Since 1964, West Berlin's annual theater festival, the Theatertreffen (literally, theater meetings), has provided a reasonably sound cross section of what is remarkable in German-language theater.
"Remarkable" is the operative word, because that is the criterion by which shows are chosen. For three weeks, the Theatertreffen offers the world's drama critics a useful bird's-eye view of West German theater. Visitors generally find themselves attending several far-out reworkings of theater classics, with a sprinkling of new plays and the occasional presence of a distinguished foreign offering.
The emphasis here is on productions. The greatest play of the century would presumably go uninvited if it did not get a "remarkable" interpretation. And the productions themselves are likely to be wildly eccentric by American standards.
By comparison one would logically look to venturesome works on the outer edges of America's off-off-Broadway. But there are certain important differences: The German innovators are thoroughly professional, they command enormous budgets at heavily subsidized theaters, and they enjoy the services of the best actors.
Theoretically, Eastm Germany is also eligible to participate, but we are told that the East Germans prefer to stay away. Swiss and Austrian participation is relatively limited.
The hit of the week was a visitor from Paris, "Mephisto," written and directed by Ariane Mnouchkine on the basis of a novel by Klaus Mann. Seated on reversible benches, the audience alternately watches, at the opposite ends of a large auditorium, a classical repertory theater and a satirical cabaret.
We observe the rise of Nazism through the lives and performances of German actors of the 1920s and 1930s, and we focus upon an actor who plays Mephisto in goethe's "Faust." He is first a Communist and finally a Nazi but invariably an opportunist. He is clearly intended as a portrait of Gustav Grundgens, who was briefly married to Klaus Mann's sister Erika and was so eminent an actor-director that both East and West sought his services after the war.
"Mephisto" is fascinating. It held its German audience spellbound for more than four hours.
If the festival directors do strange things to the beloved plays of Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, and Shakespeare, I can offer one particular rationalization: If you do not like a new production of a favorite play, wait a short time or go to a neighboring city and you will be able to see another.
For example, a few years ago, West Berlin's Schiller Theater offered a fairly straightforward version of Heinrich von Kleist's "The Prince of Homburg," but in the same season the universal preference (and an invitation to the Theatertreffen) went to a more daring reinterpretation by Peter Stein at another theater in the same city.
Two years ago, another experimental "Prince von Homburg" came to the Theatertreffen, with the characters strolling around on potatoes fastened to their feet -- a stage effect designed to indicate the humble basis of their lordly pretensions. It was royally hooted and unanimously disapproved by the critics.
A new play at the Theatertreffen is likely to be the subjective analysis of an unhappy soul, like Botho Straus' much-admired "Big and Little" last year. Or it may be like the new play I caught this year, Thomas Brasch's "Dear Georg," which was more experimental than most and was really a scenario for its directors to elaborate on.
Set in a skating rink, "Dear Georg" interprets the inner life of Georg Heym, a poet who drowned in a skating accident in 1912. Manfred Karge, one of the two East German co-directors of this show from Bochum, sensitively conveys a variety of sorrows as the poet suffers domination by his father (whom he carries piggyback on the rink), undertakes love affairs, and confronts such contemporary phenomena in the symbolic form of various stage images, such as Sun Yat-sen and a balloonist.
Dissatisfied with recent selections, seven leading directors this year tried to take over the Theatertreffen, threatening to set up a rival, festival if their demands were not met. They failed, and the Theatertreffen will continue to be run by a changing panel of drama critics.
I, for one, am delighted to see it continue just as it is, reflecting in its strengths and weaknesses the strengths and weaknesses of the German theater.