Notes From Berlin (Part I)

Dieter Roth's "Murmel"

Dieter Roth’s “Murmel”

Published in 1974 as an art object book of concrete poetry, Roth’s Murmel was proposed as the most boring play imaginable and, from what I gather, was meant to be unstageable. The text is arranged visually on the page as a play script with characters, stage directions, pagination, scenes and acts, but all using the single word “murmel”. Apparently a colleague of Roth’s staged the piece sometime in the 80’s and Roth so hated the production that he severed the friendship. But (as I understand it) Fritsch met Roth in the 90’s, making him a deathbed promise to stage it again. Daunted, Fritsch avoided the project until now, when Zwach finally convinced him to take it on.

Fritsch, a former actor, works more collaboratively than one might expect from a German director, and the early improvisatory creative process with the ensemble led to rather dark and dour outcomes. Finally Fritsch, known for his brightly colored and outlandish visual aesthetic and an entertainment-oriented sensibility, decided that if the project was doomed to fail, it would fail big. In come the teased hair, crazy costumes and swinging music; the slapstick, physical theater and references to Jacques Tati’s Playtime.

But the piece gets even more interesting when we start to consider the set. Developing the work in an old theater, Fritsch encounters the stage drapery of an earlier era – the teasers and tormentors, legs and borders that frame the stage, sometimes moved to indicate scenic transitions or direct the audience’s focus. Both director and scenic designer, Fritsch begins to play with these stage elements until they come together as a character. Fritsch uses the brightly colored panels as both frame for the action and actor. They change shape, move in and out in slapstick cadences, they shrink the playing space to a cramped cube or withdraw completely into the wings, leaving only stark whiteness (as I recall).

Murmel, Murmel actually becomes much more interesting when we consider it as a time-based art object rather than a work of theater. As theater it is unsatisfying because the conceptual depth of the physical investigation is so limited. In compare this shallow physicality to the visceral and sometimes terrifying extreme bouffon of The Red Bastard who begins with familiar tropes of clowning and physical theater and pushes the audience far beyond their comfort zone. As theater Murmel, Murmel feels slight and facile, but viewed as a time-based expression of Dieter Roth’s text-based art object it becomes a nuanced and thoughtful work of choreography, a tightly wound living clockwork sculpture of light, sound, objects and embodied motion expressed in mutable space over fixed time. We can begin to see Fritsch’s re-framing of the theatrical space as calling attention simultaneously to its performativity and its plasticity, his frequent disregard for the fourth wall undermining the tacit assumptions the space implies. The actors, relegated to one word of text, force us to confront the insufficiency of language and narrative to accurately convey meaning, thus turning the entire theater space itself into a white cube, a nonsensical immersive multimedia art installation. Or perhaps not.

Fritsch’s profile on the Goethe-Institut website, written by Christine Wahl, says:

Ultraconceptualised political theatre that has been mediated and remediated over and over again does not interest me,’ he proclaims repeatedly from podiums with an air of grandeur. ‘The fundamental driving force of theatre is entertainment, even when it is telling a sad story!’

And:

…there are also less successful Fritsch productions, from which it is evident that the director’s methodology is not risk-free. This is noticeable when the staging lacks what could be called substructure and – instead of translating the internal deformations of their characters into specific, extreme external actions – the actors seem to rummage through a dressing-up trunk of the protruding tongues, rolling eyes and infantile stumbling that are so common in Fritsch’s theatre to pick out and quickly slip into the appropriate mannerism for each scene. When this happens, the audience is not offered a compelling externalisation of internal processes, but standardised comedy routines delivered with total detachment.

I don’t imagine we will ever learn for certain whether Murmel, Murmel is a brilliant work of conceptual art or a slight work of slapstick physical theater. But having been made aware of the starting point for the work made me rethink the experience of seeing it.

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