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  • Performing Unification: History and Nation in German Theater After 1989 by Matt Cornish
  • Laura Bradley
PERFORMING UNIFICATION: HISTORY AND NATION IN GERMAN THEATER AFTER 1989. By Matt Cornish. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017; pp. 264.

Performing Unification presents a lucid and engaging analysis of German theatre since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and of the relationship of that theatre to historiography and the curation of memory. This inclusive approach enables Matt Cornish to identify how the events of unification have been shaped into narratives and dramaturgical structures in historiography, museums, plays, and productions. The monograph's case studies of productions concentrate on Berlin, using it as a synedoche for Germany, and Cornish writes his own encounters with the city's streets, landmarks, and theatres into his account, acknowledging his own perspective as observer and historian.

While the main focus of the monograph is on post-1989 theatre, Cornish prepares the ground by examining the broader development of German historical drama and of post-unification historiography. Chapter 1 provides an efficient survey of historical drama from the Baroque period through to the documentary plays of Rolf Hochhuth and Peter Weiss in the 1960s, an overview that would serve well on student reading lists. In chapter 2, Cornish uses Stefan Berger's analysis of German historiography and Hayden White's theory of "emplotment" to argue that "a conservative teleological historiography plots German history as a series of tragedies, most prominently World War II, now resolved into a comedy" through unification on the basis of democratic capitalism (47–48). The main alternative reading was as tragedy, a reading that cast Germany as a threat to Europe or Germans as failing to create a functioning socialist state. The value of these early chapters emerges clearly in those that follow, as Cornish shows how later playwrights and directors used and subverted dramaturgical techniques associated particularly with Schiller and Brecht in order to assert or challenge different historical narratives about German unification.

In chapter 3, Cornish turns to Western plays about unification by Botho Strauß, Rolf Hochhuth, Klaus Pohl, and Elfriede Müller, focusing on the plays as texts. He argues that earlier critics (such as Birgit Haas) have missed the primary connection among the plays: their rejection of the narrative of German history as comedy. Rather than presenting unification as reconciliation, these plays emphasize the harmful effects of West German capitalism on citizens of the former East Germany. Pohl, for example, adopts a micro-historiographic approach by using monologues by ordinary people to invert the myth of unification as a "marriage" between East and West, showing instead how the fall of the Wall has driven characters apart. Yet by using dramatic, as opposed to postdramatic, forms to depict history, the playwrights still demonstrated "a faith in the possibility that history has a comprehensible direction, and will continue towards an end" (85–86). In fact, Cornish argues that their tragic reading of history encouraged spectators to imagine and work toward a reconciliation that would transform the narrative from tragedy to comedy.

It was this possibility of eventual reconciliation that directors in the East—Heiner Müller, Frank Castorf, and Einar Schleef—would go on to reject. In chapter 4, Cornish focuses on stagings that premiered in 1990, during the early stages of the unification process: Müller's Hamlet/Maschine at the Deutsches Theater and Castorf's Die Räuber at the Volksbühne. He argues that both directors subjected Brecht's concept of historicization to an extreme post-Marxist revision, portraying the events of 1989–90 as if they were already historical and piling up these representations together with figures, images, and texts from different times. The productions did employ allegory, but only as one political tool among many. In chapter 4, Cornish examines how Müller, Castorf, and Schleef turned entirely against narrative in productions later in the 1990s, using radicalized techniques of estrangement, satire, the grotesque, and a "landscape dramaturgy" that rejected temporal progression and presented history as "something that should be held in view the whole time" (135). Schleef's production of Hochhuth's Wessis in Weimar at the Berliner Ensemble (1993) incorporated songs, images, and excerpts...


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