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A Depressing Lessing

How a Hooker Trumped the Berliner Ensemble

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Berlin 

It’s not only dangerous to have the headphones on or the earbuds in when on the bike; I want to hear what’s going on, whether it’s the blackbirds whistling in the chestnut trees or the metrobus bearing down on my back tire.

Helmet on and ears tuned into the city evening, I cycled to the center of town for a performance of Gotthold Lessing’s epoch-making tragedy of 1755, Miss Sara Sampson,  at the Berliner Ensemble along the Spree River. The company was founded by Bertolt Brecht in 1949 after his return to East Germany from exile in the United States, and since 1954 has had its home in the late 19th-century neo-Baroque Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. Brecht had a pre-war history in the building: his Three Penny Opera premiered here in 1928.

Any theatrical dismantling of society’s prerogatives and prejudices takes on a mocking intensity in this pseudo-princely milieu with its topless stucco gods and goddesses, gilded garlands, and loges with bowed fronts that seem to lean out towards the stage as if eager for a better view—or to allow a better view of the fine folks sitting in them.

Miss Sara Sampson is said to be the first tragedy centered on middle-class and petty aristocratic characters; they do not fall victim to forces beyond their control but instead to their own desires and the deviousness of others. Lessing wrote the play in a garden house in Potsdam to the west of Berlin and it was premiered sixty miles to the east on Frankfurt on der Oder now on the Polish border of the present-day, down-sized Germany. So nervous was the playwright that he couldn’t bring himself to attend the premier, but was relieved to hear immediate reports that the audience sat “as still as statues with tears streaming down their faces” through the work’s five acts and four hours. It was a huge success and Lessing’s breakthrough in the theater world.

Lessing himself thought the play too long, but couldn’t bring himself to cut it down; that would have meant dispensing with, or at least shortening, some of the many long speeches, stormy set-pieces filled with complicated syntactical structures, self-flagellating outbursts, and unstinting observations of self and others. While the 18th-century public had the capacity to remain riveted for four hours, modern theater directors are for the most part unwilling to demand that their own audiences sit through this German classic unabridged.

The Berliner Ensemble production rather ominously advertised that it would be “set” (bearbeitet) by the director, Günter Krämer.  He crammed the four acts into one longish stretch without intermission, bookended by two of Lessing’s animal fables intended, I suppose, to provide some narrative balance—and justification for the director’s plundering of Lessing’s text. Excised from the proceedings were most of the characters: gone were not only the servants, who offer such powerful and affecting commentary on their “betters,” but also Sara’s kind-hearted father, who at the start of Lessing’s version regrets his disapproval of his daughter’s liaison with the rake, Mellefont. Overcome with remorse, the father desperately seeks contact with Sara and hopes to welcome both her and her lover back into his good graces. After Krämer’s downsizing only a letter remains from the desperate parent.

In the aftermath of Krämer’s culling, only Mellefont, Sara, and the spurned female lover Marwood remain, along with her daughter by Mellefont, Bella. That little girl is similarly stripped of most of her words, and in this reduced form comes across as a needy and rather annoying child of dysfunctional parents. The remaining actors make their way through Lessing’s elevated but affecting language with all due deliberation, as if parsing the text rather than playing their parts. The setting in a modern hotel room and bar accentuates the disparity between diction and décor, and tries to show the universality of the ravaging emotions of jealousy and lust. Beyond the scenic, there are other odd updates and seamy adjustments: when the murderous ex-girlfriend deploys the young daughter as a weapon against her errant lover, Mellefont, he tries to placate the kid with “orange juice”; more egregiously, the rake rejects his former lover while feeling her up.

Without the essential father, the devastating denouement—the daughter is poisoned by the other woman; the rake kills himself rather than seeks vengeance against the murderer—disappears. In the end, the old man is not there to take in the illegitimate daughter of the man who had seduced his own teenage child, Sara, and the woman who murdered her.

Lessing was also a theorist of the theater, and his Hamburg Dramaturgy written a dozen years after Miss Sara Sampson has something to say about stage music. Arguing that the most important weapon of the tragic playwright is surprise, Lessing asserted that the stage music typically introduced into 18th-century plays between the acts should react to what has already happened, not anticipate what was to come in the drama and thereby give things away. In Lessing’s day this music was provided by an orchestra; the remnant of this practice survives with the canned mood-music of many modern productions.

By merging all the acts, Käster’s interventions avoided the question of stage-music altogether. The lack of music gave the entirety a grimly barren atmosphere. Only when Sara Sampson—played here as a Marilyn Monroe ditzy blonde rather than Lessing’s sophisticated young woman plagued equally by guilt and love—emerges from her bath and ambles into the hotel bar is the musical silence broken when she sings along with Billie Holiday’s “When a Woman Loves a Man” emanating from an on-stage boom-box. The hollow, haunted reverie of Holiday’s voice coupled with the desperation of the song’s lyrics is meant to stand in counterpoint to the freshness of Sara’s love for the jaded Mellefont, but it comes across as false and gimmicky— like an Edward Hopper painting with Lessing at the end of the lonely bar in his powdered wig shaking his head in disbelief. He’s going to want vodka in that orange juice, and lots of it.

After this disappointingly partial and disjointed Sara Sampson, I pushed my bike through the theater crowd in the Bertolt Brecht Square, then cycled over the Spree and down Friedrichstrasse. In front of Dussmann’s Culture Department Store—open until midnight—a street musician was playing “Take the A Train,” the sound echoing out from under the arcade. A couple minutes on down Unter den Linden at the Brandenburg Gate a large group of Spanish high school kids on a class trip was singing in full voice—a pop song I recognized, but could not identify.

After the silence of the city’s huge central park, the Tiergarten, I passed the Culture Forum and Ministry of Defense and approached the Kurfürstenstrasse with its dozens of Eastern European prostitutes lined up on the edge of the road.  As I passed one of these young women—I suppose no older than Sara Sampson—she bent forward towards the open window of black Mercedes that had just pulled up, and I heard her singing to herself, softly but high and clear, her earbuds still in. Hers seemed not the music of seduction, but of freedom, proof perhaps of song’s power to escape its surroundings. These two seconds of ethereal melody were far more powerful than all those shards from Lessing’s tragedy spread across the Berliner Ensemble stage.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com