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Michael Buselmeier: "Wunsiedel. A Novel about the Theatre" - an excerpt


"People talk about the stage; but none, that has not been upon it personally, can form the smallest notion of it. How utterly these men are unacquainted with themselves, how thoughtlessly they carry on their trade, how boundless their pretensions are, no mortal can conceive."   
(Johann Wolfgang Goethe, "Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship" Book VII, Chapter III, The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction, Volume XIV. P.F.Collier & Son, 1917)

"I no longer feel comfortable in my own skin. I want to pretend that I could cast it off, by giving up what up to now seemed to be indivisible from my being, especially my stage costume."
(Eduard Mörike, "Maler Noten")


Forty-four years and a day have passed since, as an inexperienced young man, I got onto a slow train in order to travel via Wurzburg, Nuremberg and Bayreuth to the small Upper Franconian town of Wunsiedel, then a trip of about eight hours duration into the unknown. I was excited, as I had never been away from home for an extensive period. Out of the window I saw my mother with tears in her eyes standing on the platform, getting smaller and smaller as the train moved off. She waved to me with one hand and held her dachshund closely in the other, as if for comfort.

It was a day in midsummer of the year 1964, perfect June weather, but I didn't feel at all liberated as the train at last started to depart. I became totally despondent as I left the Neckar valley behind me. I would have gladly turned around straight away. When I tried to focus on the sports pages of the local paper, the letters swam before my eyes and my thoughts wandered back. A small-scale rolling landscape, somewhat bizarre, jolted past in the frame of the window, a patchwork of meadows, cornfields, woods and scattered farms. Apple and pear trees at the edge of the fields with fruit glittering like yellowish-red lanterns. In places the trees grew so close to the railway embankment that they seemed to have veered to the side to give way to the train at the last moment. When the train went slowly, I could look into the valleys, the streets of the hamlets and even into individual houses. A white crucifix, a wayside shrine, fluttering washing on the line. A line-keeper's lodge almost completely grown over with vines. A sawmill, a lime works in a hidden valley. An old woman on a grassy path hitting a white goat with a stick. She had a white shawl over her head, white stockings, the legs emerging thin and bent from under her skirts. Other women were to be seen stooping as they harvested in the fields or raked their gardens, others were wearing pinafores – perhaps workers from a nearby cigarette factory, talking and laughing at a country train station. Knocking-off time already in Franconia… A flock of sparrows flitted across the ground like dry leaves blown by a gust of wind. Where were they all going, all the birds, and the women with their shopping bags; the Franconian farmhouses by the wayside, stalking into the evening with shadows become ever longer, men on bicycles or on foot, loaded with baskets and tools, and old people with gleaming milk cans on the way home, barefooted children crouching in the yard among the hens and the hounds.

The person reading, hunched over at the window of the jolting slow train, all alone in the compartment, occasionally glancing absent-mindedly at the passing countryside, reflected in the window pane, uneasy, with butterflies in his tummy in the face of the unknown, that is me, or it must be me, Moritz Schoppe, a student. The country outside is reverberating, bent in all directions to look at me, rugged with sun-spots. My skin is smooth, my shoulder-long hair is thick and brown. I am wearing blue jeans and a faded brown suede jacket which I can't bear to throw away, still a young lad, a nobody, slim and wiry, with a suitcase full to bursting in the luggage rack and a travel bag on the worn, plastic-smelling seat next to me. An actor who has just fled his university studies, on the way to his first real engagement.

Some while ago, I passed the stage proficiency test as a youthful hero and lover. I delivered a couple of soliloquies from classic world literature to a theatre commission apparently more bureaucratic than competent, at a fast pace, full of pathos, in one breath and almost one tone. I declaimed scenes as Romeo, as Don Carlos, as Mortimer and Ariel, I almost sang them, and was always glad when it was over. At my drama school our small flock had been encouraged to identify with their roles. We were expected to slip humbly, everyone for himself, into the characters to be played and their noble feelings, and to immerse ourselves in their motives. This was really beyond me. I felt uncomfortable in most of the roles, not at home in their skin; all my efforts to try to fill them were in vain, they were far too big for me and remained so. Perhaps a more mundane approach would have suited me better and enabled me to draw on my own experience, whereas such a highbrow level left me cold, was alien to me.  It was embarrassing to become a screaming ape on command or a slobbering lover. I was unable to expose myself to all eyes in this defenceless manner, couldn't stand the bad breath of my Julia, King Philipp's spittle, and thus avoided all physical contact as far as possible. Modern, intellectual and ironically sophisticated roles were more to my taste; my youthful charm got me through the worst passages and even a certain tendency to showmanship proved helpful. But mostly I appeared nervous and unsure of myself; I was as inept in presenting myself to a public as I was in simply parroting on. I just wasn't sufficiently confident in shaping my feelings for the stage and certainly not in transforming myself in a trice into a completely different being to the shock or delight of everyone. I did want to make my mark and to take centre stage in the midst of riotous applause, but I didn't know how to go about this at all.

And so, while studying German philology, I played leading roles at the student theatre but thoroughly minor roles at the municipal theatre, or not even minor but so-called walk-on parts in plays and operettas, as a servant with three, sometimes seven sentences delivered with a bow or a scrape, a "Here comes my Lord, the Duke of Mordax!" or "Your highness, Christel from the post is waiting in the lobby!" I was not much more than an extra with the task of passing on messages or making announcements, a knave in uniform who sometimes appeared from the alley to the right, then to the left, delivered the sentence allotted to him, naturally with too much zeal, with too much emphasis, hastily swallowing a word or two, only to disappear into the wings like a shadow before anyone in the audience could take an interest. With the haunting operetta melodies in my ears, unable to banish the enraptured glances and over-powdered lies, the sham clumsiness and extravagantly elegant appearances of the singers, their distorted mouths as they sang, their rolling eyes, their stiff wigs and gestures, their false teeth, their gurgling and purring in time to the waltzes, the silk costumes onto which sweat dripped, the endless Sunday-best and smiling façade of the choir. What would I have given to sing Tamino, Rodolfo or Lohengrin. I was within a hair's breadth of playing Romeo at the side of the beautiful Andrea Jonasson, later linked with Giorgo Strehler, but an intrigue based on putting about a rumour of my supposedly hypertrophic arrogance put a stop to this and to my impending triumph. The role of the Prince in Sleeping Beauty that I took over in the winter of 1963 was my first and only role in professional theatre. It was depressing.

I sent applications to nearly all of the larger theatres, to the better-known theatre directors and artistic directors, and received either no reply or a printed letter of refusal whose "unfortunately we have nothing available in our establishment" I found humiliating. Sometimes a personally-signed letter arrived in which the author expressed regret at being unable to engage me at that point in time, but claiming to find me "interesting" and hoping to get to know me "as soon as possible", if I should ever be in their vicinity. I never took these non-committal offers seriously, as they were essentially just more elegant forms of rejection, and I never contacted these princes of the stage even if I happened to be in Munich, Stuttgart or Frankfurt circling around their theatre, partly from coyness and timidity, but also in order to avoid hearing that Mr Director was currently unavailable but I could try again soon. I was put off from week to week, month to month and year to year, when a vacancy as an artistic director's assistant with performance duties might become available.  But I should be aware that there was already a volunteer who had been "currying the favours of his colleagues" for some time….
A couple of times I was actually invited officially to audition, by Karl Heinz Stroux in Dusseldorf, by Harry Buckwitz in Frankfurt, by Hans-Peter Doll in Heidelberg and Kurt Meisel in Munich, but each time, as I quickly noticed, I was not the person they had invited, for they had been expecting someone completely different, a more mature hero, a more blond lover, a worldly-wise lady-killer. At any rate, not a shy novice, but an accomplished performer who could keep his wits about him amidst the stage bustle if necessary. They were put off by my diffidence. I was inspected superficially and all my weaknesses exposed. It was a mistake even to put a foot on the stage. Although I was sweating, I froze in the limelight. My body became rigid, my roles and the accompanying texts became even more estranged than usual and came apart, each sentence evaporating into thin air without hitting its mark. My voice sounded tinny, strangled, like some stranger was screaming for help.

Henceforth I mimed the brave and moreover desperate lovers in the theatre of my mind, recited the monologues about the situation of suffering heroes to the trees on walks through the woods or in the coal cellar or in front of the mirror in my room. I imagined how impressive it would be at the end of the premiere of Much Ado About Nothing to fall from the rig-loft onto the stage and die in the spotlight for all to see, a light that was really intended for other, more happy performances and shone only for them – the ultimate triumph. Even today I sometimes wake up and, hearing my own screams, realise that I have been dreaming about the theatre again: an audition on a Sunday morning in the gaudy scenery of Madame Pompadour with the theatre director speaking in a hushed voice with the dramaturges in the auditorium, while I struggle on above them with Karl Moor's final soliloquy; a black hole, obviously they are whispering about me and my failure to perform; they made up their minds ages ago and aren't even listening. A voice from nowhere asks, If the theatre is really the right place for me…   Another time, I am standing on stage and have forgotten my lines. I snap my fingers rather too loudly, but still I can't catch them. I seem to be absent, I can't manage a single verse. The audience shake their heads, shuffle their feet, fiddle with their programmes, and the prompter has of course fallen asleep again, or she's drunk or she's feigning death in her box… Another time I rush up the steps, along the corridors and labyrinthine passages under the stage in order to make my appearance, occasionally pausing as I sense that I'm lost and can't find the way up. But I hurry on although I know I'm going to miss my appearance, it's already too late. I wrench open an iron door which claims to lead "to the stage" only to receive a shower of stinking bilge water from the drains.

Once I had nearly nailed down a post. I had virtually reached an agreement with the future director of the Ulm Stadttheater, Detlof Krüger, well known for his willingness to experiment, and it seemed to be no more than a formality that I was to get to know his appointed leading artistic director, who was still working in the Ruhr district. So I set off to Oberhausen, but Axel Corti – not just anybody, but the especially talented artistic director from Vienna right at the start of his career, which led him thereafter into film and television – was not expecting me or had simply forgotten that I was coming. Anyway, he inspected me coldly, rather irritated and gruff, while he ate his lunch with his wife and I stood in the door of his flat, as I couldn't meet him at the theatre as planned. I had no option but to climb into his grey Volkswagen, hungry as I was, and to drive with him through swathes of coal dust to an equally sooty grey Wuppertal, where he had an appointment with a set designer. On the way there and the way back we conversed in an ever more lively manner and I, thinking that I had at last found a kindred spirit in this theatrical wasteland, indeed a real artist and cultivated man who understood me, aired my views on the theatre and the rest of the world with utmost freedom. I looked down ironically on what I considered to be the ill-considered and slipshod conditions at the theatre in many places, scathingly criticised individual artistic directors and their half-hearted practice and was oblivious to the fact that I was risking my neck with this careless chatter. For the rejection letter from Ulm was soon to follow. I was much too arrogant for Mr. Corti, it stated bluntly. He couldn't and wouldn't work with me. On reading this message my mind went blank. I sank down, my heart in my knees, and looked out of the window.  As I watched the November rain clouds enveloping the mountains, how I wished I could put an end to it all.

Now that many years have passed and I have left the theatre far behind me – the theatre is incidentally no longer what it was but has deteriorated into a rather different, less bourgeois but more trendy, brash and even presumptuous form of entertainment, more or less annexed to private television – I do sometimes wonder if it is correct to describe my behaviour in that car, encouraged by spatial proximity, merely as "foolish", "ill-considered" or "undiplomatic". Of course it is undeniable that Axel Corti lulled me into a false sense of security by pretending sympathy and thus encouraged me to waive my doubts and speak frankly about my aversion to small-mindedness and the ineptitude of the theatre people. I was outside myself, became a full-blooded satirist, ranting deliriously – what artistic director would be happy to be saddled with such a know-all for any length of time, knowing that he himself would be under observation, surveillance almost? But at a deeper level I knew exactly what I was saying and doing. I heard myself speaking and was probably aware that with every utterance I was forfeiting my chances in Ulm, as my strident criticisms became ever more unbridled. I suspect that I was covertly provoking Corti intentionally so that his rejection allowed me to accuse him of being devious and present myself to the world and myself as the injured party. For I was actually somewhat relieved not to have to move to such dreary places as Wuppertal, Duisburg or Oberhausen, constantly under the cold eye of this director who seemed thoroughly un-Austrian and who was probably only looking for a general dogsbody. Instead, I could remain at my own desk in the comfort of familiar surroundings, among my own books and, most importantly, with my mother, without whom I could not imagine life at all.

In November 1963, directly after my audition at the Nationaltheater Mannheim, an elderly gentleman called Friedrich Siems approached me in the foyer. He had recently been head artistic director in Cologne, as I soon learned, and was considered to be keen on literature and a promoter of young talent. He was also a friend of the author Mattias Braun, who had just become rather successful with his adaptations of dramas from antiquity, such as The Trojans, Medea or The Persians. I was most dissatisfied with myself, exhausted by the auditions and, as usual, more or less blind and groggy after my performance. But Friedrich Siems, who was dressed in beige cords and seemed to me to be more like a wise old painter than a man of the theatre, seemed impressed. In me he saw, so he said, a "hypersensitive actor" and an interesting character, an understandably agitated young artist with his very own views and an unusual aptitude for self-criticism. In fact, he took me on – before I, in my dazed state, could lapse again – as a "thoughtful actor" and assistant artistic director at the Luisenberg Theatre Festival in the coming year in Wunsiedel– a place that sounded like a fairy-tale, which I had only encountered to date as the birthplace of my favourite poet, Jean Paul, and of the world-famous Kotzebue assassin Carl Ludwig Sand. Wunsiedel, summer theatre in the open air, far away in the Upper Franconian provinces… I was and remained sceptical, would rather have turned down the offer and refused Siems, but he assured me that he believed in me and my talents and confessed at the same time that he wanted to get to know me better. I was rather proud of this, as he seemed to take me seriously as a man of letters and trusted me accordingly. I was to prepare Götz von Berlichingen for the open-air stage there.

I familiarized myself with the various versions of Goethe's daring voluminous early work in order to prepare a single adaptation, as stringent and sober as possible, which I considered to be the only modern and contemporary approach. So I tried to concentrate the action on the upright hero himself and the hostile world he confronted at the Bamberg Court, leading ultimately to his demise  ("The unworthy will rule with cunning and the noble will fall into their net."), and to prune the language of the folkloristic episodes as far as possible: all the pithy utterances of the drinkers and their childish delight in beating up and bullying, the farmers in revolt, councilmen, soldiers on the run, including a deserter who becomes submerged in a bog, the murmuring judges of the kangaroo court with swords and nooses under their hoods and the spells uttered by the gipsies in a wild rain-swept wood. Thus I reduced the number of scenes by almost a half, cutting out about two-fifths of the text. I was satisfied with my shortened, untrammelled, clearly articulated new version, which put the honourable Sturm-und-Drang piece into brackets, so to speak: Götz had the first and last word and these both lauded freedom. You could not deny that my efforts were dramaturgically consistent.

Just as I was about to send off the manuscript, I happened upon a notice in the newspaper, already several days old, to the effect that the man who had discovered me, my director and manager Friedrich Siems, had died of a heart attack during the rehearsals for Hamlet in Tubingen. The portrait photo printed underneath showed a severe, ascetic, even mournful gentleman with a receding hairline and a monocle, who looked completely different to the man I knew, so that for a moment I wondered if there had been a case of mistaken identity. I had a kind of preliminary contract in the form of a letter concerning my job as an assistant and actor in Wunsiedel, but had lost my patron in his soft painter's jacket, a kind teacher and source of advice, the beacon of hope that I in my uncertainty and weakness needed so much. Now I was abandoned again and even more at a loss than before.

But as so often, in fact nearly always when I had suffered a setback and was about to despair, itching to take up the razor blade, I rose to the occasion. I comforted myself with the thought that I still had the letter of contract, signed by Friedrich Siems on the very last day of his life, which would have to be respected by his successor, who was soon named as Christian Mettin, presently working in the Ruhr district. Hadn't one of Siem's last thoughts been addressed to me, his young "hypersensitive actor", with my reserved talent and my progress? Wasn't this his legacy to me? I couldn't just give up, turn aside, as I might have liked to. I had to keep my word. And also, I had taken a lot of trouble over Götz von Berlichingen, admittedly without a contract and a payment agreement, undoubtedly at my own risk, and was now very keen to find out how things would develop on location. Wasn't it the case that, with every step away from home, another brought me back in a time warp in some roundabout way to my mother? Was I not, in this sense, always on the way home wherever I went?

So I overcame my existential misgivings and on the morning of 9 June set off hopefully, if with some anxiety, tummy ache and heart palpitations, on a journey that would take me through Wurzburg, Nuremberg and Bayreuth to Wunsiedel. It was high time to get going, as the rehearsals for Götz – my Götz I hoped – were about to begin on the Luisenberg. The conductor who accompanied me on the line to Wurzburg had never heard of a place called Wunsiedel, but offered to look for it on the map. He pronounced the first syllable in a strangely prolonged way, so that it sounded sometimes like Woundsiedel, sometimes like Homesiedel, as he flipped through rustling timetables and maps. What could a young man like me, obviously not going for a health cure, want in such a remote place, he mumbled – in the Fichtelgebirge along with foxes and hares, very near the Czech and also the East German border, to the enemy… Wunsiedel, oh yes, there it was, he cried, and pointed to the map – a ribbon of a market town, surrounded by meadows and cornfields, further away granite cliffs and pines piling up wildly to form a gigantic natural stage, with partridges in the fallow lands and toads in the woods, and the dark, constantly gaping eyes of the ponds.

I abandoned myself to the regular rattling of the train, which, towards evening, seemed to be slowly approaching its destination. After Bayreuth, I soon noticed through a half-open compartment door a young, fashionably dressed person with wavy, black, lustrous hair and a genteel air, who had just got on. He glanced into every compartment with a flamboyant bow, into mine as well, shook his head gently, padded softly up to an elderly, amenable, slightly confused-looking man who was smoking at the window, and asked in a practiced voice: Do we have the same destination perhaps? Are you a colleague? I was irritated when the other nodded (quite apart from my dislike of the word colleague above all others) and felt ignored and put out. Why did this young man, to all appearances an actor, almost the cliche of an actor, speak not to me, more or less his peer, but to this corpulent man who didn't look at all like an actor but more like a minor employee with protective sleeves. And yet, rather than in me or any other passenger, he sensed in him the man of the theatre who loves to hog the limelight, as if bits of his clown's mask were stuck all over his face. Soon both of them were deep in conversation about the latest grubby rumours circulating at the Landesbühnen Memmingen and Paderborn (the older man had just played King Philipp here, the younger had played Don Carlos there the previous year to much applause). They chatted away with abandon, laughing loudly, and took absolutely no notice of me, although by this time the carriage was almost empty. For them, it seemed to be out of the question that I could be an actor, a "colleague", in spite of my long hair and faded leather jacket, and thus I was simply not present. In my assumed role as dramaturgical poet, or at least as reviser, I was mortified. After all, the intended new version of Götz von Berlichingen in which these two carefree types were supposed to play, if only in marginal roles, was thanks to me.   


Translation: Celia Brown

© Verlag das Wunderhorn

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