The adaptation of a novel becomes a stage cult

„Tschick“ at the Hans Otto Theater, Potsdam, director: Sascha Hawemann, f.l.t.r.: Eddie Irle (Tschick), Florian Schmidtke (Maik), Juliane Götz (Isa); © HL Böhme
„Tschick“ at the Hans Otto Theater, Potsdam, director: Sascha Hawemann, f.l.t.r.: Eddie Irle (Tschick), Florian Schmidtke (Maik), Juliane Götz (Isa) | Photo (detail): © HL Böhme

Within a year of the release of Wolfgang Herrndorf’s novel about youth, its theatre adaptation has become the most frequently performed young people’s play on German-language stages.

Referring not too long ago to the great beatnik novel of freedom, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), the singer and poet Adam Greene said: “I’m going to write the equivalent of On the Road for my generation. It’s going to be called Stay Home”. Stay home: that is the appropriate credo for a time when reality is preferably experienced via smartphone, television or internet on the home sofa. No wonder, then, it was not really to be expected that our epoch would get another forceful narrative of the great break-out, of life on the road, of allurements beyond the mainstream in the mould of On the road – until Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Tschick appeared.

Young people’s classic and cult play

The story of two young people who steal a Lada during the summer holidays so as to make off for Walachia, but then end up wandering around Brandenburg and Saxony encountering all sorts of quirky locals, already caused a sensation when it was published in 2010. “This will be a novel we still want to read fifty years hence. But it would be better to begin reading it straightaway”, exulted the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It rained awards, including the 2010 German Youth Literature Award and induction into the canon of literature read in the schools. There Herrndorf’s work has joined the ranks of similar anti-establishment classics such as Goethe’s Werther, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Hermann Hesse’s Unterm Rad (Beneath the Wheel) – a book that Herrndorf has discussed in relation to Tschick at his blog Arbeit und Struktur (i.e., Work and Structure). The prophecy that this novel will still be read fifty years from now is likely to come true.

Almost parallel to the success of the book began the stage phenomenon of Tschick. In 2011 the Dresden State Theatre published the stage version by its chief dramaturge Robert Koall, the only one so far authorized by Rowohlt Publishers. In an interview, Koall has emphasized that the plan for a stage version was framed before the novel’s triumphal march. He was friends with Herrndorf and had read the manuscript prior to publication. Tschick was premiered at the State Theatre’s small studio stage with a capacity of about one hundred seats. Soon thereafter the production, by Jan Gehler, was moved to the main stage of the Kleines Haus, with a capacity of about four hundred seats; and in February 2014 the play celebrated its one hundredth performance. Elsewhere too Tschick has filled the house. As of March 2014, fifty stages in Germany, Austria and Switzerland have performed Koall’s adaptation of the novel. A further nine productions have already been agreed upon. What is it then about this theatre blockbuster?
Staatsschauspiel Dresden: “Tschick” after the novel of Wolfgang Herrndorf (Youtube)

A great journey

Tschick is by no means a novel that insists upon being realized on the stage. Whereas the often currently performed realists such as Thomas Mann, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy conceived their epic novels with a view to dialogue and provide ample material for classical forms of dramatisation, Tschick lives completely from the sound track of the narrator, that is, is narrative through and through.

And this narrator is a marvel of superficial juvenile knowledge. When, for instance, at the start of their road trip, the boys discover a music cassette in the purloined Lada, the scene unfolds as follows: “It was called Richard Clayderman: The Solid Gold Collection, and actually it wasn’t music, rather a tinkling of the ivories, Mozart”. Thus the novel constantly plays with ambiguous jokes. On the surface, it is perfectly youth-compatible and shot through with authentic-seeming youth speak. “Stylistically dubious grammar school boy prose sprinkled with commonplace ideas” – so Herrndorf has described the novel at his blog. But beneath the surface, it conveys punchlines to a maximally informed reader who knows why it is pretty outrageous, yet not wholly false, to lump together the entertainment pianist Clayderman and Mozart.

The play of punchlines in the book is shot through with pop culture and media savvy. The heroes, Maik Klingenberg and Andrej Tschichatschow, alias “Tschick”, are at home in the world of TV and computer games like Grand Theft Auto, and their accident-prone tour of the provinces reads like an extension of gaming experiences, as the literary scholar Moritz Baßler has recently shown. When the boys want to know whether the Walachia to which they are headed is a real place or only a figure of speech like “in the back of beyond” or “somewhereville” (as Maik says), they ask Wikipedia. Herrndorf’s Tschick has an exact knowledge of every point on the media horizon and in its models in literary works such as Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and in the genre of road movies, whose plots the novel is based on. In this sense Adam Greene’s dictum pans out here too: Tschick is On the Road for the “stay home” generation.

Adaptation for the stage

Koall has created a consistent adaptation for the stage, which strongly relies on the narrator’s voice and at the same time faithfully goes through the paces of the plot. He thus places the work in the new tradition of an emphatically epic theatre, such as is cultivated by Armin Petras: Maik, the narrator, relates the plot standing directly before the audience. At various points, his narration is underscored by scenes of dialogue: the visit to the eco-family; the meeting with the scruffy but erotically attractive Isa; the episodes with the World War II veteran Fricke and the speech therapist in the BMW 5 series.

The danger of slipping into exaggerated caricature in these quickly drawn scenes is not slight. This applies especially when, like Sascha Hawemann in Potsdam, you have the actors switch roles among the main characters Maik, Tschick and Isa and the other figures of the novel with the aid of wigs and costumes. Such caricatures do not detract from the appeal of the play for a comedy-hardened young public, but it does shrink the deliberately “cool” stance of the original.

Koall’s stage version makes two major changes in the plot of the novel: unlike in the book, the main character, Maik, is not placed at the finale before the choice between his heartthrob, his “superporno”-looking classmate Tatjana, and his travelling acquaintance Isa. The return to Tatjana is missing; everything points in the direction of Isa, the wild thing from the rubbish dump. Koall regrets this alteration himself, but sees it as being required by dramaturgical considerations: “From the moment that the accident occurs and the road trip is over, the energy of the plot is heading towards its termination”, he says. Scenes had to be dropped from the concluding part of the book.

And Koall makes Tschick himself the narrator of the final court hearing, which treats the car theft, the accidents and generally the “neglect” under which the young people have suffered (Tschick, thre son of an immigrant, comes from a disadvantaged background; Maik is considered a victim of affluent neglect). Thus the hero of the title, who in the novel is disturbingly absent from the concluding scene, receives a prominent role at the end of the play. And the finale here looks more like a happy end. It thus moves more in the direction of the genre of young people’s literature.