“The Boston theatre community can always profit from international influx. The German theatre scene in particular is quite innovative both in the plays being written and the productions that reach the stage.”
Voltaire and Frederick: A Life in Letters conceived by Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen. Staged reading directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. Presented by German Stage at the Goethe-Institut, Boston, MA, October 15.
By Ian Thal.
Guy Ben-Aharon cannot be accused of lollygagging: he just graduated from Emerson College and is already starting his third theatre company. He recently began his third season with Israeli Stage, a group that presents readings of Israeli plays in translation; via his own GBA Productions, Ben-Aharon produced and directed a seven week run of the musical Cupcake; and now, in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut Boston, he is presenting German plays in translation to Boston audiences. (The Goethe-Institute is a non-profit association devoted to the study and promotion of German language and culture and, as such, introducing American audiences to German theater is well within the organization’s mission.)
German Stage’s first production is a reading of Voltaire and Frederick: A Life in Letters, based on the correspondence between the Voltaire and Frederick II with Thomas Derrah in the role of the French Enlightenment philosopher and real-life husband John Kuntz as Royal Prince (and later King) of Prussia. Given Boston stages’s recent interest in Voltaire, from the widely acclaimed Mary Zimmerman production of Candide that ran at the Huntington Theater Company last year to the frequent name-dropping in David Adjmi’s superficial (to some) Mary Antoinette at ART, this reading is as timely as the 300th anniversary of Frederick’s birth.
The following conversation is reconstructed from e-mail interviews with director Guy Ben-Aharon, playwright and Goethe-Institut Boston Director Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen, and Goethe-Institut Boston Program Curator Annette Klein. They discuss the formation of German Stage, how German and American theatre differ, what German theatre offers to American audiences, and, of course, Voltaire and Frederick.
ArtsFuse: Guy Ben-Aharon, you just started your third season of Israeli Stage, a series of staged readings of Israeli plays in translation, and now, you are starting a new initiative, German Stage. How did one project lead to another?
Guy Ben-Aharon: The idea for German Stage began after Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen attended Israeli Stage’s [presentation of Savyon Leibrecht's] The Banality of Love [which dramatizes the controversial relationship between the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and the German-Jewish political theorist, Hannah Arendt]. He was impressed by the quality of our staged readings and the audience base which we attract and wondered whether a similar series could be developed, only with German identity and culture at its core.
Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen: The relationship between Hannah Arendt and Heidegger spans more than 50 years and is—as a lifelong and complicated intellectual relationship—an essential part of our European cultural history. To [summarize] it in 70 minutes is extremely difficult. I am not sure if the play would have become so convincing without Guy Ben-Aharon’s direction.
AF: What was your process for choosing the first season of plays for German Stage?
Ben-Aharon: Annette Klein, Detlef, and I read through many scripts! Many simply could not be done as a reading—they had too many visual, multimedia, or musical components—and the rest were too avant-garde for American audiences.
The first play was a natural fit. Detlef mentioned the idea for Voltaire and Frederick, and it seemed to be the perfect reading to present before the election. The play’s central questions resonate to a modern ear: what is the role of philosophy and intellectual discourse in politics? Should a politician allow himself/herself to be a poet or a philosopher? What is the role of religion in politics? Should a leader view war as an opportunity or as a necessity?
The second play, Let Us Find The Words is coming to us from the Goethe Institut San Francisco and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
Annette Klein: The director of Let Us Find the Words is Hans-Peter Cloos. He is German and works a lot in France and New York. He and Dominique Fros (she’s French), one of the actors, adapted the play from the letters [of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan.] The other actor is Alexander Mulheim, from Switzerland. The play dramatizes a tragic yet profound love story and confronts pertinent questions about the role of art, in particular poetry and literature, after World War II and Auschwitz.
Ben-Aharon: The third play, A Little Calm Before The Storm, is a poignant exploration of what it means to play an evil character. We are delighted that Theresia Wasler, the playwright, will be able to join us for the American premiere of this wonderful play, which revolves around three actors who are preparing for a panel discussion taking up what portraying Hitler would entail.
Klein: [Theresia Wasler] is in fact [German novelist] Martin Walser’s daughter.
AF: Guy, this past summer, in preparation for the first season of the German play series, you went to Berlin. As someone who works primarily in Boston, what stood out as you explored the Berlin theatre scene?
Ben-Aharon: My time in Berlin was spent doing research for an upcoming workshop called The German-Jewish Identity Project and learning German at the local Goethe Institut. Unfortunately, since it was summer, most of the theatres were closed (though I did manage to meet with some up-and-coming theatre talent). I did, however, manage to see four operas: Handel’s Xerxes, Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Wagner at the Komische Oper and the Staats Oper’s production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. The biggest surprise for me was how young the audience was! With tickets priced at 20 Euros and a modern sensibility directed at classical work, you could begin to imagine how (financially) and why (interest-wise) young people make opera a regular part of their lives.
AF: How do you think contemporary German plays can enrich the Boston theatre community?
Klein: The Boston theatre community can always profit from international influx. The German theatre scene in particular is quite innovative both in the plays being written and the productions that reach the stage. The arts are still heavily subsidized in Germany, even in these difficult economic times, leaving room for a good deal of experimentation and taking risks. There is also a theatre culture that is open to controversial and difficult topics, often political in nature. The result is a large output of plays that stretch the boundaries of traditional theatre and are not afraid to deal with difficult topics in the world and in society. In fact, I’ve been struck by the amount of violence in many of the plays and the highly political nature of the topics. German theatre can be very direct, and that alone would be a change.
AF: American audiences know the work of twentieth-century, German playwrights such as Bertold Brecht and to a lesser extent Heiner Müller. How large to these figures loom in German theatre today?
Ben-Aharon: From my understanding, Brecht is to German Theatre what Andy Warhol is to American Art. There’s a wonderful exhibition at The Met which shows how 60 different artists were influenced by Warhol; when reviewed by The New Yorker‘s art critic, Peter Schjeldahl asserted that one cannot sum up Warhol’s influence by selecting a mere 60 artists because Warhol’s work affected all his successors—I believe the same is for Brecht and German theatre: Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble is still alive and well, and his spirit lives on in the works of numerous contemporary, German theatre practitioners and beyond.
AF: Detlef, at the reception at the Goethe Institute for Israeli Stage’s presentation of A. B. Yehoshua’s Hand in Hand Together, I mentioned that I knew nothing of German theatre after Heiner Müller, and your response was to clasp your heart and turn your eyes upward in admiration. Müller, of course, rose to prominence when Germany was divided into East and West. What is Müller’s legacy today in the theatre of a unified Germany?
Gericke-Schönhagen: Müller became even more prominent after the unification. The former GDR [German Democratic Republic or East Germany] respected him and gave him much freedom, but they didn’t promote him. Though Heiner Müller was allowed to move between East and West of Berlin, the communist GDR was afraid of his independent spirit. Müller, however, was not afraid of anything, neither to be poor nor to be put in prison. Nobody could buy him. He became the most important German playwright after Bertold Brecht, performed in East and West and in many European countries, particularly in France.
After the unification, Müller played an influential role in German Public Television. Müller was interviewed by Alexander Kluge in the show Zehn vor 11 once a month until he died [in 1995, of throat cancer]. These interviews (Müller was always smoking a cigar) have somehow a literary genre. Parts of the series have been published by Edition-Filmmuseum.
Müller is still one of the most often performed German playwrights in our theaters.
AF: Guy, in a previous discussion you described the ways in which the working conditions of Israeli playwrights differ from those of their American counterparts. What is the relationship between German playwrights and the companies that produce their work, and how does that shape the plays they write?
Ben-Aharon: Though American playwrights are not well-paid, their work is looked at with great respect by American theatres and directors. One could say American theatre is a playwright’s medium; their dialogue is never changed without permission, and the chronology of a play is something one would never tamper with, unless in a workshop context with the playwright in the room. German directors seem to have a greater “power” than the power of their American counterparts: they are freer to explore and re-explore a play’s theme or story by changing its course, i.e. German directors will take a script and direct the scenes in a different order than what was originally written. This is something American directors would never imagine doing. In my humble opinion, this phenomenon can be attributed to three factors:
1) I would argue that German theatre is a director’s medium.
2) Many of the playwrights in Germany are also directors, and many of the directors in Germany are also playwrights, so in many cases they see their jobs as “interchangeable.”
3.) Long rehearsal processes, three months or more—which is four times longer than what Boston theaters have—allow for plenty of time to play around and find different ways to present a script, many of which were not even thought of by the playwright.
AF: Will German Stage follow German or American directorial practices?
Ben-Aharon: Great question. It’ll be hard to follow a German directorial sensibility in a reading because we don’t quite have that same luxury of preparation time. However, for the new plays we premiere, we have a longer process of germination that will allow us to begin to do some of what I described earlier regarding German directorial approaches. However, unlike our German colleagues, we will not be doing it in rehearsal but rather preparing for them.
AF: Detlef, German Stage starts its season with your Voltaire and Frederick: A Life in Letters, which is based on the correspondence betweenFrederick II of Prussia and the famed French thinker. Both are key figures of the European Enlightenment, but they also represent two nations that have long been major players on the European continent. On the 300th anniversary of Frederick’s birth, what relevance does this correspondence have for the twenty-first century?
Gericke-Schönhagen: The questions raised by the Enlightenment are more relevant today than ever before. They have shifted from a European level to a global level. If you read how Frederick and Voltaire discussed questions of religion, superstition, so-called blasphemy and persecution from their very first letter on, when Frederick was 24 and Voltaire was 42, you feel as if it was today and you are reading a discussion in The New York Times. Frederic hated the superstitious, European monarchs of his time, who often were intellectually uneducated and thus overly influenced by intellectually superior, power-driven advisers from the churches. Frederick was not a democrat, but he was an intellectual, highly educated, radically secular yet tolerant of religious belief.
Concerning their laicisme [secularism] Frederick and Voltaire worked hand in hand. In 1763 a French court condemned three 15-year-old boys for blasphemy. They were brought to court because, while they were drunk, they had damaged a crucifix, did not properly greet a religious procession, and admitted that they read the works of Voltaire. The judge sentenced them to be burnt alive, after their arms and tongues were cut. Frederick saved one of the boys by taking him over the border and into his Prussian army, while Voltaire hired lawyers and mobilized the European public against this medieval sentence, which highlighted the influence of Catholic orthodoxy on European jurispudence.
AF: Guy mentioned that in German theatre the director often reworks the script, to the point of changing the order of the scenes. How did rehearsal for the reading influence your initial conception of Voltaire and Frederick?
Gericke-Schönhagen: The manuscript was 67 pages long when we entered into rehearsals. We cut the manuscript down to 39 pages, focusing on the human relationship between Voltaire and Frederick [to avoid making them into] talking heads. Some important statements are therefore missing: those on just and unjust wars, those on state budgets and discussions of deficit cutting. We highlighted the passionate emotional and intellectual relation between the two. Many of these letters suggest love letters, due to the rhetoric of the time but also due to the deep feelings Frederick has for Voltaire. We also focused on the crisis that hit their relationship in 1753 and almost ended it. But they overcome this obstacle and corresponded until Voltaire’s death in 1778.
Guy Ben-Aharon never cut a sentence without asking me. This is the wonderful American way of preparing a play for production. In Germany, the stage director takes the text and will cut it according to his interpretation. He usually does not ask the playwright if he agrees or not.
AF: What else should Boston audiences expect in German Stage’s inaugural season?
Ben-Ahron: We’re not quite ready to announce anything past January and the three projects that are mentioned above. We’re still reading through scripts and working on our plans. The second half of our season will be equally exciting—we are looking at one new project and a few inventive scripts by German playwrights that will surely entertain and challenge audiences to come.