"Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns" by Elfriede Jelinek. Photo : www.thalia-theater.de

Making a drama out of the crisis

If there is one sector that is going strong in Germany and Austria in these days of dearth and doldrums, it is the theatre. The crisis furnishes a wealth of material for stage portrayals of human foibles and troubles in the grip of global capitalism.

Published on 27 August 2009 at 13:42
"Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns" by Elfriede Jelinek. Photo : www.thalia-theater.de

The economic crisis already has a winner: German theatres, sailing into the new season inspirited with the raw winds of boom and bust.

Elfriede Jelinek was first past the post once again. When her play Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns (“The Businessman’s Contracts”) premiered at Cologne’s Schauspiel in April, it was the first theatrical production to explicitly take on the financial crisis.

“The stock market has crashed: oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!” breaks out Jelinek’s chorus of bankers in a cynical harangue – and it looks as though this hue and cry is bound to resound through the whole upcoming season. A glance at next season’s lineup suffices to show that the crisis has hit German theatre – in a big way. And for once it is not the perennial crisis always somehow plaguing the theatre – “theatre is crisis,” Heiner Müller once pithily remarked –, but the sorry state of the global economy, which calls for a response, or at least a rhetorical tweaking of the programme. Drama has always put human foibles on the stage, to be sure, but special circumstances call for special measures even in this marketplace. The banks are broke, the economy KO? So much the better: plays about capitalism and crisis are booming on German-language stages. And theatre is somebody again. Namely, a critical instance – and not least a moral institution.

And when capitalism gets stuck so deep in the mire as it is now, good ole Bertolt Brecht gets a hearing again. The Three-Penny Opera? Nothing new about that. Though it does feature the remarkable query: “What is a picklock to a bank share? What is the burgling of a bank to the founding of a bank?” But this evergreen is quite crisis-proof anyway.

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More newsworthy is that Hungarian dramatist Ödön von Horvàth’s socially critical “plebs plays”, first and foremost his Kasimir and Karoline, are enjoying renewed popularity of late for their portrayal of the collateral damage wrought by the capitalised world. And that is still the noblest task of theatre: to tell little stories about people that shed some light on the greater picture.

So this season features theatrical renditions of Hans Fallada’s novel Little Man, What Now? (e.g. at theatres in Aachen and Kassel) and its bourgeois counterpart, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, adapted for the stage by John von Düffel. The “Buddenbrooks effect”, which has been invoked time and again in connection with the financial crisis, has likewise hit German theatres.

Perusing the ruminations on the crisis for which nearly all the theatre managers seem to feel a calling in the forewords to this season’s programmes (or at least they cite Peter Sloterdijk), one can hardly get away from the impression that the theatre sees itself as more powerful and important these days: a veritable crisis profiteer. “You see!” it seems to shout. Has it not been deriding and denouncing man’s wicked power-hungry ways for centuries now? Isn’t it finally time we paid homage to the theatre and reflected on what “really counts” as we watch the play unfold? Last season Freiburg Theatre was already advertising with the slogan “Your money’s safe with us”. And in the Munich Kammerspiele’s new season programme, the theatre’s chief dramaturge Julia Lochte says that stories are in fact the most stable currency at the moment.

So the crisis has really put a brisk wind in the sails of German theatre, even if no-one knows where the ships are bound for – and whether they will not end up going under in the financial maelstrom. Revolt? Revolution? Total washout? Brecht’s line “So wie es ist, bleibt es nicht” (“Things won’t stay the way they are”) resonates with a whole new explosive force, writes Achim Thorwald, manager of Stuttgart Theatre. And yet, while comrade Brecht sought to change the system and overhaul society with his theatre, the main object nowadays is to take stock of our situation and, at best, come up with a constructive discourse.

Most theatres, at any rate, know how to capitalise on the crisis. “Money”, “power” and “greed” are the buzzwords on the boards these days. L’Argent (“Money”), the novel by Emile Zola, is being adapted for the Düsseldorf stage this September by John von Düffel, a dramatist from the Dutch town of Epen. It tells the story of Saccard, a power-hungry financial juggler, who makes a killing on bold stock market speculations and thereby gains entry into Parisian high society. And then takes the plunge, as usual.

In a Zurich Schauspielhaus coproduction with Berlin’s HAU (Theater Hebbel am Ufer), Stefan Kaegi, of the Rimini Protokoll Group, explores the world of locusts. In an on-stage terrarium, thousands of these gregarious insects will be the subject of daily observation through cameras and binoculars, replete with expert commentary and music. And there is a lot we have to learn from them: after all, although they ravage their own habitat, these insatiable swarmers are deemed the big winners of evolution.

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