Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Same place, another country by Johanna Schall

Presented at the Conference

Performing The new Europe - Toronto Nov. 2009


Rehearsing democracy OR a post-melancholic review of not quite a revolutionary production


from Greek demokratia "popular government," from demos "common people," originally "district" + kratos "rule, strength".

April 1989 to March 1990 at the Deutsches Theatre

08.04.1989 Brendan Behan, The Hostage

24.06.1989 Alfred de Musset, On ne Badine Pas Avec l"Amour


01.09.1989 Joerg Michael Koerbl, Old men at the sea

02.09.1989 Paul Claudel, Partage de midi

14.10.1989 Werner Buhss, The Fortress

13.01.1990 Ulrich Plenzdorf, Neither down nor far

30.01.1990 Eugène Ionesco, The Bald Soprano

02.02.1990 Sewan Latchinian, Berlin

24.03. 1990 William Shakespeare / Heiner Müller, Hamlet / Hamlet–Machine

Vorstellung = performance

Vorstellung = imagination/idea

Vorstellung = introduction


1989. When we, the members of the Deutsches Theater, started to become active much too late, our country was already in uproar. This belated impulse led to the “production” that I want to introduce you to.

The dramaturgy was written by the circumstances and by sudden turns of politics, the fable by history, the rhythm by outside pressure and inner fear and cowardice. All during this production the relationship between audience and stage, actor and character, realistic genre and surrealist form constantly shifted.

There was a dress rehearsal only. The reviews are ambivalent, some call it a failure, some a success.

But first the usual daily business. That fall we were rehearsing The Bald Soprano. In the second scene two strangers meet and after exchanging information in a strictly formalized tone find that they both arrived in town by train this very morning and are in fact married. The fact does not seem to trigger a lot of delight. In hindsight I would say that this foreshadowed the reunification that would come over us all not much than a year later.

The Deutsches Theatre

The Deutsches Theatre was a repertory company under the direct responsibility of the Ministry of Culture of the GDR. The actors were technically 'civil servants' and paid by the government.

It had two stages, an ensemble of about 86 actors and 300 people in the technical department and administration and a repertoire of about 30 plays, shown to sold out houses every evening.

Founded in 1850 with Max Reinhardt, Otto Brahm, Wolfgang Langhoff, Wolfgang Heinz and Dieter Mann as its directors, it had a long and impressive history. Many of its actors were extremely famous in the GDR, and many were members of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. It was something like a “safe” space, under the constant scrutiny of the party, but given much more leeway than other institutions. Many had, as had I, passports for professional and private use – “being a-socialised by privilege” as Peter Konwitschny called it.

Theatre As A Public Space

All areas of public life and specifically the arts were tightly state-controlled and censored; the knowledge of being “overheard” at most times was deeply imbedded into the common psyche

– Theatre situation: Being aware that there was always the possibility of somebody listening in, whatever you said in public or semi-public circumstances was an act of acting by taking into account the unwanted audience and their interpretation.

In this situation of the'Theatre as a public space"the people in the audience developed their own talents in the art of decoding and deciphering.

Theatre situation: The art of the spectator expands, from consuming, towards interpretation, translation. He has to agree or disagree, and becomes an active participant of the event.

In Moscow, on a tour the audience silenced the official speaker by applauding him to death.

The stage can say the truth without having to vocalize it: allusions, innuendo, encoding, scrambling are known techniques. Contradictions of text, movement and/or theatrical situation are others. The metaphorical language of the stage was transformed into an autonomous political assertion, dissociated from the actual play.

Jürgen Gosch „Leonce and Lena“ the government old, blind and with string bags full of oranges / Alexander Lang „A Midsummernights Dream“ the wall! / „Danton’s Death“ Georg Büchner at home and in Zürich – In Berlin 15 minutes of standing ovations for content as well as for aesthetics; in Zürich: “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you'll just rattle your jewelery.“ (John Lennon).

In connection with the political changes of the eighties the repertoire of the east–German theatres had changed. From 87/88 there appeared more critical GDR– and Soviet–plays. A significant number of those had been banned before, some of them for decades. (Heiner Müller’s „Der Lohndrücker“). Censorship did not vanish but it became „perforated“.

Volker Braun „Kipper“ „The GDR is the most boring country in the world“1973; “Dictatorship of conscience” (Mikhail Schatrov 1985).

Theater of resistance? NO! Most of us were cowards, which means very few went as far as we could have in speaking up without endangering ourselves. We thought and spoke with a „forked tongue“, you could call it a highly developed language of slaves.

The Audience

After 89 the former pressure dome was suddenly gone, we were not dealing with an homogenous audience anymore that primarily agreed with us, united more or less by a hunger for discussion and eager for any real or imagined grain of double meaning, but with a multitude of different individuals and interests. The former intimacy was gone, even if it was an imagined one.

Also, our efforts to position ourselves politically were met with growing disinterest or incomprehension. We had lived off being the only media where (if only indirectly, but at least indirectly), another opinion than the official one could be heard. Now everybody could say anything any time.

"Where censorship is gone the play lacks a dimension. This „AGAINST“ is a huge driving force for the writer and the actor too. It is an incentive to get something through." (Monzier 2003)

"You cannot take this time as a normal one for theatre, for the arts. Theater-people weren’t only privileged they were spoilt. " (Johanna Schall, in Ullrich, 1991).

"For years we tried to compensate with our productions what journalism could not do, was not allowed to do. This can harm the acting. We have to concentrate on art now. " (Ulrich Mühe, Theatre Heute, December 1989).

May 1989

The communal elections end with the usual 99% for the candidates, but this time the falsification of the outcome was talked about, in quiet voices but there was an anger simmering. People were leaving the country left and right, using the penetrable border of Hungary and later via the Republic of Czechoslovakia. Colleagues of ours with pending requests to leave the GDR had to go on tour into Western Countries, leaving their families as hostages at home.

The Berlin Theatre Festival had, for the first time, participants from East Germany, including the Deutsches Theatre with Heiner Müller's Der Lohndrücker / The Scab.

I was one of three union workplace representatives of my ensemble. We got elected by the ensemble and had the responsibility to sit in on appraisal talks, voice questions and suggestions of the ensemble to the artistic and administrative directors and react to union specific problems. This changed now. From here on we were organizers of discontent. An exhilarating experience!

The theatre had a bulletin board for union matters, party matters, nothing else. In June 1989 the actor Thomas Neumann, another union workplace representative of the ensemble, nailed a new board to the wall. Everybody was invited to speak up.

Every two weeks Thomas Neumann took the board, carried it into the archive to Hans Rübesame the archivist up in the attic. He put the bulletins into files. The first contained everything from June to October. For November and December of 1989 he needed two files. The whole year 1990 fit into one.

We organized countless meetings, invitations to high party members:

Hans–Joachim Hoffmann minister of culture

Kurt Hager since 1955 Secretary of the Central Committee of the “SED”, responsible for science, education and culture

Ellen Brombacher, Secretary of culture of the Berlin branch of the “SED”

Ursula Ragwitz, director of the department of culture of the Central Committee of the “SED”.

Theatre situation: Those people were used to solo shows, they decided when and where to appear: come, talk and get applauded. The tenser the political situation outside became, the stranger their appearances, very theatrical stances, more and more surreal arguments (Ellen Brombacher and her Jewish grandparents, Ursula Ragwitz and her arms)

September 10, 1989

GDR–civil rights activists initiate the founding of the Neue Forum/ New Forum. They call for a democratic dialogue, to find „ways out of the current situation of crisis“. The ministry of the interior declines the accreditation of the organization. Nevertheless they have a huge following, among them many theatre people.

October 7, 1989

40th birthday of the republic, a first meeting of Berlin theatre-people takes place in the Volksbuehne. Three days earlier the ensemble of the Dresden State theatre had read its statement „ We step out of our characters. The situation in our country forces us to do so.“ to their audience and invited them to open discussions. In the following weeks we would read that statement after each performance, which would be followed by talks.

Theatre situation: we would read this after performances, interrupting the applause, a very un-actor like thing. There were long discussions about such questions (perhaps, in hindsight, such dubious questions) as: Who should read, Leading actor or political activist? Should it be read after a classical play even though it would not „fit“? And the talks itself: For obvious reasons we were not used to public discussions of difficult political questions. These were rehearsals in democracy: listening to somebody trying to express himself, not interrupting, to tolerate conflicting opinions, even really stupid ones and all the time knowing that the omnipresent ears of the powers that be were listening too, looking for provocation.

We step out of our characters

We step out of our characters. The situation in our country forces us to do so.

A country that cannot keep its youth endangers its future.

A government that does not speak with its people is not credible.

A party leadership that does not examine its principles for their practicability is doomed.

A people that is forced into speechlessness, starts to turn violent.

The truth has to be heard. Our work is part of this country. We will not allow this country to be destroyed. ...

Resolution von Kollegen des
Staatsschauspiels Dresden

October 15, 1989

Following the rotation principle suggested at the last meeting in the Volksbühne, the next gathering was at the Deutsches Theatre. About 600 attendees adopt a resolution, condemning the brutal arrest of peaceful protestors in Berlin on October 7th and 8th. They demand punishment for those responsible.

Thomas Neumann was the chairman of this meeting, having taken to anti-anxiety pills before. The theatre was stuffed. The list of speakers grew by the minute. Little notes were handed around. The discussion was passionate and urgent.

To answer legal questions we had invited a well-known lawyer, Gregor Gysi. A side remark of his about the possibility of legally applying for a demonstration led to the foundation of the „Initiative 4/11“. It was decided that we would apply “for a permit to hold a protest demonstration for the freedoms of expression, the press and assembly.

According to formal law all demonstrations up till now had been illegal

The “Gewerkschaft Kunst” (Artist’s union) gets appointed to take the necessary steps.

Theatre situation: Next to genuine concern and rage and fear there was also an element of play-acting in these proceedings. Like kids pretending to be grown-ups, we tried our hand at enacting the democratic process. You must not forget that for many of us that had lived their whole life in the GDR, the idea of profound change was like a fairy tale: unrealistic, and a figment of the imagination. We were sitting in a theatre when the date for the demonstration was decided upon, and rather fittingly, we applauded ourselves, like an audience does when the outcome of a show is surprising. Suspension of disbelief would correctly describe the overall feeling.

28. October 1989

The Deutsches Theatre starts a series of readings with Walter Janka’s memories “Difficulties with the truth”. Ulrich Mühe read while the author was there in front of a more then full house.

Theatre situation: There was nearly no reaction in the auditorium during the whole reading. Silence. A silence that meant nobody wanted to give any cause for the event to be prematurely terminated.

As head of the Aufbau publishing house in East Berlin, he was arrested in 1956 and sentenced to five years in a penitentiary in a show trial in 1957, along with Wolfgang Harich and others, for allegedly forming a “counter-revolutionary group.” Janka was released in 1960 due to persistent international protests.

The 4th of November

On the morning of 4 November 1989, approximately 500,000 demonstrators (sometimes the number is said to have been nearly a million) made their way through East Berlin’s center. At the end, a rally was held on Alexanderplatz at which 22 or 27, depending who you ask, speakers took the floor.

Article 27

All citizens have the right, within the limits of universally applicable laws, to express their opinion freely and publicly and to hold unarmed and peaceful assemblies for that purpose. This freedom shall not be restricted by any service or employment status, and no one may be discriminated against for exercising this right.

There is no press censorship.

Artikel 28
All citizens have the right within the limits of the principles and aims of the constitution to assemble peacefully.

What beautiful words. Not at all connected with real life in the GDR, but beautiful nonetheless.

The huge demonstration on November 4th 1989 on Alexander place was the dress rehearsal for the Wende (The rebound / the end of communism / the velvet revolution) – also for the personnel of the Deutsches Theatre. Tobi Müller 23. October 2009 Die Welt online

Theatre situation: What can I say about that day? “We are the people!”

Only a short time later it would change to “We are one people!”

»Beforehand, there were solid arguments and discrepancies as to whom one... should let speak. Many criticized speakers like Markus Wolf, Günther Schabowski and Manfred Gerlach. But my opinion was that the spectrum of speakers should be as broad as that which the whole collapsing GDR had to offer ... But then again and again we had to demand of the crowd, who flared up at the hard-liners, to let them talk and to listen carefully, because often enough these speakers exposed themselves.« (Henning Schaller)

And then on came Heiner Müller, he had had a short talk with some people, who pushed a piece of paper into his hand. He read it on the podium; it was about the necessity of new unions for the fights in the coming changes in the economy. The audience did not like that! He got booed. Which he accepted very gracefully.

A security partnership was agreed upon with the police, who hardly made an appearance. Actors with green and yellow sashes and the inscription »No Violence« acted as supervisors. The costume department of the State Opera sewed them, the grandest opera they ever worked for.

I had this theatrical image in my head: The people rehearsing open air, compact, in just a few hours, a part, that it never before played historically. For a play that quite possibly had already been cancelled.(Walfriede Schmidt)


Even in 1989 the performers preached to the masses. Here the antique constellation was reached, the climax of GDR theatre. Not as criticism but as an allocation of quality.

How they spoke to the masses from the podium, how pathos discredited itself and was still effective, how political arguments came, after the train had already left and still the waiting mass was standing in front of the palace (of the republic); all this makes this rally an enormous example of our times. They stood in front of the palace without attacking, plague ridden in humiliating abasement.

The visual documents of the rally are proof that the antique constellation is alive, cannot be modernized or outdistanced. The antique constellation

brands the effeminacy and decadence of bourgeois theatre, it consciously refuses to embrace political themes and goes on stage to circumvent them.

The Tragedy is that the performers while pronouncing their political criticism on the podium adhere to the bourgeois theatre, are its confident interpreters.

Aus: Einar Schleef: Diaries. 1981–1998 © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 2009

The Bald Soprano and November 9th

November 9th, a short sketch on TV – Günter Schabowski: “I think it says right now…” and everything changed!

This young guy jumping back and forth over the border: I’m here, I’m there, I’m here ...

Theatre situation: All these people that changed face / mask within the day, without seemingly to have any knowledge of it.

Georg Büchner: “We will rip off their masks!

One can only hope that their faces will not come off with them.”

An absurdist play suddenly metamorphosed into a realistic description of the happenings on the streets. The audience embraced it as a nearly too precise mirroring of their situation.

In the final moments, the hostile anger that emerges as the play’s strongest emotion grows in potency as any semblance of meaning expressed in language breaks down. Discourse simply implodes into babble, word fragments strung together by sounds, not by the association of ideas. Words lose their symbolic value altogether, thus language utterly fails, leaving the Smiths and Martins in frustrated rage. The basis of that rage is completely lost in a torrent of nonsense. At that point, “language is used almost physically, as a kind of bludgeon or blunt instrument” and the audience is “physically assaulted by the barrage of quasi-meaningless sounds emitted by the characters on stage.”

John W. Fiero

K…. K….. Ka…Ka… Kanacke!

The Months After

November 12th, 1989

Three days after the wall fell, crumbled, whatever, the ensemble of the Deutsche Opera in Westberlin gives a free performance of „The Magic Flute“ for visitors from the GDR.

August 1990

The Unification Treaty of both German states is signed. Article 35 states that the cultural substance of the „acceding territory“ shall not be damaged.

Berlin will be the future capital, but the Eastern part of the city will not be part of the „acceding territory“. Because of this it will not have the right for special subsidies. At the same time West-Berlin loses special subsidies paid until now by the Federal government. This leads to a grave financial crisis in Berlin.

Those first years of what people called either “unification” or “reunification” depending on their political sensibilities were marked by a sort of bleak euphoria in East Berlin. Euphoria because of the sudden lifting of restrictions, the limitations on what you might be allowed to study, buy or read, or where you might be allowed to travel, bleak because all of this was tempered by new economic realities.

It soon became clear that the financially as well as politically dominant West Germany would determine which aspects of “Eastness” would remain and which would be erased.

I don’t think anyone who lived in the East would seriously have wished at any point for a return to that system after 1989, but many chafed against the apparent assumption that everything about life in the East had been shabby, substandard or misguided. For many, the glass had been half full.


Posted by Susan Bernofsky




But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad

Walks over the dew yon eastern hill.


Doch seht, der Morgen geht im roten Mantel

Über den Tau des Hügels dort im Osten.


But look, the morning goes in a red coat

Over the dew of the hill there in the east.


Transcript: Conversation between Heiner Müller and Alexander Kluge



Hamlet is the longest play in world literature, in terms of the quantity of text. And we cut almost nothing, because almost everything in the play is important now. And that was also what I was thinking about in '88, after The Scab [Lohndrücker], whether I perhaps needed to do another production in order to hold the Ensemble together, because of course this so-called "Wende" was already long underway and had made itself known. And already in '88 it was clear that these ensembles would fall apart if one didn't do something about it. That was really the idea, to do another production so that at least a few good people would remain together, and Hamlet was really the only thing that occurred to me, because I had the feeling, this is the most relevant play at the moment in the GDR. I would really have seen absolutely no reason to stage Hamlet here in the Federal Republic, no ideas about why and how to do it.

This is a play about a young man who happens to be a member of the ruling class and who has also become an intellectual on account of his time in Wittenberg. And it deals with a rift between two epochs. And he flounders on this rift. It's also interesting that he views the old order with suspicion, of course, although it also has something compelling about it, namely the father figure. And he also doesn't care for the new order. That's why this blind massacre takes place at the end. It's a kind of flight into blind praxis.

The actors read every newspaper each morning and listened to all of the news broadcasts, and for that reason it worked at first. It was often very difficult to go on working in a concentrated manner, but these difficulties were then incorporated into the work . . .

The rehearsal began every day at ten and went till two, and from time to time there were also evening rehearsals.

It was a really interesting time, though, even, or especially, in the rehearsal space. During the whole rehearsal period one heard police sirens from time to time, and helicopters. All of these noises provided a lot of the inspiration for the tapestry of sounds in the performance.


And now your associates, in the first instance the actors, report to you what they have heard on the radio, what the latest news is. Would you then discuss that immediately?


Yes. For this reason, the rehearsal almost always started late.


Did the actors make demands for this to be immediately transposed artistically into the production? Or did they work, afterwards, in a disciplined manner?


Neither the one nor the other. They often made jokes with the text. Twisted the words in ways that had to do with their isolation.


How did they do that? "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark?"


No, for example, a passage like the following would lend itself well to these purposes: A gentleman, not referred to by name in Shakespeare's text, appears and brings Claudius news of the popular uprising, and then says, "the crowd cries: 'We vote." That was a tremendous gag, these two words: "We vote."


Did you emphasize that, then, and elaborate on it, or what kind of reaction did you have as a director?


That becomes an obscene text, then. "We vote." Naturally, the actor does that on his own initiative. This was a very politically engaged actor who, furthermore, was also in the PDS both before and after and wants to remain there. And of course he then played out these possibilities, when he quoted the people, for example, crying "Laertes shall be king, Laertes king\!" And then he considers whether it isn't better to distance himself from Laertes before it's too late. He walks away once, comes back, looks, and leaves again. One understands immediately what he means, that he is switching parties out of prudence.


That is also the main question for every production or interpretation of Hamlet: Who is Fortinbras, what does Fortinbras stand for?


But it's always a problem, how to evaluate this Fortinbras figure. Very frequently, he's been played by a child . . .


. . . in order to represent hope . . .


. . . but he was always a military figure. And because we didn't have anyone to play him, that also related automatically to recent events. And then at the end the man who played the ghost appears - the ghost is basically naked except for a couple of pieces of armor - with a gold mask and in a tailor-made suit. To put it very simply, one could say that at the beginning the ghost, the father figure, was Stalin, and at the end it's the Deutsche Bank. And he calls the dead Hamlet back and holds a golden black board in front of his face.

And then comes a text that isn't by me and also isn't by Shakespeare, but which I found exactly right at that time: a text by Zbigniew Herbert. It's a speech by Fortinbras to the dead Hamlet. So it's a leave-taking from the Hamlet principle in favor of the free market economy.

I am sure I told you about this before, I really enjoyed this immensely, in Munich on the building of the Deutsche Bank, this brutal saying: "Ideas become markets."



Elegy of Fortinbras

by Zbigniew Herbert

for C.M.


Now that we’re alone we can talk / prince / man to man

though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant

nothing but black sun with broken rays /

I could never think of your hands without smiling

and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests

they are as defenceless as before / The end is exactly this

The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart

and the knight’s feet in soft slippers


You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier

the only ritual I am acquainted with a little /

There will be no candles no singing only cannon-fuses and bursts

crepe dragged on the pavement helmets boots artillery horses drums drums / I know nothing exquisite

those will be my manoeuvers before I start to rule

one has to take the city by the neck and shake it a bit


Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life

you believed in crystal notions not in human clay

always twitching as if asleep you hunted chimeras

wolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit

you knew no human thing you did not know even how to breathe


Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you had to

and you have peace The rest is not silence but belongs to me

you chose the easier part of an elegant thrust

but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching

with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair

with a view of the ant-hill and the clock’s dial


Adieu prince I have tasks / a sewer project

and a decree on prostitutes and beggars

I must also elaborate a better system of prisons

since as you justly said Denmark is a prison

I go to my affairs / This night is born

a star named Hamlet / We shall never meet

what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy


It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos

and that water / these words / what can they do what can they do / prince


Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott

"Elegy of Fortinbras" by Zbigniew Herbert from Selected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert, Edited and Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott. English translation copyright © 1968 by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Scott. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers


KLUGE: How does it happen that we expected somehow political enlightenment from poetic writing?
MÜLLER: That is the illusion of the left, I believe, in the last decades the European intellectuals and especially the writers thought that there could and should exist a community of interest between art and politics. But eventually art is not to be controlled. ... It forfeits its subversive quality as soon as it tries to be directly political, that is the problem, that is the trap.



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