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Bennewitz, Goethe, Faust: German and Intercultural Stagings by David G. John (review)

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 21, 2014
pp. 264-265 | 10.1353/gyr.2014.0014

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Goethe’s Faust is not only Goethe’s most performed work but arguably the closest Goethe came to his own ideal of Weltliteratur. Relatively little, however, has been written about the history of non-Western Faust performances or, for that matter, about some of the directors who have made directing Faust on international stages their life’s work. Considering the essential roles that performance studies, GDR history, and intercultural exchange currently play in German Studies, David G. John’s monograph provides a timely introduction to an important figure in East German theater.

John not only suggests that Fritz Bennewitz (1926–95), previously overlooked in almost all histories of theater, in fact “towers above any other German director, including Peter Stein” (7), but also argues that Bennewitz deserves a place alongside the twentieth century’s greatest intercultural innovators. Each of Bennewitz’s Faust productions explicitly engages with the linguistic, cultural, economic, political, and even racial environment in which it was staged. Citing the connection that Carl Weber has drawn among twentieth-century theater practitioners who use foreign impulses as models, from Bertolt Brecht to Antonin Artaud, Jerzy Grotowsky, Peter Brook, and Richard Schechner, John seeks to add Bennewitz to this legacy (10).

Beyond elevating this director to his place on the pedestal of creativity, John also uses Bennewitz’s East German Faust productions as a lens through which to read GDR sociopolitical history. By comparing Bennewitz’s multiple Faust stagings, including four productions of Faust I and II, the book “offers an unusual opportunity to explore Goethe’s classic drama in artistic, political, and cultural terms, both in Germany and internationally” (5). Bennewitz began his directing career as an East German “true believer” (24), and his evolution from card-carrying member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) to reluctant critic of the 1980s GDR status quo proves to be an intriguing artistic reflection of changing East German public opinion. His most successful Faust staging ran at the Deutsches Nationaltheater in Weimar for ninety-seven performances between 1981 and 1994. Additionally, beginning in 1970, Bennewitz received approval for many trips to India and its surrounding countries, resulting in a peculiar phenomenon: “Bennewitz is a hero of the stage for many Indian and Filipino actors, academics, and theater folk, even if most in his own land have forgotten him” (22).

John’s study consists of a biographical introduction; interviews with East German directors, who comment on Bennewitz’s work as well as the pragmatics of directing in East Germany; commentary on Bennewitz’s three Faust productions in East Germany (1965–67, 1975, 1981), his 1995 Faust in Meiningen, and his stagings in New York (in English), Bombay (in Hindi), and Manila (in Tagalog); and sixty pages of appendixes documenting the contents of the Bennewitz archive. Particularly noteworthy are the extensive firsthand reports of SED control over directorial freedom by Bennewitz’s peers and the observations regarding cultural exchange that took place via the international Faust performances, such as the casting of the first black Gretchen in New York (1978) and the multiple layers of linguistic and cultural translation that many productions required. John’s close analysis highlights Bennewitz’s striking directorial choices, including the deletion of “ist gerettet” at the conclusion of Faust I in the 1984 Weimar production, varying renditions of the Hexenküche, and a staging of Faust’s final speech that uses irony to point to the tension between GDR idealism and reality.

The book’s methodology is largely fact driven; each observation is substantiated with extensive biographical and historical details, as well as quotations from theater reviews and many unpublished archival materials, from letters to director’s notes to unpublished essays. Bennewitz’s lack of systematic theorization remains one difference between Bennewitz and the directors already recognized as the twentieth century’s most significant. While Brecht revolutionized audience-performance relations and Robert Wilson continues to probe the audience’s notions of time, Bennewitz’s central contribution consists largely in having broadened the audience for the Western canon by adapting these works to create, for instance, a Muslim version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and an adaptation of Faust that reflects New York City’s...



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