After months of discussions, applications, and plans, Who’s Watching Who had its public launch on Monday 3 November at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. This was the ideal venue for the event we had in mind: an evening of storytelling and discussion about East German theatre, as Peter Arnott and Laura Bradley explored the rich array of human stories that would serve as the inspiration for his new play, ENSEMBLE. And we were delighted that David Robb was able to join us from Belfast for the evening to play songs from the GDR, charting the progression from the optimism of the early postwar years through to the disillusionment and generational upheaval of the late 1980s. All (admittedly free) 99 tickets sold out within just 2 days, and we had a waiting list of over 20 people also wanting to come to the event.
We started off by outlining the project, and then talking about the playwright, theatre director and poet Bertolt Brecht, who has been a major source of inspiration to Peter throughout his career as a playwright. Brecht has often been criticised in the West for his decision to settle in East Berlin after the war, but his position there was riddled with contradictions. The government’s policy was one of encouragement – on the basis that the recalcitrant Brecht might see the error of his ways – and containment. So Brecht was awarded the National Prize for Literature, but only second class, and he was allowed generous funding for his productions at his new theatre, the Berliner Ensemble, but it was made clear that his methods were not to be allowed to catch on. His famous productions of plays such as Mother Courage and The Mother may have gone down in international theatre history and remained in the BE’s repertoire for two decades, but they aroused major controversy in the East German press. And yet at the same time, Brecht was genuinely committed to the project of constructing socialism in the GDR, as we could see through the lyrics he wrote for the first song that Dave performed for us, ‘Keiner plagt sich gerne…’ or ‘No One Likes to Toil’.
Whilst the project to create a new state began amidst the ruins and rubble of the Third Reich, in 1961 the East German authorities turned their attention to a more controversial construction project. On the night of 12-13 August 1961, the authorities closed the state’s borders, including the border to East Berlin, and began to build the Berlin Wall. Laura has explored how East German theatres reacted to the sudden closure of the border in an article published in the Journal of European Studies (June 2006), and Peter had brought along his heavily annotated copy with him – he explained that he regularly drives his family up the wall (sorry, no pun intended until it actually occurred) by scribbling on all his books. What surprised Peter about the research was the career opportunities that the construction of the Wall created for some up-and-coming theatre practitioners in the GDR. As a significant number of East Berlin’s actors and musicians actually lived in West Berlin, managers in the East were scrabbling around trying to fill the gaps in their ensembles in time for the start of the new season. So at the Berliner Ensemble, for example, the young actor Manfred Karge landed some better roles, while actors in provincial ensembles suddenly had the career break of a lifetime: the chance to move to a major ensemble in East Berlin. Peter was particularly tickled by the fact that the director Horst Schönemann described the construction of the Berlin Wall as a ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ – a Brechtian estrangement device. He wasn’t convinced of Schönemann’s reasoning, but it’s certainly true that quotations from Brecht served as weapons in the cultural Cold War. Dave summed up the spirit of Cold War confrontation for us in a rendition of ‘Sag mir, wo du stehst’, ‘Tell me which side you are on’ from the later 1960s.
Contrary to what we might expect, some theatre practitioners and dramatists hoped that the construction of the Berlin Wall might buy them more freedom to explore problems in the construction of socialism. Members of the Politbüro were determined to put paid to these notions, and in 1962-3 they seized their chance. Laura told the story of the production of Peter Hacks’s play Worries and Power at the Deutsches Theater, which caused a scandal after its premiere. The irony was that the Deutsches Theater hadn’t been too keen on staging the play in the first place, as they weren’t convinced that a play about the coal and glass industries would interest their audience. They had only agreed to produce the play after being strongly encouraged by the Ministry for Culture. When critics in the Party started gunning for the production after its premiere, those officials who had seen previews joined in the attack. The theatre’s Party members felt betrayed, and they held out for weeks – despite immense pressure – before a majority reluctantly agreed to withdraw the production. The episode left lasting scars at the Deutsches Theater, which never forgot the injustice that had been done to its artistic director Wolfgang Langhoff – a concentration camp survivor, respected director, and loyal Communist – who was forced to issue a humiliating public apology. The company revisited the case in a matinee held twenty years later in honour of Langhoff, and it incorporated excerpts from censorship documents into its 2010 production of Worries and Power – now aptly subtitled ‘a play about yesterday’s future’.
Wolfgang Langhoff may not have intended to provoke the authorities, but the same couldn’t be said of all the directors and actors who followed him. Laura and Peter talked about the role that subversion plays in theatre, and about the way in which GDR directors were able to stage subversive productions of nineteenth-century plays, such as Georg Büchner’s Leonce and Lena. Peter was particularly interested in the idea that East German lighting technicians had threatened to put the house lights on if the audience misbehaved (something Laura explores in an article published in Theatre Journal in March 2013), and he is thinking of including this device in his own play. Dave played a song by the East German dissident Wolf Biermann, calling on listeners not to become hardened in these hard times.
In the late 1970s, the GDR began to allow some theatre directors and other artists to work abroad, as part of a strategy of exporting potential troublemakers. Laura explained that some of these theatre practitioners retained flats in East Berlin, and she talked about reading in the Stasi files about the efforts of one theatre practitioner to do what little he could to make his family’s life more bearable in his absence – giving his wife a video recorder so that she could watch videos of his new stagings in the West, and having central heating installed so that she wouldn’t have to haul buckets of coal up several flights of stairs to their flat. Peter read out a letter from a GDR theatre director, explaining his decision not to return to the GDR:
Life in Berlin just now brings me nothing but pain. I can’t continue battling with disappointment and depression. I feel that life has become too nervous, taboo-ridden, fearful. It sickens me that the GDR is the only chink of light in Germany’s history, while remaining powerless to escape that history. In too many friends and colleagues I see disillusionment, accompanied too often by a coldness and disregard for others that makes me despair. That’s not a reproach – I’ve found no better way myself.
Dave performed a song by Bettina Wegner, ‘An meine weggegangenen Freunde’ / ‘To My Friends Who Have Left’, which reflects movingly on the impact that the exodus of artists had on those who, like her, were left behind.
When people think about the GDR now, thoughts of the Stasi tend to come quickly to mind. Peter read out an extract of a report that the Stasi wrote about one of its own informants:
In one conversation, the IM expressed concern that if he had an operation under general anaesthetic, he might talk about his connections with the Ministry for State Security, because he is aware that he always talks a lot in these circumstances.
[…] The IM is always reluctant to report on individuals. He usually turns down assignments requiring surveillance of concrete individuals. In such cases, he mainly claims that he has only loose connections with these people.
What Peter found fascinating about this extract was the hidden story that was clearly behind it – the way in which this informant seemed to be trying to extricate themselves from the Stasi. Laura revealed that the ‘he’ of the report was actually a woman – the Stasi used the masculine gender to refer to all informants in order to preserve their anonymity, although it has to be admitted that officers occasionally forgot and broke their own rules here. Laura and Peter discussed the ethics of working on material involving real people and events in living memory, and Peter talked about how he was planning to set his play in a fictional Friedrich-Engels-Stadt, and avoiding referring to real people. He did admit though that he is fascinated by the actress Helene Weigel, who was Brecht’s widow and the manager of the Berliner Ensemble.
The final section of the conversation turned to the situation in the GDR in the late 1980s, when demands for change were becoming increasingly insistent. Dave invoked the demand for generational change through his performance of the song ‘An meinen Vater’ (‘To My Father’) by Alfons Förster; what is interesting now is that this critical song actually still respects the ideals that the older generation fought for – there’s no question that the son in this song will pick up the red flag when his father is no longer able to carry it, and the thrust of his criticism is that his father has prevented him from being a better comrade. Peter and Laura talked about the demand for political change in the 1980s and the hopes vested in Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost, which the GDR leadership rejected. Peter talked about the exodus of refugees from the GDR in the summer of 1989, after Hungary opened its border with Austria, and he read out a statement drawn up by the ensemble at the Staatsschauspiel Dresden and first read out at the end of a performance on 6 October 1989:
We are stepping out of our roles.
The situation in our country compels us to do so.
A country that cannot hold onto its young people
Is endangering its future.
A Party leadership that has ceased
To examine the practicability of its own principles
Is condemned to decline.
A nation that was forced to remain silent
Is beginning to grow violent.
The truth must come to light.
We have invested our work in this country.
We will not let our country be destroyed.
This text still sends shivers down Laura’s spine when she hears it. She explained that when theatre practitioners approached their manager, Gerhard Wolfram, about their plans to read out the statement, he chose not to ban it. Instead, he decided that if they were to read out the statement, the whole company needed to do so together, as the authorities would not be able to imprison the entire ensemble. A story like this links in perfectly to the themes that Peter wants to explore in his own play, ENSEMBLE.
The conversation ended with talk of the role that theatres played in October and November 1989, followed by a Q&A and a wine reception in the courtyard upstairs, accompanied by more songs performed by Dave.
We will be uploading podcasts from the event shortly. In the meantime, find out what our audience thought here.