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Elfriede Jelinek’s “Ulrike Maria Stuart,” directed by Nikolas Stemann, Thalia Theater, Hamburg, 2006. Photo credit: Arno Declair.
Bodies That Matter
By Gitta Honegger


Ulrike Maria Stuart
By Elfriede Jelinek
Thalia Theater
Hamburg, Germany







The Nobel-laureate physicist Max Planck once remarked that for a new idea to succeed the old generation of scientists and their students need to die. For the following generation the new will then be an obvious fact. This somewhat gloomy prospect seems to apply to theatrical innovations as well. Directors and designers trained in the former West Germany have not yet gotten over the influence of Robert Wilson in their pristinely lit, meticulously contoured, slow-motion Gesamtkunstwerke, expanding already lengthy classics by hours of mega-minimalist mise-en-scènes.

By contrast, a younger generation of directors was influenced by the East Berliner Frank Castorf (born 1951), the provocative artistic director of the Volksbühne am Rosa Luxemburg Platz, whose over-the-top stagings of Dostoyevsky, Frank Norris and Tennessee Williams, among others, defined the post-dialectical merger of Communist and global Capitalist greed, angst and desire in the reunited Germany.

Not surprisingly, Wilson's signature slow-motion aesthetic (which drained his staging of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck at the Berliner Ensemble of all socio-political pathos) was recently parodied at the Volksbühne by Christoph Schlingensief, the German playwright, director and filmmaker. Schlingensief's play Rosebud, which he wrote and directed in 2001 in the wake of 9/11, was a savage send-up of terrorist plots by and against fame-starved journalists, dysfunctional media executives, and their abused and abusive children in a world that can perceive itself only in terms of staged performances. Among other outrageous appropriations from stage and screen, construction workers (a ubiquitous sight in post-Wall Berlin) in primary-colored hard hats and costumes criss-crossed the stage sideways, Wilson-style, their glacial speed also suggesting the tempo of workers protected by government-controlled wages and benefits. Born in 1960, Schlingensief is arguably the naughtiest and most cheerfully tasteless among the stars of the so-called "post-dramatic theater." His in-your-face infantile theatrics belie the seriousness of his attacks on cultural pretense and contemporary politics.

One of Elfriede Jelinek's favorite directors, Schlingensief staged the scandalous 2003 premiere of her play Bambiland at the Vienna Burgtheater. This characteristically dense text was Jelinek's response to the war in Iraq, particularly to Abu Ghraib and its connection to her vision of Austria as an ongoing pornographic spectacle involving its historical undead. Schlingensief's staging included his response to the material, which he broke up with improvised scenes and interviews with different guests every night, alternating with porn sequences on a giant screen. Turning the venerable Burgtheater into a gilded porno house harked back to the spirit of Jelinek's earlier play Burgtheater (never done at the Burgtheater) in which she exposed Austria's most revered actress, Paula Wessely, as an ardent supporter of Hitler. Wessely had starred in the Nazi propaganda film Die Heimkehr (The Homecoming).

It was Castorf's aggressive 1994 staging of Jelinek's Raststätte (Rest Area) at the Hamburg Schauspielhaus that became a defining model for dealing with this Nobel laureate's resistant texts. That was the first time a director had used the production circumstance as an open confrontation with the author, who was introduced as a monstrous sex doll, with braids, signature hair-roll, and all. Jelinek-wigs began to appear like fetishes in subsequent productions of her plays. Whenever directors got lost in Jelinek's syntax -- or her jungle of quotes appropriated from literature, pulp fiction, the media, advertising and politics -- they would stage their frustrations in their productions. The late Einar Schleef (1944-2001) famously appeared in his production of Sportstück as the author's stand-in, named Elfi-Elektra, and screamed in desperation: "Frau Jelinek, I don't understand you."

Interestingly, male star directors produced the most acclaimed productions of her plays, enacting a strange sort of mating ritual that might be called a "mind fuck" in the language of Jelinek's generation. Over a decade ago, Jelinek abandoned dialogue in favor of what she called Sprachflächen -- language planes -- a term that has become a cliché in academic criticism of her work. The term, however, accurately describes the surface the directors furiously confront. Whenever they find themselves running up against a wall, they smash their way through it, with Jelinek's permission, with the force of a wrecker's ball (a term that would suit her delight in the tackiest sort of punning). In her stage directions for In den Alpen (In the Alps) she advises prospective directors: "As everyone knows by now, I couldn't care less about how you're going to do that." "Feel free to fuck around with me," she encouraged Nicolas Stemann, who directed three of her plays, including the Hamburg premiere of her most recent, Ulrike Maria Stuart.

Elfriede Jelinek’s “Ulrike Maria Stuart,” directed by Nikolas Stemann, Thalia Theater, Hamburg, 2006. Photo credit: Arno Declair.In a sense, her directors enact upon her text-as-body what she stages in her writing. Her scenarios are littered with dismembered body parts that suggest the cannibalism of commercially produced desire. Austrian natives gnaw on the severed limbs of skiers, mountain climbers and refugees who perished in the Alps -- a special temptation for directors with a knack for Grand Guignol. Stemann, in his 2005 Burgtheater production of Jelinek's Babel, inserted a text by an actual contemporary cannibal, Issei Sagawa, who meticulously described luring, killing, preparing, ingesting and storing the body parts of a young German woman he met in Paris in 1981. The text was read by a beautiful, soft-voiced Asian actress. (Released from a Japanese mental institution after 15 months, Issei Sagawa became a cult figure, who now maintains his own Web site and has been featured in a French gourmet magazine, among other publications.)

The German popular press routinely reacts to Jelinek with personal attacks of astonishing viciousness. As if to protect her body in her texts from these media assaults, she recently declared that, starting with Ulrike Maria Stuart, her work will no longer be made available in print. Instead, she would only post the texts on her Web site. An early version of Ulrike Maria Stuart popped up there for a just a few days several months before the Hamburg premiere.

Perhaps this policy will be temporary. In any case, it has turned out to be unexpectedly fortunate. One of Ulrike Meinhof's twin daughters, Bettina Röhl, a journalist, threatened Jelinek with a lawsuit for distortion of her mother's relationship with her children and for violation of the family's right to privacy. The daughter had attended an open rehearsal of Stemann's Hamburg production and then offered to help with rewrites and directing. Her offer was declined. Since the play had not been published, there were no concrete grounds for legal action. Nevertheless, some changes were made. Jelinek's publisher, Rowohlt Verlag, sends out the script to theaters with a proviso that they are prohibited from distributing it outside the production cast and crew. The implication is that each production must be considered the current text, and that only the producing theaters can be held legally responsible for its contents.

According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, Röhl was satisfied with the changes Stemann made -- changes, one assumes, to personal references and quotes. I attended both a public rehearsal and the opening night performance and thought that, though the lost lines were relatively unimportant, the production had lost a bit of its aggressive edge.

The unavailability of the printed text adds an intriguing dimension to the experience of the theatrical event: remembering details of the performance parallels the remembering of the historical event through layers of mediatized narratives. Unlike the actual past, one can return to the theater to watch another performance. However, due to the uniqueness of each theatrical evening, it will not be the same. Ultimately, the work remains as elusive and subject to multiple perceptions as events that happened in the past. In any case, Jelinek's new strategy gives directors even more freedom than they had had. From now on they are the authorized co-producers of the performance text.

Jelinek's exemplary, self-negating move fulfills the claims of a "post-dramatic theater" that no longer privileges the text. This move will require critics to radically rethink their analytical tools and, so far, the German press, used to directorial excess and authority, has happily ignored the challenge. They have continued to apply their standard repertoire of adjectives and witticisms to both her works and her directors' stock of "post-dramatic" devices.

Jelinek's Ulrike Maria Stuart examines the legacy of West Germany's Left through the dynamics of women in power. Friedrich Schiller's fictional encounter between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I is refracted in the relationship between Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof, the driving forces of the activist-turned-terrorist Baader-Meinhof group. With Andreas Baader they were the founding members of the Revolutionary Army Fraction or RAF. What began as a protest against their parents' generation's unwillingness to deal with their Nazi past and a rebellion against the war in Vietnam and the excesses of capitalism escalated into a series of deadly terrorist attacks.

The drawn out, controversial trial of key members of the group in Stuttgart in the late seventies marked the climax of the most violent phase of West Germany's post-war history. Ulrike Meinhof hanged herself in her prison cell. A year later Gudrun Ensslin found the same death in the same cell, while Andreas Baader and two other members were discovered shot to death in their cells. (It was never clearly established that their deaths were suicides.) Earlier, another imprisoned member, Holger Meins, died from a hunger strike.

As usual, Jelinek is not interested in dramatizing the stories of individuals. Though Ulrike, Gudrun and the "Queen" are featured speakers, their language reflects their construction as composite ready-mades. A dizzying kaleidoscope of splintered references merges in Jelinek's grammar to suggest a trail of thought leading from the Elizabethans to German Idealism to Communism to Nazism to the sixties to global capitalism, outsourcing, the Middle East, Antigone and contemporary petty-middle-class consumer culture -- which, it turns out, is at the root of the group's demise. The quotes include Schiller, Shakespeare, Büchner and Marx, as well as the writings of Meinhof and other RAF members. These last become material for a bitterly satiric take on failed revolutions, the self-delusions of rebels (including perhaps Jelinek's own), and the commodification of revolution in the post-ideological age.

Elfriede Jelinek’s “Ulrike Maria Stuart,” directed by Nikolas Stemann, Thalia Theater, Hamburg, 2006. Photo credit: Arno Declair.The voices of "Princes in the Tower" representing Meinhof's children (the primary cause for the "real" daughter's concerns), a "Chorus of Old Men" and an "Angel from America" trying to hang himself with his AIDS ribbon (a homage to Tony Kushner) connect different periods and cultures. Jelinek owns the DVD of Angels in America and watched it many times with great enthusiasm. It inspired her to insert several appearances by an "Angel from America" in her text. His role is the most puzzling. His initial warning that terrorism invariably leads to a reactionary backlash, his wrathful and increasingly anxious ruminations over traditions, miscalculations and self-destructive strategies of the Left suggest an outsider's perspective. (Jelinek ardently admires Kushner's own struggle with and for the democratic ideals of the American constitution.) Given the concrete political and existential struggle Kushner's Angel represents, Jelinek appears to question both the romanticizing of past revolutions and the indulgences of so-called "post-dramatic" performance practices (which have been partly spawned by her texts) -- although, curiously, there are no allusions to contemporary terrorism and American politics, as in her previous play Bambiland. Then again, the Angel occasionally adopts the self-absorbed language of Andreas Baader. At other times, from his new vantage point close to the Lord, he seems to have refined his political views and sharpened his sense of irony regarding God and the world. Her brand of comedy is based on the disconnection between human efforts to make sense and categorical denials of that just when it is about to happen.

Jelinek's response to the Nobel Prize is a case in point. Her agoraphobia and other acute anxieties made it impossible for her to attend the award ceremony. Her radical withdrawal from the public after receiving the Prize is reflected in Meinhof's increasing isolation from her group. Meinhof had been a journalist and her political pamphlets, reflective texts and partly critical notes on the history of the RAF were rejected by Ensslin and her lover, Andreas Baader, who had also been Meinhof's lover. The contradiction between the women's radically anti-bourgeois revolutionary project and their old-fashioned rivalry for a man recalls the role of Leicester in Schiller's fictional encounter between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I.

Nicolas Stemann, a seasoned Jelinek veteran -- his previous productions of Das Werk (The Plant) and Babel, both at the Vienna Burgtheater, were highly acclaimed -- made full use of the author's invitation to "fuck around with her." As he once stated with a spoiled son's patronizing self-assurance, staging Jelinek's texts first requires airing out the old lady's head.

Born in 1968 in the politicized milieu of Meinhof's generation, Stemann was raised by a radical feminist mother who made his eleven-year-old sister read radical feminist literature. His mother's powerful presence might have made him immune to nostalgia for the revolutionary spirit of the sixties, but it did not completely wean him from directorial fathers. Many of his images can be traced to signature devices of some of his older colleagues -- most prominently Castorf's introduction of the author herself onstage (reduced by Stemann to the metonymic wig), Christoph Marthaler's inclusion of a performing pianist, and Einar Schleef's insertion of himself into the mise-en-scène (which Castorf and Schlingensief have done too). Though Stemann categorically denies such appropriations, his choices are consistent with Jelinek's processing of existing texts. She has repeatedly declared that anger is the driving force of all her writing, and Stemann notes that because of his biography he first perceived her as the enemy -- an aging, if not anachronistic feminist. Once he decided to stage Ulrike Maria Stuart, his resistance to the material was his starting position. Thus, the play may be about the relationship between mother and child, but Röhl was mistaken in assuming it was about Meinhof and herself; in Stemann's version, it is more about the director's unresolved issues with his mother(s).

Stemann cut down the cyber-samizdat version of the text to approximately a third of its original length, rearranging it around key phrases woven throughout the text. Spoken by different figures and repeated in pop songs, these phrases add up to a mnemonic scaffolding of sorts that supports the visual and verbal overflow.

Some of these key lines are: "Killing solves many things," "I am chairman of the board of the exploited," "All you do is stage yourself as victim," or "One more dead is better than one less." The mantra-like statement, "I don't know what has to happen in order for something to happen," serves as a kind of leitmotif. As an ironic echo from recent history, Stemann added a well known quote from a famous 1997 speech by then German president Roman Herzog: "A jolt must galvanize Germany." In this so-called "jolt-speech" (Ruckrede) -- nine years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, towards the end of Chancellor Kohl's 16-year conservative regime when the country faced staggering unemployment -- Herzog exhorted his reunited yet disillusioned fellow-citizens to stop complaining and meet the challenges of the global market. Excerpts from the speech are performed by the company with foam coming out of their mouths: Germany's obsolete Left and new Americanized Right meet in their disgust over the populace's resigned dependence on the state.

Meinhof's repeated statement "I've been dead for thirty years already" -- another directorial addition -- highlights the pathetic obsolescence of her project. Some of Jelinek's lines suggesting the younger generation's jealousy of their parents' concrete enemies are turned into schmaltzy lyrics:

Oh, if only we could have experienced the repressive ideological machineries; however, that sort of offensive position was available only to you. We didn't have that option. Otherwise we too could have chosen to go underground.

Stemann, who is part of that younger generation, likes to emphasize that he is not interested at all in the Baader-Meinhof agenda. The irretrievable loss of meaning -- his generation's defining experience -- makes it impossible to approach the group's misapplied idealism with any seriousness. Rather, he wanted to explore aspects of its members' iconic features in the context of contemporary pop culture.

Elfriede Jelinek’s “Ulrike Maria Stuart,” directed by Nikolas Stemann, Thalia Theater, Hamburg, 2006. Photo credit: Arno Declair.The production opens with three men in drag, women's wigs and scripts in their hands, trying out different line-readings before the heavy velvet theater curtain: a vaudevillian warm-up routine. That curtain opens to reveal yet another identical red velvet curtain, which peels off to reveal a movie screen, which gives way to a revolving nightclub stage. Curtains behind curtains and stages within stages highlight the theatricality behind Jelinek's professed anti-theatrical stance, while circumscribing a space that's sealed off from the "real world." Jelinek, a TV junkie, emphasizes that she does not draw from "real life" but rather from the mediatized reality she is confined to on account of her phobias. She does not travel except between her two homes, one in Vienna, inherited from her mother, the other in Munich, shared with her husband. She rarely goes out. Except for close friends and collaborators, she does not receive visitors. The performance space thus aptly evokes her prison-house of language. Within this setting Stemann dismantles Jelinek's complex montage into a revue of loosely connected sketches.

The men's clowning climaxes in a ketchup-bloodied, syrup-smeared scenario inspired by Paul McCarthy, the Utah-born video/installation artist and Jelinek's declared favorite. (In 2005 she saw a major retrospective of his work in Munich.) Stripped naked, their penises covered in pig's masks, the stooges distribute water balloons and protective plastic sheets among the spectators, inviting them to aim at signs representing former chancellor Schröder flanked by well known business and media tycoons. Back onstage, the actors spray each other with fake blood, chocolate shit and miracle whip. Sliding, slipping and rolling in the mess, they finally collapse, singing "Pigs or human"-- allegedly Holger Meins's last words before dying from his hunger strike. Ensslin's comment as she steps over the bodies, "I only see dead bodies the moment I close my eyes," is greeted with laughter by the audience. The reaction seems to validate Stemann's claim that it is no longer possible to shock or provoke people. With the revolution fashionably reduced to the acting out of infantile impulses, audiences happily participate.

Elfriede Jelinek’s “Ulrike Maria Stuart,” directed by Nikolas Stemann, Thalia Theater, Hamburg, 2006. Photo credit: Arno Declair.In this production, Gudrun Ensslin emerges as a media-savvy pop icon whose petty vanity causes the demise of the group. In contrast, Meinhof's obsessive reflections lead to her hanging herself. It was Ensslin's trying on of a sweater in an upscale Hamburg boutique that got the police on her track. With the director's method of looping several key phrases and weaving them throughout the performance, the sweater incident frames her petty (bourgeois) vanity, which not only defines her flawed revolutionary leadership but also, by way of Jelinek's multi-referential syntax, deflates all revolutionary stances -- including that of the author, who has repeatedly flaunted her obsession with designer clothes in interviews and photo shoots.

Ulrike Meinhof first appears onscreen -- larger than life, long dark hair, sunglasses projecting a fashionable, darkly rebellious mystique purportedly for a film titled The Downfall Part II (alluding to the Oscar-nominated 2004 film about Adolf Hitler, starring Bruno Ganz). Parts of Meinhof's and Ensslin's speeches and writings are performed as pop songs. The text of Schiller's pivotal scene between Mary and Elizabeth is projected on a screen and read by one of the stooges, while Meinhof and Ensslin, dressed in Elizabethan costumes and playing recorders, perform the soundtrack, as it were, of the confrontation of the queens.

The Oedipal thrust of Stemann's project has its coyly outrageous moments. A skit he added, titled "Vagina Dialogues," features "Elfie" (Jelinek) and "Marlene" (Jelinek's former protégée and friend, the Austrian writer Marlene Streeruwitz), their heads sticking out of silky, fur-lined vaginas. Their wistful chat about the predicament of intelligent women shunned by men is based on a 1997 joint interview with them, originally published in the pioneering feminist magazine Emma. The real Streeruwitz, not as good humored as Jelinek, found her stage appearance as a giant vagina demeaning and filed a complaint, requesting that the scene be cut. A judge ruled that as a satire it was protected by artistic freedom.

As usual, power and desire are closely connected in Jelinek's scenario. The two young women, Meinhof and Ensslin, compete as intensely for control over the group as for Andreas Baader, who appears as a graying angel in a fashionable black leather jacket and huge white wings, spouting invectives against the women and ranting about the misapplication of Marxist principles. The old rebel angel's contemporaries are two old women with walkers -- ghostly queens, the undead of the past embodying the younger women's unfulfilled future selves. Played by two distinguished actresses of Jelinek's generation, Elisabeth Schwarz (Maria) and Katharina Matz (Elizabeth), they also suggest aspects of the aging author.

Elfriede Jelinek’s “Ulrike Maria Stuart,” directed by Nikolas Stemann, Thalia Theater, Hamburg, 2006. Photo credit: Arno Declair.Throughout the performance, both the script and a disheveled woman's wig are passed around and tossed about like fetishized body parts. Finally Stemann himself appears wearing a wig with Jelinek's trademark pigtails. Seated with his back to the audience in his directorial work clothes, facing a large portrait of the author as literary diva, he reads Ulrike's lines in Jelinek's melodious, characteristically Viennese lilt, albeit deliberately distorted by his Northern German pronunciation. Jelinek's and Meinhof's voices merge in his performance -- a dirge-like riff on the acknowledgment of failure and the desire to sleep towards death.

We set nothing in motion, I fear. I am just a shadow, not much light left to tear up the towel and lean the bed against the wall, but I manage, what else is left for me to do. I am ending it now, I am preparing it all, just for me; I have ended, I don't need a trial, and certainly not by this group, which isn't mine . . .

Sleep well, my dear I tell myself, for no one else is there to say so, no, not in a long time, no one says that sort of thing to me, would have been nice, maybe, but now I have to tell myself: sleep well, yes, sleep, sleep even in this uncomfortable position, even in this noose, which I may even tie myself . . . there, I go to sleep now, sleep, sleep, I am going to sleep, so I won't have to speak anymore. Simple as that . . . just want to sleep, sleep, sleep in the air, in the noose, it will be beautiful . . .

What seems at first a touching, meditative moment that captures the melancholy underlying Jelinek's rage, is undermined by the tableau of the man in control of the text embodying the female author, crowned by her sacrificial scalp as trophy, in a pose of humble worship underneath her iconic photograph. Underscored by droning techno music, with the ensemble gradually gathering around the musicians, some actors still naked, their bodies smeared with ketchup and syrup, others crowned with little cotton halos, the action suggests a mock ritual led by the director/shaman. With post-climactic calm, he embodies the author after her (body of) text has been cut to pieces, reassembled, and taken apart again, it's pages ultimately crumpled, torn and scattered from above. His recital of the speech, written by a woman as the voice of another woman, amounts to an act of cannibalism: the ingestion and regurgitation of the body of the text.

Fittingly enough, at the opening night curtain call Jelinek, who didn't attend, was represented by her wig, impaled on a foot-high pole at the center of the line of bowing actors -- an ambivalent gesture of homage to, as well as triumph over, the author, who is reduced to a sophomoric Freudian joke. At subsequent curtain calls, Stemann held the wig in his hand, leaving no doubt whose show it was.

Not that Jelinek is an involuntary victim. Through her self-deprecating stage directions she coyly flashes her presence to her (mostly male) directors, only to withdraw again behind impenetrable layers of language. In that sense, Stemann's use of layers of theatrical curtains is an astute response to her flirtatious disappearing acts. It's up to her directors to tease narrative threads with recognizable speakers out of the dense linguistic fabric.

The unrestricted surrender of her texts to her trusted directors raises several conflicting issues: is it an act of great generosity or the surrender of agency? Is the aging author once again on the vanguard towards a new definition of performance as text? Does her resolve to post her future writings exclusively on her Web site challenge the commodification of authors by their publishers? According to Jelinek, her non-interference is not entirely a philosophical, political choice, but an existential necessity. Her life-long fear of crowds (in conjunction with the neurotic need of approval fostered by her relentlessly demanding mother) intensified after the Nobel Prize.

The next production of Ulrike Maria Stuart, staged by Jossi Wieler, another seasoned Jelinek director, is scheduled to open March 28, 2007, at Munich's renowned Kammerspiele, and should offer significant points of comparison. Wieler's penetrating vision of Jelinek's world has been, in the past, antithetical to Stemann's deconstructions. Internationally renowned, Wieler is older than Stemann, born 1951 in Switzerland and educated in Israel. His award-winning production of Jelinek's Wolken.Heim at the Hamburg Schauspielhaus in 1993, followed by Er nicht als er (He not as he -- about the Swiss poet Robert Walser) at the 1998 Salzburg Festival introduced a radically minimalist approach to these texts. Shaped by different generational experiences, the two productions of Ulrike Maria Stuart will no doubt speak to each other across the phantom walls that divide historical memory.


About one month after attending the opening of Ulrike Maria Stuart, I revisited Gerhard Richter's cycle of paintings "October 18, 1977" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The title refers to the day the bodies of Ensslin and Baader were found at the Stammheim prison. Richter, born in 1932, left his native East Germany at age 29, shortly before the Berlin Wall went up. His reworking of iconic media images of the group leaders' demise provides interesting points of comparison with Jelinek's approach.

Based on newspaper photographs, Richter's paintings are deliberately opaque, individual features and contours diffused in layers of gray: the profile of the dead Ulrike Meinhof, her neck marked by the rope of towels with which she hanged herself; paintings of Ensslin posing for a line-up and finally hanging in her cell, of Baader's library and record player which he kept in his cell, of Baader shot dead on the floor, of the infamous arrest of the almost naked Holger Meins.

While Richter dissolves the realistic details in grayish pigment, Jelinek wraps them in a patchwork of linguistic ready-mades. Both interrogate memory, historic narratives and representation. Both also try to counteract in their works the commodification of catastrophe turned into art, even as their own art is being commodified.

It struck me that this gallery would be the perfect environment for a staged reading of Jelinek's difficult play in New York City.


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