Feature: German theatre

Date posted: 13 Sep 2013Author: Jo Litson Production: Perplex

During World War II over 100 German theatres were destroyed. However, by the 1960s, after an intense rebuilding program, Germany had one of the best networks of subsidised theatres in the world - on both sides of the Berlin Wall. In West Germany, the Schaubühne in West Berlin would become the jewel in the crown and central to the development of contemporary German theatre during the second half of the 20th century - as it still is today.

Founded in 1962 as a private theatre by students from the Free University of Berlin, renowned director Peter Stein was selected by the government to take over the Schaubühne in 1970, which he ran as a collective. During his 15-year artistic directorship, Stein established one of the finest acting ensembles in the world and directed a string of hugely influential productions including Ibsen's Peer Gynt(1971), Gorky's Summerfolk (1974) and Chekhov's Three Sisters(1984) as well as nurturing new writing.

Stein's innovative reinterpretations of the classics - along with the work of other leading German theatre directors like Peter Zadek and Claus Peymann - played a key role in establishing the dominance of avant-garde, director-led theatre for which Germany became famous.

Pina Bausch's visionary work at her Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch between 1972 and 2009, where she combined dance and theatre, also had a profound influence on German and international theatre.

In East Germany, the most influential company was the Berliner Ensemble formed in 1949 by Bertolt Brecht and his wife Helen Weigel. Having gone into exile during the Hitler years, Brecht's work was little performed in Germany until his return in 1947. The Berliner Ensemble devoted itself primarily to Brecht's plays. From there, they quickly found their way into the repertoires of most German companies and Brecht's theories regarding 'epic theatre' and his concept of 'alienation' were soon known around the world. Brecht died in 1956 but his legacy loomed large and his plays continued to grow in popularity in Germany into the 1970s.

Much postwar German drama dealt with questions of guilt, power and moral responsibility.

The 1960s saw the development of 'documentary theatre' or 'theatre of fact', a prime example beingThe Investigationin 1965 by Peter Weiss (author of Marat/Sade), which was set in a courtroom and used dialogue from the official hearings into the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

By the mid-1960s, the preoccupation with guilt was waning but German playwrights were still concerned with the failings of contemporary society and a realistic form of drama rooted in everyday life began to emerge. Leading this tradition was Marxist writer Franz Xaver Kroetz whose realistic, politically motivated dramas used the colloquial speech patterns of his native Bavaria. By the 1980s, Kroetz was the most popular of all contemporary German playwrights.

Others who were highly critical of contemporary life yet apolitical in their outlook included Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Meanwhile, Austrian writer Peter Handke, believing that realism had lost its currency, began exploring alternative forms with plays like Offending the Audience(1966) in which four unnamed people make a series of statements about clichés regarding the theatre.

In East Germany, the leading playwright was Heiner Müller who typically chose historical subjects, often from Germany's past, to comment on the present. He also engaged with classical texts. His plays included Philoctetes(1968), Hamletmachine (1977) and Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome A Shakespeare Commentary (1985). Müller, who had spent time with Brecht at the Berliner Ensemble, initially used a social realist style but then began to experiment with form, mixing poetry with politics in plays that were often brutal and tragic.

Between 1962 and 1973 Müller's plays were banned in East Germany though widely produced and admired in the West. During the 1980s his works began to be performed in East Germany and by the 1990s, Müller (who died in 1995) was the most influential and frequently performed playwright in Germany - by then reunified after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

In 1996, a young director called Thomas Ostermeier came to prominence when he founded the Baracke (the Shack), a small cult theatre under the auspices of Berlin's Deutsches Theater. Two years later, he was joined by a young playwright, Marius von Mayenburg. In 1999, Ostermeier was invited to take over the Schaubühne where he has established himself as one of Germany's most distinguished directors. He took von Mayenburg with him to the Schaubühne as playwright-in-residence. There, along with other writers like David Gieselmann, von Mayenburg has spearheaded a new generation of German playwrighting.

Perplex, 31 Mar - 3 May 2014, Wharf 1 Theatre

Thanks to the NIDA library.

Key reference material: History of the Theatreby Oscar G. Brocket; New German Dramatistsby Denis Calandra; New York Timesarticle 'On German Stages, a Society Explores Itself', March 1989.