In the second year of the so-called unified Germany, one is aware of the unmistakable dividedness in this jagged new city—Berlin. Against a backdrop of demolition and reconstruction, attempts are being made to rejoin the two halves of the city. Transit routes and telephone lines are being remapped local politicians struggle to integrate two bureaucratic systems, and international entrepreneurs peddle popular Western principles of a free-market economy to the East. As the newly named capital of Germany, Berlin has become a symbolic locus for reintegration. But from my East Berlin perspective, dissonance, not concord, prevails.
In the cultural sphere, East Berlin theatres which once enjoyed full sponsorship by the German Democratic Republic will be either closed or privatized. Adjusting to the cuts in public funding, they must now reassess their budgets and repertoires, face cutbacks in personnel and raise ticket prices. One of the flagship theatres of the ex-GDR—the Berliner Ensemble—will rely on private funds as it attempts to define its role in the united Germany. Some of the Ensemble members worry that this may mean the sacrifice of artistic goals and ideology for box-office profits. Indeed, the Berliner Ensemble faces a change in artistic leadership that may scuttle the philosophy Brecht advocated on Schiffbauerdamm. At present, the playwright Heiner Muller leads an interim directorship of three. According to the Berlin minister of culture, a quintet of top names will head the Berliner Ensemble in the future: Directors Peter Zadek, Peter Palitzsch and Matthias Langhoff will join Fritz Marquardt and Muller in Berlin.
The newest production of The Good Woman of Sezuan in repertory at the Ensemble, starring Carmen-Maja Antoni, is a powerful mirror of Germany’s current sociopolitical predicament. Brecht’s Sezuan has all too much in common with post-unification Berlin—both are unpredictable environments where fear and uncertainty, as well as increasing unemployment and homelessness, are rife. In resident director Alejandro Quintana’s production, the divided citizen Shen Te/Shui Ta epitomizes the dilemma of today’s East Germans, especially East Berliners. Brecht’s play has often been understood in terms of universal dichotomies—whether moral (good versus evil), philosophical (feeling versus reason), sexual (female versus male), or ideological (the political left versus the right). But after watching the East Berlin production, I found the dualism more pointedly reflective of the doubleness within Germany itself, and specifically the doubleness within East Germans who now must adjust to life in a unified country.
In Berlin the split has been most acute. Besides living insularly in a divided country for 40 years, the Wall and the nearby forbidden West provided inhabitants with a constant reminder of their dividedness. Now the Wall may have fallen, but after two years the East Berliner remains separated from his Western counterpart, both culturally and psychologically. And, in spite of the disappearance of the GDR, a particularly East German mentality seems to have remained intact: East Germans are now also alienated from themselves. Because of this national and psychological split, East Berliners play a double role these days, striving to maintain their old identification with a familiar society even as they don a mask to protect themselves in a new, unfamiliar social system. Although many former East Germans feel as if they have been colonized by their capitalist West German relatives (they live in the “new states of the Federal Republic”), they have had little choice but to capitulate. This resulted in positive gains like freedom to travel or a family business as well as long-term losses like a job or a house; but as one understands from Shen Te, it may also mean learning to be ruthless, self-serving or even unethical in order to survive.
Shen Te’s tobacco shop represents a chance for her to start a new life. In a symbolic gesture, she stresses the importance of becoming a “new person” by giving a cigarette to her first customer, the “Unemployed Man.” During the prologue we realize how he lost his job: Cursing the gods, he enters several times to throw piles of bound notebooks on stage, ostensibly citizen files kept by East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi. In the real new Germany, many former Party functionaries and “unofficial” Stasi-informers—the old gods—have lost their jobs, but just as many still prosper.
Brecht’s play has always provoked audiences with its dichotomy of ethics and economics, but the Berliner Ensemble production goes further to generate striking parallels to current issues in Germany. Although Sezuan’s gods worry that their involvement in economics might be morally misunderstood, economics regulates the ethical code. Just as the Sezuan gods give Shen Te a monetary incentive to remain “good,” the ex-gods from the GDR distributed attractive awards, bonuses and privileges to loyal and “good” citizens of the state. And the new gods from Bonn used economics to lure the East Germans into the unification process.
In production, the gods-as-bureaucrats are dressed in the stereotypical garb of spies: black trenchcoats, hats and briefcases. The Stasi? West German secret servicemen? The spectators obviously enjoy seeing the hypocritical “higher ups” caricatured. But as new Stasi-traitors are unmasked daily, the people of Berlin still may be emotionally too close to injuries inflicted by the secret police. Hefty applause follows the gods’ comments about the contradiction between business and an honorable life. As Berliners seek to redefine their beliefs, the need for values like compassion conflicts with the cold materialism of the West.
Heavy metal music punctuates the crucial first scene’s “Song of Smoke.” This scene captures the overriding atmosphere of fear and menace that is almost tangible in such areas of West and East Berlin as Kreuzberg or Marzahn. While the relatives smoke themselves into a trance-like state, Paul Dessau’s music underlines Brecht’s lyrics of resignation with a hypnotic rhythm. But when the niece refers to the young generation for whom the future lacks perspective, the group registers fear, which quickly turns into chaotic rage, as the young blast music and smash the shop apart. One recognizes this acceleration from resignation to resistance and violence in the senseless vandalism in Berlin recently, as well as in the brutal assaults on foreigners.
Anxiety at the approaching rush of East European immigrants, rising intolerance of “the other,” as well as increased fear of arbitrary attacks on Germany’s streets have been tempered by widespread demonstrations against hate and violence. But are these few collective exhibitions of civil courage enough to excuse the lack of individual responsibility when someone needs protection? Another key episode in the production reverberates with disturbing relevance for ’90s Berlin. After the barber burns the waterseller Wang’s hand, no one dares to bear witness. While Brecht certainly meant to indict those during the Third Reich who did not resist Nazi policies, collective cowardice and resignation is once more part of Germany’s emotional landscape: This past fall a mass of witnesses in the Hoyerswerda district remained silent while thugs assailed a home for refugees.
Especially now, during a time of social and political upheaval, Germans feel the need to protect themselves from the chaos around them; this may mean temporarily closing off their ability to feel. As Sezuan’s gods claim, despite the “misery, baseness and garbage everywhere, everything is in order”—on the surface, anyway. Surface order may be precisely how the Germans are coping with their difficult lot in the new Germany.
During the 1980s some East German citizens sought to reform their world because they did not agree with the surface order of their state. But in 1992 the old authoritarianism has been replaced by a veneer of new dictates. In its depiction of the courtroom, the Berliner Ensemble reveals both nuances of a police state gone bad and the reality of changes in justice since 1989.
An important trial that took place in Berlin last winter, the “Wall-Protection Trial,” concerns former border guards who shot a would-be escapee in 1989. The guards claimed that they were doing their duty to protect the state. Everyone knew, after all, that it was a punishable crime to venture over the Wall. This logic turns the victim into the culprit, while making the guards victims who were just following orders. One may ask whether it is the state and its policies which are on trial, or the individual who seeks a full, “good” life at the mercy of society. This notion is also at stake in the trials of top officials like former GDR president Erich Honecker, whose appearance in court could either be interpreted as a trial of GDR state policy, or of an individual who governed a state that no longer exists. Will the court forgive the frail victim whose once-revolutionary stance against the Nazis landed him in jail for 10 years? Or will the court condemn a leader whose own imprisonment by a totalitarian government should have made him more sensitive to the human need for freedom?
The dilemma of individual versus collective responsibility connects these real trials and Sezuan’s theatrical trial. Is it Shen Te/Shui Ta who is guilty or the gods whose policies have allowed social ills to fall on Sezuan? Such questions not only evoke memories of the Nuremberg trials, but have also reemerged in today’s Germany, where many wonder whether Germans have successfully overcome their national past. Too many Nazi officials slipped into a new existence in one of the two Germanies during 1948-49.
“Nein, es ist alles in Ordnung!” insists the first god on his way up and out of the trial scene. Parodying the ancient convention of the deus ex machina, Brecht sends his gods back to the heavens without having restored order in Sezuan. In present-day Germany a bitter irony exists: A deus ex machina in the form of West Germany descended to play the role of mock savior. But this illusory liberation and Western welcome have caused enormous disappointment and problems. Not only is the breakneck pace of economic change and competition overwhelming, but the government that once assumed the role of guardian no longer exists. More “new” Germans see that they must take on individual responsibility for their freedom, even if it means coming to terms with accrued debts, a closed factory or deception. Those people who suffer unfair treatment by society may feel now that they have no choice but to behave basely in order to survive.
This production of Good Woman cut Brecht’s epilogue, depriving the audience of a collective search for a solution. Instead, the bleak ending suggests that only a minority still believes in the so-called third way, an alternative form of socialism, which might have revived the decaying GDR. Dramaturg Jorg Mihan told me that the decision was both thematic and practical. The references to a “solution” to Sezuan—a new person, new gods and new world—ring hollow in 1992. It is clear that attempts to create a “better” world in the GDR failed. Recent polls in Berlin show that half of the Eastern respondents are bitter about the present economic situation. Such concern is shared by the Berliner Ensemble, whose financial fears are reflected in the ending’s allusions to potential bankruptcy.
In Germany’s “new states” the unification is likened to an annexation. The often insensitive attempts by West German politicians to remove all traces of the GDR intensify the alienation East Germans already feel. Whether they be changed street names, a decapitated Lenin statue or the disappearance of child-care centers, these steps invalidate a society that lasted 40 years. Yet each move made to negate aspects of the old regime only distinguishes more clearly what it meant to be an East German as opposed to a West German.
I was surprised that many reviewers declared Good Woman irrelevant when it opened last spring. The production, they wrote, was neither daring nor political enough in its epilogue-less ending. Were the critics seeking a solution to Sezuan? Were they expecting “historification” to defamiliarize the setting enough so they could recognize its significance? Or could it be that even trained spectators did not have enough emotional distance from the unification to sense the production’s resonance with the times?
Rebecca Rovit is a theatre historian presently doing research in Germany about theatre under reunification. This article is the first in a series entitled “After the Fall,” reports from the countries where recent political change has affected the theatre. Future issues will feature essays about Russia, South Africa and Yugoslavia.
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