Theater Review: A Moving “let us find the words”

Ingeborg Bachmann wanted freedom for them both. She says in her letter, “I am free and I am lost in this freedom.” Dominique Frot is a brave actress. She presents the poet’s freedom in her body and voice.

let us find the words: a dramatized reading based on the correspondence of Ingeborg Bachmann & Paul Celan. Adapted by Hans Peter Cloos & Dominique Frot. Directed by Hans Peter Cloos. Featuring Dominique Frot & Alexander Muheim. Presented by German Stage at the Goethe Institut, Boston MA, October 24.

By Marcia Karp

Oct 24, 2012

Dear Bill,

When I asked you how to write this review—Should I study first? Write about the experience of the evening? Research afterwards?—you said to write about the experience. I’m just returned and will try to take your advice.

There was the getting there, and opening the door for the actor who played Celan (but I didn’t know it was him, wonderful him, until I again saw his son, this time going over to his father at the reception), waiting to be let into the theater, then being let in. We had to wait until soon before the play began because, I was told, the actors begin on stage and they don’t want to wait too long there.

In the event, they did have to wait, and in such surroundings. They were in the midst of their set, set in the middle of the long front room at the Goethe Institut. Around them, up against the wall, we came, about 60 of us, not flowing, but stumbling, to seats. Along the way, some of the cardboard boxes were overturned, and a couple of women took chairs from the set to sit on. Why this should have happened, I don’t know. The thin layer of black audience chairs was easily distinguishable from the blonde Eames ones in which Paul and Ingeborg (it is hard not to think of them, the actors, I mean, as that, for their names were called by each other and declared over and over by themselves in their mostly unchanging, except in voice, signatures) sat, kneeled, draped themselves, or sprawled. He mostly sat, or sat straddling. She lived in the chairs, but she lived everywhere she was. Every moment. In each syllable.

I decided once that the smaller the atoms a poet works with, the greater the chance for greatness: syllables, in particular. It seemed to me then that a writer who doesn’t take phrases as given, even though she might give back such phrases, but who is alive to the movement from syllable to syllable, will form words and phrases and lines etc that are alive. Dominque Frot made Ingeborg Bachmann live there. the GREAT ter mis for TYUNE. or EL sa. in tol ER a BEL. You’ll read this, no doubt (because the medium is wrong for transmitting a voice), as over-nice pedantry. Not at all. The getting it right created a slow onrush of sound. Articulate energy, Donald Davies’s insight, never made sense to me before.

But before any words were spoken, we stumbled to seats, the appropriated ones were returned, cartons were re-turned, and the actors acted. She was at the window end of the room, and he was in the mansion’s interior. When he looked in the re-set box, was he actor or the acted? Oh, they never broke character not even before lights up, though the lights were not yet dimmed. Because of this spilling forward of the acting, it was an insult to the mood that there were welcomes and thank yous and announcements all the while the silent life of the play had begun. I can see there wasn’t another way to do the necessaries and also see that it was a mistake not to find another way. Lights flickered.

Alexander Muheim (Paul Celan) in let us find the words. Photo: Maria Mathias/Goethe-Institut Boston

I am writing to you this way, Bill, because this will not be played again in Boston. It was one night at the Goethe, after two at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco. I’ll have to hope that you’ll be in the right European city when (if) it plays there. It really is funny to write a review about a evanescent moment, and I haven’t.

So, Lights Up on a set of boxes and chairs, low tables, a variety of focused desk lamps, music stands, and papers in the boxes, on the tables, the stands, in hands (wearing white cotton, research-room gloves), “Ingeborg Bachmann” to my left, and “Paul Celan” to my right, music from a black and white film running behind her.

She reads her letter to him, following the words with her gloved finger. Stumbling a bit. It is, after all, a dramatized reading. He replies. All business? Hard to say without knowing him better. “Here’s my telephone number . . .” he writes to her, wanting her to call. (You weren’t the only one to give me advice. Someone told me to take a notebook and take notes “immediately after the show,” but it was light enough to write right then and there, and I tell myself I learned as a graduate student to write and still hear, so I took hidden-in-lap notes, but offer no claim of exact exactness.)

Where to look? I chose a seat about mid-way along the set, so as to be as close as possible to both of them. But they were at most momentarily near each other, so, while it was difficult to turn from B (who says she might be, or might become, “a person who wants to take it easy . . . lazy. . . convenience”—here I’ll be convenient with initials to distinguish dramatis personæ from persons) to see how C took her words, it was then difficult to turn from him, his back to her or head down—at work always on some paper, writing a word or reading, or, without a paper, writing on a box flap something that must be recorded.

Conventions aren’t to be dismissed as “the old stuff.” Not when they are used to such effect as was done here. All the reading from the letter was to establish an illusion. Frot no more needed to read her lines than the poor light she had allowed her to. Almost a trick. A way, I think, to establish B’s intensity and make the audience apprehensive about what was coming.

It is not the actress who must correct herself, but the poet who searched for words; “to to to,” she said thinking. Later she explains, “you must know how hard it is for me to find words.” This was a realized drama, not a dramatized reading.

B writes in this same letter about her dissertation and getting references, but none of these mundanities are less than gripping. She is eager, feverish, almost, and also, at the same time, glad or sad or despairing. Through the flow of emotion, the bedrock that is her intensity can be seen. He tells her to remove her adapter for the iron from the socket so it won’t been seen that she is ironing, pronounced as spelled—i ron ing, not the way we do, in a metathetic i er ning. It is not explained to us why it matters to him, and of course he wouldn’t have explained to her, since she would have known. But one of their brief stays together is thus glimpsed. There will be a few more occasions when his concern for what people will see of their private life is brought up; in the final letter she imagines his concern, rehearsing what he might or might not say in response to her.

Dominique Frot (Ingeborg Bachmann) in let us find the words. Photo: Maria Mathias/Goethe-Institut Boston

He asks her to write more often and regularly. He tells her not to smoke so much. He is calmness. She is not. He says he can’t answer the things she writes. She follows every word he reads with her finger on her copy. (Her gloves, coat, and jacket are removed at different points.) She tells him his poem was read somewhere and that he is becoming known. “Please please,” she says, write to me. He writes “Let me know everything that can be communicated.”

Back and forth, the letters and our looking. Behind her in looping segments are black and white scenes of highways, streets, and buildings. Shadows of men, mostly, walking, looming large until their solid selves appear dark and cut down to size.

B moves toward C. She turns a slow circle listening to him tell her not to visit, they should be friends only. He wants to hear from her. He faces her, but looks downwards to papers when she reads her reply. Now they have traded sides of the room. She is, he says, to smoke less. She tells him not to abandon his wife and child; it is important that he doesn’t.

Here, Bill, a question about art and life comes to mind. Were this not from life, but about two imagined people who had lived these lives, I think it might be a reasonable act of witness to see that the writer had made a connection between what B says and the detail (which our writer would have given) about C’s being absent from his parents’ home the night they were rounded up for internment.

But Frot and Hans Peter Cloos have not included that terrible event here. Bibliographers and critics too often have the writerly habit of making meaning and forget that the very limits of art constrain its elements under a pressure that, when well-orchestrated, produce connections and revelations. But, life, it is everything and to decide that Ingeborg Bachmann was trying to prevent Paul Celan from a particular guilt, is, I think, unkind—in treating them as dolls to be explained by our own lights—and likely to be dull and wrong.

Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan

B wanted freedom for them both. She says in her letter, “I am free and I am lost in this freedom.” Frot is a brave actress. She presents B’s freedom in her body and voice. She renders B’s “chains of thoughts.” I don’t know that I can describe to you what I mean except by saying something like overwrought or hysterical and modifying these by saying she never becomes hysterical, but there is a sense that she might. Or that in moments when she is overwrought, there is a control that keeps her, not rational, for madmen might be rational, even insistently so, that keeps her apt. When she is sad, she sounds and looks sad. Listening to his letter, she cries, her nose drips onto the page, she bends and curves her body. C can’t be said to be rigid, but, though he bends, his is always the posture of a grown man, while B is a reminder of youth at times, freed to feel and reveal. [You can see from the publicity shots that Frot is older than Ingeborg Bachmann was during the time of these letters (born in 1926, letters from 1947-1961). Yet, her embodiment of B never felt off.] His acceptance of the normalcy of her emotion is refreshing, now that conformity of all sorts has us well-tuned to the no-flies-on-me tenor of our time and place.

C wonders “to what end” he has translated Mandelstam and written his own poems. He tells her to write to him. He details where and when she should meet him. As she listens, she smokes. The cigarette is unlit. The effect is as if she were unable to draw in any breath. It is a terrible scene in which her nose continues to run and her eyes overflow and she fights to get some relief through the cigarette. Whether fire laws or inspiration led to the unsmokeable smoke, this was powerful and truthful.

She says, “it seemed more honest to stay silent” when she couldn’t say the right words. Then her musical range is constrained to a drone—Frot can speak in chords, I think. You would have been rapt with the rest of us.

At C’s end of the room, he’s swapped with her, remember, I recognize a scene from The Third Man on the screen. Maybe that’s what’s been playing all along. Holly Martins rounds the pillar of the fairground again and again on a loop as the ferris wheel turns.

When I turn back to her, she’s not there. At some point she is, and they exchange sides of the room again, again they don’t meet. He retreats when she approaches.

It must then be around 1959. Max Fisch has entered her life, then the anti-Semitic and shallow review of Sprachgitter by Günther Blöcker that so hurt Celan. Their letters tell the story of her being away when C needed her and of his anger at her for what Fisch wrote, unsympathetically, about the review. She asks him to “fill in the gaps” in what she writes.

I suppose you have seen the announcement for the play. It includes “Through their letters, the two attempted to come to terms with the horrors of war and to understand how poetry is possible after Auschwitz.” If so in the letters, not in the play. While there is a lot of talking about language and poetry, they speak out of themselves, not invoking the recent history, which of course is in them. But I found the blurb, which is also on the program, to be misleading and limiting.

I mean, where is one to look? To history and great events that overshadow, it can seem, individuals? To individuals, who, do you know what I mean, Bill, seem to me finally to be why the great events are great? So when B reads from her letter, “this language in which I no longer have any faith . . . in which I no longer want to express myself,”—this when she is getting recognition for her work, the recognition that led her on tour so that she missed his letter about the review—this difficulty of a single Jew and a single non-Jew with poetry, language, and love is not only after the Holocaust, it is personal to each of them and shared between these lovers, and is not less for that than After Auschwitz, How? and Why?

C tells her not to write to him again.

Han Peter Cloor (director of let us find the words), Detlfe Gericke-Schönhagen (director of the Goethe-Institut Boston), Dominique Frot (Ingeborg Bachmann), Alexander Muheim (Paul Celan), Guy Ben-Aharon (Co-Founder of German Stage), Annette Klein (Program Coordinator at the Goethe-Institut Boston). Photo: Maria Mathias/Goethe-Institut Boston

She has one last letter to read. She walks towards his end (now at the screen). The cardboard boxes and the chairs and low tables are almost a solid mass. She is so thin, Bill, so frail and with her heels it is no wonder her navigation is uncertain. She is angry and lets him know that she, too, is a poet. She tells him, too, but when I looked, I couldn’t find him, she tells him, too, “you want to be the victim, but it is incumbent on you not to be.”

Here, without imposing on the lives of the poets, the artistry in his having left the stage is almost his part in a pas de deux; her part is coming towards where he had been as she tells him not to vanish. She finished her letter, and it was over. Lights Down.

Then, the silence that the best art can create. Then long applause, drinks and food, and talk. Everyone from the Institut was lovely and, it was clear, as moved by the performance as the rest were. Autographs for me from Alexander Muheim and Dominique Frot.

Thank you Bill for the assignment. Wish you could have seen it. Because you didn’t, I tried to re-view it for you and bring you along.


Marcia Karp has poems and translations in Free Inquiry, Oxford Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement, The Warwick Review, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, Agenda, Literary Imagination, Seneca Review, The Guardian, The Republic of Letters, and Partisan Review. Her work is included in these anthologies: Penguin Books’ Catullus in English and Petrarch in English; Joining Music with Reason: 34 Poets, British and American, Oxford 2004-2009 (Waywiser); and The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation (Norton).

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