Rainald goetz at schauspielhaus hamburg: a royal drama as a hanswurstiade

Rainald Goetz’s "Empire of Death" was staged in Hamburg. Many scurry around in it, like Bush and Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld.

The author Rainald Goetz has included one or the other hell ride in "Reich des Todes" Photo: Arno Declair

A play about September 11, today, now, in these very different, very differently special times, a play about George W. Bush and his corona, about torture that is justified and a war that is lied about, a play that exemplifies political theory on this differently criminal US regime: The Owl of Minerva, it must be said, flies late. And it flies long, four hours in this production "Reich des Todes" by Karin Beier, which presents the previously unpublished text by Rainald Goetz on the stage of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg by no means complete.

It is true that in the end, after many detours, it arrives in the present. It is true that it overwrites the past and its reality in many directions and thus deforms the documentary period piece into an analytical drama of theses, with one or the other hell ride and plenty of theological reference. And yet: a historical and royal drama removed from the present as a prelude to the mature work of the poet Rainald Goetz, who until now has been so completely addicted to the present – a sight that at least takes some getting used to.

"Reich des Todes" is a royal drama insofar as it focuses heavily on Bush and Cheney and Rice and Rumsfeld and the assassination, the war, on Abu Ghraib, on lengthy descriptions of motives, motivations and all manner of justifying speeches. Goetz does not stylize them as heroes worthy of tragedy, or rather as villains. At the end, he explicitly philosophizes about the absence of evil. Even the devil has his good motives, justified before himself.

The director Karin Beier points the whole thing more in the direction of Hanswurstiade, for example with the appearance of two clowns at the beginning of the second half of the evening. She does not, however, impose something alien to the text; Goetz, too, has already put bad puns into the president’s mouth, such as Morgenlage and Morgenlatte.

Strange names

The historical figures are easily recognizable as such, but they are still not simply themselves. They bear strange names that point in the most diverse directions: Bush is here called Grotten (Wolfgang Pregler) and prays quite a lot, Cheney is called, no less speaking, Selch (Sebastian Blomberg) like the flesh and resembles the machinator of power known, Rumsfeld is called Roon (Burghart Klaubner) like the Prussian minister of war, Condoleezza Rice is Frau von Ade (Sandra Gerling), in between a chief justice Kelsen (Markus John) sparks and lectures like the jurist of the twenties against the political theory of Carl Schmitt.

The premiere of Goetz’s play feels the imperative of textual fidelity breathing heavily down its neck.

And that’s just a sampling. There is a whole power apparatus scurrying about, the stage is accordingly usually quite full, although it is large and the personnel is distributed corona-like over the surface: Those who don’t speak sit, lie, gymnast or mumble around in the semi-darkness.

Not only are there many figures on stage, but even more so, a lot of text comes out of their mouths. It is Goetz text, thoroughly Goetzized text, linguistically not individualized, a challenge for the actors, since they are not performers of characters, but performers of text. Even what seems to be dialogue only pretends to be, it is rather Goetz’s lyrical mode, distributing rhythmic fragments of speech quite arbitrarily to speakers.

Mannerisms of the Author

Everyone speaks here with the author’s mannerisms, interspersed with theoretical terms, all speech is far removed from orality, oscillating between self-expression and self-analysis. Thus, as most recently in the novel "Johann Holtrop," the difference between Goetz-speak and character-speak, between statement and interpretation, becomes blurred. The characters say what Goetz knows, without the least thing dawning on them themselves.

The characters become distinguishable individuals, otherwise the direction, costume and actors don’t know how to help themselves, especially in the exaggeration to the point of caricature. On the one hand, this fits the king’s drama as a Hanswurstiade, but leads to the fact that very serious and also understood as very serious things of political theory are negotiated without fall height.

Or in other words: the fall height is only felt as a blatant discrepancy between things of life and death and politicians without any gravitas. And in the reference to Hades, Devil and God that Goetz establishes, again and again. In the staging, however, this seems rather sprinkled over as a pathos formula; a genuine dimension of transcendence is, despite the title, not spanned.

The imperative of textual fidelity

A hellishly difficult task for the director is such an elaborate reading drama, which is unquestionably anything but a dramaturgically functioning piece. We have to distinguish this from Jelinek’s text surfaces once again. The director likes to be brutal with them, and that’s usually okay. The premiere of the first Goetz play in twenty years, the first new Goetz text in seven years, feels the imperative of textual fidelity breathing heavily down its neck.

The directing director Karin Beier was apparently hardly irritated by this; she is, after all, always more of an eclectic craftswoman than a director with her own signature. So she builds one skillful scene after another, takes the text, the many, the endless text and makes more or less quite regular theater out of it. But this also means that she normalizes it without a stringent concept, in the end: blandizes it by producing interest.

The stage gives her a lot of leeway: it is surrounded by black walls, far above a ceiling in white cassettes. There are tables around, at the beginning 9/11 rumbles with fog and light, a white flag waves on the right.

At the back left, music plays, a quintet with percussion, plucked and stringed instruments. For the longest time, it remains subtly rather inconspicuous; for the furious finale, the quintet comes to the ramp with the performers for a rather grandiose rhythmic spoken-chorus musical. Images are projected on the back wall and on a sail, from marching Nazis to Hieronymus Bosch. There is a scene in which the actors wear giant papier-mâche heads.

The judge on the treadmill

In the second half, the play turns to the present, albeit sharply counterfactual, imagining a Camp Justice trial in 2020 to judge Bush and his gang of war criminals. The director lets the visibly gasping judge (again Markus John) speak the long, very long judge’s monologue on a treadmill.

Like so much here, this works very well as theater; but the question of why this staging idea follows another is answered as little as the question of a fundamental attitude to the play, to the questions it deals with, to the linguistic form of this text, which is probably difficult to digest not only for theater. If one takes the matter strictly, Beier has failed with Goetz’s monster of a text, brilliantly in terms of craftsmanship. Whether anything other than failure can be a thing of theatrical possibility is, however, very much the question.

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