Bodies That Matter
By Gitta Honegger
Ulrike Maria Stuart
By Elfriede Jelinek
The Nobel-laureate physicist Max Planck once
remarked that for a new idea to succeed the old generation of scientists
and their students need to die. For the following generation the new
will then be an obvious fact. This somewhat gloomy prospect seems to
apply to theatrical innovations as well. Directors and designers trained
in the former West Germany have not yet gotten over the influence of
Robert Wilson in their pristinely lit, meticulously contoured, slow-motion
Gesamtkunstwerke, expanding already lengthy classics by hours
of mega-minimalist mise-en-scènes.
By contrast, a younger generation of directors
was influenced by the East Berliner Frank Castorf (born 1951), the provocative
artistic director of the Volksbühne am Rosa Luxemburg Platz, whose over-the-top
stagings of Dostoyevsky, Frank Norris and Tennessee Williams, among
others, defined the post-dialectical merger of Communist and global
Capitalist greed, angst and desire in the reunited Germany.
Not surprisingly, Wilson's signature slow-motion
aesthetic (which drained his staging of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck
at the Berliner Ensemble of all socio-political pathos) was recently
parodied at the Volksbühne by Christoph Schlingensief, the German playwright,
director and filmmaker. Schlingensief's play Rosebud, which
he wrote and directed in 2001 in the wake of 9/11, was a savage send-up
of terrorist plots by and against fame-starved journalists, dysfunctional
media executives, and their abused and abusive children in a world that
can perceive itself only in terms of staged performances. Among other
outrageous appropriations from stage and screen, construction workers
(a ubiquitous sight in post-Wall Berlin) in primary-colored hard hats
and costumes criss-crossed the stage sideways, Wilson-style, their glacial
speed also suggesting the tempo of workers protected by government-controlled
wages and benefits. Born in 1960, Schlingensief is arguably the naughtiest
and most cheerfully tasteless among the stars of the so-called "post-dramatic
theater." His in-your-face infantile theatrics belie the seriousness
of his attacks on cultural pretense and contemporary politics.
One of Elfriede Jelinek's favorite directors,
Schlingensief staged the scandalous 2003 premiere of her play Bambiland
at the Vienna Burgtheater. This characteristically dense text was Jelinek's
response to the war in Iraq, particularly to Abu Ghraib and its connection
to her vision of Austria as an ongoing pornographic spectacle involving
its historical undead. Schlingensief's staging included his response
to the material, which he broke up with improvised scenes and interviews
with different guests every night, alternating with porn sequences on
a giant screen. Turning the venerable Burgtheater into a gilded porno
house harked back to the spirit of Jelinek's earlier play Burgtheater
(never done at the Burgtheater) in which she exposed Austria's most
revered actress, Paula Wessely, as an ardent supporter of Hitler. Wessely
had starred in the Nazi propaganda film Die Heimkehr (The
It was Castorf's aggressive 1994 staging of Jelinek's
Raststätte (Rest Area) at the Hamburg Schauspielhaus
that became a defining model for dealing with this Nobel laureate's
resistant texts. That was the first time a director had used the production
circumstance as an open confrontation with the author, who was introduced
as a monstrous sex doll, with braids, signature hair-roll, and all.
Jelinek-wigs began to appear like fetishes in subsequent productions
of her plays. Whenever directors got lost in Jelinek's syntax -- or
her jungle of quotes appropriated from literature, pulp fiction, the
media, advertising and politics -- they would stage their frustrations
in their productions. The late Einar Schleef (1944-2001) famously appeared
in his production of Sportstück as the author's stand-in, named
Elfi-Elektra, and screamed in desperation: "Frau Jelinek, I don't understand
Interestingly, male star directors produced the
most acclaimed productions of her plays, enacting a strange sort of
mating ritual that might be called a "mind fuck" in the language of
Jelinek's generation. Over a decade ago, Jelinek abandoned dialogue
in favor of what she called Sprachflächen -- language planes
-- a term that has become a cliché in academic criticism of her work.
The term, however, accurately describes the surface the directors furiously
confront. Whenever they find themselves running up against a wall, they
smash their way through it, with Jelinek's permission, with the force
of a wrecker's ball (a term that would suit her delight in the tackiest
sort of punning). In her stage directions for In den Alpen
(In the Alps) she advises prospective directors: "As everyone
knows by now, I couldn't care less about how you're going to do that."
"Feel free to fuck around with me," she encouraged Nicolas Stemann,
who directed three of her plays, including the Hamburg premiere of her
most recent, Ulrike Maria Stuart.
In a sense, her directors enact upon her text-as-body
what she stages in her writing. Her scenarios are littered with dismembered
body parts that suggest the cannibalism of commercially produced desire.
Austrian natives gnaw on the severed limbs of skiers, mountain climbers
and refugees who perished in the Alps -- a special temptation for directors
with a knack for Grand Guignol. Stemann, in his 2005 Burgtheater production
of Jelinek's Babel, inserted a text by an actual contemporary
cannibal, Issei Sagawa, who meticulously described luring, killing,
preparing, ingesting and storing the body parts of a young German woman
he met in Paris in 1981. The text was read by a beautiful, soft-voiced
Asian actress. (Released from a Japanese mental institution after 15
months, Issei Sagawa became a cult figure, who now maintains his own
Web site and has been featured in a French gourmet magazine, among other
The German popular press routinely reacts to
Jelinek with personal attacks of astonishing viciousness. As if to protect
her body in her texts from these media assaults, she recently declared
that, starting with Ulrike Maria Stuart, her work will no longer
be made available in print. Instead, she would only post the texts on
her Web site. An early version of Ulrike Maria Stuart popped
up there for a just a few days several months before the Hamburg premiere.
Perhaps this policy will be temporary. In any
case, it has turned out to be unexpectedly fortunate. One of Ulrike
Meinhof's twin daughters, Bettina Röhl, a journalist, threatened Jelinek
with a lawsuit for distortion of her mother's relationship with her
children and for violation of the family's right to privacy. The daughter
had attended an open rehearsal of Stemann's Hamburg production and then
offered to help with rewrites and directing. Her offer was declined.
Since the play had not been published, there were no concrete grounds
for legal action. Nevertheless, some changes were made. Jelinek's publisher,
Rowohlt Verlag, sends out the script to theaters with a proviso that
they are prohibited from distributing it outside the production cast
and crew. The implication is that each production must be considered
the current text, and that only the producing theaters can be held legally
responsible for its contents.
According to the German magazine Der Spiegel,
Röhl was satisfied with the changes Stemann made -- changes, one assumes,
to personal references and quotes. I attended both a public rehearsal
and the opening night performance and thought that, though the lost
lines were relatively unimportant, the production had lost a bit of
its aggressive edge.
The unavailability of the printed text adds
an intriguing dimension to the experience of the theatrical event: remembering
details of the performance parallels the remembering of the historical
event through layers of mediatized narratives. Unlike the actual past,
one can return to the theater to watch another performance. However,
due to the uniqueness of each theatrical evening, it will not be the
same. Ultimately, the work remains as elusive and subject to multiple
perceptions as events that happened in the past. In any case, Jelinek's
new strategy gives directors even more freedom than they had had. From
now on they are the authorized co-producers of the performance text.
Jelinek's exemplary, self-negating move fulfills
the claims of a "post-dramatic theater" that no longer privileges the
text. This move will require critics to radically rethink their analytical
tools and, so far, the German press, used to directorial excess and
authority, has happily ignored the challenge. They have continued to
apply their standard repertoire of adjectives and witticisms to both
her works and her directors' stock of "post-dramatic" devices.
Jelinek's Ulrike Maria Stuart examines
the legacy of West Germany's Left through the dynamics of women in power.
Friedrich Schiller's fictional encounter between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth
I is refracted in the relationship between Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike
Meinhof, the driving forces of the activist-turned-terrorist Baader-Meinhof
group. With Andreas Baader they were the founding members of the Revolutionary
Army Fraction or RAF. What began as a protest against their parents'
generation's unwillingness to deal with their Nazi past and a rebellion
against the war in Vietnam and the excesses of capitalism escalated
into a series of deadly terrorist attacks.
The drawn out, controversial trial of key members
of the group in Stuttgart in the late seventies marked the climax of
the most violent phase of West Germany's post-war history. Ulrike Meinhof
hanged herself in her prison cell. A year later Gudrun Ensslin found
the same death in the same cell, while Andreas Baader and two other
members were discovered shot to death in their cells. (It was never
clearly established that their deaths were suicides.) Earlier, another
imprisoned member, Holger Meins, died from a hunger strike.
As usual, Jelinek is not interested in dramatizing
the stories of individuals. Though Ulrike, Gudrun and the "Queen" are
featured speakers, their language reflects their construction as composite
ready-mades. A dizzying kaleidoscope of splintered references merges
in Jelinek's grammar to suggest a trail of thought leading from the
Elizabethans to German Idealism to Communism to Nazism to the sixties
to global capitalism, outsourcing, the Middle East, Antigone and contemporary
petty-middle-class consumer culture -- which, it turns out, is at the
root of the group's demise. The quotes include Schiller, Shakespeare,
Büchner and Marx, as well as the writings of Meinhof and other RAF members.
These last become material for a bitterly satiric take on failed revolutions,
the self-delusions of rebels (including perhaps Jelinek's own), and
the commodification of revolution in the post-ideological age.
The voices of "Princes in the Tower" representing
Meinhof's children (the primary cause for the "real" daughter's concerns),
a "Chorus of Old Men" and an "Angel from America" trying to
hang himself with his AIDS ribbon (a homage to Tony Kushner) connect
different periods and cultures. Jelinek owns the DVD of Angels in
America and watched it many times with great enthusiasm. It inspired
her to insert several appearances by an "Angel from America" in her
text. His role is the most puzzling. His initial warning that terrorism
invariably leads to a reactionary backlash, his wrathful and increasingly
anxious ruminations over traditions, miscalculations and self-destructive
strategies of the Left suggest an outsider's perspective. (Jelinek ardently
admires Kushner's own struggle with and for the democratic ideals of
the American constitution.) Given the concrete political and existential
struggle Kushner's Angel represents, Jelinek appears to question both
the romanticizing of past revolutions and the indulgences of so-called
"post-dramatic" performance practices (which have been partly
spawned by her texts) -- although, curiously, there are no allusions
to contemporary terrorism and American politics, as in her previous
play Bambiland. Then again, the Angel occasionally adopts the
self-absorbed language of Andreas Baader. At other times, from his new
vantage point close to the Lord, he seems to have refined his political
views and sharpened his sense of irony regarding God and the world.
Her brand of comedy is based on the disconnection between human efforts
to make sense and categorical denials of that just when it is about
Jelinek's response to the Nobel Prize is a case
in point. Her agoraphobia and other acute anxieties made it impossible
for her to attend the award ceremony. Her radical withdrawal from the
public after receiving the Prize is reflected in Meinhof's increasing
isolation from her group. Meinhof had been a journalist and her political
pamphlets, reflective texts and partly critical notes on the history
of the RAF were rejected by Ensslin and her lover, Andreas Baader, who
had also been Meinhof's lover. The contradiction between the women's
radically anti-bourgeois revolutionary project and their old-fashioned
rivalry for a man recalls the role of Leicester in Schiller's fictional
encounter between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I.
Nicolas Stemann, a seasoned Jelinek veteran --
his previous productions of Das Werk (The Plant) and
Babel, both at the Vienna Burgtheater, were highly acclaimed
-- made full use of the author's invitation to "fuck around with her."
As he once stated with a spoiled son's patronizing self-assurance, staging
Jelinek's texts first requires airing out the old lady's head.
Born in 1968 in the politicized milieu of Meinhof's
generation, Stemann was raised by a radical feminist mother who made
his eleven-year-old sister read radical feminist literature. His mother's
powerful presence might have made him immune to nostalgia for the revolutionary
spirit of the sixties, but it did not completely wean him from directorial
fathers. Many of his images can be traced to signature devices of some
of his older colleagues -- most prominently Castorf's introduction of
the author herself onstage (reduced by Stemann to the metonymic wig),
Christoph Marthaler's inclusion of a performing pianist, and Einar Schleef's
insertion of himself into the mise-en-scène (which Castorf
and Schlingensief have done too). Though Stemann categorically denies
such appropriations, his choices are consistent with Jelinek's processing
of existing texts. She has repeatedly declared that anger is the driving
force of all her writing, and Stemann notes that because of his biography
he first perceived her as the enemy -- an aging, if not anachronistic
feminist. Once he decided to stage Ulrike Maria Stuart, his
resistance to the material was his starting position. Thus, the play
may be about the relationship between mother and child, but Röhl was
mistaken in assuming it was about Meinhof and herself; in Stemann's
version, it is more about the director's unresolved issues with his
Stemann cut down the cyber-samizdat version of
the text to approximately a third of its original length, rearranging
it around key phrases woven throughout the text. Spoken by different
figures and repeated in pop songs, these phrases add up to a mnemonic
scaffolding of sorts that supports the visual and verbal overflow.
Some of these key lines are: "Killing solves
many things," "I am chairman of the board of the exploited," "All you
do is stage yourself as victim," or "One more dead is better than one
less." The mantra-like statement, "I don't know what has to happen in
order for something to happen," serves as a kind of leitmotif. As an
ironic echo from recent history, Stemann added a well known quote from
a famous 1997 speech by then German president Roman Herzog: "A jolt
must galvanize Germany." In this so-called "jolt-speech" (Ruckrede)
-- nine years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, towards the end of
Chancellor Kohl's 16-year conservative regime when the country faced
staggering unemployment -- Herzog exhorted his reunited yet disillusioned
fellow-citizens to stop complaining and meet the challenges of the global
market. Excerpts from the speech are performed by the company with foam
coming out of their mouths: Germany's obsolete Left and new Americanized
Right meet in their disgust over the populace's resigned dependence
on the state.
Meinhof's repeated statement "I've been dead
for thirty years already" -- another directorial addition -- highlights
the pathetic obsolescence of her project. Some of Jelinek's lines suggesting
the younger generation's jealousy of their parents' concrete enemies
are turned into schmaltzy lyrics:
Oh, if only we could have experienced the repressive
ideological machineries; however, that sort of offensive position
was available only to you. We didn't have that option. Otherwise we
too could have chosen to go underground.
Stemann, who is part of that younger generation,
likes to emphasize that he is not interested at all in the Baader-Meinhof
agenda. The irretrievable loss of meaning -- his generation's defining
experience -- makes it impossible to approach the group's misapplied
idealism with any seriousness. Rather, he wanted to explore aspects
of its members' iconic features in the context of contemporary pop culture.
The production opens with three men in drag,
women's wigs and scripts in their hands, trying out different line-readings
before the heavy velvet theater curtain: a vaudevillian warm-up routine.
That curtain opens to reveal yet another identical red velvet curtain,
which peels off to reveal a movie screen, which gives way to a revolving
nightclub stage. Curtains behind curtains and stages within stages highlight
the theatricality behind Jelinek's professed anti-theatrical stance,
while circumscribing a space that's sealed off from the "real world."
Jelinek, a TV junkie, emphasizes that she does not draw from "real life"
but rather from the mediatized reality she is confined to on account
of her phobias. She does not travel except between her two homes, one
in Vienna, inherited from her mother, the other in Munich, shared with
her husband. She rarely goes out. Except for close friends and collaborators,
she does not receive visitors. The performance space thus aptly evokes
her prison-house of language. Within this setting Stemann dismantles
Jelinek's complex montage into a revue of loosely connected sketches.
The men's clowning climaxes in a ketchup-bloodied,
syrup-smeared scenario inspired by Paul McCarthy, the Utah-born video/installation
artist and Jelinek's declared favorite. (In 2005 she saw a major retrospective
of his work in Munich.) Stripped naked, their penises covered in pig's
masks, the stooges distribute water balloons and protective plastic
sheets among the spectators, inviting them to aim at signs representing
former chancellor Schröder flanked by well known business and media
tycoons. Back onstage, the actors spray each other with fake blood,
chocolate shit and miracle whip. Sliding, slipping and rolling in the
mess, they finally collapse, singing "Pigs or human"-- allegedly Holger
Meins's last words before dying from his hunger strike. Ensslin's comment
as she steps over the bodies, "I only see dead bodies the moment I close
my eyes," is greeted with laughter by the audience. The reaction seems
to validate Stemann's claim that it is no longer possible to shock or
provoke people. With the revolution fashionably reduced to the acting
out of infantile impulses, audiences happily participate.
In this production, Gudrun Ensslin emerges as
a media-savvy pop icon whose petty vanity causes the demise of the group.
In contrast, Meinhof's obsessive reflections lead to her hanging herself.
It was Ensslin's trying on of a sweater in an upscale Hamburg boutique
that got the police on her track. With the director's method of looping
several key phrases and weaving them throughout the performance, the
sweater incident frames her petty (bourgeois) vanity, which not only
defines her flawed revolutionary leadership but also, by way of Jelinek's
multi-referential syntax, deflates all revolutionary stances -- including
that of the author, who has repeatedly flaunted her obsession with designer
clothes in interviews and photo shoots.
Ulrike Meinhof first appears onscreen -- larger
than life, long dark hair, sunglasses projecting a fashionable, darkly
rebellious mystique purportedly for a film titled The Downfall Part
II (alluding to the Oscar-nominated 2004 film about Adolf Hitler,
starring Bruno Ganz). Parts of Meinhof's and Ensslin's speeches and
writings are performed as pop songs. The text of Schiller's pivotal
scene between Mary and Elizabeth is projected on a screen and read by
one of the stooges, while Meinhof and Ensslin, dressed in Elizabethan
costumes and playing recorders, perform the soundtrack, as it were,
of the confrontation of the queens.
The Oedipal thrust of Stemann's project has its
coyly outrageous moments. A skit he added, titled "Vagina Dialogues,"
features "Elfie" (Jelinek) and "Marlene" (Jelinek's former protégée
and friend, the Austrian writer Marlene Streeruwitz), their heads sticking
out of silky, fur-lined vaginas. Their wistful chat about the predicament
of intelligent women shunned by men is based on a 1997 joint interview
with them, originally published in the pioneering feminist magazine
Emma. The real Streeruwitz, not as good humored as Jelinek,
found her stage appearance as a giant vagina demeaning and filed a complaint,
requesting that the scene be cut. A judge ruled that as a satire it
was protected by artistic freedom.
As usual, power and desire are closely connected
in Jelinek's scenario. The two young women, Meinhof and Ensslin, compete
as intensely for control over the group as for Andreas Baader, who appears
as a graying angel in a fashionable black leather jacket and huge white
wings, spouting invectives against the women and ranting about the misapplication
of Marxist principles. The old rebel angel's contemporaries are two
old women with walkers -- ghostly queens, the undead of the past embodying
the younger women's unfulfilled future selves. Played by two distinguished
actresses of Jelinek's generation, Elisabeth Schwarz (Maria) and Katharina
Matz (Elizabeth), they also suggest aspects of the aging author.
Throughout the performance, both the script and
a disheveled woman's wig are passed around and tossed about like fetishized
body parts. Finally Stemann himself appears wearing a wig with Jelinek's
trademark pigtails. Seated with his back to the audience in his directorial
work clothes, facing a large portrait of the author as literary diva,
he reads Ulrike's lines in Jelinek's melodious, characteristically Viennese
lilt, albeit deliberately distorted by his Northern German pronunciation.
Jelinek's and Meinhof's voices merge in his performance -- a dirge-like
riff on the acknowledgment of failure and the desire to sleep towards
We set nothing in motion, I fear. I am just
a shadow, not much light left to tear up the towel and lean the bed
against the wall, but I manage, what else is left for me to do. I
am ending it now, I am preparing it all, just for me; I have ended,
I don't need a trial, and certainly not by this group, which isn't
mine . . .
Sleep well, my dear I tell myself, for no one
else is there to say so, no, not in a long time, no one says that
sort of thing to me, would have been nice, maybe, but now I have to
tell myself: sleep well, yes, sleep, sleep even in this uncomfortable
position, even in this noose, which I may even tie myself . . . there,
I go to sleep now, sleep, sleep, I am going to sleep, so I won't have
to speak anymore. Simple as that . . . just want to sleep, sleep,
sleep in the air, in the noose, it will be beautiful . . .
What seems at first a touching, meditative moment
that captures the melancholy underlying Jelinek's rage, is undermined
by the tableau of the man in control of the text embodying the female
author, crowned by her sacrificial scalp as trophy, in a pose of humble
worship underneath her iconic photograph. Underscored by droning techno
music, with the ensemble gradually gathering around the musicians, some
actors still naked, their bodies smeared with ketchup and syrup, others
crowned with little cotton halos, the action suggests a mock ritual
led by the director/shaman. With post-climactic calm, he embodies the
author after her (body of) text has been cut to pieces, reassembled,
and taken apart again, it's pages ultimately crumpled, torn and scattered
from above. His recital of the speech, written by a woman as the voice
of another woman, amounts to an act of cannibalism: the ingestion and
regurgitation of the body of the text.
Fittingly enough, at the opening night curtain
call Jelinek, who didn't attend, was represented by her wig, impaled
on a foot-high pole at the center of the line of bowing actors -- an
ambivalent gesture of homage to, as well as triumph over, the author,
who is reduced to a sophomoric Freudian joke. At subsequent curtain
calls, Stemann held the wig in his hand, leaving no doubt whose show
Not that Jelinek is an involuntary victim. Through
her self-deprecating stage directions she coyly flashes her presence
to her (mostly male) directors, only to withdraw again behind impenetrable
layers of language. In that sense, Stemann's use of layers of theatrical
curtains is an astute response to her flirtatious disappearing acts.
It's up to her directors to tease narrative threads with recognizable
speakers out of the dense linguistic fabric.
The unrestricted surrender of her texts to her
trusted directors raises several conflicting issues: is it an act of
great generosity or the surrender of agency? Is the aging author once
again on the vanguard towards a new definition of performance as text?
Does her resolve to post her future writings exclusively on her Web
site challenge the commodification of authors by their publishers? According
to Jelinek, her non-interference is not entirely a philosophical, political
choice, but an existential necessity. Her life-long fear of crowds (in
conjunction with the neurotic need of approval fostered by her relentlessly
demanding mother) intensified after the Nobel Prize.
The next production of Ulrike Maria Stuart,
staged by Jossi Wieler, another seasoned Jelinek director, is scheduled
to open March 28, 2007, at Munich's renowned Kammerspiele, and should
offer significant points of comparison. Wieler's penetrating vision
of Jelinek's world has been, in the past, antithetical to Stemann's
deconstructions. Internationally renowned, Wieler is older than Stemann,
born 1951 in Switzerland and educated in Israel. His award-winning production
of Jelinek's Wolken.Heim at the Hamburg Schauspielhaus in 1993,
followed by Er nicht als er (He not as he -- about
the Swiss poet Robert Walser) at the 1998 Salzburg Festival introduced
a radically minimalist approach to these texts. Shaped by different
generational experiences, the two productions of Ulrike Maria Stuart
will no doubt speak to each other across the phantom walls that divide
About one month after attending the opening of
Ulrike Maria Stuart, I revisited Gerhard Richter's cycle of
paintings "October 18, 1977" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York
City. The title refers to the day the bodies of Ensslin and Baader were
found at the Stammheim prison. Richter, born in 1932, left his native
East Germany at age 29, shortly before the Berlin Wall went up. His
reworking of iconic media images of the group leaders' demise provides
interesting points of comparison with Jelinek's approach.
Based on newspaper photographs, Richter's paintings
are deliberately opaque, individual features and contours diffused in
layers of gray: the profile of the dead Ulrike Meinhof, her neck marked
by the rope of towels with which she hanged herself; paintings of Ensslin
posing for a line-up and finally hanging in her cell, of Baader's library
and record player which he kept in his cell, of Baader shot dead on
the floor, of the infamous arrest of the almost naked Holger Meins.
While Richter dissolves the realistic details
in grayish pigment, Jelinek wraps them in a patchwork of linguistic
ready-mades. Both interrogate memory, historic narratives and representation.
Both also try to counteract in their works the commodification of catastrophe
turned into art, even as their own art is being commodified.
It struck me that this gallery would be the perfect
environment for a staged reading of Jelinek's difficult play in New