Thursday 15 May 2014

Staging translated plays: appendix

[mostly a description of what I'm talking about extracted from David Barnett's briliant chapter Performing Dialectics in an Age of Uncertainty, or: Why Post-Brechtian ≠ Postdramatic in Postdramatic Theatre and the Political]

Oddly, I'd had the piece which I wrote for the Guardian in my mind for a while before they asked me to write something on precisely that subject. The impetus for that, however, had come frm the book I'm currently reading (for “reading” read “dipping in and out of when I get a moment”), Postdramatic Theatre and the Political.

I had been thinking I'd either wait until I reviewed the book, or else would use this below passage in blog-bound version of the piece that ended up being written for the Guardian. But now it seems to make sense to just publish it as a really excellent example of what I mean by “a different way of approaching the text”. The extract is from David Barnett's chapter, Performing Dialectics in an Age of Uncertainty, or: Why Post-Brechtian ≠ Postdramatic.

I've skipped straight ahead to the description (and the one bit of bold is mine):

I shall first discuss a production of [Brecht's Mr]Puntila [and his man Matti] at the Berliner Ensemble, directed by Einar Schleef, which premièred on 17 February 1996, as an example of a post-Brechtian reinterpretation of the play...

Heiner Müller invited Einar Schleef to direct Puntila at the BE, something which initially left him nonplussed. Schleef was well known, at the BE at least, as the director of Wessis in Weimar (Westerners in Weimar) in 1993, a brutal confrontation between stage and auditorium in which large choruses bellowed texts on the subject of German reunification. His aggressive choral theatre appeared to have little in common with the dialectical humour of Puntila until he went to the archive and read one of Brecht’s first versions, written in 1940, that is, shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War. Puntila was inspired by the stories of Hella Wuolijoki, but at this crucial historical phase Brecht also looked back to the end of the First World War in Finland.

At this time, the class struggle manifested itself in a bloody civil war between left-wing forces inspired by revolutionary Russia and right-wing militarists from Finland, the Protection Corps, who prevailed. Brecht’s early drafts, then, emphasised Finland’s traumatic and class-riven past and were thus no longer that light; by 1948, these references were much reduced.

Franz Wille notes: ‘Instead of the knowing comic look back to the victory over the disasters of war and Hitler in 1948–49, [one finds] the look forward from 1940 into the inescapable catastrophe’. Wille’s reading points to Schleef’s materialist aesthetics: for all the formal precision and abstraction in performance, which I will discuss presently, the starting point was concrete and historical. As Ute Scharfenberg notes: ‘Schleef ’s discovery of the play’s “language of the exile” offers him an important point of departure for his production’s rationale’. That is, the earlier version allowed Schleef the opportunity to disorientate the audience by uncovering impulses later expunged and making them the basis for a new approach to the material.

In addition, Schleef was interested in the treatment of the female characters in the earlier version. He was keen to counter Eva’s relegation as a mere appendage to the male leads in the later version and he contended that Eva was not always an Aunt Sally figure in the play: ‘Eva is a Miss Julie with high ambitions for her own education. [...] But Brecht turned all the women into idiots’. Schleef sought to reintegrate the female characters; he noted the importance of Puntila’s housekeeper, Hanna, in the earlier version and viewed her as a concrete antagonist to her master. He also insisted that the two other female members of Puntila’s staff , Fina and Laina, were on stage more frequently, oft en observing the action and maintaining their presence.

The other important change of emphasis, from a textual point of view, was the role of Matti, the usual antagonist. Gunther Heeg writes that this conflict was in fact a convenient way of demonstrating proletarian superiority in the later version: ‘The dialectic of master and servant is replaced by the cooperation between the author and a character who represents him in the play: Mr Brecht and his dramaturgical lackey Matti.’ Matti’s superiority is ideological and loads the dialectic in favour of the oppressed underdog. A part of the post-Brechtian impulse is a desire to retain the dialectic while opening it up in all its complexity beyond the reach of ideological pressures. Schleef thus underplayed and re-functioned Matti’s role as a privileged character. Eva and Hanna became more central figures, while Matti assumed a wholly different role.

The play itself was radically rearranged. Schleef divided it up into four sections, in which, for example, the first section included material from the standard version’s first, third, fourth and eighth scenes.
The diffuse texts ran into each other without a nod to the spectators and consequently assaulted them as text rather than as the basis for a coherent plot.
The logical unfolding of the Fabel gave way to the experience of the words, shouted or declaimed by Puntila for the most part or by the choruses. Such a presentation of the text opened it up for the audience – it became linguistic material, as one might expect in postdramatic theatre, yet here the dynamics of delivery were clearly demarcated; a power relation lay at their centre, and so the text did not float entirely freely as text, but was linked to the dialectical tensions at the heart of Schleef’s reading. The openness of the dialectic was also evident in the use of parataxis, the equal valorisation of the scenic action, a quality Lehmann also associates with processes of de-hierarchisation in postdramatic theatre.

The production had, for example, several finales, one was never sure quite when it was over. This extended to the encore when the cast, in strict formation, sang one of the songs from the play that did not appear in the production itself. One notes Schleef’s deliberate obfuscation of what belonged and did not belong to the production, something that was echoed in his portrayal of the Puntila figure, as we shall see.

Esther Slevogt found the following structure running through the production as a whole: ‘Every image gives birth to its own counter-image.’ Yet [this didn't just] offer a series of permutations to the audience; instead, the use of contrast highlighted the manifold possibilities of the dialectic that ran through the production.

Schleef’s return to the more historically painful text was signalled from the opening of the production. Eva delivered an anecdote, usually told by Sly-Grog Emma later in the eighth scene ‘Tales from Finland’, before the safety curtain. The conventional prologue to the play consists of a speech given by the Milkmaid, which sets the scene, and perhaps the first verse of the ‘Puntila song’, which introduces the main character. Instead Eva told the story in the first person, not the third as in the text, of her visiting Athi, one of the Communists kept in a prison camp but who refuses his mother’s food, despite his great hunger, because she had to beg for it from her mistress. It is clear that Eva is not the speaker of the text, because she herself is socially a ‘mistress’, and so the reliability of the signs onstage is destabilised from the very outset. That Eva delivers the speech, however, focuses attention on the character and confers an importance on her which she never loses. The short story also initiates themes that will recur throughout this version of the play: that social conflict has led to suffering, that class relations are defining categories, that the most wretched can still off er resistance.

Yet while Eva was important, Puntila was essential. Dressed in formal white tie, he controlled almost everything on stage with a series of gestures, dominating the production with roars and shouts. Consequently, even Puntila’s more sympathetic speeches sounded forced and insincere. Schleef himself played Puntila, after his first choice for the role had to withdraw through injury, and so the character Puntila was conflated with a real director, who, on occasion, would also give directions to the actors around him. In more conventional meta-theatre, levels are clearly demarcated, such as in the play-within-a-play in Hamlet or the consciously fictional figures in Six Characters in Search of an Author. This meta-dramatic addition created instability in the central character and the production as a whole, as the audience was never sure who was talking or, rather, shouting. The grotesque presentation certainly registered with reviewers: ‘Schleef performs himself. Not just as a loud mouth and a dry tee-totaler in a dinner jacket, [but] also as the generalissimo on the director’s collective farm’. The exaggerated figure acknowledged the reality of the theatre as well as the fictionality of the play in a portrayal that never settled in either place.

Puntila the individual was surrounded by choruses, as was often the case in Schleef ’s work. Matti was no longer one person but several and was presented as an instrumentalised extension of Puntila’s will. At the beginning of the second section, the Mattis performed vigorous physical exercises which reviewers, and doubtlessly spectators, identified with Nazi military training camps for young people. The Mattis dutifully obeyed, were visibly tired, fell over from time to time, and offered the audience the experience of real exertion that lasted for several minutes. ‘Matti’ was no longer Puntila’s opponent, but traced a brutal masculine arc across class boundaries in which the worker was not imbued with an implicit immunity to his ‘class enemy’, but could be canalised for violent action.

However, with the opening monologue in mind, we note that Schleef offered the audience contrasting positions and did not suggest an inevitability to the dialectic of servitude and defiance. The women also formed choruses. In the first instance, they declaimed the speeches normally given by the women of the local area, but they also contributed, like the male chorus, to other dialogues, conveying collective power which, depending on the speech, may either support Puntila or act as a counterpoint. Both male and female choruses were also carefully choreographed so that a gestural language emerged, whose precision made it readable, in the same way as Brecht intended his Gestus to function. Yet here, the gestures did not necessarily have a referential relationship to reality. Instead, the language developed from the production itself, provoking the audience to make connections between the elements of a sign system that had been carefully formulated.

What emerges from this consideration of the production is that Schleef was very much concerned with political issues as articulated in dialectical terms. However, the components of the dialectic were given great freedom to show their myriad possibilities, something located in Schleef ’s systematic demolition of denotation in favour of connotation. This had the effect of withdrawing onstage value judgements from the performed material.

More negative reviewers believed that Schleef was paying lip service to the far right: ‘Brecht’s Volksstück has become an antique and fascistic motorway pile-up on a grand scale in a freestyle of Greco-Roman forms.’ [Michael Berger in Die Woche] Schleef did not limit the power of the fascist imagery he employed, but this was hardly a tacit expression of support. Instead, he allowed the full implications of such barbarity to be presented on stage. While one reviewer noted that ‘somehow, somewhere, everything’s connected to class consciousness and the class struggle’ others were more specific. Brecht expert Ernst Schumacher wrote that he considered the production ‘the most radical realisation of an epic theatre [...]. In all [...], this production demands in the strongest of terms that one think anew about Brechtian performance, a task to which no other theatre is more especially called than the Berliner Ensemble’.


See what I mean about a radically different way of treating a text? And this was 18 years ago. What I find fascinating, though, is that way that the “academic” reading of dialectics in the production doesn't seem like a fanciful imposition, but a thoroughgoing understanding of what's already at play. This is something else I wanted to bring out when I talk about how translating just the words isn't even halfway toward translating the culture from which they sprung along with them. Not only do you lose the original “poetic” resonances, you also lose the cultural resonances, and the way the words operate together in a (relatively) shared public understanding.

Funnily (or unsurprisingly), it's been a conversation I've been having over and over again here at Theatertreffen, which I think will probably merit another blogpost – probably starting to think about translations travelling in the other direction – out of English and into German...

Annoyingly, there doesn't seem to be any footage of the production on YouTube (1996, innit – the year David Hare's Skylight at the National Theatre Cottesloe and the Wyndham's won the Olivier Award for Best New Play, for a bit of make-you-spit context), so here's an extract from Schleef's seminal world première production of Elfriede Jelinek's Ein Sportstück (1998). Enjoy.

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