IBS Symposium Leipzig 2019


16th Symposium of the International Brecht Society

19-23 June 2019

University of Leipzig and the Centre of Competence for Theatre, Leipzig Germany

paula hanssen_vera stegamn_dorothee ostmeier_joachim lucchesi_gerd koch

BRECHT UNTER FREUNDEN. From left to right: Vera Stegmann, Gerd Koch, Dorothee Ostmeier, Joachim Lucchesi, Paula Hanssen. Photo credit: Paula Hanssen

Conference Reports:

Jack Aldisert (University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, USA)

Raffaella Di Tizio (Roma Tre University, Italy)

Jamila Arenz (University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany)

Essays and Reflections from the Symposium:

Theatre among Strangers: Brecht and East Asia (Antony Tatlow)

Roundtable on “Strangeness” and Transcultural Theater (Marc Silberman)

  1. Stranger Brecht:  Views from the South in the Cold War and Beyond (Loren Kruger)
  2. The Stranger Enters: A Performative Form of Philosophical Interruption (Ira Avneri)
  3. Estranging the Strange and the Power of Silence (Dorothee Ostmeier)
  4. A Critique of Günther Heeg’s Das transkulturelle Theater (Markus Wessendorf)

Unter Fremden, a Warm Welcome

by Jack Aldisert

This June was my first time attending an IBS symposium, and I arrived in Leipzig having met only one of the many people at the conference (the theme of which, Brecht unter Fremden, felt appropriate for my experience). However, it was clear to me within a few hours of arriving that even “among strangers,” this was a community. By the first night I felt warmly welcomed, and by the second day I was beginning to understand the group’s bond. This was a community of people dedicated not just to the legacy of Bertolt Brecht and his works, but to what that legacy represents: the inseparability of art and politics and an unflinching drive to question and to push back.

The 16th IBS Symposium, hosted jointly by the Universität Leipzig and its Centre of Competence for Theatre (CCT) with the Schauspiel Leipzig, made good use of the Schauspiel’s facilities. On the first night, Chiten, a Kyoto theatre company led by director Motoi Miura, performed a piece titled Brechtseller in the “Diskothek” space. According to their website, Chiten “specializes in performances created out of collages using fragments of existing texts. It employs an original linguistic style, deliberately delaying the cadence and rhythm of language to expose the raw sounds of the words liberated from their meanings.” Indeed, the text of Brechtseller was compiled from more than 20 of Brecht’s poems and plays. The unique use of language in the piece created a musical quality that wormed its way into my head and created an aural and textual canvas punctuated by outbursts of emotion and physicality. The piece requires an impressive intensity and discipline from its actors, and they performed with admirable vigor.


That my introduction to the symposium came in the form of a performance piece was indicative of one of its strengths: the eclectic combination of workshops, presentations, and performances. A symposium on Brecht consisting only of presentations and panels would have felt incomplete, so I was happy with the variety of experiences on offer, as well as the variety of attendees – largely a mix of academics, theatre practitioners, and students. It was a wonderfully international group, and I felt like every continent was represented. I assumed that my lack of German language comprehension would prevent me from making the most of the symposium, but I found that every presenter was happy to talk about their material in English following presentations. There were many excellent presentations throughout the weekend, and I wish I could have attended all of them, but I felt that many of the symposium’s best moments were workshops, performances, and those presentations that stood out from the crowd because of their roots in fields beyond literary studies.

On Friday I attended Grace Euna Kim’s workshop “How to Disappear.” This was one of the highlights of the symposium – an experience that went straight to the heart of the conference’s “among strangers” theme. The attendees were allowed into the room one by one over the span of about forty five minutes. I was the last to enter, and found the other participants arranged in a sort of human sculpture. I was asked to draw from a bag of envelopes containing descriptions of the workshop and different random “missions” to be performed by the participants. Mine explained that the only rules were no verbal communication or use of objects, and to touch other participants only with implied consent. The text explained that “mindless zombies will colonize you,” and my “mission” was “save yourself, save the others. Free yourself, free the others.” I was placed into the sculpture, and a phone rang to signal the start of the exercise. What followed was a fascinating fluctuation between group and individual dynamics as the participants attempted to carry out their missions and avoid being “colonized” by the “zombies.” People would join hands and come together, turning in circles and collecting more people before being broken up by an individual who lost trust and moved away. Groups would gather and disperse, arrange each other into new positions and “sculptures,” and find various non-verbal ways of signaling their trust or distrust of the group. Individuals mostly behaved in a manner that appeared consistent with whatever their secret mission was throughout the exercise.

The workshop ended with a group discussion about the exercise and about what the group thought of each individual’s behavior and what their mission may have been. It was revealed that, in fact, every participant had the same mission. It had not been an individual dictum given to them at the start that determined their distinct behaviors, rather it had been their own individual personalities and interpretations of the instructions. This revelation triggered an impassioned discussion about the implications of the exercise. All in all it was a well thought-out and fascinating exploration of our default reactions to notions of individuality and collectivity, and of each concept’s positive and negative connotations. How do we react to a group of strangers, and how much do we trust or distrust them? What is our inherent capacity for manipulation? Grace Euna Kim is a performance artist with a focus on site-specific projects and audience interaction, and her “How to Disappear” workshop can function either as a performance training exercise or a performance in itself.


Two presentations that stood out were Kevin Rittberger’s “Liberté de circulation, toujours” and Hannes Kaufmann and Gerlov van Engelenhoven’s “Verfremdung and Politics.” Rittberger’s presentation eschewed the moderated panel of individual presenters reading out highlights from their papers in favor of an artistic, multimedia approach that rendered the material wonderfully approachable and understandable and gave it an engaging emotional impact. Kaufmann and van Engelenhoven’s presentation was noteworthy for its roots in political studies. They explored the idea of Verfremdung and protest, whether it was possible to achieve the Verfremdungseffekt in the form of protest, and whether the effect could last through representation in the media and public memory. The instances of “Brechtian protest” explored here were compelling examples of analyzing political and social life through a Brechtian lens, and an engaging use of Brecht’s ideas in realms other than theatre and literature.

The Saturday evening gala dinner encouraged interaction between attendees, and served as a fun cap to the symposium. Performers Hans Martin Ritter and the friendly fire! group provided accompaniment with the dinner. Moments of music, performance, and all-out alienation punctuated the friendly conversation and relative normality of the event. I had never considered the idea of a Brechtian dinner, but the gala proved the possibility of the concept. Some attendees were a bit disgruntled by the interruptions, but I was delighted at how the evening’s mild discomfort fit so well within a Brecht symposium.


The symposium felt like a great success. The vibrant community in attendance interacted kindly with each other, and proved that being “among strangers” does not always have to create alienation but rather collegiality. The diverse program of presentations, workshops, and performances created an engaging and interactive atmosphere throughout the symposium and a great many viewpoints and concepts were on display. There will always be a bond among any group of people who study and care about the works of an individual, and that bond lends itself to wonderful creative partnership and intellectual stimulation – and evidently draws people from all over the world. This was my first Brecht symposium, but I hope it will not be my last.

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Memories from Leipzig

by Raffaelle Di Tizio


Welcoming and impressive: so it was for me at the beginning of my first conference with the IBS. The crystal architecture of the Paulinum at Leipzig University offered a quite magnificent and elegant setting that pleasantly contrasted with the immediately friendly, though highly professional atmosphere of the opening talks. This feeling was confirmed by the performance that followed, Zuhause schmeckt’s am besten (by Michael Bray, Lara Chahal, Halimeh Ibrahim of the Thespis-Zentrum). There was some distraction as we picked up our welcome drinks and started to chat with each other: the show that began close to us presented itself as an everyday situation with spontaneous conversations at a table covered with food from different origins and surrounded by people coming from different countries and traditions. At the end they offered us something to eat, posing simple and direct questions regarding everyone. If my memory serves, an actress gently asked me something like “what makes you feel better, what gives you courage?” It’s the way we cope with our everyday problems offered an immediate and significant bridge to the building of deep and direct communication.

I’ve heard wonderful things about the itinerant performance that followed, Lass Dich/Mich verführen. Mit Brechts »Hauspostille« durch Leipzig (by Günther Heeg, Claudius Baisch, Sophia-Charlotte Reiser, Hernike Schmidt, Dana Soubh, Helena Wölfl, performed by students of the Institut für Theaterwissenschaft of Leipzig University), and not less enthusiastic were the comments of some colleagues about Brechtseller, by the theatre company from Kyoto Chiten. But allow me to begin again from the following day, as we listened to the first Round Table and to the Keynote held by Professor em. Dr. Heeg. It was titled Ohne Halt und in großer Fahrt – the same words from Brecht’s Galileo that we found written on the green conference-bags (containing, among all the practical information and maps we could have needed, an ecological cup with an admonition: «Ändere die Welt, sie braucht es»).“Für Brecht sind Kulturen in Unterwegs”, explained Professor Heeg, speaking of a “Gestisches Leben”, a conscious way of living, implicitly underlining also the importance of the Gestus in being there together to meet and discuss.

“Welcoming” describes the general atmosphere of the 16. Symposium of the IBS, which was, not by chance, dedicated to “Brecht unter Fremden.” So it was for the general introduction to my panel (IV), when Patrick Primavesi and Michael Wehren began by inviting us to sit in a circle and to share a short presentation and our expectations about the work that would follow. I should perhaps avoid mentioning my own shyness (it was actually my first conference abroad), but I have to underline the importance of their “open space strategy” where every one in the room was treated equally, notwithstanding the evident difference between our “layers of experience.” So, after the first presentation, my concern about the fact that I would propose, the next day, a quite different approach to the problem of Brecht learning plays in contemporary theatre was soon replaced by the realization that this was exactly the point: to confront and to freely discuss starting from different perspectives, sharing the views possible from different geographical, cultural and temporal contexts, mixing and confronting different and sometime opposing critical approaches. A fruitful dialectic situation, in which the only difficulty, for some of us, was the frequent switching from English to German, more frequent as the conversation started to reach some crucial point (although careful translations were always provided when requested).

Each day of the conference was opened with a short video that summarized the various conference activities of the previous day (many of which had occurred simultaneously), and was closed with performances in the Leipzig Schauspielhaus. On the evening of June 20th, many of us attended a performance of Der Jasager und Der Neinsager, directed by university students.  The audience was divided into small groups and entrusted to a guide dressed like a hiker, who invited us to explore different settings and activities, take part in experiments with music, act out a scene from Brecht’s text, listen to pieces performed by pupils, or watch a film of the two versions of the learning play (and other activities that I didn’t have the chance to experience). The idea was to include us directly in the creative process, opening the door to a fragmentary exploration of Brecht’s work, allowing meaning of the performance to come into being in the moment, through the actions we were invited to do and to observe. This complete immersion was evocative and even amusing. This complete immersion was evocative and even amusing, but there was not any risk of Einfühlung. During the performance the public was also invited, divided in small groups, to answer to a questionnaire about the show and epic theatre.

Totally different was the approach offered on the following day by the Compania Sincara with their Turandot: the production here was all oriented towards the Italian play with masks, a structured and well-finished show, based on the physical work and improvisations of the actors and the use of puppets. Such performances are not easy to describe due to their unique combination of atmospheres, music, rhythms, and jokes. Despite the quotation of his (and Eisler’s) Kinderhymne, Brecht was here a thin presence: the centre was Gozzi’s Turandot. The performance aimed to create its own unique interpretation of Gozzi’s many versions of the play.

My linguistic limitations prevented me from completely comprehending the performance by Kevin Rittberger, Liberté de circulation, toujours on the afternoon of June 22nd. But limits and boundaries, as I came to understand, were exactly the theme of the reading. The recurrence of the same images and disturbing sounds in the background communicated a sense of being bound to always identical narrow paths, directed from the outside.

During our panel, Reiner Steinweg and Patrick Primavesi presented Steinweg’s work with students on Lehrstücke, showing his DVD Am reissenden Fluss (by Gernot Steinweg and Rea Karen, Linz, 2018), a documentation of the pedagogical approach that he had already introduced on the afternoon of 22nd June. At the same time, there was also an artistic talk lead by Professor Heeg with Frank Raddatz and Jürgen Holtz, well known dramaturg and main actor of Frank Castorf’s Galileo Galilei. Das Theater und die Pest, at the Berliner Ensemble. After interpreting two famous Brecht’s monologues and key moments of the performance, Holtz gave some information about the production, defending some of the director’s choices (some people had found some cruelty in the  shower that he takes naked in the first scene).

Even those participants who couldn’t take part in the practical workshops had opportunities for engaging with Brecht’s presence in contemporary theatre. The final performance of the conference was Die Maßnahme (Leipziger Schauspielhaus, June 23rd June, directed by Enrico Lübbe). The production, which followed Brecht’s text closely, featured a quite schematic mis-en-scene which seemed to take a critical stance towards the content of the play. The actors, dressed in matching red jackets and matching masks and wigs moved rigidly in front of flat scenery created through projected animations. The Verfremdung was complete, and the director’s intention clearly seemed to be to create an image of people reduced to machines moved by an external thought, more than to promote an exploration of what it would take to spread a new, more humanitarian, ideology. Was this a sign of the fact that the work is far from becoming less problematic with time? Die Perser, which followed, was a quite different drama with more conventional staging. Instead of devoting space to describing this production, I would rather write more about other key moments, such as Round Table V: “Strangeness and Transcultural Theatre” and the general meeting of the IBS on the afternoon of June 21st. [Editor’s note: see below for articles.] The latter dealt with many organizational themes, such as next symposium and the idea of continuing to promote “Baustelle Brecht” (a useful event devoted to welcoming a new generation of scholars). This open, intergenerational conversation which engaged both established and upcoming scholars  was a welcome contribution to the symposium, even though there was open confrontation concerning differing opinions and proposals. Nevertheless, the overall tone of the assembly was that of real cooperation, aimed at creating new ground for future meetings and discussions. The last round table focused on questions that remained open: Loren Kruger asked, among other things, “How we acknowledge, mitigate, transform relations of power, between languages, between sites of academic and performance research?” Markus Wessendorf analyzed the book by Guenter Heeg Das Transkulturelle Theatre (Berlin: Theater Der Zeit, 2017) from a postcolonial point of view, remembering the risk of universalizing European culture, and the need to be always aware – in the spirit of Brechtian Haltung – of the position we take towards the world – because we cannot avoid taking a position. Even during such direct confrontations, the Symposium demonstrated itself faithful to its call, “to make a contribution to cosmopolitan conviviality: living together as a stranger among strangers.”

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Brecht mit Brecht multiplizieren

von Jamila Arenz

Brecht als gemeinsamer Nenner bei Fragen zum Fremden, Verfremden und Entfremden. Die Brüche in der Gleichung blieben beim Brechtsymposium 2019 allerdings zu häufig aus.

Das 16. Symposium der Internationalen Brecht-Gesellschaft wurde 2019 in Kooperation mit dem Leipziger Institut für Theaterwissenschaften und dem Centre of Competence for Theatre (CCT) in den Räumlichkeiten des Schauspiel Leipzig veranstaltet. Die Teilnehmenden kamen aus fünf Kontinenten und brachten unterschiedliche akademische Ausrichtungen und Hintergründe mit, gemein war ihnen aber das Interesse an Brechts Werk und an seiner Auseinandersetzung mit dem Fremden. Unter dem Motto ‚Brecht unter Fremden’ sollten Möglichkeiten gesucht werden mit dem allgegenwärtigen Fremden zusammenzuleben – eine hier und heute durchaus relevante Frage. Dazu wurden vier Sektionen gebildet, die sich dem Fremden anhand unterschiedlicher Perspektiven nähern wollten. In Keynotes, Panels, Round Tables, Workshops, Artist Talks und anhand eines künstlerischen Programms wurden diese Fragen diskutiert. In meiner Position als Teil des Organisationsteams hatte ich die Möglichkeit überall ein wenig hineinzuschauen, einige Vorträge und Round Tables zu hören und einen Workshop zu besuchen, konnte aber nicht an einer ganzen Sektion teilnehmen. Dahingegen habe ich ein gutes Bild der Geschehnisse zwischen den einzelnen Programmpunkten und der Atmosphäre bekommen. In diesem Bericht möchte ich in Kürze auf die einzelnen Sektionen und Formate eingehen und sie kritisch beleuchten und zwei Beiträge genauer betrachten, um einen Eindruck der Konferenz zu liefern.

Die vier Sektionen

Sektion I lief unter dem Titel „Brecht in der Fremde / der fremde Brecht. Neue Perspektiven auf Brechts Zeit in der Migration und die Theaterarbeit ‚Nach Brecht’ in DDR und BRD“ und befasste sich mit der Grundaufgabe der Wiedergewinnung eines fremden Blicks auf Brecht. Sie wurde von Stephen Brockmann, dem Präsidenten der Internationalen Brecht-Gesellschaft und Micha Braun, wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Leipziger Institut für Theaterwissenschaft und Geschäftsführer des Centre of Competence for Theatre (CCT) an der Universität Leipzig, geleitet.

Sektion II wurde benannt als „Theater unter Fremden. Brechts Idee eines transkulturellen Theaters und deren Fortleben im Theater von Migrationsgesellschaften und machte sich zur Aufgabe auf Brechts Spuren an der Theorie eines transkulturellen Theaters weiterzuarbeiten. Geleitet wurde diese Sektion von Günther Heeg, dem Direktor des CCT, gemeinsam mit Jeanne Bindernagel, wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiterin für Programmentwicklung bei der Kulturstiftung des Bundes.

Sektion III hieß „Foreign Affairs in a Global World: Künstlerische Verfahren nach Brecht in regionalen und sozialen Brennpunkten weltweit“ und bemühte sich darum zu analysieren wie ein Theater und eine Literatur unter Fremden nach Brecht in lokalen und regionalen sozialen Brennpunkten der Welt eingreifende Wirkung entfalten könnte. Die Leitung der Sektion übernahmen Eiichiro Hirata, Professor für Theaterwissenschaft am Institut für Germanistik an der Keio University in Tokio und Veronika Darian, Junior-Professorin am Leipziger Institut für Theaterwissenschaft.

Sektion IV war betitelt als „Fremde spielen. Lehrstücke und Theater nach Brecht mit nicht/professionellen Akteuren“ und verschrieb sich der Weiterarbeit am Modell der Lehrstücke im Horizont eines Theaters unter Fremden. Sektion vier wurde von Patrick Primavesi, dem Geschäftsführenden Direktor des Leipziger Instituts für Theaterwissenschaft, Florian Vaßen, Literatur- und Theaterwissenschaftler und Theaterpädagoge von der Leibniz-Universität Hannover und Michael Wehren, wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Leipziger Institut für Theaterwissenschaft geleitet.

Die Formate:  

Die zwei Keynotes setzten den Rahmen des gesamten Symposiums. Günther Heegs Ansprache zu Anfang forderte unter dem Titel „Ohne Halt und in großer Fahrt. Brecht im Transit. Gestisch Leben“ eine Praxis des transkulturellen Spiels, das die wiederholende Aneignung des Fremden beinhalte. Das Fremde und das Eigene werden so als zwei sich gegenseitig bedingende Pole verstanden, zwischen denen sich das Selbst im ewigen Transit befindet. Dabei lösen sich jegliche kulturellen Besitz- und Identitätsansprüche auf. Das Fremde wird als Teil des Eigenen gesehen und ist somit schon zwangsläufig integriert. Jedoch müssen Strategien mit diesem Fremden umzugehen immer wieder neu verhandelt werden, wobei wir beim Ziel des diesjährigen Symposiums angelangt sind.

Emine Sevgi Özdamar konnte nicht persönlich anwesend sein, war aber durch einem in den Räumlichkeiten der Berliner Volksbühne gedrehten Film vertreten. Anhand von Auszügen aus ihrem autobiografischen Roman „Seltsame Sterne starren zur Erde. Wedding –Pankow 1976/77“ und mit Fotos und Skizzen illustrierte sie ihre Theaterarbeit und die Zusammenarbeit mit Benno Besson. Somit erlaubte sie den Zuschauenden einen tiefen Einblick in das von Besson weiterentwickelte Brecht-Theater und ihre große Faszination mit dieser Arbeitsweise.

Der größte Teil von Information in den einzelnen Sektionen wurde über die Fachvorträge der Teilnehmenden in den Panels vermittelt. Pro Panel von anderthalb Stunden gab es etwa drei Vorträge mit anschließender Diskussion. Mitunter blieb jedoch zu wenig Zeit um wirklich in eine Diskussion einzusteigen und der Austausch mit allen Teilnehmenden der einzelnen Sektionen kam häufig zu kurz. Dabei sind die vielversprechenden Momente, wenn verschiedene Ideen aufeinanderprallen und daraus Neues entsteht. Viel zu oft wurde aber vor einer allzu kritischen Betrachtung Brechts zurückgeschreckt und einige Vortragende mit etwas abweichenden Themen hatten es schwer gegen die ‚Brechtverherrlichung’ anzukommen. Dabei wäre es sicher vielmehr im Sinne dieser Konferenz und im Sinne Brechts gewesen zu hinterfragen, was an Brechts Ideen und Theorien nur fremd und damit fruchtbar, was aber vielleicht auch überholt oder zu einseitig gedacht ist. Insbesondere Brechts zumindest fragwürdiges Verhältnis zu Frauen, dass sich unter Anderem in den typisierten Frauenrollen in seinen Stücken zeigt, blieb weitgehend unkommentiert. Mehr Zeit für Diskussionen hätte hier vielleicht ein Vorankommen ermöglicht.

Bei den Round Tables hingegen war der Dialog schon ins Format eingeschrieben und diese führten daher zu fruchtbareren Diskussionen und echtem Austausch. Besonders Round Table II zeigte sehr gut wie in diesem Format die Kommunikation zwischen verschiedenen Positionen angekurbelt werden kann. Der Round Table II der zu Sektion IV gehörte wurde von Patrick Primavesi moderiert und setzte sich aus Beteiligten des Kooperationsprojekts zu „Der Jasager/Der Neinsager“ und Florian Vaßen zusammen. Das Projekt lief unter dem Titel „Brecht mit Brecht multiplizieren“ als Kooperation zwischen Studierenden der Theaterwissenschaft Leipzig, Studierenden der Hochschule für Musik und Theater Leipzig, Schüler*innen und  Lehrerinnen des Wilhelm-Ostwald-Gymnasiums in Leipzig und Anja-Christin Winkler, einer Regisseurin für Musiktheater. Gemeinsam suchten sie Methoden mit diesen Lehrstücken umzugehen und verschiedene mediale Ausdrucksformen dafür zu finden; immer an der Prämisse festhaltend: der Prozess selbst ist das Lehrstück. Die tatsächliche ‚Aufführung’, die von den Konferenzteilnehmenden dann erlebt werden konnte, diente dabei nur als Einblick in diesen Prozess. Durch den Austausch auf dem Podium des Round Tables wurde sehr schnell deutlich, was die eigentlichen Schwierigkeiten des Projekts gewesen waren: Wie eine Kooperation zwischen so verschiedenen Gruppen und Arbeitsweisen ermöglichen ohne in Hierarchien zu verfallen? Was für Rollen werden gespielt oder erwartet? Wie den eigenen Standpunkt klar erkennen und vertreten? Wie Ja oder Nein sagen? Die Fragen der Lehrstücke vermischten sich mit der Problematik des Projekts.

Auf dem Podium saßen Vertreter*innen aus den verschiedenen Gruppen, das heißt eine Schülerin und ein Schüler des Wilhelm-Ostwald-Gymnasiums, eine Studentin und ein Student der Theaterwissenschaft Leipzig, Cornelia Blochmann, eine der zwei beteiligten Lehrerinnen des Wilhelm-Ostwald-Gymnasiums und Anja-Christin Winkler. Patrick Primavesi stellte oft die gleichen Fragen an die vier verschiedenen Parteien. In den Antworten wurde sehr schnell deutlich, wie unterschiedlich die Wahrnehmung der Prozesse in den einzelnen Gruppen ausgefallen war, wie Fremd- und Eigenwahrnehmung voneinander abfielen. Oft wurden die Aussagen der Schüler*innen von Studierenden oder der Lehrerin ergänzt oder erklärt und so alte Hierarchien und Strukturen reproduziert, um sie im selben Moment aufzuzeigen und zu kommentieren. In diesem Sinne fungierte die Diskussion fast schon wie ein Nachspiel(en) des gesamten Prozesses und erlaubte den Zuhörer*innen ein tatsächliches Erleben der Prozesse.

Einen ähnlich tiefen Einstieg ermöglichten die Workshops, die auch die Brücke zur Praxis schlugen. Workshop I lief unter dem Titel „In andern Köpfen“ und stellte die Arbeitsmethode der Performancegruppe internil vor. Marina Miller Dessau und Arne Vogelgesang leiteten den Workshop. Ihre Methode nennen sie Live-Reenactment. Dabei werden auf einer körperlichen/sprachlichen Ebene ausgewählte Mediendokumente in „Echtzeit“ nachvollzogen beziehungsweise performt. Der Workshop erlaubte den Teilnehmenden diese Methode selbst auszuprobieren. Es wurden YouTube-Videos von Menschen, meist aus dem rechten Spektrum der Gesellschaft, abgespielt, deren Bild auf einen Bildschirm und Ton über Kopfhörer übertragen wurden. Abwechselnd konnten die Teilnehmenden versuchen parallel mit der Person im Video das Gesprochene mitzusprechen. Zu allererst stellte sich die Schwierigkeit zuzuhören und das jetzt zum ersten Mal Gehörte simultan selbst auszusprechen. Das ließ sich aber ziemlich schnell verbessern, auch wenn es weiterhin eine große Konzentration erforderte. Spannender noch war es, nicht nur die Ideen einer anderen Person, sondern deren Art zu Sprechen und sich zu gebärden mit dem eigenen Körper zu übernehmen, sie sich also anzueignen.

Es gab verschiedene Reaktionen auf diese Fremdheitserfahrung. Diese reichten von Unbehagen und Ekel ob der Diskrepanz zu den eigenen Ansichten, über Spaß am Spiel bis hin zu Ehrgeiz, besonders überzeugend bei den Anderen, die das Gesagte nur in der Nachstellung hörten, zu wirken. Es war für alle spannend zu sehen, wie anders man sich mit dem Gesagten auseinandersetzt, wenn man es selbst spricht und auch körperlich nachvollzieht, als wenn man es nur hört. Letztlich blieben uns diese Ansichten natürlich fremd, aber das Live-Reenactment ist eine Methode mit der Fremdheit umzugehen. Marina Miller Dessau erklärte, wie sie sich durch diese Arbeitsweise das Fremde aneigne und so die Ähnlichkeit zum Eigenen darin entdecken könne, was wiederum für eine gemeinsame Ebene sorge, die dann einen Austausch zumindest möglich mache. Für eine Teilnehmende stellte die Methode eher ein Abhärtungstraining dar, mit Situation in denen man mit solch anderen Absichten konfrontiert ist besser umzugehen. Die Arbeitsweise setze die Theorien und Ideen zum Fremden, die in vielen Vorträgen besprochen wurden, in die Tat um. Das Live-Reenactment erlaubte es den Teilnehmenden des Workshops nicht nur, einen körperlichen Umgang mit Fremdheitserfahrungen zu finden, sondern auch am eigenen Körper zu erleben, dass das Eigene und Fremde durchaus Überschneidungspunkte hat, ja geradezu, dass das Fremde im Eigenen stets enthalten ist. Durch den Abgleich der Erfahrungen mit denen der anderen Teilnehmenden, Marina Miller Dessaus und Arne Vogelgesangs und die anschließende Diskussion konnten die praktisch gewonnenen Erkenntnisse wieder in den theoretischen Diskurs überführt werden.

Das künstlerische Programm 

Auch das künstlerische Programm zeigte auf unterschiedlichste Art und Weise praktische Auseinandersetzungen mit dem Fremden oder Strategien der Verfremdung und setzte damit neue Impulse in der Debatte wie hier und heute das Fremde integriert werden kann. Es fehlte jedoch oftmals die Einbindung in die theoretischen Diskussionen, sodass die künstlerischen Beiträge eher einen separaten Block bildeten. Dabei sollten sie als mögliche praktische Methoden mit dem Fremden zusammenzuleben diskutiert, hinterfragt und auf ihre Umsetzbarkeit überprüft werden. Die fruchtbare Auseinandersetzung zwischen Praxis und Theorie, die bei den Workshops so deutlich wurde, hätte hier durch größere Einbindung des künstlerischen Programms in die Panels noch erweitert werden können.

Fazit und Ausblick

Die Diversität der Teilnehmenden der Konferenz war für das Thema der Auseinandersetzung mit dem Fremden anhand von Brechts Methoden und Strategien von großem Vorteil, weil Fremdheitserfahrungen innerhalb der Panels, Round Tables und in den anderen Formaten schon vorprogrammiert waren. Es muss jedoch auch erwähnt werden, dass es durchaus eine Überlast von männlichen, weißen Akademikern aus den Vereinigten Staaten und dem deutschsprachigen Raum gab und insbesondere der Afrikanische Kontinent, aber auch Südamerika stark unterrepräsentiert waren. Des Weiteren blieb, wie oben erwähnt, eine wirklich kritische Auseinandersetzung mit dem Brechtschen Werk sowie die Diskussion und der Theorie-Praxis-Transfer an einigen Stellen auf der Strecke. In diesem Sinne wäre ein Ausblick auf noch zu leistende Arbeit die konkrete Auseinandersetzung mit Strategien und Methoden, wie sie sowohl im Alltag als auch in der künstlerischen Praxis angewendet werden können.

Alles in allem lieferte die Konferenz jedoch wunderbar vielgestaltige Ansätze zum (künstlerischen) Umgang mit dem Fremden in einer von Globalisierung, Populismus und Xenophobie geprägten Welt und erlaubte durch den Austausch mit anderen Teilnehmenden und den praktischen Angeboten in den Workshops und den künstlerischen Beiträgen sowohl Fremdheitserfahrungen aller Art, als auch Methoden diese in das vermeintlich Eigene zu integrieren.

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Theater among Strangers: Brecht and East Asia

by Antony Tatlow

[Click here to download the images associated with this essay (Powerpoint format)]

Personal friendships aside, Brecht was always ‘among strangers.’  A stranger to himself in a turbulent world, in 1921 he praised ‘an excellent book’ by ‘the great writer’ Fritz Mauthner: Last Death of Gautama Buddha (BFA 26, 227) whose self, Mauthner wrote, is ‘a transitory phenomenon in the flow of things.’  Brecht said his own face ‘was more changeable and without character than a landscape under passing clouds. That’s why people can’t remember [it].’ His girlfriend added: ‘You have too many’ (BFA 26, 230).

The ‘flow of things’ became an overdetermined metaphor in social and personal discourse. The problem was reconciling them. ‘Dividuals,’ he once said, must first pass through ‘nothing’ before they discover their purpose in ‘everything’ (BFA 21, 320). Whatever led to this formulation, it seems a perfect summary of Nagarvarjuna’s Madhyamika or Middle Way Buddhist philosophy, where nirvana is achieved in the relational flow of things, in samsara, not in its avoidance or their transcendence.

Like his counter discursive poems, The Doubter, on the Chinese painting, and The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House, the Song dynasty bodhisattva, back turned on the title page of Brecht’s Lutheran Bible, questions orthodoxies, Christian, Buddhist, or scientific socialist. For some people, he said, revolution’s sole purpose seemed to be to bring about dialectical materialism, an abstract ideological preoccupation.

Starting from ‘existential’ Daoism, Brecht found corroboration in the anecdotes, tactical paradox, and strategic wisdom of East Asian texts, which vividly countered official doctrines, sustaining alternative desire lines in his work. The Daoists and Mozi, a source for his Me-ti, wittily criticized Confucian hierarchism. Daoism, a Chinese social unconscious, stimulated creative minds and offered solace for the politically frustrated. In Against constructing world images, Brecht’s Me-ti prefers experience to what he called ‘judgments,’ or practical productivity to ideological system. Similar views exist in Mozi, and such analogies persist across time and cultures. This attracted East Asian artists and thinkers to Brecht’s work.

Encountering what was later euphemized as dialectical determinism, Brecht warned of becoming the servants of priests and replaced his term for socialism, the ‘great order,’ with ‘great production.’ His interventionary thought was not just verbally aligned with Korsch’s ‘geistige Aktion.’ Given the problematic relationship between state and individual, like Mozi he was preoccupied by what we could call ‘the social paradox of self love.’

At the 2010 Honolulu Symposium  I summarized counter discourses, metaphorical, philosophical, ethical, political, psychological, aesthetic and dramaturgical, stimulated by East Asian culture. I now revisit well and lesser known theatre performances, then not properly discussed. We also need to see some consequences, since pictures say more than words can show. As for re-readings, Wilde observed in The Critic as Artist: ‘There is no such thing as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There are as many Hamlets as there are melancholies.’

In the 1920s and early 30s, acting practices came via Russia, texts via England. Asja Lacis had worked with Meyerhold, who employed Japanese externalizing. Assisting Brecht’s 1924 Life of Edward II production, she suggested the soldiers, who don’t know why they are going to war, should march with white faces in a stylized fashion. Brecht asked Valentin how they felt before battle. He replied, ‘Furcht hams, blass sans,’ (they’re scared, they’re pale) and they got white powder masks. Brecht spoke of an ‘Asiatic’ quality in Valentin’s performance. This Valentin-Japanese connection shows how such ‘innovations’ occur.

In 1929 he criticized all acting of his work. Asked how it should be, he replied: ‘Spirituell. Zeremoniell. Rituell. Nicht nahekommen sollten sich Zuschauer und Schauspieler, sondern entfernen sollten sie sich voneinander. Jeder sollte sich von sich selber entfernen. Sonst fällt der Schrecken weg, der zum Erkennen nötig ist.‘ [1] What he encouraged could also describe Noh. Weigel’s static performance in Oedipus helps explain his 1930 response in Das asiatische Vorbild (BFA 21, 380) and Über die japanische Schauspieltechnik (BFA 21, 391), to the Kabuki-style acting of Tsutsui Tokujiro’s troupe, corroborated by Herbert Ihering, then visiting Berlin. The consequences were a stylized vocalization and externalization of the figures in the 1931 Mann ist Mann production, which Brecht directed. [2]

One act of a Kabuki play, Terakoya, Die Dorfschule, republished in 1926, shows the self-sacrifice of a child, who would have been killed anyway, to save the Emperor’s son. Absolute feudal loyalty logically justified that astringent tale. In 1927, Klabund added a ludicrous love story, turning this into orientalising nonsense entitled Das Kirschblütenfest. [3] Two years earlier he performed a similar service for the Chinese Chalk Circle.

Another Japanese self-sacrifice, in Waley’s Taniko translation, led to four plays: the Jasager, to which the schoolchildren  objected, hence the Neinsager, the second Jasager, and Die Maßnahme. Rejecting the Great Custom, the Neinsager refuses to be hurled into the valley. To be performed with the Neinsager, the second Jasager, afraid of being left behind alone, asks to be hurled over the cliff. Die Maßnahme situates agreement with more justification (‘wichtig vor allem zu lernen ist Einverständnis’), since the Young Comrade endangers his colleagues. In each plot, except the Neinsager, they have to kill their companion with or without his agreement. Waley omitted the second part of Taniko, where the God, validating the Yamabushi pilgrimage, restores the boy’s life, a conclusion Brecht was constrained to imagine but also to qualify.

Waley said Noh ‘did not make a frontal attack on the emotions.’ [4] The action was ‘lived through again in mimic and recital by the ghost of one of the participants in it,’ as in Die Maßnahme, whose final speech by the Control Chorus fulfils what Ernest Fenollosa saw as the typical conclusion of many Noh plays: ‘the chorus…carries the mind beyond what the action exhibits to the core of the spiritual meaning…the divine purpose under all violence.’ [5]

In the Weimar Republic, political replaced religious justification. The German Communist Party, following the Soviet Union, advocated a united front, holding that capitalism had stabilized. Korsch and Brecht disagreed. They could not predict history, but Die Maßnahme divided the political Left, when that was not opportune. From this perspective alone, Lukács was right to criticize. The transported narrative clarity, stylistic coherence and restraint, which characterize the didactic plays after Das Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis, freed Brecht from the convolutions of Fatzer. [6]

Where Brecht drew on traditional Japanese nanori (self introduction) and michiyuki (journey description), the Shingeki, or New Theatre, like the Chinese huaju or spoken theatre, with no realist theatre tradition, understandably turned to Stanislavskian naturalism to convey modern social problems. The chorus in Die Maßnahme addresses the characters, like Greek drama but, as in Noh, it also speaks for them. Brecht made Japanese directors realize that socially alert theatre need not follow Stanislavsky. His Taniko adaptation also drew attention to the inherent politics in Noh. Proponents of traditional theatre considered such attribution an ideological intrusion into the Japanese sense of pleasure and regret, incomprehensible to outsiders. A member of the Kanze family Noh school was even dismissed for participating in a Brecht performance. [7] Just as the samurai pledged absolute loyalty, the value of agreement is doubly rewarded in Taniko since, returning the boy to life, sacrifice is sanctified by Buddhist metaphysics. [8]

Performing the Jasager and Neinsager in Japan therefore acknowledged a political narrative different from Mishima’s Noh modernizations. Since performance forced the participants into self-confrontation, Hiroshi Yagi, arguing that Japanese preferred Jasager, favoured the opposite conclusion. [9] Senda’s memorable 1986 Jasager/Neinsager and Noh are equally removed from Shingeki realist aesthetics. Some found Senda followed Brecht’s productions too closely, though hardly in this staging. Placing the chorus below on either side, Senda dramatized the danger of climbing. Wearing similar, but differently coloured, costumes, the refusing Neinsager are female. Carl Weber said this about Senda’s production:

The final refusal and its impact on the shocked group was presented in a truly comic gestus which created a refreshing, liberated – and liberating – effect. The juxtaposition of the two texts in two strikingly different performance modes, within an otherwise rigidly structured ‘frame’ of the overall staging, achieved everything one should expect in Brecht’s theatre: emotional involvement which is immediately distanced, the joy of play, the artistry of skilled performers, and the pleasurable provocation that makes us critically aware of the events we have watched and, consequently, of the world we live in.[10]

At a time when the director Volker Hesse told me, in Tokyo in 1984, as did others elsewhere, that The Good Person was no longer performable, Senda’s 1986 version outshone uncertain Western productions. An English director even sent Shen Te, aka Fiona Shaw, to Hong Kong to find how Chinese breathe when talking to each other. She said the play ‘just would not rise.’ [11] Where others have imagined delicate ink painting or macho Marxism, nothing came close to Komachi Kurihara’s realistic Shen Te/ Shui Ta, not as improbable, charitable or exploitative opposites but embodying each other’s possibilities, which Brecht intended. [12] Seami would have approved of this doubleness. [13] Senda agreed with me that the subjective embodies objectivities but is not simply determined by them. As for the dilemma of self love, Brecht also said: ‘The gods’ great experiment, adding the commandment of self love to that of loving your neighbour had both to remain separate from and yet dominate the plot.’

Brecht shifted from Japanese to Chinese plot structures in the didactic plays and later drama. Their clear narratives contrasted with texts where, as he said, ‘es kommt alles nur vor, es kommt nichts nach vorn.’ If both cultures centre individual experience, Japanese are fixated by past events and inevitable fate. A Chinese plot will likely reverse this, focusing what Brecht called ‘die bunten Schicksale in den Städten.’ Where Japanese plots inculcate feudal allegiance, Chinese narratives allow for social justice. If the Emperor disregarded the Will of Heaven, Chinese culture acknowledged the right of rebellion. Hence trial scenes conclude the plays deriving from Chinese plots, like Die Ausnahme und die Regel, Der gute Mensch von Sezuan & Der kaukasische Kreidekreis.

In Die Ausnahme und die Regel, the transition from ‘Einverständnis’ to disagreement with the judgment, or from an unjust to the final just judgment in The Chalk Circle, follows this fundamental difference. The plot of Die Ausnahme und die Regel derives from a translated Chinese play, whose unfinished adaptation would have resulted in a trial, analogous to Die Maßnahme, in which a soviet court exonerates a proletarian murder. Entitled Die Regel und die Ausnahme, it was abandoned for the reverse conclusion, since a merchant is exonerated for killing a proletarian Kuli. What could be interpreted as implying assent to a regrettably necessary murder/execution is replaced by a plot that clearly dissents from such behaviour. The movement from ritual acceptance to social criticism does not expect participants to accept a conclusion, but invites an audience to criticize one. [14]

In Hong Kong in 1981, Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Western experts discussed Brecht in Asian theatre. Dedicated to the pioneers, Senda Korea and Huang Zuolin, Brecht and East Asian Theatre (Hong Kong University Press 1982) described in detail the 1979 Beijing Life of Galileo. Its impact after the Cultural Revolution was comparable in depth, though not in breadth, to the 1949 Mother Courage. Ding Yangzhong had translated it, using paper given to write his self-confession. When the churchmen waved their little black book, everyone in Beijing knew what was meant. They spoke then of a new theatre for a new age, hoping to destroy dogmatism and escape ‘parochial arrogance.’ Professor Iwabuchi, Senda’s collaborator, remarked Japan could perform whatever they wanted, though with little effect, the opposite of China. But the opportunities there disappeared as shopping malls literally replaced theatres. Encouraged to hold our next IBS Symposium in Beijing, I was asked not to mention ‘Marxism’ in correspondence. We may even have helped to provoke the 1983 Campaign against Spiritual Pollution, which stopped us.

The early 1980s were special. After running the country into the ground, The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution had played itself out. Change was needed and it seemed possible that Brecht could help Chinese theatre develop. A Brecht Research Centre was established in the Dramatic Art Institute of the Central Drama Academy of China. After a student production of The Good Person during the 1985 First Chinese Brecht Seminar in Beijing, a professor said to me she had no idea Brecht understood China so well, that was how it had been. We saw rehearsals for a topical Schweyk in the Second World War. They played Brecht, adapted to new conditions in a China he had not envisaged. In the interrogation scene Schweyk was constrained, as illustrated, within a rope net extending down from above the interrogator’s table.

In a session chaired by the daughter of Lao She, the Tea House dramatist, who drowned himself in Taiping Lake during the Cultural Revolution, when Brecht was also criticized, Gao Xingjian explained his primary indebtedness to Brecht. As a student, the 2000 Nobel Prize winner had seen Mother Courage, participated in a French version of The Good Person, and read A Short Organum for the Theatre, then available as an internal or closed document since it was full of revolutionary theatre concepts. ‘Brecht,’ he said, ‘was the first to make me understand, to my surprise, that […] this art could be reconstructed completely anew. […] he has been of decisive use in my searching in the art of theatre.’

Though mentioning Beckett and Grotowski, he saw Brecht as the innovator who gave him the courage to experiment and develop his own style, not a method to be applied but a practice stimulating creativity. His ‘polyphonic’ plays were ‘in search of different methods of narration and acting.’ Differently engaged, this makes the audience ‘aware of themselves.’ In Bus Stop, Beijing commuters wait for a bus that never comes. The Other Shore, describing the impossibility of reaching the Buddhist metaphor for nirvana, proved too much for the authorities. Banned by censorship, Gao left for France in 1987, turning against official communism, and then some, for what he called ‘no-ism’ (meiyou zhuyi), a socially aware individual morality, while observing how ‘the hell, that quagmire of life,’ vitiated public and destroyed private life.

Stimulated by Brecht to do what had not been done before, Lingshan (Soul Mountain) is neither a typical novel with interacting characters, nor a scientifically conducted anthropological enquiry, not a fictional fantasy, nor a conventional autobiography, but a perspectival amalgamation, splitting identity among different pronouns. A journey into the physical and spiritual hinterland of Chinese culture to escape intolerable pressure within urban society, it flees a paranoid uniformity, where poems must be hidden in a hollow broom handle, in a search for other ways of living. The narrative uncovers pre-modern mentalities in the vast culturally Chinese terrain, beset by violence and belief in the ghosts and demons, invoked by Chairman Mao, that externalize horror and terrorize their victims.

Huang Zuolin wondered if Brecht’s practice could rework their traditional culture, like narrative pingtan performance, or the whole dramatic aesthetic, and help realize his own Chinese Dream. His imagined xieyi-style abstract traditional aesthetic accorded with Brecht’s thoughts on Chinese painting’s empty spaces which do not constrain its subject or the viewer to one fixed perspective. A 1987 experimental  Sichuan production of The Good Person in Chengdu (see the two illustrations) hoped to develop a traditional aesthetic, but these imagined theatres have not materialized.  Xí Jìnpíng now speaks of a Chinese Dream which combines external expansion with unprecedented internal supervision.

Testimony to the fine work by Fritz Bennewitz, The Caucasian Chalk Circle in the Philippines was transferred into a feudal Mindanao culture, as demonstrated by the Philippine Educational Theatre Association to the 1986 Hong Kong IBS Symposium. The seven pictures show the soldiers pursuing Grusche echoing a popular cultural dance, stepping across bamboo poles, called Tinikling, which are then used when bathing the child by the glacier, crossing the deep gorge, and for the ceremonious arrival of the governor’s wife.

To conclude with the most impressive cultural integration I have seen, The Visions of Simone Machard by students of the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, directed by Fredric Mao in 1986, was set in China during the Japanese invasion. Simone’s Joan of Arc dream is expressed through a familiar story of the three female generals of the Yang family in the Song Dynasty, who drove out the foreign invaders. Her brother, the angel, appears from this world of Chinese Opera. Before she is consigned to an asylum, the visions or dream scenes, once considered incomprehensible and unperformable in German Brecht criticism, were enacted in a marvellous performance.[15]

These were exemplary transportations of a Western text in terms of East Asian culture.  As for strategic paradox in East Asian texts, this disturbingly contemporary  passage Brecht marked in Forke’s Mozi translation will do well enough:

‘If you say to bad people that Heaven behaves justly, their character, even if capable of improvement, will not be changed. You must cheerfully announce to them, that Heaven behaves badly.’ (Forke 505)


[1]   Berliner Börsen-Courier, 17 Feb. 1929, BFA 21, 280.

[2]   The first of three pictures illustrates the style of the 1927 production directed by Erich Engels. The second illustration demonstrates externalization in Kabuki. The third picture is taken from the 1931 production, directed by Brecht with Peter Lorre as Galy Gay.

[3]   Klabund : Das Kirschblütenfest. Wien 1927 in Dichtungen aus dem Osten. Wien: Phaidon Verlag 1929.

[4]   Arthur Waley: The No Plays of Japan. New York: Grove Press 1957, p. 53.

[5]   Ezra Pound & Ernest Fenollosa: The classic Noh theatre of Japan. New York : New Directions 1959, p. 69.

[6]   ‘das ganze Stück, da ja unmöglich, einfach zerschmeissen für experiment, ohne realität,’ zur ‘Selbstverständigung,’ (BBA 109/65).

[7]   Brecht also quoted Seami on separating actor and characters. In the Kleines Organon  he mentions Seami’s distinction between the obsessed and their obsession.

[8]  The first of these ten illustrations from the Noh play, Taniko, shows the arrival of the boy’s Yamabushi master enquiring why he has not come to the temple. His sick mother sits behind him to the right. In the second illustration the boy leaves with his master, telling his mother he will pray for her health on the pilgrimage. In the third picture the boy has joined the others on this pilgrimage to the mountains. Pictures four and five show how, following the great custom, they throw the boy who has fallen ill, into the valley. In illustration six the boy’s master is reluctant to continue the pilgrimage, and they agree to implore the founder of their order to restore the boy to life. In the next four pictures an angel of the god arrives, restores the boy to life and brings him back to his master.

[9]   Hiroshi Yagi: Brecht in Japan and Japan in Brecht. Doitsubunkagu-Ronko XX, 1978, 103-120 & Brecht in Japan. Notate zur Aufführung von Der Jasager und Der Neinsager. Osaka Foreign Studies University Journal, 1983, 27-46.

[10]   Brecht Yearbook XIV, p. 32. Taken during the performance at the 1986 IBS 7th Symposium in Hong Kong, the seven pictures are self explanatory.

[11]   From a German perspective, both East and West, a conventional model book production no longer seemed aesthetically adequate. Facing up to this, the Ernst Busch School 1986 student production of The Good Person turned the play’s uncertain Chinoiserie into a compelling critique of contemporary politics, with moral anomie and a pathological psychology replacing conventional immiseration and consequential exploitation.

[12]  ‘Das Ineinanderübergehen der beiden Figuren, ihr ständiger Zerfall und so weiter scheint nun halbwegs gelungen.‘ (BFA 26, 392)

[13]   Seami: ‘Man darf etwa bei der Darstellung eines Erzürnten nicht vergessen, ein weiches Herz zu bewahren. Das ist der Weg, auch bei heftigem Zorn nicht in die Rohheit abzugleiten. Im Zorn noch ein weiches Herz zu besitzen, ist die Voraussetzung dafür, dass der Reiz des überraschend Neuen entsteht.’ Seami: Kadensho. Das Überliefern der Blüte, in Antony Tatlow: Brecht’s Ost Asien. Berlin: Parthas Verlag, 1998. p.18.

[14]   Apropos this aetiology, see my study,  The Mask of Evil, 270-282.

[15]   The seven pictures show the crowd of refuges seeking refuge at the gate of the inn, with Simone watching on the left. She then reads about the victorious female generals, imagines the arrival of her brother, the transformation of the employees of the inn into figures from the past, speaks with the spectacle-wearing emperor (for Joan of Arc’s Dauphin), celebrates with her brother, while the Japanese flag hangs at the gate and, finally anticipates victory, with the three generals decked in Chinese opera style with flags and peacock feathers.

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Roundtable: Strangeness and Transcultural Theater (An Introduction)

by Marc Silberman

I was inspired to organize this group of panelists by the initial IBS Symposium Call for Papers, where I stumbled over a number of words and concepts, especially when I compared the German and English versions. Let me mention immediately that Stephen Brockmann, who was responsible for the translation into English, did a fine job. What concerned me – as a translator myself – was how the untidiness of language became manifest when considering the implications of how words circulate and travel among languages, cultures and theater traditions. All translators know that language is untidy, and most translators have had to wrestle with the question of why there are so many languages when human physiology (the speaking apparatus) and the brain are similar among all the different language speakers. Obviously culture and experience play a role in how we use specific words in our respective languages. So you will notice that the panelists include some native speakers of German and some of other languages, but all of us live and have been professionally engaged in Brecht and theater studies outside of Germany and in the English language for many years. This lands us right in the middle of “das Fremde / die Fremde / die Fremden / Verfremdung” and “Kultur / transkulturell,” all with multiple English possibilities and each with its own connotations and resonances in both German and English. Already in the very first Symposium Round Table, moderator Veronika Darian touched on the rich and ambiguous connotations around the root-word “fremd” and Günther Heeg, our host and first keynote presenter, emphasized – among other things – the importance of “die Fremde” in Brecht’s cultural practice.


I regard translation as a border concept, and as a result I see the transformation and transfer inherent in the process of translation, marking where difference, alterity, otherness, and inequality become visible. Borders, like translation, suggest contact and encounter but both borders and translation are frequently grounded in binaries, which under close examination are rather unstable. Moreover, translation – in German “übersetzen,” which also can mean in a different morphological context “to carry over” (übersetzen) – is an act of interpretation and a form of cultural exchange, engaging choices about meaning and carrying over meaning from one domain to another, in other words, transcultural transfer. This suggests that all translation is embedded in structures of power and discourses of identity, implicating politics and poetics as well as ethics and aesthetics. The following three slides only begin to illustrate the resonances and associations we might generate if we pay attention to the twists and turns words and concepts undergo over time.




This brings me back to the Call for Papers under the title “Brecht unter Fremden / Brecht among Strangers,” which from the outset resonated for me with alterity, with “others.” But I think we need to consider two kinds of alterity or otherness: first, a socio-political alterity that is contingent and changeable, that derives from oppression and engenders resistance, and second, an existential alterity that is a feature of the human condition, that points to the difference of others as a freedom. This latter alterity suggests that from an ethical standpoint we should be aware of the potential asymmetries between self and other, which may limit how we see in the other primarily a reactive relation. On the contrary, we need to strive for a reciprocal recognition of the other that responds to the asymmetry of power. Brecht demonstrates some interesting ways to do this, insisting on the primacy of experience over judgments or ideological positions.

The following “statements” [see Kruger, Avneri, Ostmeier, and Wessendorf below] by the four panel members were intended as provocations to elicit responses, comments, and discussion from the audience, which was then the case. The presentations represent “works-in-progress” and have been only slightly copy-edited for publication.

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Stranger Brecht: Views from the South in the Cold War and Beyond (Roundtable: Strangeness and Transcultural Theater)

by Loren Kruger

My primary goal is to sound a note of skepticism about the politics of “trans” in “transculturation,” and thus to deploy Brechtian “dis-illusion” (still the best translation of Verfremdung) to challenge a sometimes uncritical attachment to transgression. I take my cue from Brecht’s Kleines Organon—these comments are incomplete, imperfect and provisional.

First, I query the assumption that the transcultural assumes an affinity to transgressive or progressive politics. It is certainly the case that, for instance, Brechtian epic theatre, along with indigenous sources, informed the Indian National People’s Theatre’s challenge to British colonial rule from the 1930s, and explicitly shaped theatres opposing apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. BUT, also in South Africa, Brecht’s own plays—as opposed to theatres sponsored in the 1930s and 1940s by the Communist Party, one of the few integrated organizations in that country—entered the repertoire in the 1950s as a representative of European art theatre, produced by university theatre departments, who produced Brecht as an exemplar of modern European theatre rather than as a political activist. This move in turn allowed the apartheid state to secure its credentials as a bastion of “Western” culture on the “dark” continent, to quote the 1966 document declaiming the “Cultural Aspirations of a Young Country.” This decidedly non-transgressive example compels us to ask the question: when/how/why is transcultural theatre not progressive but rather the reverse, a means of reinforcing European hegemony and the “European” aspirations of a white supremacist minority.

My second intervention also draws in part from South Africa but is I hope relevant elsewhere: what are the roles of translations and also of transmission via indirect, or unacknowledged translation? While some of those who have disseminated Brecht in South Africa (Arnold Blumer; Peter Horn) have been German, almost all practitioners and most scholars have accessed Brecht’s plays through translations, mostly those published in the UK by John Willett. In the US, theatre practitioners (in contrast to Germanists) continue to use Eric Bentley’s Americanized versions of the plays, with the frequent result that students find these familiar and others too strange for comfort. Despite the 2014 third edition of Brecht on Theatre, access to Brecht’s theory, is still, allegedly to protect copyright, dominated by the first edition of 1964, which came out even before the first German collected works of 1967; this is often the only Brecht theory text read by monolingual readers in the US, where the publishing conglomerate Macmillan has blocked the distribution of the 3rd edition. In South Africa and I suspect in other countries where books are imported and therefore expensive, readers, who cannot afford to import the new edition must rely on used copies of the still-ubiquitous old one, and many of these read English as a second language, without access to the original German. This mediation allows for unexpected matches between Brecht and locally syncretic traditions of, for example, variety and comedy even as it may lead to key terms being lost in (non) translation.

In the Spanish-speaking world, while some plays were translated earlier in Mexico in 1960 (Teatro alemán contemporaneo) and Cuba in 1961 (Madre Coraje) and even in Spain in 1968, Spanish translations of the theory appeared initially only in Argentina Breviario de estética teatral in 1964 (partial translation of Schriften zum Theater) and La política en el teatro in 1971 in the turbulent period before the military coup; in Spain the plays, poetry and prose began to appear with greater frequency in Spain after the end of dictatorship in 1975 but the theory has appeared only recently (Escritos sobre el teatro in 2004).

This trajectory from South to North inverts the usual trajectory of influence from North to South and leads me to my third and final intervention. To understand influence, transmission and transcultural theatre, we have to acknowledge and influence asymmetrical power. As Rustom Bharucha emphatically stated, inter-cultural theatre was characterized by the asymmetrical appropriation by Western or Northern directors of cultural practices from the South. Although the “transcultural theatre” proposed by the conference hosts may celebrate “theatre as it becomes” [Theater i m Werden] the theory and practice cited privilege the work of white, male Western directors, or, as in the case of Ai Weiwei, an artist whose New York training and transnational capital makes him legible to Western viewers. In the case of Brecht, the argument returns to intercultural habits, as Brecht borrowed the formal appearance of Chinese and Japanese practices to enrich his own practice, but all the while regarding Chinese and Japanese, without understanding the languages in question, as unchanging objects of curiosity rather than as dynamic practices im Werden or indeed im Kraftfeld des Konflikts. Apart from a few citations in Spanish and one in Portuguese, the citations come from the usual Euro-trifecta of English, French, German, with other European authors—Danish, even Greek—only in translation, let alone Mandarin, Japanese, which are languages with considerable global power, to say nothing of the many languages of Africa and other points not represented by the G8. This unspoken omission replicates the asymmetrical relations of power that the concept of transcultural theatre critiques in interculturalism.

Drawing from these trajectories, I suggest that the following questions applies here and now as well as along the South Atlantic:

  1. how does the intermittent character of translation and transmission affect the perception of what counts as Brechtian and why?
  2. how do we acknowledge, mitigate, transform asymmetrical relations of power?—between languages, between sites of academic and performance research?

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The Stranger Enters: A Performative Form of Philosophical Interruption (Roundtable: Strangeness and Transcultural Theater)

by Ira Avneri

As we all know, entrances and exits are a theatrical device that advances or arrests the dramatic action by regulating the engagement or disengagement of characters. Discussing the use of them in Greek tragedy, Oliver Taplin points out that entrances and exits are hardly ever a matter of simply stepping into or out of the action; they are proper arrivals and departures. In a good play, Taplin writes, each entrance and exit “is put into a dramatic context in order to further artistic purposes which could not be served in any other way.” In our Brechtian context, I wish to reflect on the performativity of this device as exhibited in the image of the disruptive entrance of a stranger, personifying philosophy, and the way that it furthers not just the drama but also philosophical themes. This is made possible through the interruption caused by the sudden or delayed entrance, interruption that initiates the transformation of a space identified with theatre into a stage for performing philosophy.

I will start with Socrates. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates’ conduct is often denoted by the word atopia, or atopos, and its variants. Formed by the combination of the Alpha privative and the Greek word topos (meaning “place,” “location,” and sometimes also “topic”), atopia is translated as “strangeness” or “outlandishness,” yet literally it signifies a quality of placelessness, lack of “normal” position or location, that is, something that eludes categorization. The term atopia can define almost any philosopher, but there seems to be no one more suitable to it than Socrates, who was a stranger not just in terms of his appearance and behavior, but also in terms of his manner of expression, mode of thinking, way of philosophizing, and his way of privatizing the public space of Athens. He was a stranger but no foreigner: his presence embodies the dialectics of familiarity and strangeness discussed in the Allegory of the Cave. “It’s a strange image [atopon eikona] you’re describing, and strange prisoners [desmôtas atopous],” Glaucon reacts to the account of the state of affairs inside the cave; to which Socrates replies: “They’re like us” (Republic, 515a).

Here I wish to focus on one of Socrates’ atopic gestures – the standstill, as depicted in Plato’s Symposium – and the way it creates an interruption that opens the door to the display of philosophy. The Symposium presents a detailed report of a private banquet held at Agathon’s house in honor of the host’s victory in the theatre festival of Lênaea. Arriving at the banquet with his admirer Aristodemus, Socrates joins a group of prominent Athenian citizens who celebrate Agathon’s victory in the tragedy competition by staging another competition, a contest of speeches in praise of Eros. The drama that precedes these eulogies is designed as a theatre of interruptions. Although the door to Agathon’s house stands open, awaiting the guests, and although the banquet has already begun (174d-e), Socrates first chooses to remain outside. He forces Aristodemus to enter, alone, a party to which he was not invited in the first place, while he himself stands immobile in a neighbor’s doorway (front porch), fixed to one spot for an unspecified period of time and immersed in thoughts whose content is not reported to us. The narrative moves into Agathon’s house, and the “offstage” act is made present “onstage” through the servant’s report.

As it turns out, the outdoor gesture steals the focus from the indoor party. Agathon, the newly praised host, obsessively attempts to interfere with the standstill. He asks Aristodemus twice about Socrates’ whereabouts (174e); he orders his servant to go look for Socrates and bring him in (175a); and when he hears that Socrates is standing still nearby, ignoring requests to come inside, he tells his servant: “How odd [atopon]…. Call him again and keep on calling him” (175a). At that point, Aristodemus interferes and urges Agathon to leave Socrates alone: “This is one of his habits. Sometimes he turns aside and stands still wherever he happens to be. He will come in very soon, I think. Don’t disturb him” (175a-b). Aristodemus may not know for certain that Socrates will enter, but he does know that Socrates must be allowed to enter in his own time, of his own free will – which indeed he does, without any explanation, when the dinner is already halfway through (175c).

Socrates’ entrance is therefore preceded by a display of his commitment to philosophy, evident both in the contemplative act itself and in his refusal to enter before concluding it. Standing still is Plato’s metaphorical posture for withdrawing from the stream of life, identified with the retreat of the soul to the Intelligible and its ascent to the realm of the eternal. Thus, it is fitting that this gesture is introduced (only) in the Symposium, a dialogue in which the retreat is manifested as a journey up the Ladder of Love, an inner movement in a static position, with Socrates himself as the philosophical lover engaged in this ascent. His most intense reflections occur when he performs this gesture, with his body held tight while his thoughts run free. Nevertheless, his self-absorbed yet publicly visible act is disruptive. That Socrates would stop somewhere to contemplate is not something rare, yet he challenged Agathon, both as a host and as a dramatist, by doing it in the theatrical way he did, just outside the banquet. Socrates’ initial refrain from entering in favor of a performance of philosophizing; his sending of Aristodemus to enter before him, as if he were an imperfect copy of a pure Form; his late entrance while the diners are in the process [im Begriff] of feasting; and his way of making Diotima, his legendary teacher in the dialectics of erôs, enter the discussion through a reenactment of their conversations in his eulogy of Eros – these are all interruptions that initiate the transformation of the dramatist’s house into  a temporary home for philosophy.

In Socrates’ case, the interruption of movement – his standstill – causes an interruption of the dramatic sequence. In Benjamin’s theorizing of the Epic theatre, on the other hand, it is the interruption of the sequence that creates the standstill. In the two versions of his essay “What is Epic Theatre?” he claims that Brecht’s works uncover conditions rather than reproduce them, and that this is achieved by means of the interruption [Unterbrechung] of processes, that is, of narrative sequences. Benjamin’s self-titled “most primitive” example of an interruption is the intrusion of a stranger in the midst of a family row. The mother is in the process [im Begriff] of picking up a pillow (or, in the second version, a bronze statue) to throw at the daughter, while the father is in the process [im Begriff] of opening a window to call the police. At this instant a stranger appears at the door. “‘Tableau,’ as one would have said around 1900.” The unexpected arrival of a detached third party brings the sequence to an abrupt halt, thereby uncovering conditions that have become automatized and therefore unnoticeable. In other words, the intrusion of the a rational spectator, the Thinking Man, who is not part of the family but is rather defined by his remoteness, is what turns the domestic row into a theatrical scene, as well as into a condition (Zustand) that calls for philosophical reflection. As Carl Weber points out, “a moment frozen in this manner would establish a quotable Gestus that invites speculation, provokes critical thinking, and may result in a specific conclusion which then would activate the spectator as to forming an attitude or opinion and thus influence his future behavior versus society.” In the end, the stranger stands here for Benjamin himself, who subjects the Epic theatre to his philosophical gaze, “freezes” the stage apparatus, and uncovers its dialectics.

Through the frozen frame created by his entrance, the stranger stumbles upon a condition which is quite common in scenes of bourgeois life: rumpled bedclothes, an open window, a devastated interior. The thing that is uncovered in the condition represented on this domestic stage is an immanently dialectical attitude, Benjamin writes, a Dialectics at a Standstill [Dialektik im Stillstand]. As in Plato’s design of Socrates’ standstills, Benjamin’s Dialectics at a Standstill crystallizes the arrest of an “objective” flow, a gesture of interruption not just in time and of time but also in space and of space; or, in Benjamin’s own words, a “damming of the stream of real life [die Stauung im realen Lebensfluß].” When the stream is suddenly suspended, what was thought to be known appears as new in its strangeness. The familiar appears as unfamiliar, unheimlich, viewed through a demystified illumination and open to re-examination. The narrative becomes transformed into an image at a standstill.

Dialectics at a Standstill marks a dialectics of motion and stasis in the same thing. It can appear in the realm of the body, as in the case of the Angel of History who is blown into the future while fixedly contemplating the wreckage of the past, or in the realm of the mind, as evident in Benjamin’s claim that thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts but their arrest [Stillstellung] as well. By contrast, Socrates’ dialectical standstills mark a tension between his body and his mind: his moments of external motionlessness are also his most intense moments of internal motion of thought. In both cases, though, the standstill is both a precondition and a result; it is the stage both for and of its own philosophical appearance. The gesture of interrupting the stream is what sets the stage for a philosophy of interrupting the stream.

The two examples examined here anticipate Brecht’s own engagement with this image in Der Messingkauf, which depicts a stranger to the theatre in the theatre: the arrival of a philosopher to a large theatre, after the performance has ended, to talk with the practitioners. Although their discussions – recorded in a form similar to that of a Socratic dialogue – take place on the stage itself, during four consecutive nights, the philosopher is barely interested in the art of theatre in itself. What interests him is the application of the apparatus of the theatre to imitating real incidents between people: “Because I’m interested in the way people live together [das Zusammenleben der Menschen], I’m interested in your imitations of it too.” Much like a dealer who approaches a brass-band with the intention of buying not the musical instruments but rather the brass itself, the philosopher is interested in the possibility of the theatre to become a material for a change of function. He turns the stage into a site for reflection on the materiality of the theatre with those who work there, while drinking wine together, as in the Symposium. At the same time as this is an interruption of their habitual modes of working, it also opens up possibilities for restructuring their work for a theatre of the future. As Brecht has famously claimed, “the future of the theatre is a philosophical one.”

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Estranging the Strange and the Power of Silence (Roundtable: Strangeness and Transcultural Theater)

by Dorothee Ostmeier

I will discuss Mother Courage’s wagon as an icon of mobility and transit, placing it into the center of our thinking about foreignness, strangeness, and otherness – Verfremden, entsetzen, aussetzen, versetzen (Heeg) – and transcultural presence. The wagon destabilizes the utopian hope of ever arriving anywhere and challenges concepts of identity and continuity. This discussion will hopefully add some further aspects to Marc Silberman’s outline of binary tensions between socio-political and existential encounters of otherness, to Tom Kuhn’s deliberations about the poetics of “fliehen, fliegen, fluchen – Flucht, Flug, Fluch” and “never arriving,” and will challenge reflections about rest and stillness in dialectic thought processes that Melanie Seife introduced in her analysis of Hegel’s “Selbsterzeugung durch Entäusserung.” As the stage’s central prop, Mother Courage’s wagon steadily gains more and more autonomous functions, and in the end it questions Western concepts of “self.” On the level of plot, the wagon serves her as medium for transit through Europe during the Thirty Year’s War, but on a meta-level it serves Brecht as a medium for reflecting on his own exile, transit, and migration during the Second World War, as well as for his theatrical dissociation (Distanzierung) from rhetorical traditions and ideologies of self, history, and progress.

The only motivation for Courage’s fight for survival are her children. However, in the process of trading and profiting from the military, she ironically loses her children to the military. Her last words “Nehmt’s mich mit” are uttered in sharp contrast to the stage directions in the beginning: “Mother Courage, die kommt mit Schuhen / In denens besser laufen kann.”  The ironically charged word play with Courage’s term Fussvolk shifts her subject position of controlling her wagon and trade into an object position. She becomes the object of the action. In her phrase “Nehmt’s mich mit” the “ich” turns into “mich,” and her control of the wagon shifts into giving up control. As a verb wagen in German means also “risk taking,” and as prop on the stage Courage’s wagon (German: der Wagen) denotes exactly the implied tensions of taking risks. In the beginning Mother Courage presents herself as a risk-taker who takes charge of her life as migrant, however, in the end the concept of risk-taking changes. By giving up control, she risks her autonomy, and the wagon as agent of mobility takes over. She capitulates and replaces her individual directive with accepting anonymous mobility.

I was reminded of this aspect of my talk when listening to Melanie Selfe’s reflections on Hegel’s dialectic tensions between the familiar and the strange. At end of the drama there is no dialectic synthesis: Mother Courage gives into the dynamic of the wagon as a thing. There is no longer any indication of Courage’s activist initiative, as for example in Scene 1 when she insists: “Lasst die Courage sie erst kurieren / Mit Wein von Leibs- und Geistesnot.” She turns herself into the object of the action, into the object of the object. In this Versachlichung of subjectivity all relics of bourgeois ideologies of family and home are erased and externalized. Courage steps into the liminal space of thingness. “Fremde” – the code word for our conference –turns for Courage into the posthuman experience as “Fremde von sich selbst.” The socio-political alienation of the migrant turns into self-alienation. Having lost all ideological fixation on trade and family, Courage in the end survives through a mobility that has lost all individual agency. In this case alienation does not refer to the distancing of reflection and critical evaluation, it implies alienation from humanness itself. The moving wagon presents the anonymity of mobility. The wagon will move on but it is stuck within the loss of its original mandate. During the discussions at the roundtable Ira Avneri related this paradox of the wagon’s stagnated mobility or mobile stagnation to Freddie Rokem’s references to Brecht’s notes on the staging of Mother Courage’s wagon as the paradox of its simultaneous forward and backward movement:

In his production notes for Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder Brecht emphasized that in the beginning of the performance the “wagon is rolled forward against the movement of the revolving stage’. From the point of view of the audience, the wagon moved counterclockwise, from left to right, while the revolving stage itself turned clockwise, from right to left. As a result of such a superimposition of two circular movements, but in opposite directions, the spectators were watching two contrary movements, perceived as a stasis. The wheels of the wagon were moving, while the wagon itself was fixed in one place.[1]

Mother Courage’s risk-taking for the idea of family, children, home, and homecoming turns into risking humanness, into giving up ideologies by entering the space between human and thing or of total otherness. Is it possible to describe this space as utopia or dystopia? I am wondering whether Brecht stages here an assimilation to nothingness (Anverwandlung), turning the “Suche nach Potentialen” that Günther Heeg discussed in his keynote address into giving up such a search. Heeg pointed to well-established images for transit, to images of boats in Géricault’s painting Das Floss der Medusa, an image of a catastrophic transit, and in Max Beckmann’s tryptichon Die Abfahrt, as a trope for the hope of a future. This reference to metaphors of navigation and seafaring corresponds to my reflections on Michel Foucault’s thinking about heterotopias in his text “Of Other Spaces”:

[the boat is] a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes … in search for the most precious treasures …. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up.”[2]

This theatrical staging is further highlighted through the loss of language and rhetoric, especially of Courage’s cynical wit. In the beginning she talks and talks, but in the end her cynicism turns into silence. My current research places this cynicism within the context of Peter Sloterdijk’s Kritik der zynischen Vernunft (1983).[3] He approaches cynicism as “enlightened false consciousness” that hides something: “Behind the capable, collaborative, hard façade it covers up a mass of offensive unhappiness and the need to cry. In this there is something of the mourning for a ‘lost innocence,’ for a mourning of better knowledge….” (5). Sloterdijk posits this false consciousness in opposition to the ideal of Diogenes’ kynicism (412-323 BCE). Mother Courage exposes this grief in the end, but her grief itself turns into the hard façade that no longer hides anything. As the founder of kynical philosophy, Diogenes criticized Plato’s Academy and its focus on dialogic philosophy (Socrates’ dialogues) and speech, and on institutionalized teaching in general. Diogenes endorsed spontaneous gestural philosophy and its means to adapt to circumstances, acting instead of speaking: “not looking for a place to lie down in, not afraid of the dark, not seeking any of the things which are considered to be dainties, he discovered the means of adapting himself to circumstances.”[4]According to legend Diogenes resisted civilization by living in a tub, promoting pride in homelessness, resisting pre-given social orders, and in rejecting, for example, the authority of Alexander the Great by literally demanding of him: “Stop blocking my sun.” (Sloterdijk, 160)

Mother Courage turns from being an articulate cynic into a disillusioned kynic, calling into question the ideal of a kynic lifestyle. Brecht’s approach to ideology critique also points to the limits of a cynical mindset but is perhaps more radical than Sloterdijk’s. Migratory experiences face an abyss when ideologies, language, home, and all human attachments are lost. Yet the play presents another figure of silence: Kattrin, the mute daughter, the only figure who resists, protests, and interferes politically by warning the people of Halle of a military attack through drumming. She doubles silence. Kattrin – the mute, marginalized, exploited, and raped figure – turns her silence into noise. Ironically, she uses a military instrument, her drum, to awaken the people of Halle while sacrificing herself. Her muteness turns into resistance through drumming, noise that is pre/post-linguistic expression. She represents the other side of Courage’s abyss. As a silent observer and victim, she protests through her activist self-sacrifice.

This observation leads to my question about the in-between space as utopian / dystopian / post-rhetorical space? How does my title “Estranging the Strange and the Power of Silence” work?

With Kattrin’s character in Mother Courage and Her Children Brecht inserts a sharp critique of linguistic presence and asks: Is humanity and ethical morality only possible in the sphere of silence that witnesses the failure of all cynicisms? Do our linguistic capacities undermine our very humanness? Kattrin’s silence estranges Courage’s social and linguistic attempts to protect her family, her last social bond. Courage fails: she speaks and speaks but cannot protect anything, no space, no order, no family. Her courage cynically serves only her own physical survival; all other purposes are destroyed. In the end, there is mobility without hope and future. Paradoxically, mobility’s implied flexibility, versatility, and adjustability become stagnant. Brecht’s drama systematically and critically deconstructs and disillusions the driving forces of migration and transit, and especially the hope for change. Courage’s wagon in the end presents this radical provocation: stagnating mobility. The play stages the undoing of heterotopias, especially the heterotopia of a cynical mindset and confronts the audience with non-topias, non-places. In the end, there is mobility without hope and future. Courage’s wagon provokes us with its enigmatic staging of stagnating mobility, of the undoing of heterotopias, and evocation of non-topias, non-places.[5]

Günther Heeg inscribes the exposure to the dynamics of strangeness into the concept of the transcultural theater: “In Geschichte geworfen, den Dynamiken zwischen Zeiten und Räumen ausgesetzt, in Bewegung versetzt durch den Aufbruch des Realen und Aktuellen ins Virtuelle und Mögliche, ist die Idee des Transkulturellen Theaters nicht abgeschlossen” (15). In Brecht’s Mother Courage the virtuality of the in-between, of “geworfen,” “ausgesetzt,” “versetzt sein,” evades the charm of hope. There is no conclusion, no end to in sight: mobility “yes,” individual direction “no.”


[1] Freddie Rokem. “Dramaturgies of Exile: Brecht and Benjamin ‘Playing’ Chess and Go,” Theatre Research International 37.1 (2012): 13; http://journals.cambridge.org.

[2] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16.1, trans. by Jay Miskowiec (Spring, 1986): 22–27 (here 27).

[3] English translation: Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[4]Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Vol II, trans. by R.D. Hicks (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1970), 25.

[5] Some aspects of these deliberations will be published in my collaborative essay with Michael Malek Najjar entitled “Migration’s Alienations: Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage” in Fall 2019 by Konturen: http://journals.oregondigital.org/index.php/konturen/. [Editor’s note: See also Lisa Hoeller’s performance review of this production of Mother Courage in Eugene, Oregon, in e-cibs 2019:1]

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A Critique of Günther Heeg’s Das transkulturelle Theater (Roundtable: Strangeness and Transcultural Theater

by Markus Wessendorf

Günther Heeg’s book Das transkulturelle Theater[1] includes (sub-)chapters that are very compelling as standalone contributions: reflections on national culture and its phantasms, analyses of theatre productions (for example, Rimini Protokoll’s Situation Rooms), a critical reading of Anna Seghers’s Caribbean Tales and Heiner Müller’s later adaptation of one of these tales, “Light on the Gallows,” for his play The Mission, texts on various aspects of Brecht’s work (Me-ti, the “gesture of showing”), etc. Heeg’s conceptual framework, however, which is supposed to integrate and interlink these chapters into an overarching theory of transcultural theatre, has significant blind spots that I will discuss in the following.

The notion of “transcultural theatre” has been around for at least twenty-five years. In the early 1990s, David Williams used the term to describe Peter Brook’s work,[2] but since then it has been applied to other artists and contexts (including the dramatic output of Chinese playwright Gao Xingjang[3]). The performance theorist Richard Schechner defines “transculturalism” as “working or theorizing across cultures with the assumption that there are cultural ‘universals’ – behaviors, concepts, or beliefs that are true of everyone, everywhere, at all times.”[4]

Even though Heeg rejects the anthropological universalism of Schechner’s definition, his own theory of transcultural theatre doesn’t shy away from universalist claims, except that these derive from assumptions that have to do with nationalism on the one hand, and globalization on the other hand. Heeg conceives of transcultural theatre as a response to the fear and hatred of strangers and foreigners inherent to nationalism and notions of national culture and identity – and obviously, given the recent far-right shift of many countries around the world, this is a challenge that theatre artists need to confront. As an antidote to these developments, his transcultural theatre is less about the strangeness of other cultures than the laying bare of what is foreign in one’s own culture. A major problem with Heeg’s approach is that he universalizes his own German background and experience and treats manifestly European notions of national culture, theatre, and literature as well as the onto-theological and ideological underpinnings of a Ptolemaic teatrum mundi as representative of every culture. I will come back to that.

Heeg presents his notion of transcultural theatre as the only acceptable theatrical response to the challenges of globalization, disregarding the specific economic or socio-political circumstances of the individual cultures so affected or their respective power relations. Since, according to his argument, globalization and its effects are inevitable and irreversible, the resulting levelling of all “cultural differences between nations, regions, and continents” (24) needs to be embraced. Any resistance to these effects of globalization – for example, by trying to stop or prevent “the radical loss of cultural life forms [Lebensformen]” (39) – is not only considered futile but also reactionary. Heeg’s line of argument throughout the book rests upon the following binary opposition: Cultures anywhere either accept “the deterritorialization, dislocation, and temporal synchronicity” (25) of globalization (which render the notion of “a return to the supposedly pure origins of culture, religion, and community” [25] obsolete), or they risk being associated with “groups and organizations […] that try to undo the ‘project of modernity’” (25) – “from Christian fundamentalists in the United States to Islamist terrorist militias” (25). Heeg doesn’t allow for any gradations or alternative options in-between these two opposite positions. The notion of “purity” he employs in this binarism of a transcultural theatre of singular theatre practices disconnected from their cultural contexts versus a theatre of fundamentalism trying to restore the purity of cultural origins is another Western construct (also often applied by interculturalists). Most postcolonial or indigenous performance practitioners, however, are less interested in a return to the supposedly pure and original state of their respective traditions than in maintaining the relative “integrity” and “cohesion” of these traditions as much as possible while adjusting to changing historical circumstances.

The characteristics of Heeg’s transcultural theatre include the quarrying and montage of singular theatrical practices from different cultures, the embrace of an “existence-in-transit” instead of a clearly localized and grounded one, the co-existence (Konvivienz) with strangers and strangeness, the Brechtian and Benjaminian notions of gesture as interruption and quotation, and the practice of repetition – particularly the repetition of one’s history so that the phantasm that it is truly one’s own can be shattered and its inherent discontinuity and strangeness revealed. Heeg writes that “the turn from the distant strangeness of the other to what is strange in one’s own culture is a precondition of an extra-ordinary, transcultural order” (49). Because the aim of his transcultural theatre is to lay bare what is strange or foreign in one’s own’s culture rather than to overcome the sense of strangeness that one might experience in the encounter with other cultures – for example, by studying them and trying to understand them on their own terms – he does not derive his theory through a comprehensive comparative analysis of a broad range of world cultures or cultural regions. (Africa, the Islamic world, or Oceania aren’t touched upon at all in his book.)

Also, the theatre cultures he is actually “working and theorizing across” (Schechner) are not treated equivalently. All of the non-European theatre productions discussed by Heeg reference or engage with European performance traditions or cultural material: for example, the Antigone project of Japanese director Masataka Matsuda and his company Marebito-no-Kai from 2012; the production of Brecht’s Fatzer by Japanese director Motoi Miura and his theatre company Chiten from 2013; and another production of Fatzer that the German theatre company andcompany&co. collaborated on with Brazilian theatre artists in Sao Paulo in 2010. The reverse does not hold true: there is no mention of European productions that engage with, appropriate, or quote Japanese or Brazilian or other non-European performance techniques or cultural sources, as was the case with Peter Brook, Eugenio Barba, Jerzy Grotowski, Ariane Mnouchkine, and other intercultural theatre directors whose work Heeg rejects. Because the international theatre productions he discusses all engage with dramatic or literary sources from Europe, the continuing relevance of European culture for other cultures, but not necessarily the reverse, is implied. One participant in the first roundtable on Thursday morning suggested “to conceive of strangeness/the stranger from the position of strangeness/the stranger” (“das Fremde vom Fremden her zu denken”), but this doesn’t happen in Heeg’s book. He instead conceives of the strange primarily as inherent to, and (hopefully) destabilizing of, one’s own culture and identity. There would be no problem with his approach if he were to acknowledge the possibility that “one’s own culture and identity” and their respective relationship to strangeness may not only be configured differently but may actually mean something different in other, non-European contexts.

Heeg – in my view: correctly – criticizes the implicit cultural colonialism and exoticization of the “other” in intercultural theatre, but he also argues – in my view: incorrectly – that interculturalism’s underlying assumption of “distinct theatre cultures” is unsustainable. He equates the “idea of cultures as complete entities in themselves that are clearly distinct from one another and [involve] fixed cultural codes” (22) with the envisioned totality of Nationalkulturen (national cultures) and argues that both notions are obsolete. Even though I agree with Heeg’s critique of cultural nationalism and its aspects of xenophobia and exclusion of the other, I don’t believe that all theatre traditions can be reduced to metonymic representations of their respective national cultures. Sprechtheater, of course, may very well be the one form representing and defining the German national theatre tradition, but the same case cannot be made for any of the hundreds of performance traditions that we find in a country like India, where a form such as Kathakali, to just give one example, is distinctly regional (Kerala) – also at the linguistic level (the dance-dramas of Kathakali are performed in a “highly Sanskritized Malayalam”[5]). Kathakali, to stay with this example, represents a distinct theatrical style, tradition, and “culture” to the extent that it is informed by the ancient Sanskrit text on stagecraft called the Natyashastra, mostly deals with stories from the classical Indian epics, and can be characterized as a highly codified gestural and movement language: It functions as a complex theatrical sign system that is not only difficult to appropriate or quote within other theatre-cultural contexts but is also clearly distinct from the comparatively complex theatrical sign systems of Beijing Opera or Noh theatre which are also embedded in their respective cultural contexts. Heeg claims that “singular cultural theatre practices such as the use of recitation in Asian theatre forms, […] the gestures of Beijing Opera or the dance forms of Noh theatre […] are in motion and transferable” (43). But I would ask in return how often you see typical hand gestures of Kathakali called mudras, the gestures of Beijing Opera (for example, those performed with the long cuff extensions called “water sleeves”), or the shuffling foot motion in Noh transferred into other, for example German, theatrical contexts. These gestures and patterns are difficult to quote not only because of their complexity but also because learning to master them may take up to two decades in the respective traditions.

But I would like to return to Heeg’s discussion of national culture. As already mentioned, throughout Das transkulturelle Theater, this discussion is largely based on European – and mostly German – notions of national culture, theatre, and literature that have their roots in the eighteenth century. Despite the cultural specificity of these notions, Heeg treats them, as well as the historical experience out of which they emerged, as “universals” that apply to every culture, without distinction. His references to Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Speeches to the German Nation, Johann Gottfried Herder’s Outlines of A Philosophy of the History of Humankind, and Ernst Moritz Arndt’s About the Hate of People and the Usage of a Foreign Language (115–17) in his analysis of the phantasms of national culture are of limited explanatory value for non-European cultures or societies with very different histories. Heeg also claims that “the phantasms of national culture and of all [emphasis M.W.] cultural fundamentalisms […] depend on devices of the Ptolemaic teatrum mundi that suggest a primordial existence, continuity, and perpetuity: a consistent fable, the embodiment of ideas, and the dramatization of action” (129). He argues that the medieval theology of the Ptolemaic world theatre, though shattered by the seventeenth-century Copernican revolution (which is a central theme of Brecht’s Life of Galileo), survived by morphing into the onto-theology of eighteenth-century Sprechtheater. Needless to say, the Greco-Roman astronomer Ptolemy’s model of the universe (and its effect on theatre) is of limited relevance for the understanding of non-European theatre cultures or fundamentalisms rooted in other cosmologies (to only name Buddhist fundamentalism in Myanmar and the Hindu fundamentalism of the current Indian government).

Also, Heeg’s idea of a transcultural theatre that lays bare the inherent discontinuity and strangeness of a national culture envisioned as a unitary totality presupposes the model of a sovereign state and doesn’t account for postcolonial, indigenous societies that have been subjected to Fremdherrschaft (foreign domination) for long stretches of their history. Because the foreigners they encountered turned into their oppressors, indigenous groups relate differently to strangers than their colonizers. Because their cultures were often suppressed by their colonizers, many indigenous groups became estranged from their own traditions rather than developing phantasmatic notions of their cultural integrity. How could postcolonial or indigenous theatre artists be expected to have any interest in creating transcultural theatre that affirmatively re-produces colonialism’s, imperialism’s, and/or globalization’s deracination of their cultural traditions? How justifiable is it to regard the attempts of postcolonial or indigenous societies to preserve or restore their broken traditions as reactionary fundamentalism – instead of as legitimate acts of political resistance? And, finally, why should Native Americans, Aotearoa’s Maoris, Australian Aborigines, or Native Hawaiians agree with Heeg’s following statement?

To stubbornly fly the flag of the authenticity of one’s tradition means to follow a strategy of retreat and separation. Because of their bad experience with cultural colonialism the proponents of this strategy turn away from an open attitude towards the world as well as the development of a transcultural community. The different cultural practices of the individual countries will play a major role in this development, though not as traditions that can still be claimed to be alive, but as broken and reflected ones, as a cultural past that has been brought into play. As regards theatre concepts and productions from post-colonial regions, it will make a crucial difference if they insist on […] a return to precolonial indigenous cultural traditions […] and the restoration of their original conditions, or if they want to expose themselves to the transcultural theatre of a creation of the world [Weltwerdung] (39).

Hana keaka, which translates as “Hawaiian-medium theatre” and interweaves traditional Hawaiian dance, poetry, and incantation with Hawaiian-language dialogue,[6] is a good example of a relatively recent indigenous as well as postcolonial theatre form that has preserved and restored Hawaiian culture, religion, mythology, and community as an act of political resistance and cultural expression of sovereignty under U.S. occupation while at the same time incorporating “modern” non-Hawaiian techniques. But this kind of theatre could not be considered transcultural in Heeg’s understanding because it defies his notion of “cultural practices […] not as traditions that can still be claimed to be alive, but as broken and reflected ones, as a cultural past that has been brought into play” (39). To many Hawaiians, their culture is very much alive and not just a thing of the past that can now be freely used and quoted because it is cut off from the present. Very much the same could be said for many Native American, Maori, and Australian Aboriginal theatre productions.

Who – to return to Heeg’s statement – is speaking here, for whom, and in whose (vested) interests? Why would anyone want to become part of a transcultural community that so obviously doesn’t respect the specificity of different cultures and cultural experiences? How are we expected to envision this transcultural community, and to what extent does it allow for a resistant political aesthetics instead of just affirming the dynamics and effects of globalization? Even though Heeg’s critique of the exoticization of the strange in intercultural theatre as well as his analysis of Anna Seghers’s problematic representation of black Haitian revolutionaries in her Caribbean Tales are spot-on, he repeats some of their fallacies. Unfortunately, his critique of Seghers can also be applied to his own approach in Das transkulturelle Theater, at least with regard to indigenous and postcolonial theatre: “In the final analysis, [it is] the manifestation of a European universalism that, discursively and indiscriminately, passes over different spaces and temporalities, brings them ‘into line,’ homogenizes them, and subjects them under its rule” (144).


[1] Günther Heeg, Das transkulturelle Theater (Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2017). All translations from this book into English are by M.W.

[2] David Williams, “‘Remembering the Others That Are Us’: Transculturalism and Myth in the Theatre of Peter Brook,” in The Intercultural Performance Reader, ed. Patrice Pavis (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 67–78.

[3] Todd C. Coulter, Transcultural Aesthetics in the Plays of Gao Xingjian (Houndmills and New York: Palgrave, 2014).

[4] Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 301.

[5] Phillip B. Zarilli, Kathakali Dance-Drama: Where Gods and Demons Come to Play (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 3.

[6] Cf. Tammy Hailiʻōpua Baker, “I Ola ka Moʻolelo: Perpetuating Our Stories Through Hawaiian Medium Theatre,” Howlround Theatre Commons, posted on March 3, 2019: https://howlround.com/i-ola-ka-moolelo.

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