Botho Strauss’s career shows movement from his groundbreaking theater work with Peter Stein and the German New Subjectivity in the 1970’s to a new conservatism in the 1990’s. However, this movement does not completely describe Strauss’s work because he has always done things his way. For example, while New Subjectivity usually is limited to exploring the individual response, Strauss has always had a larger picture in mind. This picture sees the individual human being dominated by an abstract system of meaningless repetition, a typically postmodern assumption that is called the “end of history.”
In fact, basic assumptions and linguistic brilliance are strong postmodern elements in Strauss’s dramas and prose texts. This is even more important because postmodernism is a literary movement that did not dominate German literature of the twentieth century to the same extent that it dominated the literature of the United States. In keeping with postmodern thinking, Strauss approaches an increasingly complex world in terms of a game that encompasses the way he uses language and in the way he manipulates characters and plot. This game quality reveals a pessimistic worldview: Strauss’s plays are about the failure of the human search for belonging and certainty in a world that has nothing to offer but uncertainty.
This general approach determines the specifics of Strauss’s themes, characters, and plot. The themes elaborate on the failed search for belonging and suggest elusive answers: shifting and uncertain identities and realities, alienation, failure to communicate, isolation versus relationships, frustrated yearning for happiness, a fine line between sanity and madness, and myth. The characters embody these themes; they are isolated and neurotic, but also well-spoken and often painfully self-conscious as well as uncertain as to their identity. As a result of these uncertainties, the plot in a play by Strauss is often no longer linear and usually merges realistic and nonrealistic elements (especially myth).
Strauss’s specific way of using characters and plot in his plays is best understood as a response to broad literary developments. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, playwrights began to question how it was possible to tell complete stories (plot) and have meaningful communication (dialogue) in a world in which events no longer seemed to make sense. As a result, neither a play’s plot or the function of its dialogue could be taken for granted.
Strauss’s plays do not pretend to solve the problem; rather, they use action and dialogue as a means to evoke the issues that have made plot and dialogue problematic. First, as a basic principle of his plays, action is focused (on a character) yet often arbitrary (as to the identity of that character and as to the classical unities of time, place, and plot): Some characters seem to be passing by as if coming from or going to another play. The plot of Time and the Room is held together by the central character Marie, but she seems to be different persons depending on the specific scene: For example, in the first scene of the play’s second part, she has met the right person at the airport, although during the first part she had missed that person on the very same occasion. This is also an example of how Strauss dissolves the traditionally linear plot.
Second, the questioning of dialogue as an expression of meaningful communication is evident in the so-called well-made plays of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whose sophisticated conversations among eloquent members of high society represent language without true meaning. The tradition of the well-made play is in part revived by Strauss in the use of superficial small talk, especially at parties. In his plays, such conversation has even less meaning because dialogue often degenerates into monologue. Portraying the ineffectuality of language can produce interesting theatrical effects. For example, in Three Acts of Recognition, Susanne expresses her innermost feelings to Moritz about their stale love affair; however, she has turned her back toward...
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