Notes From Berlin (Part I)

An early stage image from Castellucci's "Hyperion"

An early stage image from Castellucci’s “Hyperion”

Castellucci takes his inspiration from the revered German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin‘s epistolary novel Hyperion. The novel is the story of Hyperion, a Greek who joins an uprising against foreign occupiers (perhaps inspired by the Orlov Revolt of 1770). From what I read in the program copy, the brutality and senselessness of the war and the subsequent failure of society to live up to his revolutionary ideals results in Hyperion’s disillusionment and bitterness. Here Hyperion may be seen as a stand-in for Hölderlin himself who, along with Hegel and Schelling, his classmates at Tubingen Seminary, were set ideologically adrift when the French Revolution descended into the Reign of Terror, ultimately to be superseded by Napoleon. Hegel and Schelling went on to develop the school of thought known as German Idealism. And that’s about as much as I have been able to figure out thus far.

Going in to Hyperion: Letters of a Terrorist I knew almost none of the information cited above beyond the barest outlines and found myself struggling to make sense of it, at first. But when I stopped trying to find meaning, the meaning began to reveal itself.

The play opens on a beautifully detailed set of a chic modern apartment. A man picks up his briefcase, puts on a hat and overcoat and leaves the apartment, turning of the lights and firmly closing the door behind him. The audience sits and waits for what must be five minutes when we hear a scuffling and then shouting followed by a tactical assault by a S.W.A.T team of German polizei. They batter down the door, leading in bomb sniffing dogs and proceed to destroy the apartment, emptying all the drawers, ripping apart the furniture in search of incriminating evidence. The police move down into the audience and shout at the audience to leave, emptying the theater and forcing all the theatergoers into the street where we wait, without direction, for twenty minutes.

It was fascinating to see how many audience members were already hostile to the play at this point, how angry they were at this disruption of their expectations and how closed they were to the possibility of what might follow. You could hear it – in German, English and a few other languages – the audience was divided between people who were intrigued and looking forward to the next part and those who were, for all intents and purposes, disengaged and alienated, who would return to the theater only grudgingly.

After about twenty minutes we were admitted back into the theater. The stage now looked like a more familiar Castellucci set: a huge white cube with small white objects center stage – a bed, a nightstand, a pedestal. Slides are projected that tell the story of an old injured dog with cataracts that has been cast for tonight’s performance. The dog is led onstage and cued to react (looking in different directions, barking) from offstage as nouns appear in large projections on the three walls of the white cube. Eventually the dog is led offstage and a young girl in street clothes led to the stage by a woman, possibly her mother. The girl removes her outer garments until she is clad only in a classical white robe, wearing a garland of gold. She strikes a pose on the white pedestal and proceeds to intone sections of the Hölderlin text in a hushed whisper, heavily miked. She strikes one iconic pose after another, running through the physical vocabulary of Classical statuary.

After a few minutes the young girl is joined onstage by a young woman who eventually replaces the young girl, appearing naked and painted white as she picks up the text. After a certain time she steps down from the pedestal, removes her clothing, cuts her hair and puts on a new costume – a white shirt and loose grey pants, abstract but reminiscent of what one might imagine to be the uniform of a Romantic poet. They young woman is replaced by a middle aged woman and she, in turn, is replaced by a more mature woman, the remarkable Angela Winkler.

Angela Winkler in Pose vor farbverschmiertem Wolkendunst © Arno Declair

Angela Winkler in Castellucci’s “Hyperion” © Arno Declair

As I recall, Winkler concludes her speech and thus the mortal life of the individual poet. I didn’t take notes but I recall that it was at this point there was a transition where the original apartment set was nudged in from the wings, framing the center white cube but never fully intruding. We see the polizei on the periphery but they never fully enter the white space. And then time passes – literally. Words projected on the back wall convey the passing of time – 10 minutes, 10 years, a thousand years, millenia, eons, ages and ages until we find ourselves back again in a new white space, smaller than before, closer to the foot of the stage and arrayed differently. Eva Meckbach takes the stage with an ocular microscope and a vibrator, continuing the recitation of Hölderlin’s text in front of a massive projection.

Odaliske mit Kamera am Auge und Vibrator am Fuss: Eva Meckbach © Arno Declair

Odaliske mit Kamera am Auge und Vibrator am Fuss: Eva Meckbach © Arno Declair

Consistent with the Utopian revolutionary ideals associated with Romanticism, Hölderlin’s text laments the roughness of human behavior, its betrayal of the purity of primal nature and the corruption by the world of the unsullied artistic spirit. I don’t have access to Castellucci’s script but I found a copy of Hyperion online and culled a section that Castellucci excerpted for his production:

So I arrived among the Germans. I did not demand much and was prepared to find even less. I came there humbly, like homeless, blind Oedipus to the gates of Athens, where the sacred grove received him; and fair souls came to greet him—

How different my experience!

Barbarians from the remotest past, whom industry and science and even religion have made yet more barbarous, profoundly inca­pable of any divine emotion, spoiled to the core for the delights of the sacred Graces, offensive to every well-conditioned soul through the whole range from pretense to pettiness, hollow and tuneless, like the shards of a discarded pot—such, my Bellarmin! were my comforters.
It is a hard saying, and yet I speak it because it is the truth: I can think of no people more at odds with themselves than the Germans. You see artisans, but no men, thinkers, but no men, priests, but no men, masters and servants, but no men, minors and adults, but no men—is this not like a battlefield on which hacked-off hands and arms and every other member are scattered about, while the lifeblood flows from them to vanish in the sand?

Everyone follows his own trade, you will tell me, and I say the same. Qnly, he must follow it with his whole soul, must not stifle every power in him that does not precisely accord with his official designation, must not, with this niggardly anxiety, literally and hypocritically be only what he is called; let him be what he is, earnestly, lovingly, then a spirit jives in all that he does; and if he is forced into an occupation in which the spirit may not live, let him cast it off with scorn and learn to plow! But your Germans choose not to go beyond the barest necessities, which is the reason why there is so much botched work among them and so little that is free, that gives any genuine pleasure. Yet that could be overlooked, were not such men of necessity insensitive to what is beautiful in life, did not the curse of godforsaken unnature everywhere lie upon such a people,—

The dense and formal but extremely passionate writing, provocatively edited to goad the audience, exists in stark contrast to Castellucci’s measured, painterly, almost serene presentational aesthetic. Yet both text and form operate in similar ways. The content overtly challenges the audiences by using the words of a revered, iconic German poet to accuse the audience of being pretentious, petty, insensitive barbarians while the form implicitly rejects the declamatory acting style and, mostly, adherence to classical narratives. The tension between Castellucci’s deliberate pacing and the volatile text reinforces the tension he is attempting to create in the audience, which is a wider frame for the tension represented onstage between the “real” world of the apartment and the abstracted poetic world of the ideal.

Castellucci seems to intend that the white cube containing first the dog, then a series of women as Classical statues and the embodied poet, represent idealism and purity of thought; the simple clarity of the naive revolutionary. The aforementioned tension suggests that this Romantic impulse is at once noble and fatally flawed. Castellucci’s tableaux unfold at a stately pace employing a filmic visual language to suggest reflective interiority. By partially reintroducing the destroyed apartment into the white space during a transitional moment in the work, he establishes a tension between the ideal and real, he suggests the threat of the unyielding idealist turned ideologue and poses a question about the relationship of the visionary artist to the visionary ideologue. Is the poetic impulse related to the terroristic impulse? Are they alternate manifestations of the same radical desire to change the world? Are they both, in some way, tied to an ageless human desire to escape mere temporality and mortality by linking oneself to the eternal? And when the state crushes the terrorist is it, by extension, crushing the idealist?

I found the production at once challenging and deeply gratifying. On an aesthetic level I was intrigued, as with Murmel Murmel, by the possibility of applying a more visual arts-based critical framework to the piece. Of late I have been thinking more deeply about the construction and operation of the performance object as dynamic embodiment expressed in fixed space over time, and in that context Hyperion: Letters of a Terrorist was a thought-provoking and intricate model. (See Aleida Assmann’s essay “How Long Is the Present? Time Structures in the Theater” and my earlier, preliminary essay on the subject, “Some Thoughts on Attention, Language and Demand”).

On a cultural level I was curious to learn more about Holderlin as a writer and his role in German history and ideas. I also wanted to try to understand how this particular production might read to a wider German audience, given what appears to be a longstanding cultural fixation on self-definition that seems to exist in a state of perpetual conflict between pride in a national character predicated on rigor, ideals and industriousness and the ever-present recent history of those positive qualities taken to their negative, tragic and brutal extremes. But like every experience of my visit to Berlin, each question led to new questions and deeper complexity. I have no doubt that these questions and the pursuit of answers will persist in perpetuity.

My favorable impressions of Hyperion: Letters of a Terrorist were not universally shared among my colleagues,and though I cannot read German to gauge the local reaction, I did find a rather dismissive review in the Financial Times of London, and so will infer that I may well have held the minority opinion.

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