Hamburg theater Staging Our Downfall

Two 50-year-old plays being revived for the stage in Hamburg have a message for today's audiences: For humanity, the end is near.
The water's rising and time is running out.

Hamburg's Deutsches Schauspielhaus theater has revived two plays showing humanity's downfall: Samuel Beckett's Happy Days from 1961 and John Osborne's The Entertainer from 1957.

Although both are depressing, the happenings on stage radiate a pride that makes the plays enjoyable to watch. They remind audiences of tales of sea captains who go down with their ships, and viewers may increasingly develop the feeling of doing so themselves.

In Happy Days, a woman named Winnie subsides into a flood of dirty water.

In The Entertainer, a family of performers - in lieu of the audience - sinks beneath a flood of gin and cheap jokes.

Both productions could end an hour earlier or keep going two hours longer, and they would have the same message because both have been sentenced to death. There's no better place to see this kind of tension than on a well-built German stage.

Winnie celebrates the fact that her nose is still so far from the surface of the water in which she will eventually drown.

Winnie, a happily chattering woman well past her prime, is stuck up to her waist in a pile of dirt, according to the original stage directions; at the end, only her head protrudes from the heap.

But in her Hamburg staging, English director Katie Mitchell has replaced death in a pile of dirt with a slow submersion in water. Her Winnie, played by Julia Wieninger, stands at the beginning up to her waist, and at the end up to her chin, in a murky broth, and the stretch between these two water levels is her life.

At the end, the situation is dramatic. Every word of Winnie's moves the water; each vowel sets a round ripple in motion. Viewers realize that soon water will flow into her mouth as she speaks. But things aren't that bad yet, and Winnie celebrates the fact that her nose is still so far from the surface of the water in which she will drown. This, says Beckett, is the situation of humanity.

Ms. Mitchell gives the play an environmental twist, because the water in which Winnie is standing has flowed out of her house and only at the end spills over into the outer world as well – wonderfully rendered with stage sets designed by Alex Eales.

Winnie, a representative of humanity, apparently created the flood herself. She sinks into a catastrophe she has created.

Watching Happy Days again after so many years, amid the swan songs of modern drama, it's soon clear that the play has aged better than the viewer. The piece literally gets under the viewer's skin. It is played out in front of an audience that has collectively slid a little deeper into its pile of sand, or in this case its own tidal wave.

Christoph Marthaler's staging of The Entertainer pushes us even closer to our demise just two days later.

“Most people don't even notice when they are being insulted” is what the production tells us — but actually we do. The director and Stefanie Carp, who adapted the play, take the state of our entertainment culture as a symptom for our own miserable state.

We are presented with the downfall of a bad entertainer, grandly celebrated by the actor Michael Wittenborn — with the steely eyed gaze of Johnny Cash, the vocal delivery of Heinz Erhardt and the scarf of Harald Juhnke.

What we are actually seeing is the downfall of the European intellect.

What Happy Days represents with Winnie's sinking in water is visualized in The Entertainer with a large stairway. Mr. Wittenborn keeps on descending the stairs — and deliberately drowning himself in gin.

The actors try to drive out the demon of our era by showing with an exorcist's furor what damage it has caused.

For this production, Duri Bischoff constructed the interior space of a theater that combines the worlds of M.C. Escher and Piranesi: a stairway that doesn't connect floors but only gives rise to a new set of stairs; stages that mirror themselves.

Mr. Marthaler's all-star cast – Irm Hermann, Josef Ostendorf, Bettina Stucky, Jean-Pierre Cornu – play in this setting with the grandeur of a band of musicians born aboard a sinking ship.

The Hamburg audience listened impassively to all the dirty jokes in an evening haunted by virtuosos who present the lowest of the low in an educational kind of cabaret. The actors try to drive out the demon of our era by showing with an exorcist's furor the damage it has caused.

Happy Days and The Entertainer come from the history of theater. One play shows a soul that cannot be redeemed; the latter shows a society that throws itself away.

Both pieces are more than 50 years old and portray the ending of a segment of human history with drastic solemnity.

Audiences watch as if waiting to see what will happen to them; as though these historic dramas will reveal our future.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]