oer the last week or so i've been coming up against the notion of chorus in a number of ways. i've been writing about greek theatre history for a friend, seen some plays where chorus was added or subtracted, and even the approaching mauerfall anniversary speaks to the collective actions and statements of a mass of people.
so i'm writing from berlin now. i was recommended a german hitchhiking website by a friend and had my first experiment with it on sunday, after a weekend trip to strasbourg to meet up with my little brother.
what with rehearsals not beginning until monday i guess i felt like i had exhausted the possibilities of self-amusement in stuttgart. being back in berlin it's like the whole city is on sale. the economic differences in this country are astounding. the richest parts of the west are basically double the cost of living. not being totally educated about economics, i can't comment on that with a great deal of scientific insight. but i can tell you that a falafel here is 2 euro, and in stuttgart it's up to 4 euro.
the degree to which i can comment on it is only the degree to which i have experienced it as a consumer, as well as my vague understanding of what i've been told by my friends here. they work mostly in theatre, but some of them understand economics better than me.
so back when there were two germanies, the eastern half kept most of its economy and industry within its borders, while the west followed most of the western world in participating in the rapidly globalizing economy. manufacturing and production for the DDR was done in the DDR, while the western half was making like all the rest of us western economic powerhouses and getting developing nations to do the dirty work of sewing clothes in substandard labour environments. cities like dresden and leipzig were big manufacturing and industrial centres, as well as having vibrant arts scenes.
then the wall came down (it'll be 20 years november 9), and the DDR wasn't really prepared in terms of having an economic policy to negotiate with. actually i'm pretty sure the government was basically disintergrating with the border. johanna describes the half year or so that followed as anarchy, and i believe it. an entire reality changed for the city of berlin in particular. but during this period of anarchy, the eventual re-unification was anything but inevitable. there were options then. the people of the DDR, though thoroughly dissatisfied with a corrupt government and some of the restrictions put on their day-to-day lives, could have gotten it together to posit another political structure—the germanies could have remained divided, perhaps, with two governments but an open border.
because the mauerfall was basically a spontaneous event—a little underground organizing on each side, probably more on the east—a large (gigantic) demonstration in alexanderplatz 5 days earlier at which many prominent writers / artists / public figures spoke somewhat precipitated it—it was ultimately the politics of flying by the seat of one's pants. as the border opened, travel across the country was wild in those first months. hanna remembers a guy standing at the old border line just jumping from the west to the east and back again in total disbelief. but it was a miraculously peaceful movement from the people, and the political organization were unprepared.
because the west was capitalist and the east was not, there was a lot more money kicking around there, and somehow (this is where my unerstanding gets vague), the west started buying up the properties and industries in the east. right down to the company that made east german mustard. they changed the recipe but branded it the same, but nobody was fooled. i've been told the mustard story by more than one person. it must have really chagrined the whole nation. properties in east berlin were being bought up by the rich westerners, and industries were being taken over. (stuttgart is maybe the most hated city in berlin, because stuttgart is one of the richest cities here). the industry was moved largely to more economically viable (read exploitable) parts of the world.
and basically, the east, not really accustomed to such economic policies, got the short end of the stick. leipzig apparently has over 20% unemployment, and about 10% of the buildings there are abandoned (buffalo, anyone?). there is still a fair bit of resentment. the western ideology is such that they seem to feel as though those silly socialist finally realized they were wrong, and re-unification is that time they bought the east. conversely, the easterners feel like they got annexed without having any political mechanism to choose their own fate, they maintain that the government was corrupt, yes, but not that the entire culture was flawed, and more than anything, they want their mustard back.
so i think that's got a little bit to do with the ridiculous price of stuttgart falafel.
(ii) greeks and goat songs.
so this long thing i've been writing about greek tragedy ended up being fairly interesting for me to get back into. i've never directed a greek play and only acted in one in theatre school just like everyone has to at some point. well, there was also the ill-fated production of antigone i was in for about a week with catherine back in second or third year or something but when we were asked to cite some idiotic stella adler rip-off notion of emotional memory to launch ourselves into a choral ode about the seven against thebes we booked it out of there pretty fast. the director was this long-haired dude who dressed all in black who picked up a british accent after doing a summer course at rada and basically epitomized everything i hate about the horrible north american misunderstanding of stanislavsky. the production never went on.
but i'm just rambling.
the interesting point for me about going back to greek theatre has been observing that in a number of ways the appeal of theatre is essentially the same for me now as it was then. and it's got to do with the idea of chorus. tolerate, if you will, the nauseating stereotypicality of quoting nietzsche. (actualy he's got a bad rap, he wrote some pretty rad stuff, it's just that i feel like a bit of a joke sitting in german parks reading nietzsche).
singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher community: he has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the verge of flying up into the air as he dances. the enchantment speaks out in his gestures. [...] something supernatural also echoes out of him: he feels himself a god; he himself now moves in as lofty and ecstatic a way as he saw the gods move in his dream.
that's the birth of tragedy, right at the beginning, where nietzsche's still making sense. that's half of the importance of chorus for me, and theatre too, is this sense of community that happens with it. live performance is unstable, it's never the same night to night. concerts and performances are the sort of event where you can say—dude, were you there the night the set fell down started a fire and they managed to finish the show anyhow? that was hectic!—or more often something somewhat less dramatic. there's something shared between audience members and actors and technicians and even the bartenders and ushers who are together in the room on the same night.
or even if it goes well, totally according to plan, an actor or a piece of theatre, when it really hits an audience, hits in three ways—mentally, emotionally, and physically. the third is the trickiest, but it's where nietzsche is headed in my opinion, this enchantment, this spirituality (can be totally secular) that comes out of being captivated and moved by a play such that your mind, heart, and body are all involved and reacting to the piece.
the other thing that greek theatre did with this chorus idea, was that they managed to make plays super political just by virtue of having a sense of community, or citizenry, actually represented onstage. it gives a sense of the impact of the political actions of the figures onstage (usually kings and princes and generals) on their people, who react en masse. sometimes the community is right, sometimes you get a chance to see a whole community acting foolishly and only one person with the courage to stand up for what they think is right—but it gives greek theatre a powerful tool to convey the effects of the political actions on a people. and as greek tragedy evolved it became something more and more politically subversive. euripides manipulated the form with great skill to subvert, undermine, interrogate, and challenge athenian civic and cultural values. i mean, that he lived alone in a cave in the middle of the sea is a fairly good indicator that civic and cultural life in athens wasn't his cup of tea, but the plays are pretty clever about articulating why.
before i left stuttgart i had a chance to see another 'wiederaufnahme' production, directed again by volker lösch. this too, was a film made into a play. but my reaction was very different from my reaction to stalker. wut! is a 2006 film (wut means rage in english) about the racial relations between a bouregois german family and a turkish kid who their son is hanging out with. the turkish kid is beating the kid up, selling him drugs, stealing from him, but somehow they're still friends. partly it's felix's desire to belong, partly highschool's just hard and confusing, and partly felix is rebelling against the middle class upbringing.
the race-relations in germany are rather fascinating to me because canada is by no means perfect and racial relations are a bit of a problem there but overall i think we manage to all live together in the same cities with a remarkable degree of peace. not-so here. perhaps canada has so many races represented that the lines are tougher to draw in the sand. germany doesn't have that kind of racial diversity. it's germans and the turkish community that was brought here in throngs forty years ago due to a labour shortage. berlin actually has the second largest turkish population in the world after istanbul. in berlin there is a great deal more peace and respect between the cultures, but in the smaller cities i have seen open and bald-faced racism in my time here.
the problem is a lack of integration, that the turks were taught to work but not to live as germans, nor did they want to give up their cultures. they live in their own communities, speak their own languages, shop in their own shops. some don't even speak german at all. now there is a second generation, and even a beginning of a third generation of these turkish communities, and the new generations have a total sense of displacement. they are neither german nor turkish, bits of both cultures coming through. there's even the seeds a language developing that is a fusion of the two languages.
lösch seems to really like the effects of chorus work, and also a certain authenticity onstage. (remember all the verbatim text in nachtasyl). instead of just retelling the movie, lösch hired a chorus of street kids and disadvantaged youth, 14 in all, to play the turkish kid. they were clearly not actors. vocally they were rough, straining their voices, and the chorus work was hard to synchronize, so every new statement and sentence was prompted by one member of the chorus saying "und—" to set the rhythm.
but it worked. they were not all turkish. some were german, some black, some middle eastern, some south asian. nothing shocking in canada, but in the very white theatre scene here it was incredibly bold, and i imagine shocked for the bourgeois audience in stuttgart. actually the audience when i saw it included a school group or two, which was really interesting to hear their reactions to the piece.
the play itself was highly physical, simple, and effective. staged mostly in the audience and at the edge of the stage, it was immediate, the struggle happening in and among the "community" of audience members. it addressed the feeling of un-belonging within the society, and dealt really effectively with the middle-class prevailing conservatism here in germany, which is still fairly anti-immigrant.
the end of the play was kind of a cop-out. the play made a really strong statement about all the issues at hand, and had a great ending scene, until the stage opened up to reveal a perfect little glowing pink domestic setting with a turkish housekeeper that was obviously extremely expensive. the chorus came smashing through the walls of the set with axes, and the father character shot them all in a total bloodbath. i love irony, bloodshed, and especially bright pink sets, but in this case, after the story was so simply and effectively told, they beat the point to death and ruined a really nice unsettling conclusion. i'm not one to talk about unnecessary endings—i love endings and usually end up with way too many of them (johanna counted 7 in one show), but when i'm less attached to a piece i can see where there are way too many. johanna is damn good with endings. tight, quick, and effective. one day i'll learn.
last night here in berlin i checked out a production of antigone at the maxim gorki theater. a crazy german poet named hölderlin translated a bunch of the greeks really beautifully in the early 1800s, so unlike in english, there is a fairly standard text for many of the tragedies. in my understanding, this is a quintessential hölderlin translation. dude isn't so well known in english but some of you may have come across "hyperion's song of destiny," a really crazy wicked poem of his.
i should add here that i've never seen a production of antigone that i liked. aside from the farce i mentioned before, i also saw something at the walmer centre theatre in 2008 that i walked out of after the opening monologue was this pedantic, narcissistic, condescending monologue that explained to us that antigone was about 9-11 and this production was going to show us that. there was something irksomely canadian in the so-called candour and honesty and inoffensiveness of the speech—assuming we couldn't make the connection on our own is bad enough, but telling us that we as a community need to experience political theatre with this totally benign safety net under it—political theatre is powerful, can make bold statements, but when you sugar-coat it and spoonfeed me meaning i won't sit through your little autoerotic lecture, and would like my money back.
that said, the play is brilliant. sophokles was a probably the most balanced arguer of the greek playwrights, so the conflict in it is really tough to take sides on. you jump back and forth between kreon and antigone's arguments, duty to state and duty to self being irreconcilable and equally important. anouilh picked up on that, and wrote an antigone in 1944 where antigone is supposed to draw parallels with the résistance and kreon is a representative of totalitarianism. the nazi censors actually let it play because the arguments were so balanced.
but it's a really tough play to do right. it wasn't done right last night.
interestingly, the chorus was written out of the play. and this is one of the most interesting chori/choruses (?) in greek theatre, delivering some pretty crazy interesting reflections on humanity, community, war, and responsibility. the text was kept but redistributed among the characters onstage, and ismene actually got the exodus (final ode)—nice because she's a terrible part to play. show up at the beginning, look like a spineless twit, and then disappear. the text that would normally be delivered to the chorus was delivered to the audience, a really effective way to show all the actions as being in the public eye and having political repercussions.
kreon was incredible—it's really his play in the end. antigone wanders off to die halfway through and then you see a new king taking an unstable throne after a destructive war, having tried to make a decision that is really in his country's best interests, his family all go and off themselves. first his niece antigone hangs herself in the cave. then his son (engaged to her) stabs himself. then eurydike (another crappy role, wander around saying nothing until a speech at the end that lasts about five minutes and walk off and hang yourself). in the end this kreon gets all the bodies onstage with him, sits them up, and the last image was him sitting between his dead wife and son, the rest of his life and reign ahead of him, and him sitting with his arms around his dead family staring into space.
the big problem was that this director decided to write polynikes' corpse into the play. he's the dude antigone shouldn't be burying but does. what's really effective in the play is that no one is really sure what happens after death, it's a mysterious line that can't be crossed. there's no deus ex machina, no ghosts, just the human reality surrounded by all this incomprehensible death. antigone's choice is a personal one. but when you get some random reanimated corpse nagging at her, the strength of her decision is taken away from her. she's acting out of a fear outside herself, not making a decision she personally decides is the just course.
on top of that, the director was pretty obviously gay. not a problem as long as it doesn't make for silly decisions onstage. but polynikes was a very pretty guy without a shirt. i didn't mind the eye candy because he was a good actor. the stupid part came later, when, after being buried, he got up, and pulled a bunch of corpses out of the piles of clothes who were equally half-naked, and equally pretty. then they all went and just stood upstage, with little else to do with the action. just a lot of very attractive men standing upstage. and there wasn't even any symbolism. had there been eight of them i would have understood it—the seven against thebes plus the dead eteokles—but the numbers didn't match up there. ok, maybe they were just the dead youth, reminders of what war does, but they looked pretty alive to me, and didn't indicate the horrors of war as much as remind me of underwear models.
nothing onstage that isn't important to the play. it's amazing that some professional directors here can't manage to stick to that. had the six packs upstage interacted with the action or something instead of just posing, fine, i would disagree with the concept, but at least i could see how that particular director's vision involved it, but they were just eye candy. very nice eye candy, but i've seen pieces of furniture used more effectively onstage.
sometimes the amount of money available in this theatre system actually leads to cop-outs. the pink living room in wut, and the abercrombie boys—most theatres in canada couldn't pay for those things, and so directors would have to solve the problems more creatively. sometimes here money gets thrown at lazy dramaturgy, instead of directors having to really flex creative muscles to find theatrical expressions for unstageable images. ah well, in canada we can't pay for a rehearsal process long enough to do more than learn lines and add some blocking most of the time. nowhere is perfect.