West Berlin theater, reminder of an old tradition going strong

There it was at last, Christopher Marlowe's ''Edward II,'' the first great English history play (or roughly tied for that distinction with Shakespeare's ''Richard III''), one of the undeniable masterpieces of Shakespeare's exact contemporary and most accomplished predecessor in the English theater.

It's a play I had tirelessly sought through decades of international theatergoing. I was finally seeing it on the stage, in the spirited and intelligent production that it deserves.

It was being acted in German. Twenty years ago, I saw a free adaptation in French. I suppose that, in the intervening years, by being in the right place at the right time, I might have caught Bertolt Brecht's German adaptation, but this year I have managed to attend a more faithful version in German. The production, directed by David Mouchtar-Samorai, an Israeli, had come from Heidelberg to West Berlin's annual all-German theater festival, the Theater-treffen.

''Edward II'' anticipates Shakespeare's ''Richard II'' (written after ''Richard III'') in its pitiless chronicle of a weak king's floundering efforts to maintain himself in power. Marlowe's Edward is less dignified, less poetic, but more passionate than Shakespeare's Richard in his quest for the favorites and factions that might help him rule.

Mouchtar-Samorai thrusts this wretched, harried monarch into a muddled but vivid conflict with power-hungry barons. Never losing an opportunity for a striking gesture, he speeds up the action by employing black-faced, black-costumed property men in the Oriental convention to carry objects on and off. In the tradition of Brecht-influenced directors, he gives new attention to the usually neglected ordinary citizens and soldiers who suffer the most no matter who wins.

Significantly, Marlowe's ''Poor Men'' are made arbeitslose, ''jobless men.'' Some lines from three other plays by Marlowe are interpolated, but the most notable departure is having the king watch a morality play midway through his own drama at a moment when bad news is brought to him.

This play within a play provides the counterpoint of a broader acting style and serves the serious purpose of reminding us of the official values which theoretically guide the characters' lives but have no effect upon their mad scramble for power.

For the Germans, this year's Theatertreffen must have seemed rather commonplace. There were practically no new plays - perhaps because the new German-language plays now have a festival of their own - and there was only one generally acclaimed reinterpretation of a German classic, Claus Peymann's Bochum staging of G. E. Lessing's ''Nathan the Wise.''

For an American visitor, this year's festival was one more reminder of the enormous wealth of the German theater, of its extraordinary concern with a vast inheritance of dramatic literature, and of its capacity for applying the best of its directors, actors, and designers to the best plays, instead of the hits of today which are forgotten tomorrow.

George Buchner's ''Leonce and Lena,'' scarcely showing its nearly 150 years, was joyously revived in a production from Cologne by Jurgen Flimm. Neglected and never performed in his brief lifetime, Buchner has become a titanic figure of the present-day German stage, mainly for his tragic plays ''Woyzeck'' and ''Danton's Death.'' Even his comedy ''Leonce and Lena'' offers some serious social comment, for this gentle tale of a prince and princess who are fated to find each other satirizes royalty.

But the present version was full of fun. Staged in a circus tent, it conveyed circus gaiety and ended in a crescendo of balloons and candies being tossed into the audience. In between, the prince and princess of the title, intended for each other by their respective kingdoms, run away from their royal destinies, meet by accident, and fall in love. But they grimly return home to do their duties, wearing masks in a royal wedding that has surprisingly happy results. If the cheerful animal spirits of this circus entertainment enforced any special meaning, it was surely the idea that youthful energy can burst the fetters that the older generation imposes.

Goethe's ''Faust,'' directed by Klaus Michael Gruber for Berlin's Freie Volksbuhne, was more puzzling. The first part of Goethe's classic play was so drastically condensed that only four characters out of its normally large cast remained. Gruber's condensation was originally performed in Paris a few years ago, in a small private theater with a modest budget. In a prosperous West Berlin theater, new rationalizations were necessary. The title role was played by Bernhard Minetti, the most honored veteran of the German stage, an actor so much beloved that a leading dramatist wrote a play for him and named it after him.

There is a difficulty in adapting the role for this great old actor. Faust begins as an old man, but he is rejuvenated by Mephistopheles so that he may court Gretchen and undertake other youthful adventures. The usual solution in the theater is for Faust to be played by a young actor who discards his old man's disguise early in the play. The other obvious strategy is to use two actors, as in Paris this season.

But Minetti remains himself throughout, even when he is wooing and winning the young Gretchen. Their relationship is made to seem stranger than Goethe intended, and also one misses the many scenes and characters that have been eliminated. Although this performance does not make any sense as an interpretation of the play, certain pleasures are to be found in listening to this consummate actor's serene, magisterial reading of a great deal of the role of Faust.

The 150th anniversary of Goethe's death was also observed in another act of literary piety that failed to have its full effect. Munich sent a rather dreary staging of Goethe's tragedy ''Torquato Tasso,'' directed by Ernst Wendt.

In recent years, leading directors have used ''Tasso'' as a text for social comment. Stein saw it as a parable of the corruption of the artist. Peymann used it as a weapon to flail the unjust society by which the artist is patronized, in the worst sense of the word. Wendt played it straight, imposing no special interpretation on it, thereby disappointing those whom Stein and Peymann had prepared for social insights. Actors cannot simply ''walk through'' a classic play and thereby please a German audience. German playgoers have come to expect serious, innovative reinterpretations.

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