Annual meeting of the Dramaturgical Society On the Stage, the Spoken Word Prevails

Annual meeting of the Dramaturgical Society “Speaking on Stage – and about Theatre”
Annual meeting of the Dramaturgical Society “Speaking on Stage – and about Theatre” | Photo (detail): © Wolfgang Katzameier

In January 2013 the annual meeting of the Dramaturgical Society took place in Munich; its theme: “Speaking on Stage – and about Theatre”

The splendid Doris Schade, one of the great actresses of the Munich Kammerspiele, is said to have still known it: that magical acoustic point, somewhere at the centre of the stage, from where an actor could be heard perfectly by the last rows of the audience. But even if she took the secret with her to the grave, her colleagues today would not have lost much. The days of the ideal of the actor as the eloquent voice and apostle of the poet are as gone in the contemporary theatre as is the notion that the audience must always understand everything. With respect to his speaking skills, the contemporary actor is an artist of understatement. He should sound as normal and natural as possible and never make a “drama” of a play. He approaches the play with ironic detachment, performs the script and himself as well. He changes the jargon and the pitch with the agility of a post-modern player. He roars and sings into mikes, and for intimate moments he has a microport.

The criticism that comes with this is well-known: the word is in retreat and the art of speaking is in decline on the German stage. You can take whatever position you like on this, but what Julia Lochte, the chief dramaturge at the Munich Kammerspiele, says is surely true, namely that such complaints “are as old as the theatre itself”. That today there is no longer any reliably upscale stage language, and rather a variety of languages, linguistic resources and forms of language, Lochte regards not as a loss in a globalised and multi-lingual world, but rather as an “achievement” – all the more so as all these techniques can be “used” in a highly “differentiated manner”.

The art of speaking

This was also the general view at the annual meeting of the Dramaturgical Society (Dramaturgische Gesellschaft / DG) in Munich. Under the heading “The Spoken Word Shall Prevail”, more than 250 dramaturges, directors and other theatre professionals discussed the subject “Speaking on the Stage – and about the Theatre”. The basic assumption was also a conclusion: even if the classical drama has lost its primacy in theatre, the theatre is still a “scene of language”.

On the stage, the spoken word prevails. This is all the more so when the written word is no longer felt to be holy and inviolable. But direct speech is not the only one true means of communication. The languages of technical resources such as film, video, microphones, voice-overs and the ever popular microports each contributes its own to the polyphony of the post-dramatic theatre, detaches body and voice, creates alienation and fade-over effects, deranges the senses and causes consternation. Physical and visual language has caught up with spoken language, accompanies it, trumps its, disrupts it, generate tensions and shifts of meaning. All this flows into what today we call “stage language”. This no longer means (only) exemplary diction, as used to prevail in theatre beginning in the nineteenth century.

Historically considered, the establishment of a uniform, dialect-free stage language was a step towards unifying the nation. Whereas since the eighteenth century the inhabitants of the German lands had already been using a very uniform written language, people in upper, middle and lower Germany still spoke each in their own dialect. Only on the stage did German-speakers cultivate a kind of artistic-declamatory pronunciation based on the written language. In his “Rules for Actors” (1803), Goethe already laid down that “Provincialism is no good on the stage! There only the pure pronunciation of German should prevail ...!”

Stage language instead of dialect

To have raised the stage pronunciation of German to the norm was the work of the philologist Theodor Siebs (1862-1941). At his initiative, a panel of experts convened in Berlin in April 1898 to create a canon of German pronunciation, in which the North German phonetic articulation was clearly given precedence. Sieb published the result of this consultation in the same year, the standard work Deutsche Bühnenaussprache (i.e., German Stage Pronunciation), called Siebs for short. It made the stage language the “preceptor of Germany”, the touchstone for the whole of standard German. The code included the impeccable pronunciation of vowels and diphthongs, the strict distinction between voiced (b, d, g) and unvoiced (p, t, k) consonants and the rolled “tongued R”. The textbook Der kleine Hey (i.e., The Concise Hey) is based on Sieb’s work. Although in the 1920s the advent of radio greatly changed people’s speech and listening habits, in the theatre Sieb’s stage language still held sway.

Old recordings of famous actors, such as the phonetician Uwe Hollmach played at the DG conference in a pleasing and relevant lecture on the subject of pronunciation, show very well how speaking style and the feeling for language have changed with the times. For example, the legendary actor Josef Kainz (1858-1910) in the role of Hamlet: what a pathetic tremolo! Kainz was regarded as the most modern speaker of his time; today his declamation sounds exaggerated, artificial, kitschy. The break with pathos took place, as Hollmach explained, only after the First World War, “not least as a result of Brecht’s work”.

Everyday language

If the language of the stage once shaped the language of society, today it is the reverse. The theatre takes everything it can into its voracious mouth. Hand in hand with the wide variety of prose content that it uses, with all the novel and film adaptations, the amateur actors and citizen choruses, goes a change in the speaker. The stage is now dominated by a “stylised everyday language” (Hollmach), varied and combined with a range of speaking styles and techniques. In the best case, they are suited “to bringing together the most diverse communities”, as Stefanie Carp, head of the Vienna Festival, describes an important task of contemporary theatre. René Pollesch’ turbo discourse loops, Volker Lösch’s choruses and Elfriede Jelinek’s text surfaces that raise language to the true protagonist are part of this spectrum just as are the disconcertingly gentle hyper-realism of Alvis Hermanis or a trilingual production like Sebastian Nübling’s Three Kingdoms.

No, theatre is far from finished with language. The film and theatre director Andres Veiel (Der Kick [i.e., The Kick], Das Himbeerreich [i.e., The Raspberry Empire]) reinforced in his opening address that the theatre should “focus on the spoken word”, for in times of multi-media image enhancement it is “hardly perceived as something of its own”. To place the flood of images, language encodings and signs again in context, to make them again “worth hearing”, is, he said, the challenge today. “Here the theatre finds a blank space that no other medium can fill”.