Abandon hope (in a good way)
Every cultural moment finds the classic drama that will help it make sense of the present, and I have a feeling that the recession could be the time to return to classic German-language plays. Not so much Schiller and Goethe, but the writers who derived their energies from the fertile, febrile decades between the mid-19th and mid-2oth centuries. London awaits major new productions of Brecht's Mother Courage (Deborah Warner directs Fiona Shaw at the National Theatre) and Ödön von Horváth lesser-known Judgement Day (at the Almeida) this autumn. The American musical take on Wedekind's Spring Awakening has just opened here, and a terrific collection of writing by Hugo von Hofmannstahl (best known as Strauss's librettist) has just been published.
In the best of these plays, the keening heart is balanced by a gimlet eye on society and culture. We still don't find it easy to release expressionism on stage in Britain - or, it seems, elsewhere, as Alison Croggan suggests in her beautifully attentive response from Melbourne to Buchner's Woyzeck, the grossvater of modern drama. It's a challenging style: romantic in its attention to individual torment, yet finding bold theatrical metaphors for the wider culture and demonstrating how people may exemplify their social function to the point of caricature. There are critics who bridle at Brecht in particular, fearing a finger-wagging lecture on their bourgeois ways. It's true, bad productions can fail to access the concentrated, bone-dry poetry of his theatre. This is lyrical theatre, not didacticism.
As if a sodden grey London day wasn't sufficient to depress, I lowered my spirits yet further this morning by reading Faith, Hope and Charity. Ödön von Horváth wrote the play in 1933, just as the Nazis seized power and shortly before he skedaddled to Paris (where he died in a bizarre accident in 1938, killed by a falling branch). It's a searing sliver of a play - 'a little dance of death,' he called it - about a young woman who, desperate to work, falls foul of bureaucracy and lands a criminal record, slipping from shelf to shelf in a suspicious and cash-stretched world. The Weimar Republic knew from credit crunch, and the short scenes (it takes no time to fall into trouble, which is partly Horváth's point) seem wincingly familiar.
Most familiar of all is the heroine's refusal to be downhearted: her constant refrain is 'I never let it get me down.' (The elegant translation is by Horváth enthusiast Christopher Hampton, and you'll need to find a second-hand copy). She's running on empty hopes, and you fear for her - and for our own necessary optimism in the current crisis. These plays, which refuse to look away from despair, which remind us we're buffeted by economic and political forces way beyond our influence, are astringent medicine.
How can classic German plays help us? Why does the original Spring Awakening seem more contemporary than the new musical version? Find out after the click:
Better clear eyes than opiate expectation. Researching a recent piece on Spring Awakening, I quickly became far more interested in the original drama rather than the recent Broadway phenomenon. Wedekind was an extraordinary figure - a cabaret provocateur and student icon, jailed for treasonous libels on the Kaiser and touring incendiary performances around Germany. Based in Munich, which in the late 19th-century was home to cutting-edge artistic life (what's it like now, anyone?), he was famed for convulsive, almost hysterical performances. When Brecht was a student, he worshipped Wedekind: watching him perform mordant ballads in cellars, singing the songs on his own guitar, attending the writer's funeral in shock. He even named his son after the artist.
And no wonder. Spring Awakening remains a brilliantly unsettling play: jagged scenes, sawn-off juxtapositions, shooting into unexpected non-naturalism for the final scene. It's not, when you read it, natural musical material. Michael Mayer creates a smart piece of staging, tightly choreographed with a rasping edge to the design - but too many of the songs are lame-o ballads, consoling rather than confusing. Composer and lyricist were lovely interviewees, but their claim to have forged a new kind of musical don't stand up - their own final scene moves away from Wedekind's bereft anger and gives us a comfort blanket. The dead are still with us, the spring is coming, lament the lovely bones but keep hoping...
We're going to have to take a long hard look at optimism in the coming months: there's cheerful and then there's deluded. Buchner, Wedekind and their heirs may not comfort us, but they might help.
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