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Theresia Walser. Photo: Thomas Dashuber
A Playwright's Worries
By Theresia Walser


Translated from German by Claudia Wilsch Case








German dramatist Theresia Walser first attracted national attention at the turn of the millennium with such plays as King Kong's Töchter (King Kong's Daughters) and So wild ist es in unseren Wäldern schon lange nicht mehr (Our Forests Haven't Been This Wild in Forever). Although they often take on serious subjects, such as elder abuse in nursing homes and nihilism among Germany's youth, Walser's works share a playfully poetic approach to language and a comically irreverent tone. In recent years, her success as a writer has been overshadowed by her conflicts with German directors who are eager to shape both classics and new plays by radically reinterpreting them in production.

In response to botched premieres of two of her plays in 2004, Die Kriegsberichtserstatterin (The War Correspondent) and Wandernutten (Wandering Whores), Walser wrote an essay for the Frankfurter Rundschau explaining her struggles with directors who are more interested in creating bold stage pictures than engaging with the rhythm of her language or honoring the comedic qualities of her work. A year later, at the Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, Walser gave the following talk entitled "A Playwright's Worries," in which she expanded the ideas introduced in her essay, explaining how Germany's current Regietheater, or director's theater, aesthetic has affected productions of new plays. As a result of these public statements, Walser has become a prominent figure in the German national debate about Regietheater versus Werktreue, or faithfulness to the text.

--Claudia Wilsch Case


Often when I am working on a new play, my characters suddenly start acting more erratically than I had planned. They upset my designs; they thwart my intentions and ideas. This moment is a struggle, but always a fortunate one, because it signals the adventure of a play that is yet to be written. Once it is finished, the process starts again: I have created something that can only reveal itself in practice. Until it is staged, a play remains unformed; the same is true of the playwright. Sometimes I even think that each performance is actually an attack on the playwright, and that I have no other choice but to answer with another play.

When I give a play to a director, I tremble as I think of what is to come. On the one hand, it is a relief to know that from that point on, someone else's imagination will propel the play, discovering things that I did not even know were there. On the other, I am anxious that a director might suddenly discover too much, might burden the characters with other people's social tragedies, or impose deep meaning on an otherwise lighthearted play.

Novels are protected by the covers of a book, but plays are offered no such security. It has been said that each reader stages his own version of a novel. However, we don't mean that a reader clips different passages from the book and pastes the end at the beginning, or that he cuts characters or entire subplots that he thinks will only distract him from what is essential, or that he suddenly inserts a topical newspaper article in the middle. A reader also doesn't cover the margins of a book with the titles of musical numbers that he feels an urgent need to listen to while reading. And even if such a reader existed, he wouldn't think to pester other readers with his private enjoyment.

A director is first and foremost a reader, the most influential reader a playwright has. All plays need a director who is sensitive to language, especially plays that don't rely on a solidly constructed plot but instead use language to convey the action, plays where the characters are defined by the music of their language, plays where form and content cannot be separated, and plays where language itself determines the content. I don't mean that plays should be celebrated obediently, or that directors should drown them in the kinds of musical sauces that have become popular recently, all the while believing they are taking the language particularly seriously. Both of these extremes signal an unwillingness by directors to confront language as an event onstage.

The kind of radical treatment or deconstruction of a play devised years ago by directors like Frank Castorf in response to a static and self-referential theater aesthetic, today, when imposed by Castorf's imitators, seems merely to be the application of a fashionable principle. All that is left of the rebellion is its attitude, an attitude that no longer presupposes a director's engagement with the text. The self-satisfied audience whom theater artists have long been eager to shock hardly exists anymore. No one would be outraged, for example, at a production of Hamlet that was reduced to four characters and enriched with excerpts from Sartre. Without anyone to offend, such a gesture of protest is pointless, and therefore seems all the more grotesque.

The Regietheater, or directors' theater, that has emerged in recent years, is nothing less than a movement by directors to enthrone themselves as auteurs. Texts, to them, are merely material, stitched together from films, novels, and a play's original script. The resulting theatrical events, although brimming with zeitgeist, appear strangely harmless; the array of videos, music and current political news cannot disguise the fact that the essence of drama -- conflicts between characters -- is missing.

It has seemed to me for some time now that directors have imposed an unspoken rivalry on their relationships with authors--as though the point of a performance is who will win the evening. It is as though the director feared nothing more than to disappear behind the author's play. When a director feels he has to layer his own images over my text, I suspect he is trying to subject our relationship to a democratic principle, to win a battle that need never be fought. There is no question, of course, that the wonder of the moment belongs to the director! Without the magic of transformation, a play would never come to life--I often feel that interpretive choices that seem to contradict my plays are inspiring and, in the end, essential.

Some time ago I added the following clause to the contract for an upcoming premiere of one of my plays: "Music may only be added in consultation with the author." This wasn't meant as a threat; I had had a previous unpleasant experience regarding music and wanted to draw attention to the play as an independent score. The clause caused an outrage at the theater in question, as though I had crossed a line that was not mine to cross, as though I wanted to shake the very foundations of theater. It wasn't merely that no author had ever demanded something so impudent. I was admonished that the clause represented an attempt to intervene in the artistic freedom of directors!

I didn't hesitate to remove the offending language. I didn't suffer or even feel that I was giving in. I secretly thought that the clause, having been forcibly excised, was even more dangerous in its absence. At the same time, I couldn't get the phrase out of my head. I had not heard the demand for artistic freedom in this manner in a long time, certainly not in connection with my plays.

I almost felt empowered by the phrase, by its demand for attention. And the longer I listened to this defiant phrase, the more clearly I saw in it a secret longing. For a moment I recalled my struggles with my characters. Amidst all the worries an author has about a play, I wondered how my characters would treat the director. I wondered whether they wouldn't rebel against him just as they had once rebelled against me, and whether they might not subject him to even worse annoyances than those they gave their creator.


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