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Notes on the Last Cold War Theatertreffen JonathanKalb IT IS COMMON KNOWLEDGE THAT the high point of every theatre season in West Berlin is the Theatertreffen, the annual festival of "roughly ten remarkable productions" from throughout the German-speaking world. Somewhat less well known is that the Theatertreffen was originally a product of the Cold War, a direct result of the building of the Berlin Wall. Having been deprived of its identity as a state capital, West Berlin went to extraordinary lengths after 1961 to form a new identity for itself as a cultural and artistic center, and the theatre festival was part of that effort. Like so much high and popular culture in West Germany, though, it also became an opulent advertisement for the higher standard of living and cultural subsidy in the West, and the German Democratic Republic boycotted it until 1989. Why the GDR chose to participate suddenly last year is still a matter of public speculation. Only in a very distant way can the decision have been a harbinger of the coming upheaval. Some cited the election in West Berlin of a socialist Bargermeisterwho enjoyed better relations with the East than his Christian Democratic predecessor. Others cited the gradual loosening of censor restrictions in recent years-a phenomenon now completely overshadowed by the much more significant freedoms that followed the breaching of the Wall. To be sure, the fundamental character of the festival will now change, but last year it retained, perhaps for the last time, its Cold War background. Rightly or not, each of the three plays that came from the 144 GDR was received by West Berlin audiences as the petition of a brave, oppressed writer for a more open society, and performances were cheered like a national anthem. In one case, this was undeserved: Horst Hawemann's production of Nikolai Erdman's Der Selbstmorder (The Suicide) from the Mecklenburgisches Staatstheater Schwerin was thoroughly inept. The night I attended , the audience didn't laugh once during the first act, and I spent the entire time reflecting on the myriad subtle ways in which the German language undermines comedy, making punch lines fussy with indirect objects and reflexive pronouns, for instance. As the much belated GDR premiere of a play about Stalinism from the early Stalin era, though, Hawemann's production qualified as an "event" almost regardless of its quality, and its invitation to the festival was probably insured by that and by the jury's desire to include at least one GDR Provinztheater(to the German ear, a term connoting extreme condescension). In the other two cases, the acclaim was earned. Heiner Mfller's production of his own 1956 play DerLohndracker(The Scab) from the Deutsches Theater in East Berlin was as much a new playwriting achievement as a directorial achievement. Based on the true historical case of Hans Garbe, a worker who became a hero in the GDR's early years by risking his life to rebuild a broken circular kiln before it was fully cooled down-also the subject of several novels by GDR authors and of a planned play by Brecht-Der Lohndrilckerdepicts Balke (Muller's Garbe surrogate) as an "Aktivist" whom the other workers hate because the effect of his "heroism" is to depress the wages of those who don't want to work as hard as he does. As Marc Silberman discusses in a long, informative article on this production (Theater, Fall 1988), the play has almost always been produced as psychological realism, which M~ller believes deprives it of power and affect by simplifying it into a parable with a clear moral. As he says in an interview published in the program: "That's the misunderstanding about a play like Lohndracker,that the people are always seeing politics and ideology where it's actually only a question of behavior of laboratory animals who have to conduct themselves under specified conditions which they haven't specified themselves . . . And every ideological view of that is a false view and prevents seeing what's really there." Maller, obviously drawing heavily on his erstwhile collaborations with Robert Wilson, did all he could to deemphasize illusionism and easily recognizable psychologies by making numerous...


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