Monday, 23 February 2015

The Show's the Thing

So there I was, thinking about writers and the theatre in Germany, and a big old scandal comes up and slaps me in the face. Brecht's heirs against director Frank Castorf. Castorf put on a very personal interpretation of Baal, with lots of stuff more Castorf than Brecht, and Barbara Brecht-Schall objected and the publisher Suhrkamp, whose lawyer is obviously kept busy, went to court on her behalf. Deutsche Welle has a good explanation of the situation in English, including clearing up what on earth Regietheater means - a very German word if ever there was one. If you're even vaguely interested, do read this article, which also goes into differences between theatre in Germany and the rest of the world. The court ruled that Munich's Residenztheater can only stage the play two more times (plus at the Berliner Theatertreffen, where tickets are presumably very sold out).

And then another director, Leander Haußmann, got all uppity about these damned writers meddling with things they don't understand. Over the weekend, the Deutscher Bühnenverein ("a politico-cultural organisation that represents the interests of its members, namely theatres and orchestras") issued a statement calling for a reform of copyright law to give directors more freedom:
It is unrealistic to demand that a director does not use additional text in a staging of a play, so as to protect a copyright-holder like Brecht who has been dead for almost sixty years. The aim of the performance of a work that has been in existence for decades must be to confront it with a director's present view of the world. If additional text is needed to do so, the heirs should not be able to demand the play be cancelled for copyright reasons.
Woah. It's like a giant battle of the egos, only one of the egos is dead. Original genius director versus original genius writer, represented by offspring of original genius writer. How odd that the dead one would win. I suppose that's what you get for being canonized (in the literary sense) – extra weight in courtroom wrestling matches.

I have two approaches for looking at this, one as a lapsed Marxist atheist and one as a translator. I'll tell you the first one first.

So, the lapsed Marxist atheist in me is saying, What's the big deal, the guy's dead. He's been dead for sixty years and if his kids can't manage to support themselves financially yet they probably have bigger problems than whether Daddy would have liked this particular version of his play or not. Daddy certainly isn't looking down from heaven between mouthfuls of divine Kaiserschmarren and tearing his non-existent hair out. Isn't it enough respect for the dead that someone still wants to put on his play and still sees it as relevant ninety-two years after it premiered?

While the translator in me, as she often does, is drawing parallels to translation. The director is interpreting the words on the page and adding extra ones for context, the way translators sometimes have to do when we think our readers won't get the point for cultural or historical reasons. OK, we rarely add whole swathes of extra words like Castorf does, and our presence in the final text is expected to be minimal. But someone like Michael Hofmann seems to feel comfortable adding here and there, and there's certainly been a tradition of omission in translation, although we're getting more careful about that. In this case, of course, the context is Frank Castorf's present view of the world, or his comparison of Baal's bad behaviour to America in Vietnam, or whatever. I'm almost envious of theatre directors for having that freedom to interpret more wildly than translators.

Yesterday I cyber-eavesdropped on a long and interesting Facebook discussion in response to Haußmann's really rather clumsy opinion piece. Most of the people commenting were writers, and were concerned about the possibility of their work being misappropriated, the extreme example being a play performed within some kind of dictatorship. I can understand that, but at the same time – as someone who tinkers and tampers with writers' work for a living – I think writers have to let go of their products to some extent, let others interpret their books or their scripts publicly rather than in private. Like painters who have to sell their actual pictures to make a living, rather than keeping them on the wall in their kitchen. I won't say, like Haußmann does, that writers should keep away from the theatre and directors should keep away from writing. But I think he has a point when he says that the written word remains on the page, whereas the spoken word is ephemeral. Which, I suppose, is one reason why we translators are expected to be truer to our originals than directors are. At least most of us have smaller egos than Frank Castorf though, dear writers. 

P.S. Does this totally contradict what I wrote about stage adaptations of novels? Not entirely, I feel. But who says I have to be consistent?


Chris Kurbjuhn said...

Please keep in mind that german theatre is heavily subsided. Each and every person earns hsi or her salary from the money the state or the cities provide, except one: the writer. The writer's royalties are paid from the tickets of the paying audience. Shouldn't the writer be at least a little bit in control, which part of his work is presented on stage and how?
It happened to me more than ten years ago: a musical comedy I had written had it's first performance ever in Chemnitz. I watched the last rehearsal and entered a bad dream: the director had given it the full "Regietheater"-treatment, had changed 80 percent of the dialogue, he had changed even some of the lyrics, cut the intermission etc. It was simply a disaster. I do not blame the audience for staying away, it was a bad show and definitely not what I had written. Ticket sales were very poor, and the composers and I ended up with a few hundred Euro for three years work. Due to (justifeid) disastrous reviews, the play was not picked up by another theatre.
The things the director did do my dialogues killed me professionally for years. Colleagues who had attended the play asked me, if I had forgotten my writing skills, asked why I had written no punchlines, bad structure etc. etc. And - surprise - people don't believe you when you say: "The director changed almost everything I wrote."
The mdr cancelled a writing assignment for me, when a Redakteur of them saw the show. Another theatre cancelled the assignment of a new play they had wanted me to write for them.
Today, I only write for the theatre, if I'm directly involved in the production and/or have some sort of control of what is staged and what not. And I never met a director who could write better dialogue than a professional writer.

kjd said...

Oh dear.

But the Brecht case at least is different. He's dead and his reputation isn't riding on it one little bit.

Chris Kurbjuhn said...

Back to the Brecht Case: Brecht's reputation isn't at stake, that's write, but what about the audience? If there are people who don't know Castorf or his style of directing (there are more than you would think), they might expect to see the play of Bert Brecht and be confused or disappointed. It would be more honest (and maybe this would be a solution to the copyright problem, too) to bill it as "a collage by Frank Castorf, based on the play by Bert Brecht". People who are noch full-time theatre buffs would know what to expect, and it even might make the negotiations with the people who hold the rights easier.
BUT: Suhrkamp and the Brecht heirs are no average theatre-goers. Their pretending to be surprised what Castorf did with the play is absurd.

Anonymous said...

Last time I saw a Pollesch production, no one sued him for dragging in fat chunks of unsourced Marx Brothers dialogue. (I don't think most of the young audience even noticed it.)

And then, who should get sued when the actors flub, or otherwise ad-lib? How can the director prove they were not following instructions? Etc. etc. I agree with what you say about letting go -- but haven't got an answer for CK, of course.