‘According to Marx and Engels the dialectic system is only the conscious reproduction of the dialectic course (substance) of the external events of the world.
Thus: The projection of the dialectic system of things into the brain into creating abstractly into the process of thinking yields: dialectic methods of thinking; dialectic materialism – PHILOSOPHY.
And also: The projection of the same system of things while creating concretely while giving form yields: ART.’
– Eisenstein – Dialectics and Film Form 1949
As I look out at the stair rod hailstorm that seems to have just started, and at the sheer richness of material gathered by Laura Bradley for our joint project on East German Theatre and its relationship with the state, I am wondering if there is a specific form of what we call “Verbatim Theatre” that can respond with clarity and justice to that material, and to the wider context of the history of the GDR.
Due to a health scare, I wasn’t in Germany to help conduct these interviews with luminaries like Manfred Karge and Maik Hamburger.
(I really wanted to MEET these guys…especially Karge, whose Conquest of the South Pole is one of my favourite modern plays from anywhere…)
But I wonder now if the deprivation of distance, if my encounter with their spoken words in the form of meticulously transcribed and translated testimony isn’t a bit of a gift.
Verbatim theatre is all about editorial logic. The dramatist doesn’t ‘write’ anything. Rather, he or she puts one thing beside another…paces material, reshapes it…in short we do what a film editor does when they collate and cut a pile of film footage…we create a master narrative out of the little stories people tell. And that master narrative needs to be arranged around a logic, an argument about what things mean when you put them all together.
So I am adding Sergei Eisenstein’s theory and practice of montage to the other ghosts I am summoning to help me work with this material.
What Laura and her team have gathered from their filmed and recorded interviews are, on the one hand, a bunch of theatre practioners sharing their memories and thoughts about the theatres they worked in 25 years and more ago, in the former GDR AND interviews conducted in Stasi prisons and interrogation centres.
What happens when you start cutting these things together? What does it mean to put stories about a favourite director beside an account of the physical dimensions of a holding cell?
Well, one starts to comment on the other…or rather, an audience looks at one thing beside the other and starts to make connections between the two.
What is implied by comfortable recollections being put beside very uncomfortable conditions? Are we supposed to think that the theatre people are fay, ridiculous creatures and the prison cell is ‘reality’? Well, we might start thinking that way…but if the material can be skilfully arranged..
Their very propinquity starts making a different argument; that both of these things were real and simultaneous; that the reality of each informs and enriches our ideas about the reality of the other.
People pursued enjoyable careers in the theatre in the GDR. They were ironically aware of their own privilege…but also of their vulnerability. The reality of the prison cell always haunted the opening night parties. The prison cell, according to the authorities, protected the social goods of the theatre and its audience from the subversion and aggression of the enemies of the state.
So one might place a prison cell in Guantanamo besides opening night at the opera at Lincoln Centre or Glyndebourne…not to argue that one necessitates the other, or even implies the other…but that both are part of the same system, the same experience of modernity, the same tax and spend.
I think that is a dialectic worth exploring in the lost past of Actually Existing Socialism…and in our time and place too. I think that a verbatim presentation of the research, not rewritten by me, but tendentiously edited towards my interests, is a good first step. Both for its own sake, and for what it might yield in discussion with an audience, and with fellow theatre makers here in Scotland about the next stages of this project…which are designed to transcend the research, and to take us to places we haven’t really thought of yet.
Fun, isn’t it?