Some Observations by an American Acting in the German Theater (1984)

I came to my role as Arnold Stern, the murdered Wagnerian opera conductor in George Tabori’s Jubiläum (Jubilee; Bochum, West Germany, 1983) with many years’ experience in the American and the German theater worlds. Yet my experience had been mostly of the “directive” nature, primarily as a composer and musical director. As an actor, I had appeared briefly in two films and in the 1978 Munich Kammerspiele production of Tabori’s Shylock Improvisations.

I was, however, thoroughly familiar with Tabori’s rehearsal method, having contributed to its development myself. Jubiläum had a four-week rehearsal, short by German standards, average by American. The beginning acting work for Jubiläum relied heavily on theater games, a number of which I already knew. Many of the actors of the Bochum Ensemble were new to this kind of work, and their usual method was antithetical to it, but they took to its demands quickly and fearlessly. As is the case with many American actors starting in this style, the confusion between Schein (appearance) and Sein (reality) was initially great, but generally the work went well. One of the primary goals of the exercises, in addition to the opening up and “quickening” of the actor, is the creation of a community or ensemble, and we achieved that.

But the content of the piece was a problem for me. Although I had worked on a number of plays in Germany dealing with the Nazi period, each time I opened this particular box of horrors, the monsters leapt forth. As a Jew—and in spite of my homogenized, assimilated American upbringing—I suffered from intermittent rage and fear while living and working among Germans. I am also always tempted to present an idealized, laudable portrait of the Jew vis-à-vis Nazis and neo-Nazis and therefore struggled with the fact that my character, Arnold Stern, was a less-than-wonderful man, that his imperfections extended to striking out at the weak, although he perceived himself as possessed by a Brechtian “unbearable goodness.” I think I was able to create a believable character on the stage, perhaps because the concurrences with my own life and person were not as far removed as I first thought. No wonder Tabori, the sly fox, had invited me to play the role (if not, in fact, written it with me in mind). It wasn’t too much of a stretch.

As always in the preparation of a play, the best moments occurred in rehearsal and immediately presented the inherent problem of repeatability. In Tabori’s work, something is always going on—really going on, in the sense of being created; nothing that has already gone on is being replayed-out, no matter how wonderful it once was. Tabori never demands a repeatable result; he is after repeating experience, the moments that lead to the unique, treasured result. So certain scenes (or, indeed, the entire piece) actually may appear radically different among various given performances. What remains constant is Tabori’s text and the accumulated history of the actors in their interaction with that material. Each performance of a Tabori piece is a sum of all preceding performances by that ensemble. Thus, while allowing the actors’ individual and collective reality of the specific moment to ventilate the fixed box of the play with the fresh, cool breezes of the mundane, one need never fear a radical change in the overall shape of the evening. In Tabori’s eyes, any other acting style denies the humanity and uniqueness of a particular company of actors in a particular place at a particular time.

A German composer once asked me, in shocked tones, “You mean the piece could be different every night?! You could even exchange texts with another actor?!” (In Germany, The Word is king.) I replied that it would be unlikely, but not impossible, for actors to switch roles mid-performance. If they did so, they would deploy a kind of role-reversal, which would then significantly alter the shape of the rest of the evening. A heady prospect, and one I’m not sure I would look forward to. But on second thought . . . . He was still incredulous until I likened the moment of improvisation to a jazz performance, with its plunge into the unknown. Then his eyes flashed in recognition.

I’m not sure all theater could be played like this. For instance, musical theater, with its varied and highly controlled tempi, does not allow for this latitude of improvisation. As a composer, I would never encourage this degree of freedom in the performance of my own music, although in many of my theater pieces, and in some of my concert pieces I have allowed for certain degrees of deviation, either of time or of style; indeed, I have sometimes fully encouraged moments of improvisation in the course of a piece.

I also know that in pieces that have enjoyed long lives (vide Oh! Calcutta! 14 years as of 1983), I tend to keep my hands completely off unless, after some years, I see the piece and find that the performance violates the basic precepts of the creation of the work. For instance, I rarely drop in on Oh! Calcutta! It’s always painful to see how the child has grown without doting parents constantly hovering around. If certain elements of the piece are not working or have changed their particulars, what can I say? “Faster and funnier”? “The guitar is too loud at letter G”? Some of the cast members have performed the show almost every day for ten years or more, playing it eight times a week for a constantly changing public. At this point, it’s much more their show than it is mine, so I keep quiet and accept my ever-diminishing royalties. If I were to look in one evening and discover that the show had evolved into a fully clothed celebration of the rightist regime in El Salvador, however, I might raise a few mild objections.

This freeing-up, this celebration of the actor by allowing improvisation into the performance, encourages a kind of reality and, I hope, authenticity. So as an actor, on the stage, I laugh when something really amuses me in the moment; conversely, when something truly saddens me, I cry. This is, of course, the opposite of the relationship of Schein (appearance) to Sein (reality) that I described earlier. In fact, the opportunity for improvisation poses the basic, time-honored existential question an actor has: What is real? What only appears to be real?, which brings to mind the old saw around the theater that the actor should not cry, the audience should. I don’t know who formulated that binary equation, that either/or. Some claim it was Brecht, but I know, as a result of my experience as actor and audience member, that it is not true: I have moved audiences by my tears, and I have been moved to tears by crying actors.

Certain German critics have called into question the legitimacy or even the morality of presenting an actor genuinely suffering on the stage. They argue that by authentically suffering, as opposed to artfully playing that suffering, the actor has usurped the reactive capacity of the viewer. He interposes himself between the viewer and the material—The Word—and thus has robbed the audience of the opportunity of genuinely suffering on its own. In other words, the critics arbitrarily assign the actor a Christ-like function and then condemn him for fulfilling it. But is authenticity a desideratum, or is it something to be avoided at all costs?

In the theater, authenticity manifests social currents more vividly than in music or even in the visual arts because the theater is a direct expression of the tastes and desires of a people. It is no accident that Expressionism found its most fertile soil in Germany, where all direct, unconsidered and/or undiluted emotion is suspect, a manifestation of the twist in the Deutsche Seele (German soul) that led to the monstrous eruptions of its recent history: the brave, dezente Bürger (goodly, discreet citizen) revealing himself to be the screaming insane beast he is (as are we all). But part of that brave façade is the denial of the beast, the primacy of control, and the inadmissibility of raw emotion. Public crying and carrying-on is all right for Jews and Italians; in fact, that’s how we recognize them: they assault our senses, they’re loud, they smell, they don’t dress like us, etc. Small wonder a real Jew crying real tears on the stage of a German Staatstheater is cause for concern, suspicion, and condemnation.

In America, the goal of every actor whose work I respect is authenticity, to be true to the concept of the character and the play, as well as to what is happening in the moment on stage. The highly intelligent, brilliantly theoretical Theaterwissenschaftler (theater scholars) who, to a large extent, criticize and control what appears on the German stage, would probably consider this goal naïve if not downright subversive. The two critical terms I’ve heard most often in the German theater world are sentimental as a pejorative, a lapse to be avoided at all costs (almost as bad as larmoyant [tearful]), and brutal as an encomium, a value to be sought. These may be only the values of an older, worn out, brutalized society that sees all moments of sentimentality as cheap, false, and “Hollywood.” Or they are the aesthetic formulation of a small group of theoreticians attempting to stake out a territory of taste, to dictate theater by abstract conceptualization rather than through the flesh-and-blood reality of the actor.

I have seen thrilling theater in Germany, and I can be moved and excited by other acting styles. I can even be moved to tears by performances of Coppèlia at the ballet. So I am not a fanatic or exclusive in my tastes. As is true of so many Jews, my catholicity knows no bounds. The critics of Jubiläum to whom I refer may have been responding to a poor performance, but I suspect not.

The crucial scene, the one that I think caused the above critical response, is rather long and semi-improvised in its accessories but fully fixed in its content. Arnold is a Jewish musician shot to death by a young neo-Nazi who also drove Mitzi, Arnold’s severely handicapped niece, to suicide. In their scene, Arnold and Mitzi document the atrocity whereby 20 children were hanged in a cellar in Hamburg in order to erase the evidence of medical experiments carried out on them by the Nazi doctors.

At the first, and virtually the only, rehearsal of this scene between Ursula Höpfner and myself, an extraordinary thing happened: we left the text, and the play, behind. Although we rendered the text faithfully, our entire histories—mine as an American Jew of Polish-Galician ancestry, and hers as a German woman of the post-War era—became the operative forces in the scene. In no way did we belittle the horror of that recounting nor did it become of secondary importance, merely a means to an end. Rather, the recounting itself became the means by which we—Uschi and Stanley—came to grips with our respective realities.

Everybody present at the rehearsal agreed that they, in their own reality, had somehow been involved in the event. One German man even said that in the moment of his Betroffenheit (dismay, shock), he was forced to deal with his lack of Betroffenheit on first reading the scene. Uschi’s and my raw, authentic emotion, occasioned by horrors out of his nation’s unconscious, led him to confront his innermost assumptions as a German. Tabori decided to leave this scene unrehearsed until the opening.

In the Open Theater in the 1960s and 1970s in New York, we always talked about the Nachklang—the resonance—that attended a particular piece or performance; we didn’t want our work to stop in its effect with the end of the evening. Jubiläum, in West Germany, achieved a far more enduring resonance than anything else I’d done before, and it won the 1983 Mülheimer Dramatikerpreis for the best play in the German language.

Another American friend—like me, a Jew living in Germany—saw the Bochum show at my invitation. After the performance, I eagerly sought him out because, from the first performance on, I had been confused (as had all of us) by the absolute silence and lack of applause at the end of the play. Was it a judgment? Was it Betroffenheit? If it was, why had the Munich audience—in their Betroffenheit—applauded so loudly and warmly for our Shylock, which dealt with much the same material?

My American friend explained that up to the Arnold/Mitzi scene, the evening was more or less a play, an object that, had it continued in that direction to its end, could have been applauded as an achievement, an accomplishment of grace by the church of player and viewer. But that evening, something else emerged during the Arnold/Mitzi scene and the performance became, instead, an avenue into the dark reaches of the soul whereby each viewer confronted his or her own particular demons. If this was Betroffenheit, then it was the spectators being affected by themselves, an internal result, and not by the performance, so that at the end, the audience literally had nothing to applaud.

An odd choice, this, for my first appearance in a major role. Unique, it proved unrepeatable.

Stanley Walden, 1984