On the Death of Tankred Dorst
“We are the pain”

Tankred Dorst
He was one of the most important authors of contemporary German theatre: Tankred Dorst | © dpa; picture alliance / Fredrik von Erichsen/dpa

He was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize and the Max Frisch Prize, his life’s work was honoured with the theatre award “Der Faust”. Now Tankred Dorst has died. He was 91.

Tankred Dorst never had any illusions about the “dreadful state of the world”. “For the dramatist, utter hopelessness is a blessing because it supplies him with material”, the playwright once said. Thus for him the world with its myths and fairy tales, visions and conflicts, was a virtually inexhaustible set of props for his theatrical work. On Thursday, this great collector of stories died in his adopted home of Berlin.
In the past 50 years, Tankred Dorst wrote more than 50 plays – one of the most important and productive authors of contemporary German theatre. In December 2015, at a moving celebration of his 90th birthday, he announced that he was working on yet another play. “I want to bring out one more”, he said at the time, vigorous and spry, his only support the silver knob of his walking stick. Right to the end he let himself be seen, low-key and deeply interested, at literary events in the capital, for instance in the home of the former Suhrkamp head, Ulla Unseld-Berkéwicz.
To this day, his masterpiece is the anti-war play Merlin oder Das wüste Land, (Merlin or the Waste Land), which premiered in 1981 at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus. With its almost 400 pages, 97 scenes and up to 10 hours’ performance duration, his recasting of the Arthurian legend about Merlin, the wizard and son of the Devil, is a challenge for any ambitious dramaturge. “A magnificent projection of the end of the world, along the lines of Wagner’s Ring”, adjudged Die Zeit.
The end of the world. This was the leitmotif of Dorst’s life early on. His father, a factory owner from Oberlind in Thuringia, died when the boy was six years old. At 17 he was sent to the western front shortly before the end of the Second World War and ended up for several years as a prisoner of war of the Americans. Back home, he felt uprooted and disoriented, until work at a puppet theatre for adults in Munich during his university studies brought the turning point.
Westdeutsche Rundfunk took notice of him as early as his first major piece, Die Kurve, (The Curve), which premiered in Lübeck in 1960. Shortly thereafter began his long-term, productive collaboration with Peter Zadek, a “young genius from London”, as the publishing house put it at the time. Works such as Toller, Eiszeit (Ice Age) and Auf dem Chimborazo (On Chimborazo) came on the stage, pieces such as Korbes, Karlos and Herr Paul followed later. And films like Klaras Mutter (Klara’s Mother) and Eisenhans (Iron Hans) also arose. 
“In our decades”, said laudator Georg Hensel in 1990 at the Georg Büchner Prize award ceremony, “no other German playwright has commanded so many musical keys, such an organ keyboard width: sentimental, ingenuous, awkward, lyrical, humorous, ironic, sarcastic, cynically vulgar, mean as a snake – and always clear as crystal.” The common thread connecting all this throughout the great diversity of forms and themes remains human beings’ failure to achieve their utopia.
Since the early 1970’s Ursula Ehler, a scriptwriter 15 years his junior, was Dorst’s alter ego. She became his wife, and also his co-author for most of his works. “When one sees you together, one might think a stone is dancing”, said director and companion Hans Neuenfels at the 90th birthday party in Berlin.
It was just four years ago that Dorst moved to Berlin with his wife – after more than four decades in the more sedate Munich. „I wanted to do something new once more, said the author, who never shrank from experimentation in any case. In 2006, already 80 years old, he debuted as an opera director with a new production of Wagner’s Ring in Bayreuth – accompanied, however, by stormy booing.
Last summer, his final piece, Das Blau in der Wand (The Blue in the Wall), about an elderly couple conversing their way through life, premiered as a co-production by the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus with the Ruhrfestspielen in Recklinghausen. There, too, he held fast to his motto: “Above the entrance to my theatre I would write: We are not the doctors, we are the pain.”