Well, for one reason and another, the Berlin trip didn’t work out for me. Right now I was supposed to be back from Germany with a headful of interviews and Stasi sightseeing, instead of which, I’ve been going to the Southern General in Glasgow for a continuing series of tests…all this to prevent my becoming unwell rather than my actually becoming unwell…so it’s been a little frustrating if illustrative of a general and instructive point.
That no matter what regime you live under, there are certain non-negotiable facts of life to deal with. Family, health and money to name but three. And that though the experiences of bringing up children, having a health scare or earning a living are conditioned by political and social circumstances, there are also aspects of all of these things that are the same and comprehensible whatever your socio-historical paradigm.
Good thing too. It wouldn’t be possible to experience culture otherwise.
What I have managed to do in preparation for viewing the filmed interviews with writers, actors and directors, veterans all of the one country with two systems, which were the principle research matter of the trip, is to attempt a little more effective day dreaming about a possible structure and argument for “Ensemble”.
There is a thing I always say when I’m teaching, or attempting to teach, dramaturgy. Which is that plays, no matter when or where they are set, have to take place right here and now. In the present tense. That the context in which the event – the performance – happens, is at least as determinative of the meaning of that event as any amount of written words or rehearsed action within the performance itself.
Indeed, I am now old enough to have experienced a play of mine from 1985 revived in recent years, and the nature of the play had profoundly altered not because of anything that had happened to the text, but because of what had happened to the audience in the meantime.
What had happened, among other things, was that the Cold War had come to an end.
So what now, for me, in my particular circumstances, as a vaguely lefty playwright in Scotland of a certain age, is the present tense of a play about the past?
The answer, it turns out, is quite simple. I remain now, as I was in 1985, curious about what it is possible for theatre making to be.
At my most optimistic, I think of making a piece of theatre as a rehearsal for a better world. That here in this room as we work together, we can and should be honest. That this room we share is a safe place for truth. I think that everyone who works in theatre has, or ought to have, that feeling from time to time. I also know that the making of theatre takes place in the real world as well, that outside the walls of the rehearsal room, there are challenges from which the rehearsing of a better world is both a refuge and an attempt to intervene.
I think that even if this view is naïve, that a certain naïveté, or assumed innocence, is a practical necessity of making the work at all. We have to act “as if” we were honest, as if we had faith.
(I share with German Lutherans an enthusiasm for the works of St Paul)
I also know that there are forces at work in any rehearsal room at any time or place which are a damn sight less scrupulous than the necessary day dreaming allows.
What do the people who worked in theatre in the false paradise of the workers’ German State think about that? Do questions of personal honesty and professional integrity colour their memories? How were they affected at the time? What do they think about it now?
Those were my questions for the theatre makers. I was going to rudely enquire as to their individual states of moral self-worth as well as their relationship with the State of things both then…and now.
What does or might the making of theatre mean if you dream of a better world? I can’t think of a simpler question to ask in the present that might be illuminated by the past.
And luckily, I think I have just the working model for the conversations and experiments with which my thoughts so far can be tested.
I propose that a figure called “the philosopher” has brought together four theatre makers; an actor, an actress, a dramaturg and a theatre manager (artistic director would be the UK equivalent) to talk about the kind of theatre a philosopher might want to see. That the present tense of my play is an exploration of a dream of socialism compromised by mediocrity and corruption, and a dream of theatre and what part in history it can play. I want this to be a very personal meditation, but based, as Brecht-ophiles will surely recognise, on the Messingkauf Dialogues, an unfinished sub-Socratic dialogue Brecht worked on both in exile from Nazi Germany and on his “return” to the new DDR at the end of the forties.
Within this conversation, the actor and the actress will perform scenes that attempt to reproduce moments from the history of the East German state and the moral and political questions faced by theatre makers…as artists and as citizens. The model for these scenes is another Brecht play…Fear and Misery in the Third Reich…which is a series of mini plays showing different aspects of people’s experiences in Germany in the 1930s…
These scenes will be “tested” by the other participants. Can theatre tell the truth? What is the purpose of attempting to reproduce “reality”?
(Messingkauf” means buying the brass…ie…getting the raw material, the unvarnished, unmediated truth…)
These are questions asked by Brecht and others in the 20th century, in the midst of all its horrors and contradictions. What happens if we ask those questions now?