In the 1920s, Berlin was a city with a case of the jitters. From the abdication of the Kaiser in 1918 to the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor of the Third Reich in 1933, Berlin and Germany experienced, in the words of John Willett, “a breathing space between two ambitious, authoritarian and militarist regimes.” During this “interlude of democracy” known as the Weimar Republic, artists of all stripes were troubled and inspired by a disquieting sense of calamity. The Actors Theatre of Louisville’s seventh Classic in Context Festival—“The Theatre of the Weimar Republic: Germany 1918-1933”—demonstrated just how severe and widespread the Weimar angst came to be.
Weimar is, in a way, a subject made to order for a festival which, under the guidance of ATL literary manager Michael Bigelow Dixon, aims each year—through performances, lectures, films, colloquia and exhibits—to conjure the genie Zeitgeist out of the bottle. Bracketed so cleanly by historical events, overshadowed so completely by the fallout of World War I and the approaching storm clouds of National Socialism, the period oozed a paradoxical sense of hopelessness and possibility.
The so-called “Golden Twenties” were not so golden. Economic hardship and spiritual confusion were rife; the use of narcotics was so widespread that you could purchase cocaine at a corner frankfurter stand; prostitution was ubiquitous. Inflation was so severe that devalued currency was sold as waste paper and people stole stamps from mail awaiting pick-up. In the spreading barter economy, a theatre seat cost two eggs, and on the right night you could catch a Berlin cabaret dancer named Anita Berber at the White Mouse performing in the nude. The poet Stefan Zweig called it “an epoch of high ecstasy and ugly scheming, a singular mixture of unrest and fanaticism.”
At this year’s festival (which, due partly to funding cutbacks, was short on Classics and long on Context), lectures by Weimar scholar John Willett and emigre director Heinz-Uwe Haus and a lobby display by Laurence Senelick of Tufts University chronicled the efflorescence of activity across the arts during the Weimar years: the collective Schrei of expressionism, Gropius and the Bauhaus, the neo-classicism of Reinhardt and Jessner, Schonberg and Hindemith and Eisler, the eukinetics of Laban and Wigman, George Grosz and Berlin Dada. Piscator and epic theatre, to name a few. Louisville’s J.B. Speed Art Museum simultaneously examined the Weimar aesthetic in two ambitious exhibits—“Faces of the German People,” the stoically elegant portraits by photographer August Sander, and abstract color studies by Bauhaus pioneer Josef Albers. All these developments manifested the same almost desperate zeal for experiment and the revolutionary effort to dissolve the barriers between high and low art.
The crossroads of Weimar culture was Berlin, a city feverishly at work and play, judging by Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. Inspired by the principles of photomontage and a futurist fascination with speed, Ruttman depicted a cinematic day-in-the-life of the teeming metropolis filled with dizzying images of men, motion and machines. As part of the festival, Louisville jazz pianist Steven F. Crews arranged and performed the original score, along with the film, lending it an immediacy that made it a touchstone for the frantic Weimar energy.
The festival focused its theatre offerings on the two most enduring playwright of the day: Bertolt Brecht and Odon von Horvath. Bypassing the quintessential Weimar play, Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, ATL artistic director Jon Jory selected Horvath’s Tales from the the Vienna Woods as the festival’s major production and tapped Mladen Kiselov, former resident directors of the National Theatre of Bulgaria, to direct it. As a counterbalance, three veterans of the famed Berliner Ensemble—actors Carmen-Maja Antoni and Hans-Peter Reinecke, and composer/pianist Hans-Karl Nehring—were imported to perform Love and Revolution: A Brecht Cabaret.
This might have been the occasion for the U.S. premiere of the full Berliner Ensemble, but the rapid changes in reunified Germany ruled that out; the Ministry of Culture is in the process of shuffling two very different state-subsidized theatre systems into one. Manfred Wekwerth, a student of Brecht’s and artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble since 1977, was dismissed this past spring because of his role in the Communist Party Central Committee, casting the future of the company (and the hegemony of the Brecht family) very much in doubt. News circulated in Louisville that a five-man artistic directorate—playwright Heiner Muller, directors Peter Zadek and Mattheais Langhoff, former Ensemble dramaturg Peter Palitzsch and company member Fritz Marquart—had just been appointed to redefine the Ensemble, which, it seems, will hold onto the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm but lose much of its state subsidy.
Under these circumstances, the Ensemble’s mere presence eclipsed its own performance. Love and Revolution, more concert than cabaret, offered an off-the-rack miscellany of 33 Brecht songs which probe private and public affairs with the master’s familiar irony. Performance in German, Antoni’s and Reinecke’s gestical singing made the moments of moral outrage, melancholy and mockery perfectly clear, but the air of uncertainty at home gave the event even more wrenching irony than Brecht intended. During a Sunday morning colloquy, Antoni solicited American compassion when she lamented, with a mixture of pride and bitterness, “We may be the last three to come to the USA under the red circle,” referring to Brecht’s logo for the Berliner Ensemble. “Now that change is afoot, the red circle may disappear.”
If Brecht was Weimar’s Ibsen, creating dialectical dramas which challenge society and the human spirit to remake themselves, Horvarth was its Chekhov, proceeding by indirection to portray a petit bourgeois world so bent on diversions that it does not perceive its own depravity. Tales from the Vienna Woods offers a gallery of Weimar types—the loutish butcher who bits when he kisses, the superior young Nazi who loves opera and disdains operetta, the leechy gigolo who knocks a girl up and then sends the baby off to live with his mother, the idealistic heroine whose interest in eurythmics leads her to a humiliating role in a cabaret floor show—all of whom suffer from the same cultural disease: stupidity.
As translator Christopher Hampton put it during a panel discussion, Horvath’s myopic characters are “people who talk to each other with great authority about subjects they know little about.” There is something unbecoming, even surly, about the way they treat each other, and despite a few strident performances, the ATL cast captured the almost innocent naivete with which they go about it. Kiselov brought a cool and troubling air of alienation to the play by staging it on a bare black revolve designed by Paul Owen to absorb so much light that the characters often seemed to float in space, rootless and unconnected. Even when the moon is full in this production, it sheds only a faint, narrow beam on the isolated figures below.
In 1931, Tales from the Vienna Woods offered a cauttionary prophesy about how susceptible simple people are to simple solutions when they face conditions too confusing or complex for them to comprehend. Horvath’s play and the entire look back at Weimar culture took on a fresh urgency during the weekend’s final session, a colloquium entitled “The Distant Mirror: Weimar and Reunified Germany.” Two German foreign correspondents. Edda Baumann of Avanti TV and Thomas P.W. Schardt of Springer Foreign News Service, discussed the current climate in ways that made drawing parallels to the Weimar Republic tempting.
The many disparities, economic, political, social and cultural, between life in the GRD and the FRG have generated a reminiscent atmosphere of chaos. Schardt called reunification “a wonderful catastrophe” that no one was prepared for and many never wanted in the first place. “East Germany never had a Vaclav Havel,” he said. “Maybe if it did, reunification would have had a different schedule.” Baumann cited the revival of racism, particularly among East German youth, against Turks, Vietnamese, Arabs and Africans, as evidence of a disturbing drift to the right. “Racism against foreigners is a buffer against open conflict between East Germans and West Germans,” she suggested. Schardt indicated the psychological complexity of that conflict when he mentioned how West Germans, who have had 40 years of prosperity to expiate the sins of Nazism and the Holocaust, suddenly and condescendingly expect East Germans to accept their share of responsibility.
This final session raised serious questions that seemed to be buzzing beneath the surface all weekend, questions that it couldn’t possibly answer: Is reunified Germany entering another “interlude of democracy” between authoritarian regimes? Have the lessons of history been learned? If the 1991 Classics in Context Festival offered a glimpse at contemporary Germany through the “distant mirror” of Weimar, it was through a glass darkly.
There’s a Draft
The Weimar Republic has also been on the mind of Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum, where Cabaret Verboten, a revue of songs and sketches from the Weimar era, ran last April. Developed by Jeremy Lawrence and later produced at New York’s CSC Repertory, Cabaret Verboten satirized big business, the military, religion, conventional morality and the arts themselves—in ways that could easily apply to 19902 America. One such sketch, from the 1932 Red Rat’s Reveu of Dresden, is printed here. (Two gentlemen at their beer glasses, FAT and THIN, i.e. a Bank Manager and a Worker.)
THIN: Do you mind if I close the window? It’s chilly in here.
FAT: Yes, I do mind in fact. What’s the matter? A little fresh air isn’t going to kill you.
THIN: No, but I’ve been fighting off a cold. I can’t afford to get sick.
FAT: So I’m supposed to sacrifice my comfort because you’ve got a drippy nose. Next I suppose you’ll tell me that if you get sick, I’m the one who should pay your Doctor’s bills. That’s the problem with this country these days, it’s filled with a bunch of cry babies who don’t want to work and expect the few who do to take care of them. Well I say, tie your own shoelaces.
THIN: I just asked you to close the window.
FAT: Oh no. You can’t fool me. I know your type. You get started by asking me to close the window and end by demanding that I pay for your beer. Let me tell you, this country is sick of taking care of all you losers. We’re ready to march ahead so get into line because we’re not waiting for your runny nose to dry up.
THIN: I think you’re a little mixed up. The country is sick of you capitalists feeding off the rest of us. You’re the ones who need to get into line, now. And I know the guy who’s got the balls to straighten you out, too.
FAT: Oh yeah? Well I know the guy who’s gonna kick your asses back into shape.
THIN: My guy’s better than yours.
FAT: No, my guy’s better.
THIN: Oh yeah?
FAT: Oh yeah?
TOGETHER: So who do you got? (They take a beat and then continue.) Adolf Hitler.
THIN: You can’t have Hitler. He’s the champion of the oppressed.
FAT: Bullshit, he’s the champion of solid business.
THIN: You sound like a stinking banker.
FAT: And you sound like a stinking red.
THIN: I’m not going to argue with you. I’m a squad leader of the National Socialist Party in Pieschen. And in the name of Hitler, I demand that you close that window.
FAT: Well, I’m a squad leader of the National Socialist Party in Fartzkopf and in the name of Hitler, I refuse.
THIN: Heil Hitler! (He closes the window.)
FAT: Heil Hitler! (He throws his glass through the window and breaks it.)
LANDLADY: (Enters.) What is going on here? Who broke my window?
THIN: It was his fault, the capitalist swine.
FAT: (Simultaneous.) It was his fault, the Marxist pig.
LANDLADY: Oh right. No one will take responsibility for anything in this country these days. The workers blame the rich and the rich blame the workers and we honest middle classes are crushed in the middle. But that will change soon enough. Hitler will see to that.
THE MEN: Hitler!
LANDLADY: Hitler is the champion of the tavern keepers’ friendship association. He’s going to rescind the tax on beer. I heard it from his own lips. Finally, a champion for the middle class. (A simultaneous argument breaks out between the three.)
FAT: You don’t have the slightest idea of what you’re talking about. Hitler is going to liberate the economy from the chains of social welfare and get this country moving again.
THIN: Don’t listen to him. He’s only concerned with lining his pocket at the people’s expense and Hitler is concerned with the people. Hitler won’t let the rich trample us down again.
LANDLADY: Neither of you know anything. Hitler is going to put an end to all your squabbling and window breaking. Hitler is going to restore order and make life worth living again.
THE THREE: (Ending together.) Heil Hitler.
LANDLADY: So which of you is paying for the window? (The two split. She yells after them.) You won’t get away with this. Either of you. Just wait until the Third Reich.
Scott T. Cummings teaches drama at Carnegie Mellon University and is the resident dramaturg for Pittsburg’s City Theatre.
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