PRINT Summer 2010


René Pollesch

AROUND TEN YOUNG GIRLS wearing pink nightgowns and toting crude wooden rifles take the stage. They strike various poses in rapid succession, threatening us, conducting drills, enacting tableaux vivants. Most of the poses are taken directly from the Maoist comic Das Mädchen aus der Volkskommune (The Girl from the People’s Commune), which, in the early 1970s, was popular with European leftists, and which was published in book form, complete with an afterword by Umberto Eco, by a German literary press. The performance of the pink-gowned girls goes on for quite a while and is peppered with political and theoretical pronouncements, declaimed in exact unison, on the student strikes and protests at German and Austrian universities in fall 2009. The girls hold forth with thesis-like musings on collectivity and collaboration; they groan disgustedly that there is nothing more boring on the face of the earth than the never-varying individual adventure with its childhood rejections and childhood longings: “Nicolas Cage, who finds his teddy bear again under the ruins of the World Trade Center!” Meanwhile, the pink of the nightgowns and the infantile cleanliness, plus the lovely smiles of the girls, diffuse a fragrant, billowing cloud of sweet puerility over this pageant of militancy.

The sequence of scenes depicted here is from a play by René Pollesch, Mädchen in Uniform—Wege aus der Selbstverwirklichung (Girls in Uniform—Ways out of Self-Realization), which debuted this past February at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg; its chorus line of ingenues refers—as does its title—to a 1931 film (of which a remake was produced in 1958 with Romy Schneider and Therese Giehse) chronicling a lesbian romance between a teacher and a pupil at a German boarding school. The chorus simultaneously embodies the collective of the Volkskommune and the enamored pupil, the use of multiple actors to embody single characters being one of Pollesch’s favorite recent tactics. Meanwhile, besides the pink-clad girls, there are three actresses who perform separately before an enormous mirror in which the audience is reflected. The actresses complain that in today’s post-Fordist society, there is no longer any such thing as “backstage”: The audience sits everywhere. There are no more places of retreat. We are not alienated from ourselves anymore because we are always forced to playact—a condition sociologist Erving Goffman diagnosed for the high Fordism of the 1950s. But since in contemporaneity we have to perform and commodify our authentic selves everywhere and all the time, we are overwhelmed and depressive. Alas! If only we could at least still feel alienated from ourselves! What freedom!

In the city- and state-funded theater system that prevails in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, theatrical modes that elsewhere would be considered experimental have long been mainstream—in fact, quite dominant. The only visible alternative at the moment is a neoconservative return to drama and plot, both of which have been absent in the so-called German Regietheater (director’s theater). Pollesch is one of the very few directors who reject both modes. He radically challenges the psychological and sociological assumptions of Regietheater, and he is perhaps the only director who decidedly attempts to introduce into thought about theater the fundamental break—the transition from a culture of obedience and discipline to an economy of forced self-realization—and what its implications are for the foundational ideas of a critical work of theater. Crucially, he recognizes that the site of alienation has shifted, and that theater must shift as well if it is to have any hope of commenting relevantly on alienation, let alone overcoming it.

In this respect, too, Pollesch stands apart from a theatrical mainstream, which still, to a great extent, models itself on the avant-garde theater of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Developed under the influence of Happenings, performance art, and institutional critique, this model privileges the actor’s singular, bodily presence as opposed to the reproducible role, thereby emphasizing the autographic as opposed to allographic component of performance. Analogously, theater’s live element is foregrounded while competing media such as film and television are marginalized. Works in this vein advance a critique of alienation, one that seeks to invert the function of the theater with regard to compensatory tranquilization: Since we have to play roles in our everyday, capitalist lives and are not allowed to be ourselves, then in the theater we must work experimentally with that which is so forbidden to us—namely, corporeality, extreme fantasies, the act of breaking the boundaries of role through a true character thought of as endless, unitary.

Remarkably, the Brechtian tradition, heavily modified by Heiner Müller and other successors, was able to make common cause with the alienation-critical, hippies-and-Artaud modes of performance art described above when they emerged in the ’60s. (See, for instance, the works of Frank Castorf, who for years was the most important director in Berlin.) The actor who, in Brecht, referred in a disillusioning way to the material conditions of life and production now referred in an equally disillusioning way (and in a manner equally resistant to role) to his corporeality, his presence, and his singularity. In this manner, the aggression toward the illusionistic stage was able to keep developing, except that instead of continuing to disillusion audiences in a didactic sense, it now put another metaphysical elephant onstage: the body.

POLLESCH, FOR HIS PART, is reacting to our contemporary moment in which performances of body and self are precisely what the social norm requires from subjects, and in which people would prefer alienation to forced authenticity. Yet he does not lapse into an undialectical opposition to everything that has been important to the theater for many years. He simply remakes the entire program.

The critique of post-Fordism notwithstanding, it should be said that Pollesch produces new work so regularly, reliably, and quickly that he seems almost to be living out a certain nostalgia for the Fordist factory. He has written some 150 plays in a twenty-year career—typically two per season—and had directed nearly all of them. Most have been acted by three-to-five-member ensembles, usually including two or three people with whom he has worked for a long time. Always, several people take on the same role, and, conversely, individual characters disintegrate into several. The critique of post-Fordist individuality is also a critique of alienation, and it can use the relationship of autography/allography on the stage as a hinge. Pollesch and his actors demonstrate that they are to some extent closer to being themselves in a collective than in a situation in which they work, as it were, for themselves alone. Moreover, each play is written for a particular preconceived ensemble and for a particular theater. It will never be performed by other actors at other theaters. The allographic art of the theater text becomes autographic; together with the “troupe,” the prompter, and the set designer, Pollesch produces a text that consists, for the most part, of pointed paraphrases of other texts. Each season, four or five central theses are garnered from contemporary theorists ranging from Giorgio Agamben to Donna Haraway, and encompass, say, critical considerations of theater, cinema, and representation critique, queer and gender studies, and postcolonialism. Constants in Pollesch’s productions can be found not in the bodies of the actors, nor even in plots or sequences of action, but instead in these key ideas and, still more, in the particular texts. Everything is tossed around in ever-reconfigured constellations—and always at a frenzied, screwball tempo. The actors do not exhaust themselves by physically and psychologically overexerting themselves in the service of (obsolete) self-representations; instead, their bodily limit is reached through a degree of cognitive strain that drives even the most stable professional actors to the limits of their capacities. Somewhat incongruously, they chew on all these curious sentences and work away at their often highly complicated expanses of dialogue in settings modeled after the stock interiors of theater and television: hotel, bourgeois living room, bordello.

The effect of all this is often highly comical, and this antic quality has led to a widespread misunderstanding, with some audience members and critics assuming that Pollesch is making fun of theory itself—its extravagance, its remoteness from the practical world. Also presumably being skewered are theory’s main proponents: the politically thrill-seeking, academic-bohemian Prekariat. But actually, the opposite is the case. In culture-theoretical, urbanist, and feminist texts, with their specific inclination toward jargon, Pollesch has found precisely the alien/anti-authentic voice with which the subject today can adequately speak of itself. At some point he realized that all he had to do was put these sentences—whether by Mike Davis or Lee Edelman—into the first person and feed them into a desperate loop of reflexiveness. Often, one textual reference will remain constant for two or three plays, but in the second play in which it appears, it will be joined by a new reference, while the central text from the previous season (which was still present in the first play) will disappear, and so forth. Soaps, telenovelas, and other serial forms not only provide the model for this high degree of redundancy (albeit a redundancy that expounds absolutely unredundant, difficult passages of theory); they also stand as figures for the interchangeable nature of individual works within a given genre or type. The frantic, headlong pace of a Pollesch piece stands in contrast to an artistic development whose speed cannot be gauged by individual piece but is discernible in the thematic shifts and recastings best recognized in the overall construction of series and seasons. The individual works are short—rarely lasting more than an hour—but the production units are long.

Pollesch avails himself repeatedly of particular films, theater traditions, and popular media materials that suit his lines of questioning: from Mae West’s memoirs to Soylent Green, from Cassavetes (very often) to classics of German and Austrian theater. His ambitious critical project—permanent reflection on the basic conditions of performance—stands in contrast to this indecorous approach to all entertainment formats. His humor is ecumenical as well. At a Pollesch play, the entire audience laughs—the hipster as well as the season-subscription holder. This is thanks not only to the pacing but also to the feat of translation: Every subject-critical phrase from Foucault is made over, without any fuss, into a device of staging, often one belonging to the theatrical genre known as boulevard comedy.

Since the beginning of the last decade, when he became artistic director of the Prater, a venue of the Berlin’s Volksbühne under Castorf’s leadership, Pollesch has gradually trained another kind of audience, distinct from the one that normally rushes to the theater in Berlin: visual artists. Pollesch’s work not only brought together many themes that, in the German capital circa 2000, were much discussed in visual art and political activism circles (from the critique of neoliberalism to the boom in performance studies, from the Prekariat to Beatriz Preciado’s Contrasexual Manifesto); it did so in a self-reflexive way that was at that time still unfamiliar to the art world. In visual art, reflexiveness and secondarity are mostly perceived as deceleration agents: Processes are suspended, reflected, confronted with contexts and framing conditions, and thus slowed down. In addition, the itself indirect, delayed form of reception with which, in visual art, complexes of ideas and discourse material are shuffled back and forth also provides argumentative fodder to those friends of “immediate sensuality” who seek to repress the influence of reflection and theory in visual art.

Setting aside good reasons for delay and deceleration, in the theater of René Pollesch—and this is a definitive achievement—the situation is fundamentally different: Theoretical sentences raise the tempo; fragments of discourse act as combustion accelerants. The actors speak with the greatest seriousness and in full support of the truth claims of their textual sources. Then they play out these statements’ consequences, repeatedly and from slightly different perspectives each time, plunging the philosophical aphorisms into situations borrowed from popular media. At that point any manner of things may happen, but the essential thing is that the critique of the cultural and ideological skeleton of contemporary capitalism does not stop with devastating diagnosis. Rather, the energies of analytic and diagnostic sentences explode in absurd comedy, without requiring or indeed having any use for heroes, morals, identification, or tragedy. The sentences have only to be staged correctly. They have only to have assigned to them conceptions of the human that are no longer redolent of the drama’s cast of characters, yet nevertheless are not unreal abstractions. For the concrete humanity of subjects socialized in the post-Fordist era, Pollesch provides the first typologies.

Diedrich Diederichsen Is a Berlin-based critic and a professor at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.