Johann von Goethe Wolfgang Criticism: General Commentary - Essay

Criticism: General Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Crosby, Donald H. “The German Stage-Image of Goethe, 1969-1981.” In Goethe in the Twentieth Century, edited by Alexej Ugrinsky, pp. 29-35. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Crosby considers some contemporary interpretations of Tasso, Iphigenie, and Faust on the German stage in order to “provide at least an outline of the current stage image of Goethe.”]

“As you know, the German stage lets
each one try what he may.”

—Goethe, Faust

The words of that ever-quotable pragmatist, the Theater Director of Faust, are if anything truer today than they were in Goethe's own time. After a postwar period of reconstruction, the German stage over the past two decades has once again become a proving ground for directorial innovation. Spawned from the political and social ferment of the 1960s, an impressive cadre of fresh directorial talent has succeeded in reviving the tradition of creative, interpretive direction associated with the names of Max Reinhardt and Bertold Brecht. Taking advantage of the temper of the times, which had mandated the reexamination of all traditional values, these artists have imposed their directorial egos not only on contemporary plays but on the traditional masterpieces of dramatic literature as well. Thus the “classics” of Shakespeare and Schiller, of Buchner, Kleist, and of course Goethe have been turned inside out, as it were, in an attempt to explore their relevance to our own times.1 In reshaping these texts, the directors have inevitably also reshaped the perception of their authors, so that the current stage image of, say, Schiller and Goethe differs from what it was twenty, forty, or sixty years ago. Surely this is as it should be: one does not play Hamlet as it was performed in Shakespeare's time, or even in Goethe's; it would be considered bad taste to play the music of Franz Liszt the way Franz Liszt played the music of Franz Liszt; and even in Bayreuth, where the Holy Grail of tradition was so zealously guarded for decades, the operas of Richard Wagner may now be seen in controversial but resolutely contemporary interpretations.

Since the very flux of time itself reshapes the image, or perception, of every creative artist, be he painter, poet, or composer, it seems fair to examine just how the recreative artists—the conductors and soloists in the world of music for example, and the stage directors and actors in the theater—have responded to their interpretative mandates. In the case of Goethe, the sheer number of productions of his works on the German-language stage precludes a comprehensive discussion of the many interpretations—and reinterpretations—of his works in recent years. Although Goethe's major plays are limited in number, the broad compass of their themes, the variety of their forms, the power of the poet's dramatic conceptions and the often matchless language have assured these plays a place in the permanent repertoire of the German stage. This report on some recent stagings of three major dramas—Tasso, Iphigenie, and Faust—is offered in the hope that it will provide at least an outline of the current stage image of Goethe.

Although Goethe's current stage profile has been shaped by many hands, no single personality in the theater world has contributed more to its configuration than the director Peter Stein. In the year 1969, three years after Peter Zadek had “modernized” Schiller's Die Räuber by presenting the play as a sort of comic-strip version of an American Western, and two years after Stein himself had ventured a strictly nontraditional staging of Kabale und Liebe in Munich, the gifted young director evidently felt that it was Goethe's turn. Seizing upon Tasso, that inward, almost introverted play that is normally prized more by philologists than by playgoers, Stein and his Bremen ensemble offered a reinterpretation of this “classic” that shook the German theater “establishment”—and Goethe traditionalists—to the core. Looking back at the “legendary Bremen Tasso,” as it is often called, the student of the stage might not find the production to have been quite as revolutionary as the critical reaction at the time indicated; over the intervening thirteen years, after all, directors have shown us Hamlet leaping into bed with his mother, Othello chasing a nude Desdemona across the stage, Franz Moor urinating on his father, and the Prinz von Homburg standing stark naked in a potato field. To evaluate the impact of the Stein production, however, the critic of the 1980s need only recall the time when German professors were being hounded out of their lecture halls, collections for the Vietcong were being taken in the Munich Kammerspiele, and German youths—like their American counterparts—were sounding like that prescient baccalaureus in Faust II who urged the slaying of everyone over the age of thirty. In an era in which all traditional values were being reappraised, it was inevitable that even so venerable a “classic” as Tasso would be plumbed for its relevance to contemporary ideas and contemporary problems.

And, indeed, that was the main thrust of Stein's production: to draw a parallel between an effete, luxury-loving, caste-conscious Renaissance clique and Stein's own perception of the elitist, power-drunk capitalist society of today. To underscore the encapsulated artificiality of Belriguardo, Duke Alfons' stately pleasure dome, Stein had the stage covered with green cloth suggestive of a lush lawn; its boundaries were formed by transparent plastic curtains. Within this hothouse sphere of idle privilege moved deliberately devitalized impersonations of Duke Alfons, the two Leonores, Antonio and Tasso. Gliding about in ballet-like choreography, the players drifted in and out of the action as required by the plot; when not actually “onstage,” they hovered on the periphery of the action, which evolved out of a heavily cut text. In the midst of the action, of course, was Tasso himself, that neurasthenic, hypersensitive poet whom Goethe once called “an intensified Werther.” Stein's own description of Tasso, as one reads in his notes to the production,2 was that of an “Emotional clown:” Stein, a committed Marxist, projected Tasso as a lap dog of the aristocracy who makes himself ridiculous by trying to adapt himself to ridiculous norms. Although Tasso was at one point costumed to resemble Tischbein's Goethe, he behaved more like a refugee from Thomas Mann's gallery of artist-misfits. Tripping over his own feet, his laurel wreath askew, Tasso was more of a Detlev Spinell than a Goethe redivivus. Even the famous metaphor which closes the play: “Thus the seaman finds himself firmly clinging to the very rock on which he was to founder,” was concretized in such a way as to underscore Tasso's total helplessness: the poet did not merely cling to Antonio—as the text suggests—but rather clambered up onto his shoulders, whereupon he was borne, kicking like a toddler, from the stage. Although a dispassionate observer might well find such a conclusion tragic, critics noted that Tasso's pathetic exit drew guffaws from the audience.3

Whether or not one agrees with Stein's interpretation of Tasso—and devotees of textual fidelity would find much to carp about—one cannot deny the impact of the production. For months German critics hardly discussed anything but the Bremen Tasso; Stein and his ensemble became famous beyond Germany's borders; and more than a decade would pass before another major staging of the play would be mounted. More important; Stein's production proved that even so remote and delicate a dramatic subject as Tasso was robust enough to survive an ideological transplantation into the twentieth century and that its basically static plot could, in the hands of a dedicated ensemble, be turned into arresting theater. Finally, Stein's iconoclastic approach to Tasso dissipated, at least temporarily, than nimbus of reverence which had come to surround Goethe's plays. Like Faust's old academic gown, Tasso had gathered a few cobwebs and moths over the decades; Peter Stein deserves credit for taking the play out of the closet—or more accurately the seminar room—giving it a good shake, and putting it back into circulation.

Like its companion in classicism, Goethe's Iphigenie is a drama which, one might think, would be more likely to thrive in the carefully controlled atmosphere of a graduate seminar than before the unsparing footlights of the stage; yet Iphigenie, like Tasso, has in recent years staked a claim to a life beyond the walls of academe and to a place in the standard repertoire. Among recent stagings, the acclaimed production at the Munich Kammerspiele (1981-1982) deserves close attention both on its artistic merits and because of its substantial...

(The entire section is 3704 words.)