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Cooperation and Conflict: GDR Theatre Censorship, 1961-1989 by Laura Bradley (review)

From: Theatre History Studies
Volume 32, 2012
pp. 197-199 | 10.1353/ths.2012.0022

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Laura Bradley takes her reader to a world as tense and treacherous as a John le Carré thriller; in fact, her astonishing account of the byzantine, arbitrary, and perilous process of theatre censorship in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) is like unsealing a top-secret file locked away for decades. Yet the cloak and-dagger clichés of spy novels have nothing on the remarkable case histories of those infamous productions that dared express criticism, political opposition, or any deviation from party-line socialist realism. In a cultural climate where a single scene might kill a playwright's career—or ill-judged audience laughter could send a director to play the coal-mine circuit—the constant threat of excisions, bans, and punishment made "sacrificing for your art" take on a whole new meaning.

A lecturer in German at the University of Edinburgh, Bradley is the author of a previous monograph employing a near-microscopic focus on Die Mutter, the only play Brecht directed at all three stages of his career: Weimar, exile, and the GDR. Her latest project takes a macro approach, encompassing GDR history, cultural life, theatre companies, playwrights, and politicians. She also includes production photos, a useful map, and a list of abbreviations defining the myriad federal and state institutions that shaped East German theatre. Covering Berlin and the provinces from the building of the Wall to reunification, Bradley trains a wide-angle lens on her subject to capture the most complex—yet clearest—image of German theatrical censorship to date.

Of course, what complicates the picture immediately is the irony that state policy actually forbade censorship; after all, the "D" in "GDR" stood for "Democratic," signifying a government open to the free exchange of ideas. As confirmation of GDR tolerance, Bradley's introduction goes right to the source—quoting chairman of the Council of State Walter Ulbricht, who, in reaction to Alexander Du-bèek's abolition of censorship (during the short-lived Prague Spring), blithely declared that the GDR had no censorship to abolish. From the outset, then, the author connects control of the theatre to the highest level of government and captures the sly, schizophrenic tone that characterized East German cultural policy. What follows is a fascinating exploration of the GDR's attempts to create and control a model socialist theatre yet maintain the appearance of democratic freedom; Bradley's trenchant analysis of this consistent divide be tween the overt and covert, the ostensible and real, gives the book its force and unity.

Bradley divides her book in two, devoting the first half to examples of censorship in East Berlin and the second to examples of censorship in important theatre capitals like Bautzen, Schwerin, Leipzig, and Dresden. She prefaces the whole with a short history of the East German theatre until 1961, where her case histories begin. The author anchors her approach in Bourdieu's theory of censorship as an act of compromise—an apt description of the GDR's peculiar position: to get the world-class theatre they avowed, culture ministers had to compromise; to earn commissions, state support, and travel to the West, theatre artists had to cooperate. Yet as Bradley's research shows, the dynamic was seldom that simple, nor the power evenly divided. To facilitate negotiations, the government evolved a rhetoric of compromise, what the author calls "a euphemistic code" that she breaks down into "four distinct strands" to "reveal how officials presented, justified, and conceived of their activity" (11). In an excellent and subtle analysis of bureaucratic doublespeak, Bradley explains how the four strands reflected East German buzzwords related to the planned economy, administrative language, cultural protection, and education. No matter how they were disguised, though, terms like "ideological clarification" and "administrative measures" were transparent stand-ins for coercion and punishment (12-13). Altogether, Bradley's examples of government surveillance, intervention, and sanctions demonstrate the extent, power, and regional variations in theatre censorship. Especially noteworthy are sections regarding the authorities' negotiations with theatre practitioners over political crises like the Wall, Prague Spring, the defection of luminaries such as Wolf Biermann and Adolf Dresen, and the political tsunami of perestroika. Bradley also presents moving examples of how the taut theatrical climate...



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