Present(ing) Queens Three queens retell their stories

Penthesilea, the Amazonian Queen, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and Brünhild, Queen of Iceland, appear in our programme, featured in rewritings created by Nino Haratischwili, Elfriede Jelinek and Ferdinand Schmalz. What fascinates us so much about their stories that we still tell them today, and why in the form of rewritings? We asked author and director Nino Haratischwili and author Ferdinand Schmalz about their queen’s dramas.

You are both currently exploring dramas about queens: What do the worlds that these queens lived in have to do with us today?

Nino Haratischwili That is what is so wonderful about the ancient world: It is everlasting and universal. There is something both depressing and comforting about the fact that the common human condition appears to remain forever unchanged. The oldest play from the Helladic era that we can draw from is The Persians by Aeschylus. This was first performed in 472 BC. But we know that there were tragedy contests as much as half a century earlier. This is how long we have been exploring humans with all their tragedies and comedies and the eternal question of the meaning of our existence. And we still haven’t found any satisfactory answers.

I see the theatre as predestined for asking collective questions, as a place of constantly repeated rituals, and so it seems the logical place for us to continue asking these questions that have been asked for so many centuries. Because although people may have changed very little, the world around them certainly has changed, and I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to blend the questions posed by my world with those of these long-ago times, and to keep asking them.  

Ferdinand Schmalz What I found interesting about the courtly medieval world of the Nibelungen was that although it was a confounding and brutal era, the courts exhibited an overly artificial culture of etiquette. Courtly life was full of rules and protocols to be strictly adhered to. High moral standards and ideals – just look at high courtly love: With how much attentiveness does the medieval valiant approach the venerated lady, the ‘Frouwe’? All this while sexual violence was rampant in real life, even at the courts. I was intrigued by the divergence between reality and perception. I see great parallels to our times, where aspirations are extremely high and everyday life is unable to keep up with them.  

Ferdinand, your Hildensaga is a rewriting of the famous Nibelungen-myth. These days, we see that adopting female perspectives on stage has become a popular appraoch. How does this change the narrative of the both the history and the stories?

Ferdinand When I looked closely at the original, I was struck by how different it is from more recent adaptations. This is largely due to the fact that the myth has been co-opted by national interests. When it was retrieved from oblivion during the 19th century as the German Iliad, the focus was mainly on the male characters. The flyleaf of a surviving manuscript has an explicit inscription: This is Kriemhild’s book. That is what distinguishes this material from other medieval epics: It is an epic of heroines. Where women don’t only appear as minor characters, like in other medieval tales, but where their interventions have decisive consequences for the plot. I thought that if we don’t tell the story from the women’s perspective, we allow ourselves to be hoodwinked by nationalist interpretations of the Song of the Nibelungen.

Nino, you have been looking at queens’ dramas for some time: Penthesilea is the second part in an unofficial series that previously dealt with Phaedra and Clytemnestra. What is your fascination with these female characters?

Nino Certain things appear to be constant and irresolvable: Of course, the role of women in our present days is lightyears away from that in ancient times, but there are still many parallels. Issues of self-determination, love, violence, the battle of the sexes – none of them have been resolved. And perhaps they never will be. But over time, these questions have mostly been asked by men. Both in life and on stage. I think it is vital that women should get their own voice, whether between the covers of a book or on stage. And especially those women who speak to us from distant times: with all their wisdom and their contradictions. I am convinced that we can still learn from them today, that their problems and issues still concern us. And the more I explore these female characters, the more contemporary they appear to me.

© G2 Baraniak Nino Haratischwili
© Apollonia Theresa Bitzan Ferdinand Schmalz

Director Christopher Rüping once raised the idea that theatres should not produce any canonic plays for a period of 15 years. What would you miss if this became a reality?

Nino I believe in stories and I want to see them on stage. Even if it is a story that we have seen and heard a thousand times before. I think the real question is: How is this story told and does it captivate me or not? I am very open as far as this question is concerned, and I would advocate for a low degree of self-censorship. The fact, for instance, that we are seeing so many novels being adapted for the stage today is an echo of long-standing fashions: First, we were told that we couldn’t write linear stories any more, that we only needed discourses. So, many dramatists wrote discursive plays and were suddenly told: We want to see characters of flesh and blood and “wordliness” on stage again! So now we draw on novels, marginalising the already marginalised discipline of drama. Art must be free, free from potential labels. Everything is possible as long as it convinces the audience. That is the only true criterion. And I have never met any audience members who said that they only go to the theatre to participate in intellectual discourse. Discourse is welcome, but stories should be no less welcome. I go to the theatre to be challenged and enriched emotionally, too, not just intellectually.

Ferdinand Producing more contemporary drama is a wonderfully utopian point of refuge. It would give new drama the significance that it deserves, and which it has to keep carving out for itself. But I don’t believe in a radical tabula rasa. There are certain narratives that have been with us for thousands of years and that we can’t simply amputate. And even if we could, we would feel a narrative phantom pain. I think that the most long-lasting subjects are the ones that stay variable over time, that develop a life of their own by being continually re-construed, re-interpreted. Of course, stories that don’t stand up to the process of cutting, re-interpreting and rewriting discriminating content deserve to perish. But I feel it would be a little unfair towards our dead colleagues to declare the entire history of theatre to be useless.

How significant is language, which always carries a system of meaning that belongs to a specific time?

Ferdinand I am fascinated by the often barely endurable concreteness of the language in the Nibelungenlied. One example are the “Schneiderstrophen”, the “tailors’ verses”, that extend over many pages and are detested by scholars of German philology. They contain precise description of garments, the fabrics used, the ways that they were made, and, of course, how many tears were shed when the characters set eyes on the clothes for the first time.

Nino For me, language always has an immense significance, because it is the tool that authors operate with. In the case of Penthesilea, this was all the more true because language is a kind of living organism here. It was vital to find a super-elevated, artificial language to make sure that the material is not diminished by modernisation, and because I could not imagine this story without a kind of brutal poetry. The conflict in this material is so extreme and the myth begins at an already fatal point. So I desperately wanted to try to find a form of language that can withstand this elevation.

The interview was conducted by Jasmin Maghames and Daniel Richter.

hildensaga. A queens‘ drama Ulrike Maria Stuart

Penthesilea: a requiem / პენთესილეა. რეკვიემი