sound films such as The Blue Angel, based on Heinrich Mann’s Professor Unrat, made the literary original popular. Many film adaptations outshone the long-forgotten novels they were based on. For most people, Gone with the Wind is above all a screen epic; Margaret Mitchell’s book is far less well-known. The same applies to Boris Pasternak’s novel about the Russian revolution, Doctor Zhivago. Film and novel are an ideal match: moving pictures make the model on paper come to life.

All the more surprising that the theatre managed to make do for so long without the adaptation of epic prose. Genuinely dramatic material dominated. The cultivation and updating of the classics was the order of the day; together with the great writers of modernism, they ruled the stage. An early exception was Tankred Dorst’s and Peter Zadek’s 1972 Bochum revue version of Hans Fallada’s Kleiner Mann – was nun? (Little Man, What Now?). It showed the playful possibilities afforded by a stage adaptation of a novel, and the freedom it yielded directors by comparison with a text already written in the form of a drama. Free of a history of reception, previous productions and canonical views, an adaptation for the theatre can find its own way into the text and bring out new points.

Kafka appeals to directors

Out of isolated experiments, there arose around the turn of the millennium a larger development. Since then, German-language theatre can no longer be imagined without adaptations of prose texts. Thus, in the 2013/2014 season, the Munich Kammerspiele produced Kafka’s Amerika and Der Prozess (The Trial), and the Thalia Theater in Hamburg also performed both works. Kafka appeals to German dramaturges and directors in any case. There have been several productions of Ein Bericht für eine Akademie (A Report to an Academy), Das Schloss (The Castle) and Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis). But huge epochal novels, charged with characters, such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, have also found their way on to the stage.

Contemporary novels are also among the material adapted for the theatre. But an experiment such as the adaptation of Dietmar Dath’s complex novel Die Abschaffung der Arten (The Abolition of the Species) at the Mainz Staatstheater is the exception. Bestsellers dominate, the theatre thus fetching the book’s success on to the stage, as in the case of Tschick, the celebrated young people’s novel by the late author Wolfgang Herrndorf, who died in 2013. The return to linear, traditional story-telling also has something to do with the goal of presenting prominent names, well-known material and popular content. Marketing considerations, tending the cultural heritage and theatre education concerns go hand in hand here. If you talk with directors and dramaturges about the boom of the novel in the theatre, you hear many explanations of the phenomenon. It is repeatedly said how important it is to offer something for the schools. In many cases, theatre educators already work together with them in advance.

Three hours on the stage are not enough for 1,000 pages

In this way theatre is fulfilling the mission of being a kind of living museum for literature that might otherwise be forgot. On the other hand, many productions betray that this kind of maintenance has its downside. Two or three hours on the stage are not enough to give more than a rough idea of the plot of a novel of several hundred or even thousand pages. Ideally, the evening will be carried by strong main characters, but critics frequently fault superficial scene hopping, resembling time-lapse photography and presenting a potpourri of well-known highlights. Gerhard Stadelmeier, the theatre critics of the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung, sees even a fundamental opposition between the novel and the theatre: “Whoever narrates, asserts. He is outside himself. Whoever performs, creates. He is within himself. In the theatre, the narrator is boring”.

The stage can seldom keep up with the imagination of the novel reader, in whose head there is something like a cinema. Film’s bag of tricks is also largely closed to theatre. It makes shift with video recordings, text spoken from the off, lots of music and all kinds of lighting magic. Like film adaptations, when stage adaptations succeed they create something new. Otherwise the hope remains that one or other member of the audience will leave the theatre with the intention of reading the novel again.