Theaterschrift 11. The Return of the Classics?

Introduction and Table of Contents

Theaterschrift Feb 1997English

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This are only the introduction and table of contents of Theaterschrift 11. Click here to download a PDF of the entire issue in four languages.


An Introduction by Sabine Pochhammer


Who's There?

A Phantom is moving about. It is featured in newspaper articles bearing such disbelieving and despairing titles: "Classics everywhere, while contemporary pieces are becoming rare. Theater as a mirror of its own time – a wishful dream?" or "Shakespeare booming, especially among the younger directors." Even the German edition of 'Elle' has recently joined in the discussion, declaring the phenomenon a sensual event. With the declaration: "William, the conqueror. This Shakespeare! We surrender to him still", it suggests the eruptive interest in Shakespeare through the register of erotic submission. Mind you: we do not return to the classics, oh no, Shakespeare conquers us.


What, has this thing appeared again to-night?

But why a "return of the classics"? Should we not rather say: "return to the classics"? Is it not we who return to them after having turned them away? Why this tendency toward personification? In the already classic avantgarde, the hostility against the suppression of living artists in favor of famous dead ones and against the form of their representation in the theater - against the "deadly theater" - had found heated expression. Thus, at the beginning of this century, Marinetti, as spokesman of futurism, suggested that it would be best to reduce the entirety of Shakespeare to a single act. - Yet as if these gestures had failed: not only in Shakespeare's plays do the dead return as uncanny demiurges of the story, the plays themselves are tireless revenants, a quality which testifies to their status as classics. Not all "classics" however experience the same historical fate. What is it then that has turned the man from Stratford into the most tenaciously haunting member of the undead to occupy the stage, into a theater ghost or, as some would say, the spirit of the theater itself?


Enter Ghost.

How can it be explained that even directors and theatre troupes, conceiving of themselves as belonging to the socalled modern theater, are once again working with classical texts, especially with those of Shakespeare? Wasn't the avant-garde originally an attempt to liberate the theatre from the clutches of representation and from the traditional idea of the text as the central place of theatrical meaning? Wasn't the literary canon the realm of cultural hegemony and suppression which had to be destroyed? In light of the contemporary return to classical texts, the following questions emerge: Has the avant-garde failed? Has it been reduced to a mere historical curiosity? Is the representational theater celebrating its victory at long last? Are we attending a satyr play? Of course, the opposition which is being developed here is rhetorically exaggerated. Surely, there has always been and will continue to be stage-productions of the classics; and, certainly, Shakespeare will always enjoy a general popularity, especially in Great Britain. That however is not the point. In this issue of Theaterschrift, we are interested in taking a look at the current renaissance of the classics within the larger context of their previous banishment from the theater. We have asked directors and theoreticians whether and how contemporary productions can be distinguished from the iconoclastic approaches of the '60s and '70s. Can the contours of new approaches be delineated, and if so which ones?

This issue on the classics has unintentionally become an issue on Shakespeare, since nearly all of our contributors have written on this most famous of Elizabethans. This purely fortuitous concentration opens out perspectives leading beyond the world of the theater. For Shakespeare's sudden actuality is by no means limited to the theater. There has recently been a series of Shakespeare adaptations in film as well, particularly by Kenneth Branagh, but also by Peter Greenaway, and most recently represented by Richard Loncraine's 'Richard III' and Oliver Parker's 'Othello'. And new films already await us: Al Pacino's 'Looking for Richard' and Branagh's 'Hamlet'. In the leading roles: Hollywood stars. Interesting approaches to our topic have also been developed within the humanities where Shakespeare has experienced a renaissance in recent years. One can speak of a general paradigm-shift in which the Renaissance has become a focus for new cultural and literary-theoretical methods, for instance, in New Historicism or Renaissance Studies.


Look, where it comes again!

Even Peter Brook, a director who has worked to rejuvenate the theater along the lines set out by Artaud's project of liberating the theater from the tyranny of the text, having himself experimented with semantically ungrounded language and with language as sound, rhythm and gesture, could not avoid noticing in 'The Empty Space' that in the second half of the twentieth century we "are faced with the infuriating fact that Shakespeare is still our model". Shakespeare, writes Brook, is the model of a theater that contains Brecht and Beckett, but goes beyond both. One must therefore find "a way forwards, back to Shakespeare". Such a perspective allows Shakespeare's renaissance to appear in a new light, freeing it from the threats of the regressive, the affirmative or the culturally conservative. Yet, is it possible to consider the current situation according to the logic of Brook's interpretation? Brecht, in contrast to Brook, was of the opinion that the classics interested us only because we had yet to discover the theater appropriate to our own time. And Heiner Muller, following Brecht, wrote in 1988: "We have not arrived at ourselves as long as Shakespeare writes our plays." Have we not arrived, or are we, as Brook suggests, returning to ourselves in Shakespeare?


Stay, illusion!

What makes Shakespeare stand out above all other classics? Is it his obviously undiminished transhistorical actuality? Answers to these questions, even in our interviews and the theoretical texts we have collected here, are diverse. Peter Greenaway analogizes the historical situation by suggesting that both Shakespeare's time as well as our own are characterized by "a lack of cultural confidence". There is also, as Jan Lauwers and Klaus Reichert point out, the proximity of Shakespeare's themes to our current situation. - What are then Shakespeare's themes: treason, crime, murder, ambition, despair, madness, depression, hatred, lust, decline, depravity, hallucination, deception, desire, revolt, war, death - happiness, forgiveness, love, enchantment, spirituality? All terribly relevant, to be sure. Moreover, there are Shakespeare's famous characters which in current productions are fragmented and played then by several actors serially or appear on stage simultaneously as in the productions by Lauwers or Joachim Schlomer. Such fragmentation reveals a fundamental ambivalence which characterizes almost all of Shakespeare's figures, and not only his figures, the totality of his plays as well. Plot and its simultaneous subversion, one might be tempted to say deconstruction, inscribed within it have the effect of unleashing a multiplicity of textual meanings. Not without reason, Terry Eagleton playfully suggests that Shakespeare had most certainly read Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein and Derrida. This semantic indifference of Shakespeare's works is surely one of the reasons that he has become the paradigmatic instance within a contemporary reception of the classics which no longer groans beneath the classicism of the classics, beneath the excess of sanctioned meaning. This current reception sees itself upon the emptied stage of the avantgarde theater confronted with a kind of semantic vacuum which makes a re-reading possible that is no longer iconoclastic because it no longer has fear of the classics.


Speak to me ... 0, speak!

We begin this issue with a contribution by Elfriede Jelinek whose plays, 'Wolken.Heim' for instance or 'Totenauberg', reveal dubious semantic possibilities and unleash concealed meanings through her method of implementing citations from Hegel and Holderlin up to Heidegger within foreign or contrasting contexts. More than merely reflecting on her own experience with, and treatment of philosophical classics which haunt her texts in the form of citation, wordplay, and allusion, Elfriede Jelinek applies this method self-reflexively to her own contribution to this issue of Theaterschrift, performing this method for us, as it were.
Anselm Haverkamp, who teaches literature at New York University and the Europa-Universitat Viadrina, provides us with a text that builds a link with the American discourse in which Shakespeare has become the paradigm of self-transforming methodological perspectives. In his contribution on the actuality of Shakespeare, Haverkamp reveals how Shakespeare's theater is haunted and driven by the spirit of history, a history in which not only his characters but we too find ourselves situated. Peter Greenaway's alternately praised and condemned Shakespeare adaptation, 'Prospero's Books', neither actualizes nor historicizes its source material; it is in fact not a staging of Shakespeare's text at all, but rather, as Greenaway himself puts it, a "celebration" of Shakespeare's play in which the latter becomes visible through the historical references of Greenaway's images. Reason enough for Theaterschrift's interest, as is the case with Robert Lepage who is gaining a reputation for himself as the miracle-man of Canadian theater and who is capable like no other of transforming the ponderous and creaking machinery of the stage into elegant undulation and distracted reverie. In recent years, Lepage has staged a series of Shakespeare productions and he considers Shakespeare's actuality in these pages from a technical perspective that is all his own, from the perspective, as Greenaway would say, of "spectacle" .
On the occasion of a performance of 'Needcompany's Macbeth', Theaterschrift also met with Jan Lauwers and literature professor and German Shakespeare translator, Klaus Reichert. In our conversation, the most diverse aspects of Shakespeare's actuality were discussed within the immediate context of Lauwers' production. Marianne Van Kerkhoven contributed to this discussion with a detailed analysis of Lauwers' Shakespeare adaptations. The British director Deborah Warner offers another view of Shakespeare in our discussion, based on the emphasis she places on actors and acting in her productions. And our series of interviews is completed, finally, with the choreographer and new director of the dance theater in Basel, Joachim Schlomer, who approaches Shakespeare's plays from the perspective of dance.
As a further contribution, we are reprinting an essay by the American philosopher and Harvard professor, Stanley Cavell, who has enriched our encounter with Shakespeare with his reading of 'Othello' undertaken from the perspective of philosophical scepticism. His text, to which we have appended an afterword by Anselm Haverkamp, illustrates how productively theoretical philosophy can be mobilized in the service of interpreting Shakespeare. We find Cavell's reading of Shakespeare unusual and compelling and would like to present it to our European readers. The concluding contributions represent a turn in this issue from Shakespeare to the specific reworkings of the classics by the New York based Wooster Group which, as Johan Callens explains, has mercilessly gutted the classics of American modernism with the iconoclastic eclecticism of its restagings. Because of its exemplary status and the influence of its stylistic innovations both in America and Europe, a discussion of the Wooster Group is essential in such an issue. And finally, Romeo Castellucci discusses the motives behind his radical interpretation of 'Orestes'. And what has happened to Shakespeare? Shakespeare is playing Hamlet's ghost.

Exit Ghost.


Table of Contents





An Introduction by Sabin Pochhammer


Meaning Immaterial. Body Useless

A Text by Elfride Jelinek


Perpetuum Mobile: Shakespeare's Continual Renaissance

A Text by Anselm Haverkamp


Towards a Post-James Joycean Filmmaking

An Interview with Peter Greenaway


Shakespeare's Technical Genius

An Interview with Robert Lepage


"Fair is foul, and foul is fair." Shakespeare is a Paradox

An Interview with Jan Lauwers and Klaus Reichert


The Elements of Jan Lauwers' Shakespeare Adaptations

A Text by Marianne Van Kerkhoven


Shakespeare is a Universe

An Interview with Deborah Warner


How much emptiness doth madness need...

An Interview with Joachim Schlömer


Animism and Jealousy. Disowning Knowledge in Shakespeare's 'Othello'

A Text by Stanley Cavell


The Allegorical Stage of scepticism

A Commentary of Stanley Cavell's Theater of Philosophy by Anselm Haverkamp


"We trespass, we plagiarize, we steal": The Wooster Group's Confrontations with Canonical Drama

A Text by Johan Callens


The 'Orestia' through the looking-glass

A Text by Romeo Castelluci