The Beauty of Poison: Neon-Tragic Theatre

» Meeting Room
by Steffi Hensel

Josef Reichholf is a funny man. He wears ties with animal prints. He gives interviews in front of unicorns. And he writes books like “Why People Settled” [1]. It’s a bestseller and it is considered popular science. Yes, they say popular science and wrinkle their noses and try to make you feel bad about reading it. But you know what? Pop is a much more likeable prefix than, let’s say, post. Yes, this text will deal with prefixes, and it will deal with guilty pleasure and trashtastic colors, and if I manage to keep my shit together it will also feature some foxy vocabulary to start a sexy conversation about theatre.

But first things first, let’s stage dive into Josef’s book like into a Bonnie Tyler-esque power ballad or whatever it is you hide in the dark corners of your iTunes. Shall we? Josef explains the shift from humans being hunters and gathers to us settling down, starting farming, the so-called Neolithic turn. He says it did not happen out of a situation of scarcity and lack of goods. Quite to the contrary, he demonstrates that crucial steps in the process of civilization tend to happen out of a situation of abundance and wealth. And they are only sustained when linked to pleasing advantages that will last. In regards to the beginning of agriculture and farming this reads as: first there was the beer, then there was the bread. People needed massive amounts of corn to brew alcoholic beverages, to celebrate at huge collective gatherings that glued society together and rewarded people for all the hard work they did in the fields. Great! My East German hillbilly mind jumps to the obvious conclusion. If I want to find innovation in my field of work (=theatre), I have to look out for the party. So WHERE’S the party? How do I find it? And most importantly, will there be cake?

“Our preference for sweets has got an evolutionary background,” [2] Josef adds, elaborating on the human ability to distinguish the colors red and green. Quite a rare gift among mammals. Lucky us, we are born with this skill. Red = ripe = sweet = sugar. The latter was much needed by ice age humans to survive. This particular ability to distinguish colors was a key skill for nutrition, steeping deep inside of us over thousands of years. WHEN IN DOUBT, PINK!

Summer of 1997. I’m in Ireland. There is a small beach. The sun sets and illuminates the sky in the most beautiful, bright sparkling pink. I express to a local that it looks spectacular. He replies, very dryly, that the extreme coloring is thanks to the fact that the Irish Sea is heavily polluted, some kind of chemical reaction, so to speak. The beauty of poison.

They say that Schiller was into the smell of rotten apples. It kind of turned his creative mind on. Possibly Goethe started this rumor to make fun of Schiller, which is very likely. I, however, like to believe that it’s true. Rotten apples, imaginary or not, are a strong indicator of something a theatre maker cannot live and work without: a solid tragic consciousness. To be associated with rotten apples, therefore, is a huge compliment, the real deal, and the start of a celebration Josef would approve of.

Let’s stick with Schiller for a moment. He is a bit like the Bonnie Tyler of my bookshelf. Do you remember the moment in “Total Eclipse of the Heart” when the boys choir kicks in? That’s pretty close to the effect some of Schiller’s aesthetic writing has on me. In “On the Reason for Pleasure in Tragic Matters” [3] he declares the main goal of artistic practice as “to create fun and happiness” [4], how very pink of him. Poisoned pink, that is, as he is not afraid to get all down and dirty to get the party started.

“Experience teaches us rather that unpleasant affect has greater appeal for us, and thus, that the desire for affect stands in a directly inverse relationship with its content.  This is a general phenomenon of our nature, that the sad, the terrible, the ghastly, allure us with an irresistible magic” [5].

Pulp fiction deluxe. Further exploring the unashamed gap between moral and aesthetic judgment in “Thoughts on the Uses of the Vulgar and Lowly in Art” [6] he promotes the field of crime as a promising subject for playwriting. He elaborates that thieves aren’t very interesting by themselves, but when they become murderers as well, they are powerful characters to portray due to their bigger tragic impact. According to Schiller, you can fuck up big time but still carry the potentially shiniest theatre gold within you.

“Bombenwetter”–that’s what we say in German (or maybe just in Berlin?) when it’s really nice and sunny and all blue skies. I believe it comes from the air raids during the Second World War. A blue sky meant that the pilots had good views at night and would do their jobs thoroughly and successfully. “Der Russe ist im Keller” (the Russian is in the cellar) is another expression with a similar attitude. It means that a woman has her period. It derives from the time when Berlin was declared an open city at the end of the Second World War and Russian soldiers mass raped thousands of female Berlin inhabitants. It’s used nowadays mainly by older women in a dry humor kind of way.

Something sneaked in through the back door into our everyday life via these expressions. Something worth treasuring. The way these phrases are used simultaneously implies an ironic distancing and full acceptance of the incomprehensibly horrific.  This language, this cultural practice, this dialectical sense of humor, thus points to our tragic consciousness. Not only is the mind a muscle, but our tragic consciousness is a muscle (a survival tool) as well. Yet the theatre seems no longer the gym to train this kind of muscle. Not only have more and more dialects disappeared from stage language, but an estrangement has also arisen in recent years between theatre and drama, which among other things, has included the decline in the appreciation of the dramatic text [7]. Caught up in this was an increasing displacement of tragic consciousness from the stage, as Einar Schleef demonstrates for the German-speaking world in his monumental essay “Droge, Faust, Parcival” [8]. But for the time being, we are stuck in an increasing lovelessness in dealing with language on stage.

” …Why more language differences when there are no more different cultures, when language, as the last relic, hinders?  Different cultures can enrich one another through their differences.  To evaluate language exclusively based on its information value is just as much delocalization as depletion–here you no longer see the entire body that speaks, but only its uninformed head.  Language has become a hinderance, unwieldly; it belongs to a different time” [9].

Einar Schleef, the dark priest of the abandoned tragic consciousness, or as I like to call him, the evil tooth fairy promoting the sticky pink path of sugary tragic consciousness, links theatre and bread when further spotlighting this dilemma.

“That the content of classical plays was eliminated, just as contemporary authors, seemed the intention of an extensive entertainment theater industry.  Just as the bread at the baker’s around the corner tastes (you could vomit), theatre evenings taste the same, neither like bread nor flour, only flavor substitutes, additives, citric acid and junk… The expulsion of content from the theatre, from plays, from bread, from the most important things that surround us, evokes a sense of loss that puts one back in the real bread line, accepting the task of scavenging for sausage and grazing Berlin for the only old farmer who, with an old horse, brings proper eggs and potatoes from the Lüneberg Heide at a fairy tale price, of course. Because the eggs taste like something, because you can eat a cold potato with salt and lick your fingers” [10].

I’m hungry now. What about you? So where do I get a tasty slice of bread? How can we turn this situation of lack and scarcity into a Reichholfian party of abundance and wealth? Any pink signs pointing to the emergency exit? Einar to the rescue. He came up with a list of activities, and at the top of that list we find “working on language,” and secondly, “the bringing back of tragedy” [11]. Wow. That’s something I can do. I’m a playwright and theatre maker. I deal with language and tragic consciousness on a daily basis. And there are more of us out there. So what’s preventing the massive party from taking place?

Something is off. At the surface it seems that there is only risk and competition left. Everybody is a venturer. Hurray! “To be able to fail is one of my best skills,” I heard the artistic director of a European arts festival declare recently. Funny enough, when I look at the program books and newsletters I receive from the same people, they are filled with megalomaniacally positive language. Sold out shows, atmosphere better than ever: highly demanded super stars here, world touring revolutionary theatre makers there. So where is the failure and risk they promoted?  Why don’t I receive a newsletter that elaborates on all the highly unsuccessful curatorial decisions, all the big mistakes that were skillfully executed by them? How come I’m still embarrassed and unhappy when I fuck up artistically? If I take them for their word, I should start applying for jobs and budgets with a list of my biggest failures, not shamefully hide them. I should write it down in capital letters. Or let’s just sum it up as it is: there is a difference between the curator of a big festival with a high yearly income and a solid support system of connections and networks, established over years and years, compared to an army of highly skilled, super motivated, but most importantly, individualized, lonely fighters with much less financial back-up and much lower in the hierarchy of the arts field. Still, I don’t feel poor. Am I fooling myself or what is the gold, the power that I already have and continue to look for?

One of the things that makes me very rich is the knowledge of the history and power of my craft and the ongoing exchange with colleagues, those still alive and those who might very well have already been dead for some years or centuries. Maybe my peers are not Rimini Protokoll but more Einar Schleef or Aischylos or unicorns? All it takes is a trip to the library or a decent archive to establish a conversation that might be far more interesting than any of the panel discussions I’ve attended within the last two years. The reason for me to choose to look at things like archaeology or the Neolithic turn points in a similar direction: to stretch the dimensions of what is considered contemporary. Theatre is not just defined by what’s happening now or in the last 200 years. It is also a power to be reckoned with due to its long history and practice. It can be a means to time travel a couple of hundred years. Some of our routines and practices are like fossil records. You know, like how amber is called the gold of the seas.

But I’m living in 2011. This summer Einar will have been dead for ten years. And working as a playwright is not as sexy as it used to be. In fact, it seems to catapult one right to the bottom of the contemporary arts pyramid. Ask the guys from Battle Autoren. Or just listen to how colleagues talk about us. “One must be mad to still work as a playwright. That’s one of the most unnecessary jobs in contemporary arts.” I heard a choreographer declare during a conference in London last fall. The conference was called Move, Choreographing You (Southbank Centre, November 2010) and tried to look closer at the relationship between art and dance. They tried to push “choreography” as a new it-term. Patterns, rules, manuals and routines seem to be the easy way out of a feeling of uneasiness. They seem to offer stability and to re-establish a confidence that has been impaired within artistic production. And it’s not just London. I’ve been to quite a few theatre festivals, panel talks, performances, and if I were asked to sum up my experience as an audience member during the past season it would go like this: In a neoliberal world of post-dramatic theatre, immaterial labor, and collective virtuosity all we are waiting for is to be choreographed. Right? No thanks. The current observable ingratiation of a large part of the cultural scene with the neoliberal ideology (=void) that is swirling about us–content-wise and structurally–is, as it were, naive and disastrous. It creates the illusion that we are in control of the situation. We aren’t. We need to establish real, not fake confidence.

I might not be with the in-crowd, but I can do the Reichholf, add a little bit of fun, abundance and get a party started. And I’m going to use my deeply rotten skills as a playwright to do so. Tragic consciousness, baby! And on top of it I’ll throw in the skill of having fun with language. So let’s invent some foxy vocabulary to talk about theatre. I’ll start. Who wants to be involved with something that is called “postdramatic theatre”? Not me. I wouldn’t go to a “post-party” either. There are much more likeable prefixes around. Let’s do the Schiller and embrace the stinky apples that surround us. Let’s go for neo. And it never hurts to add a little bit of color, so what about neon? Neon theatre. Maybe neon red? Or neon yellow? Blue? It’s up to you, really. As for me, myself, and I, we like to hold hands with Einar. That would lead me to: neon pink theatre, which is unavoidably a neon tragic theatre. NEON TRAGIC THEATRE. That is something I would actually sign up for. Something I would cue up for. Something I want so desperately that I would squeeze myself into the front row. Give me some neon tragic theatre, guys. Please! Not just because it sounds better, but because it expresses a desire rather than a loss. An exclamation mark rather than a question mark. The heart and juice of my craft rather than an intellectual observation from outside. It’s beer and a party, and at the same time it’s bread, real bread that tastes like bread. It’s gold and I want it. Give me your gold. Meet me in the neon tragic theatre. You can’t miss it. It’s neon.

[1] Josef Reichholf, “Warum die Menschen seßhaft wurden. Das große Rätsel unserer Geschichte,” Frankfurt am Main, 2008.

[2] “Unsere Neigung zum Süßen hat zweifellos einen evolutionären Hintergrund.” Reichholf, ebd. S.174

[3] “Über den Grund des Vergnügens an tragischen Gegenständen.” In: Friedrich Schiller, “Theoretische Schriften,” Köln, 1999.

[4] (“Vergnügen auszuspenden und Glückliche zu machen”)

[5] “Vielmehr lehrt die Erfahrung, daß der unangenehme Affekt, den größeren Reiz für uns habe und also die Lust am Affekt mit seinem Inhalt gerade in umgekehrtem Verhältnis stehe. Es ist eine allgemeine Erscheinung unsrer Natur, daß uns das Traurige, das Schreckliche, das Schauderhafte selbst, mit unwiderstehlichem Zauber an sich lockt …” In: “Über die tragische Kunst,” Schiller, ebd. S.123

[6] “Gedanken zum Gebrauch des Gemeinen und Niedrigen in der Kunst,” Schiller, ebd. S. 227 ff.

[7] For example, as described by Hans-Thies Lehmann in Postdramatic Theatre, Frankfurt am Main, 1999.

[8] Einar Schleef, “Droge, Faust, Parsifal,” Frankfurt am Main, 1997.

[9] “… Wozu noch Sprachunterschiede, wenn es keine unterschiedlichen Kulturen mehr gibt, wenn Sprache als letztes Relikt hindert. Unterschiedliche Kulturen können sich nur durch ihre Unterschiede befruchten. Sprache ausschließlich von ihrem Informationswert zu werten, ist genauso Entortung, Entleerung, sieht man nicht mehr den ganzen Körper, der spricht, sondern nur seinen uniformierten Kopf. Sprache ist hinderlich, schwerfällig geworden, gehört einer anderen Zeit an.”  Einar Schleef, Manuskript “Madrid” Abschnitt 8 8a im Dokument 3728, Einar Schleef Archiv der Akademie der Künste, Robert Koch Platz, Berlin.

[10] “Daß der Inhalt der Klassischen Stücke genauso elemeniert wurde wie die Gegenwartsautoren, dies schien die Absicht einer weitverzweigten Unterhaltungstheaterindustrie zu sein, genauso wie die Brötchen um die Ecke beim Bäcker schmecken, man könnte erbrechen, genauso schmecken die Theaterabende, weder nach Brot noch Mehl, nur Aromaersatzstoffe, Zusatzstoffe, Säuerungsmittel und Schrott. (…) Das Austreiben des Inhalts aus dem Theater, aus den Stücken, aus dem Brot, aus den wesentlichsten Dingen, die uns umgeben, ruft ein Verlustgefühl hervor, daß man wieder nach richtigem Brot Schlange steht, Wege auf sich nimmt, um Wurst zu ergattern und grast Berlin nach dem einzigen alten Bauern ab, der aus der Lüneburger Heide mit einem alten Pferd richtige Eier und Kartoffeln bringt, natürlich zu einem Märchenpreis, aber da schmecken die Eier, da ißt man die kalte Kartoffel mit Salz und leckt sich die Finger.”  Schleef, ebd. Abschnitt 4 4a.

[11] “Genauso wie ich das Verschwinden einfachster Theatertechnik beklage, beklage ich das Versacken der Dialekte, unserer Minderheitensprachen, meiner eigenen, beklage ich den langsamen Verlust des Sprechtheaters, das jede Verantwortlichkeit von sich gewiesen und keine Aufgabe mehr erfüllt. Wie läßt sich in dieser Situation ein Auftrag im Sprechtheater definieren:

1.      Arbeit an der deutschen Sprache

2.      Rückbringung der Tragödie, verbunden mit einer Neubestimmung des ihr innewohnenden religiösen Charakters (…) Schleef ebd. Abschnitt 8 8a