Jewish Currents June 1985 40:6 (429) pp17-18 Jewish Music Theatre in Berlin



Despite Germans' (especially young Germans') professed boredom and/or ignorance concerning stage works showing the role their country has played in Jewish history, despite the continued reluctance of the German Federal Republic to go after Nazi war criminals or reimburse their victims in anything more than a token fashion, and despite the Berlin Senate's continued refusal to support or even acknowledge the rebirth of Jewish music theatre in this city with the largest Jewish population in Germany today, inroads have nonetheless been made here by a determined few, in often startling ways.

The most controversial event of the season was Peter Zadek's July, 1984 staging of Joshua Sobol's musical play Ghetto at the Freie Volksbühne, in a production televised Jan. 27, 1985 which also guested in Hamburg through February. The Israeli playwright's faithfully-documented 1983 account of the 1941-43 Vilna ghetto had touched Israeli nerves in its depiction of cultured-idealistic Bundist Socialist vs. brutally-pragmatic Zionist Nationalist vs. self-important vulgar businessman, and the uneasy alliance of each with their disturbingly well-educated Nazi liquidator.

Many worried that a neo-Nazi could be just as entertained by such a show today as an anti-Nazi, and misinterpretation did seem to be horrifyingly easy when Der Spiegel reported that the playwright showed Jews were themselves partly responsible for the Holocaust. The majority of theatregoers did, however, realize that the work was trying to bring home an old theme in a new way: 20 years after Peter Weiss's "oratorio" The Investigation the German stage has graduated to the "musical" in terms of (still) trying to come to terms with Auschwitz, liberated just 40 years ago--the commemoration of which has received almost as widespread coverage as Berlin mayor Diepgen's visit to Israel last fall.

Another musical play, Bertolt Brecht's first attempt (1931-36) to deal with anti-Semitism--as a tool used by the right for decimating the left--The Roundheads and the Pointedheads, received its first Berlin productions this past year--first East, then West. The latter production, by the Theater Manufaktur, running continuously from May to Nov. 1984, supported by a Senate grant in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Hitler's coming to power, was more faithful to the original in spirit, presenting the work, however, as a play within a play about emigrant actors on the run. This allowed progressives of the present to admit mistakes of the past "the underestimation in 1933 of the horrors Hitler's absolute power would bring) without lessening the thrust of the parable: the rich do work powerfully well together to screw the poor, who are so easily divided against each other by means such as racism.

The East Berlin production opened Sept. 30, 1983 at the Deutsches Theater (celebrating its 100th anniversary) and is still running there in repertory. More faithful to the original text--or various of the 16 versions thereof--it was however wilder in its pantomimic freedom, which mocked various contemporary East German institutions in an almost slapstick but quite effective way. Both productions stuck fairly closely to the Hanns Eisler score (though not its original instrumentation), which is probably his finest, and which was sorely lacking from "The Classic Theatre's" New York production in May-June, 1984. That production, based on an Eric Bentley-propagated mistranslation of one of Brecht's earlier sketches, called itself the American premiere, which it was not: this writer directed same at Cornell University in Nov., 1973--the only production so far to use Eisler's original orchestration.

The Juedischer Musiktheaterverein Berlin, e.V. whose Oct., 1983 founding was reported here in April, 1984, was forced to postpone indefinitely announced plans for the European premiere of Tales of Malamud, when support promised through the Berlin Senate proved not to be forthcoming. Starting with nothing but good will, determination and small contributions, the Verein has nevertheless grown tremendously, to the point where the press has described it as "a new and interesting color on the Berlin musical scene." From Axel Springer's BZ and the Morgenpost through the Tagesspiegel to the socialist Wahrheit, the kudos have crescendoed as the Verein has appeared on national TV, with Artists for Peace, at the U.S. Minister's, over Kol Yisroel in Jerusalem, and at numerous events in Berlin, West and East. A packed Urania, where before the war B'nai B'rith stood, hosted the Verein's 21st and 22nd events Jan. 27 and Feb. 10, 1985, the latter in honor of the 150th anniversary of the first Jewish opera, Halévy's La Juive.

Among the German, European and world premieres performed by members of the organization so far have been songs and arias by George Singer, Paul Ben-Haim, Karel Salomon, Gerhard Bronner, Peter Wehle, Tom Lehrer, Lazar Weiner, Hugo Weisgall, Bruce Adolphe, Elie Siegmeister and Marc Blitzstein (honored by an 80th birthday broadcast in March), the latter's Berlin-composed 1927 Piano Sonata, and this writer's musical Growing Up Woman, opera Sima, song cycles "Ein Wanderer durch Deutschland nach Heines Wintermärchen" and monodrama after Sholokhov, The Family Man, sung by George Shirley. (The latter work is to be recorded in Dresden next fall, receiving its first staged performance in New York at T.O.M.I., 23 W. 73 St., this coming June 27-30.)