Tankred Dorst on his 90th birthday
Everlasting curiosity

Tankred Dorst and Ursula Ehler at the awarding ceremony of the Faust Prize 2012;
Tankred Dorst and Ursula Ehler at the awarding ceremony of the Faust Prize 2012; | Photo (detail): © Markus Nass

On 19 December 2015 we will celebrate Tankred Dorst’s 90th birthday. On this occasion I would like to write a few lines about this special person. To summarize a life full of creative power, curiosity and playful energy seems an impossible task, for his creativity has not been confined to only one artistic genre.

He wrote his first play when he was twelve years old. At fourteen Tankred stood in the square in front of the Coburg theatre, looked up into the single lighted window and behind it imagined a dramaturge presumably writing the great works of world literature to the end. Perhaps he then already made up his mind to re-think the significant figures of history and literature. Ernst Toller (Toller), Heinrich Heine (Harrys Kopf [i.e. Harry’s Head]), Knut Hamsun (Eiszeit [i.e. Ice Age]) were as much inspirations for Dorst as were mythical figures of fairy tales and legends, among them those from the Arthurian epic. His play Merlin oder Das wüste Land. (i.e. Merlin or the Waste Land) is still considered today a universal drama. Of this text Dorst says himself that it is a “quarry from which the director can knock off chunks for his production”. Since its premier at the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus in 1981, over more than a period of twenty years directors have shown in their own stagings the diversity and creative freedom allowed by Dorst’s text.

Dorst is one of the most successful international playwrights – performed, among other places, in Lisbon, Edinburgh, Bucharest and Vietnam. You might think that his literary creativity would already be well occupied. But he has also written works of prose, screenplays, radio plays, libretti, children’s plays and puppet plays. At the age of eighty he made his debut as an opera director at Bayreuth festival, staging the complete Ring of the Nibelungs. In his films Klaras Mutter (1978 / i.e. Klara’s Mother), Mosch (1980) and Eisenhans (1983 / i.e. Iron John), he seeks motifs that reveal the whereabouts of utopias, repeatedly poses the question about what constitutes a self-determined life, asks about the guilt and innocence of people and how and whether they can succeed in standing up against conventions. Shot in black-and-white, they are powerful and haunting auteur films, disconcerting, disturbing and uncomfortable because they refuse to follow an established narrative tradition.

Collaboration with Ursula Ehler

Dorst’s unconditional curiosity about material, people, the diversity of story-telling, reveals a true wealth of warmth and joy in dealing with people and their stories. What is truly marvelous is the constant dialogue that Dorst seeks. “Our life is a conversation”, he says of his collaboration with his wife and most important dialogue partner, Ursula Ehler. As an authors’ collective, they invent characters by talking about them, letting them collide with each other, living with them. The characters and their actions emerge in a dramaturgical ping-pong game of dramatic insights hit back and forth. In this creative process they often share their views, but they are also sufficiently different as to lead to “risky clashes”, as Ehler has said. Their joint work has now grown to forty plays. The unique artist couple met in the mid-1960s, during Dorst’s work on Toller. “He told me [of Toller]”, recalls Ehler, “and I couldn’t and wouldn’t sense that from this meeting would finally develop a great closeness, a web spun of life and work, in which we still move.” The play Eiszeit (i.e. Ice Age), premiered in Bochum in 1973, was their first joint work. “We’re re-writing theatre!” was the motto of the premiere’s director, Peter Zadek.

That was a time of great upheaval in Dorst’s writing, in which the theatre became a “workshop”. “The author has ideas, he delivers dialogue, constellations, dramatic occasions, raw material”, says Dorst. “Only on stage is the whole finally fixed, mounted, transformed into theatre.” Dorst and Ehler are writers who offer their thoughts about the world, their experiences, and want to provide stimuli. In 1992 they founded together with Manfred Beilharz the writers festival Bonn Biennale and created thereby a platform for new European drama. Their work as curators is marked by an unprejudiced, very contemporary and always reflective view of current drama.

As few others, Dorst and Ehler have lived through and shaped contemporary Germany post-war drama and theatre. With their plays and subjects, they have responded to the great changes that have taken place in the world; their theatre invariably has a direct reference to the present, is always contemporary art. With their diverse themes and their various keys, they have continually placed the theatre before new tasks, never serving but rather always challenging it.

Thank you so much, dear Tankred, for your everlasting curiosity!

Yvonne Büdenhölzer, our author, became acquainted with Tankred Dorst in 2000 when she was a guest student at the Bonn Biennale New Plays from Europe. Ten years later (in the 2009/2010 season) she was joint curator of the 10th edition of New Plays from Europe in Mainz and Wiesbaden with Dorst, Ursula Ehler and Manfred Beilharz. In 2012 she gave the encomium on Dorst and Ehler at the awarding of the Faust Prize. We asked her to write a personal congratulation for Goethe.de.