Peter ArnottIt’s been some time since I blogged on this site. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that I’ve been away doing other things. Most importantly, and of some relevance to this project, I’ve been working on a play by the contemporary Russian playwright Yuri Klavdiev. One of the things that has become evident in that exercise (of rendering a translation of his new play Thoughts from Above Spoken Aloud into Scottish-actor-friendly English) is that Yuri is clearly dealing with the sayable and the unsayable in his own context…and is using the fact that his new play is being premiered here to talk explicitly about drug use and homosexuality in a way that is considered bad taste and unhelpful in his native Russia. Indeed, work on this project about theatre censorship in the former East Germany, and the way in which censorship was always “shy” to speak its name, allows you to smell in questions of taste a rather more sinister and coercive agenda. There are certain things one does not say. There are certain “losers” one does not depict. When theatre has a specific political purpose (that of sending the audience out more than ever determined to build actually existing socialism in the former GDR, or a positive and deeply uncomplicated expression of national culture in Putin’s Russia), many of the mechanisms and motives of “censorship that isn’t censorship” raise their heads.

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Script development workshop hosted by the Playwrights’ Studio. From left: Nicola McCartney, Rebecca Elise, Mark McDonnell, Janette Foggo, Peter Arnott, George Docherty.

Artists are problematic people. They need to be guided and persuaded. As Kurt Hager, who was in charge of cultural policy for the GDR Politbüro put it in 1972: “If we speak calmly to our writers, in a comradely fashion, our experience is that in most cases, he’ll be prepared to make changes.”[1]

The language of control was always that of “helping”.  Under all regimes, in all circumstances, this has remained true. Even as an artist in the “free West” one is keenly aware that questions of taste are deeply connnected to questions of funding. It is true that many of the attitudes that are thought as proper to be celebrated….social responsibility and cohesion…are difficult to argue with, as is the effective prohibition (in terms of public funding) of overtly racist or sexist or terrorist material, for example. But “social irresponsibility” is not a million miles from thought-crime. A simple opposition between freedom and unfreedom of expression is not, is never as simple as conventional wisdom would have it. Nuance, as is clear to me in my own context, and as is clearly shown by Yuri Klavdiev’s difficulties with the powers that be, is everything.

It was an attempt tP1050175 copyo demonstrate this complexity and these nuances that lay behind the first, “verbatim” stage of development of the project/play I’m calling Ensemble. First, of course, it was in ensembles that German theatre was and is primarily organised.The actors were “together” with the audience and the state in a common enterprise underwritten first by the regional autonomies which were and are such an important feature of German civil society. Even in modern and budget-constricted times, each major city and region retains and supports a producing theatre whose resources are lavish by standards here. In the time of the GDR, anxious to demonstrate continuity with pre-Nazi German culture, both East and West Germanies supported theatre as a civic good and as an advertisement for their competing ways of life. The relationship between the two German theatre cultures was no more simple and unnuanced by history and a certain amount of doublethink than were the economic relations between the two. Both culture and economy were, among other things, elements of competition between the two for custody of the “real” German culture, a culture that reflected positive civic values. Tensions again existed within and between both Germanies at different times as to what that might mean.

What I tried to do, using the research and interviews conducted by Laura Bradley and Susan Kemp in late 2014 as the basis for a script where the reminiscences of senior figures from “old” East Germany like Maik Hamburger and Manfred Karge were counterpoised with direct quotation from regime figures like Kurt Hager above and contemporary accounts of the Stasi prison at Hohenschönhausen.

What I was trying to demonstrate was complexity…that both these prisons and the largely positive experiences of theatre makers from the glory days of the Berliner Ensemble to the culture-led breakdown of communism in the eighties …co-existed. Both truths were simultaneously true in exactly the same way Sicilian Norman architecture is simultaneously “real” alongside refugee boats landing from Libya.

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The Knights of the Round Table, dir. Klaus Dieter Kirst, Staatsschauspiel Dresden, 1989. Photo: H-L Boehme.

It is one of the great advantages of theatre in the debating of political and social and historical issues that two opposed arguments, two versions of reality can appear on stage at the same time. Indeed, it is the speculative space between the arguments, between the lines, which is precisely where theatre derives its power as a way of involving the audience in the creation of the story “in between” that can acquire immediate political meanings in certain contexts…as did the production of Christoph Hein’s play The Knights of the Round Table that featured heavily in my text, where King Arthur’s knights – deluded, defeated, morally and intellectually bankrupt old men denying the passage of time and the failure and corruption of their hopes – mapped very obviously and directly onto an implied critique of the antediluvian Politbüro of the 1980s, another group of old men both helpless and bewildered in their resistance to the winds of change then blowing into the GDR from Russia, of all places.

My hope was in the telling of these two opposed but truthful stories, drawing on, perhaps even exploiting the candour with which all the interviewees had “confessed” the complexity of their own feelings about the regime both at the time and in retrospect, their insistence that is, on nuance…compared to the raw and unnuanced facts of prison conditions…would be enlightening and helpful for the project and for the audience.

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The audience at Oran Mor, with Susan Kemp filming.

I was thinking differently by the end of the night. And this is my other reason for hesitating to cheerfully blog a happy and uncomplicated success. And the reason I can’t do that is because the audience discussion after the show was neither uncomplicated nor wholly successful. I didn’t respond all that well to the criticism that came my way. I was expecting, perhaps, approbation rather than guidance from the audience.

But the first two speakers in the discussion objected very strongly to what they felt was an insulting decison that we’d made to make fun of the interviewees, to play their words, as they put it, for laughs. The feeling was that in placing the complex but basically positive recollections of the theatre makers alongside the descriptions of the prison, we were mocking the interviewees, that we were diminishing them.

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Rehearsing at Oran Mor: Peter with the cast. From left: George Docherty, Nicola McCartney, Rebecca Elise, Janette Foggo, Mark McDonnell.

I must confess to being absolutely shocked, and rather angry (not least on my actors’ behalf). Here I was, I thought, in the middle of a project about censorship, and I was being censured for promoting inappropriate laughter…exactly the kind of laughter, I thought, perhaps unfairly, that so troubled the authorities in the GDR. Because (and this is perhaps what I didn’t make clear), the laughter of an audience largely made of theatre professionals, I thought, was a warm and generous laughter of recognition. They recognised – as I had, as the actors had – kindred spirits in the ironic, complex voices of Karge and Hamburger. They recognised that there is an ineluctable element of what more serious souls might regard as frivolous dilettantism and irresponsibility in theatre makers everywhere…that we theatre makers are slippery, ambiguous creatures driven by personal excitement as well as lofty political and literary purpose. After all, the church used to bury us at crossroads, communist and fascist regimes used to put us in prison, and we are censured for insufficient moral and fiscal rectitude as a regular part of our lives here in the “free” West.

(I was criticised very vituperatively in the press for celebrating this morally ambiguous quality in my play Swindle and Death. I’d only point out that Brecht’s heroes often demostrate precisely the same quality…but I digress)

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Nicola McCartney chairing the post-show discussion with Peter and Laura.

To enter into the spirit of self-criticism, my reaction on the night was a little intemperate, and not uninflected with injured egoism. But I had obviously failed to persuade at least those first two members of the audience of what I was trying to do. And that has made me wonder since about whether they might not have been right. Even as another part of me indignantly protests that I knew exactly what I was doing.

Even the writing of this blog has been a second attempt…I was a little too close to the emotional hurt of the enterprise to write this earlier.

I had had such a good time, you see, working with friends and colleagues – the talented actors Janette Foggo, Mark McDonnell, Rebecca Elise, George Docherty, and Nicola McCartney – and enjoyably putting the show on (even at an early experimental stage) in front of my peers.

And then the audience turned up. And I was led to reflect uneasily on the line that exists between injured ego and censorship of appropriate and inappropriate laughter.

In any case, next time, I’ll be talking about what happens next. With the advice of Klaus Dieter Kirst ringing in my ears: “To listen as much as possible to start with, and to invite people from a diverse range of areas. And because it’s so important – the thing that we do rather miss from the former GDR – the shades of grey, the nuances. Too much is brought down to a common denominator. And that way we lose a lot of the tension and interest; it all becomes so straightforward, so simple. And we lose the sense of what constituted small successes, cunning, happiness, satisfaction. How a human being could be split down the middle.”[2]


[1] ‘Stenografische Niederschrift der Beratung’, BArch DY 30 IV B 2/2.024/29. See Laura Bradley, Cooperation and Conflict: GDR Theatre Censorship, 1961-1989 (Oxford: OUP, 2010), Chapter 4.

[2] Interview between Klaus Dieter Kirst and Laura Bradley, Dresden, 8 December 2014.

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