Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: French Pantomime in East Germany

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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French Pantomime in East Germany

In East Germany, pantomime entered the cultural scene through contact with the Marxist dramatist and theorist of “epic theater,” Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who, after many years of exile and after interrogation in 1947 by the United States House Un-American Activities Committees for his affiliations with Communists, had returned to East Berlin in 1949, where he formed the famous Berliner Ensemble dedicated to the principles of epic theater. While residing for a year (1948) in Switzerland, Brecht made the acquaintance of a French pantomime, Jean Soubeyran (1921-2000). Brecht invited Soubeyran to choreograph the carnival scene for a 1956 production of Brecht’s Das Leben des Galilei (1943) by the Berliner Ensemble. Although Soubeyran had already toured East Germany with his West German pantomime ensemble in 1955, the connection with Brecht gave him a privileged status within the Communist regime, and in 1957, he moved to East Berlin, where he, along with his wife Brigitte (1932-2015), introduced pantomime performances that he had developed in West Germany. Soubeyran had studied acting under Charles Dullin in 1944 and corporeal mime under Decroux in 1945 before presenting (1946) a small mimodrama at the Comédie-Française directed by Barrault. He then performed in the ensemble Marcel Marceau had formed, appearing in Marceau’s production of Gogol’s The Overcoat (1951). But after attempting a couple of solo pantomime programs of his own, Soubeyran realized that Paris did not have space for more pantomimes from the Decroux-Barrault pedigree. He put together a small ensemble, including Brigitte, whom he soon married, to perform outside of France, in Switzerland, The Netherlands, and West Germany, where it seemed as if the great pantomime experiments of the 1910s and 1920s had never happened and any idea of pantomime from France enjoyed the advantage of being an exotic import. By 1954, he had established his pantomime troupe first in Dortmund and then in Düsseldorf within the French Occupational Sector. Soubeyran was more of a Harlequin than a Pierrot; though he accented his lips, eyes, and eyebrows, he avoided whiteface. Brigitte was more a Pierrot than a Colombine, wearing whiteface, a black skullcap, and pants and blouse instead of a dress. They wanted to develop a gender-neutral comic aesthetic, a kind of androgymous pantomime slapstick, although this effect was due perhaps more to Brigitte than to Jean [Figure 101]. In addition to touring, Jean found work as an instructor at the Folkwang School in Essen when he received the invitation to work in East Berlin. There, after the Galilei production, opera director Walter Felsenstein (1901-1975), dedicated to making opera singers more physically expressive in their performances, invited Soubeyran to supervise the physical training at the Komische Oper. For the DEFA film studio, Soubeyran starred in the curious pantomime film with musical accompaniment Der junge Engländer (1958), directed by Gottfried Kolditz (1922-1982) and based on the 1825 short story of Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827) about a mysterious stranger (Soubeyran) in a South German village who persuades the provincial citizens that a chimpanzee he has acquired from a circus is his wealthy nephew, a young Englishman. Soubeyran transmitted the Decroux-Marceau pantomime aesthetic to many East German students. However, when the government embarked on construction of the Berlin Wall, he returned to West Germany and continued his career there. Although born in Cologne, Brigitte ardently believed in the socialist ideals guiding the East German state, and she remained in East Berlin, claiming that theater there was superior to that in the West. She worked as an actress, a teacher of pantomime, and an assistant to directors until, in the early 1970s, she became one of the first women in Germany to direct plays, which she did for many years, including numerous productions at the Volksbühne in Berlin and occasional productions in cities elsewhere in East Germany. Thus, gender-neutral pantomime was a path to a gender-neutral perception of the stage director. 

Nadja Rothenburger and Selina Senti, pantomimes and body movement specialists in Berlin, have identified 25 persons who worked as pantomimes in East Germany, and they have listed the pantomime performances of these persons (Rothenburger 2010: 8-46). Unfortunately, Rothenburger and Senti provide only very minimal details about these performances, although the listings in themselves suggest that East Germany possessed one of the largest and busiest pantomime cultures in Europe. Nearly all the pantomime performances during the Cold War were the work of students, amateur ensembles, or professionals performing in their free time, and nearly all the pantomime performances were of a comic nature, modeled after the clown/Pierrot/commedia format. Rothenberger and Senti include a diagram showing how all the East German pantomimes represent a perpetuation of Decroux’s doctrines, because they either studied under Decroux, Marceau, Barrault, or the Soubeyrans or studied under Germans who had studied under the French masters. While some of the pantomimes interviewed identified other, foreign “influences” on their work, such as Tomaszewski, Fialka, or the Russian clown Slava Polunin (b. 1950), unlike elsewhere in the East bloc, none of the East German pantomimes identified Chaplin or any silent film figures as influences. 

Figure 159: Jean and Brigitte Soubeyran performing Im Zirkus, early 1950s. Photo: Inge Worrigen.

Curiously, Rothenberger and Senti include the Austrian expressionist dancer Hanna Berger (1910-1962) as one of the pantomime figures of the German Democratic Republic. Andrea Amort has published (2010) a detailed monograph about her, the chief source of information about her life and work. Coming from a troubled and humble background, Berger had joined the Communist Party at the age of seventeen. She struggled to learn dance from several teachers, including Vera Skoronel (1906-1932), while working as a masseuse, model, and assistant. In 1935, she studied under Mary Wigman and toured with Wigman’s company and then with the company of Swiss clown dancer Trudi Schoop (1904-1999). In Berlin, Berger gave her first solo dance concert in 1937, which contained her piece Der Krieger, wherein she appeared, with entirely percussive accompaniment, as a soldier marching toward a not glorious doom. She always considered dance as a political activity, although her dances were only occasionally overt in their political messaging. When she published an essay critical of a dance that was too “mystical” (pro-Nazi) in its representation of workers, she came under scrutiny by the Gestapo. She returned to Vienna, but soon left for Italy, where she choreographed theatrical productions while putting together performances of her solo dance programs. She returned to Berlin in 1940 to perform new dances depicting Renaissance women inspired by her time in Italy, and with this new program she toured several German cities while accepting appointment as a dancer and teacher at the theater in Posen. After discovering numerous Marxist publications in her possession, the Gestapo arrested her for “preparing treason” in 1942. Several prominent cultural figures came to her defense, and eventually the Gestapo released her. In Vienna again, she hoped to establish a children’s theater, but the Nazis forbade her to do so. After the war, she received support from the Communist mayor of the city, and for a few years, she was prodigiously active in the Viennese dance performance scene. But the Communists fared very poorly in municipal elections in 1949, and Berger, having lost her subsidy had to close the Vienna Childrens’ Theater in 1950, partly because, to receive generous subsidies from the Marshall Plan, the American occupiers insisted that the city not subsidize any Communist sympathizers. Nor to her disappointment did the Communist Party offer any funding, even though the majority of her students came from the proletariat. Nevertheless, throughout the 1950s, she remained busy with dance concerts, choreography for theatrical and opera productions, teaching invitations, lectures, and dance journalism; she even choreographed dances in an Italian movie, Il sigillo rosso (1950). Her accompanist and musical arranger, Austrian composer Paul Kont (1920-2000), a modernist disciple of dodecaphony, had studied in Paris under Mihaud, Messaien, and Honegger, and the two of them produced a concert of her dances there in 1952, and in 1954, they formed the Wiener Kammertanzgruppe, although this ensemble lasted only about a year as Berger and Font instead became involved in the first televised dances in Austria. Walter Felsenstein invited her to help with his program of physical training and choreography for opera singers at the Komische Oper at the same time (1956) that he brought Soubeyran. Kont had an interest in pantomime as well as connections in Paris, and since 1929, Berger had maintained a close relationship with the Communist sculptor Fritz Cremer (1906-1993), a major representative of official art in the German Democratic Republic who spoke on her behalf without, however, challenging those in the Party who regarded her work as too “formalistic” and excessively “individualistic” to entrust her with an academic position. She took on so many assignments because she lacked the reliable source of income that she had hoped the Wiener Kindertheater would provide. When in 1959 she won culture prize money from the city of Vienna, she went, nearly fifty years old, to Paris to study mime with Marcel Marceau and became the first woman to receive a diploma from him. She believed that mime would open up further teaching opportunities for her and strengthen her efforts to improve the physical expression of actors and singers. In late 1959, she taught pantomime for a couple of weeks at the Hochschule for Musik und Theater in Leipzig, but otherwise she taught pantomime entirely in Vienna, at the Conservatory, for only three months. She worked with the East German DEFA film studio on a couple of dance films and supervised the choreography for a couple of operas (Brussels, Vienna), but she did not produce any pantomimes. But she had not much time left to follow a new path: a brain tumor began to paralyze her in September 1961 and finally killed her in January of 1962. 

Berger was important in the history of East German pantomime because she represented a potential direction for pantomime there that the socialist state failed to encourage. She was a dramatic dancer. While she spent much of her career choreographing theatrical productions and enjoyed producing ensemble pieces with students, she excelled at powerful, expressionistic solo dances, in which she could project different identities: The WarriorThe Rider (male and female horse cavaliers), The Woman in Mourning, Italian Renaissance women (Dogaressa, Primavera, Tyranna, Amica), The FaunThe GirlThe BelovedThe Abandoned MotherThe NymphThe Enslaved,The Girl from Montmartre, all of which she had created before 1945. She loved dancing in different costumes and in relation to a wide range of classical music. After the war, she created ensemble dances with much more overtly political and abstract themes: Song ofSolidarity (1933),Chaos, Sunday Song for Youth, Game in the Sun, Planning (all 1946), with music by Hanns Eisler, although one of her most distinctive political pieces, the solo Battlecry, without music, she premiered in 1944. She was an ardent and highly imaginative practioner of the expressionistic solo dance program, so close to the Roman model of pantomime, that was nearly extinct by the time she gave her first concert in 1937 and which neither the Third Reich nor the Communist Party regarded as a new or even valuable path in dance culture. A good example of her semi-pantomimic dramatic style was her solo L’Inconnue de la Seine (1942), inspired by her first, thrilling visit to Paris in 1934 and begun when she worked in Rome in 1938. The piece, with music by Debussy, depicts a young woman alone, isolated, and abandoned on a bank of the Seine River. Filled with anxiety and despair, her movements encompass yet other emotions, anger, defiance, shame, and above all enormous uncertainty and indecision about what to do with herself in relation to the life and the great city around her. The dark river seems to summon her, yet life, the radiance of the great city, also pulls at her. She then realizes that the radiance of life is only an illusion, at best a memory of what she has lost forever. She decides to face death, the cold water; she plunges into the river, and the piece concludes with her floating in the water, sinking deeper into it, until, at last, she releases a serene smile as her body finally ceases to move. Berger’s costume was a long, dark, violet dress with a green sash all made of silk to amplify the effect of the breeze and then the water rippling through it. Yet to create this drama almost entirely through gesture and movement was a gripping emotional experience for spectators during the war and after it (Amort 2010: 16-21). Berger displayed a rare gift for playing tragic scenes in pantomime, but her Communist idealism prevented her from becoming a predominantly tragic artist. She was just as skillful at playing haughty, aristocratic Renaissance ladies or a mischievious faun or a seductively androgynous cavalier. The main thing was that she brought an aura of seriousness to her enactments. She could bring gaiety, exuberance, even sometimes humour to her pieces, but she was never a clown, her performances did not evolve around a single, “essentially human,” charmingly vulnerable identity like Bip or Pierrot. That was why the East Germans had no space for her despite her eagerness to work there. Even Brecht rejected her proposal in 1953 to collaborate with him on a dance work because he didn’t think “ballet” in East Germany was sufficiently “developed” to claim his attention (111, 154): ballet was not sufficiently developed because it lacked seriousness, but it lacked seriousness because it did not allow a person with Berger’s serious imagination to develop it; maybe, despite her Communist credentials, her status as a foreigner made her proposal untenable. Yet her dramatic approach to pantomimic narrative represented a potentially powerful “development” of bodily performance that East German theater culture failed to encourage as much as the West failed to encourage it. What is peculiar, though, is that the East German theater maintained a reputation for heavy seriousness, encouraged in part by Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. But it was a seriousness derived from a more intense trust in the authority of words, of the voice to control human action than perhaps prevailed in the West. Pantomime in East Germany, with its unanimous focus on clownery, seems to have represented a relief from this hyper-seriousness that was a byproduct of the self-important ideological Marxist discourse that invariably emanated from those assigned responsibility for controlling media. That pantomime functions as a relief from institutionalized seriousness is, of course, welcome, but that pantomime should function always, only, and exclusively as relief from institutionalized seriousness is in itself a form of oppressive institutionalization, a mode of “consensus” intended to exclude outsiders who are serious about things from which no relief seems compulsory. Amort observes that with the East German “boycott” of Berger’s many proposals and the Austrian anti-communist policy, Berger existed “between” the East and the West (130). It was as if, like the unknown woman on the bank of the Seine, she became fatally split, irreconcilably divided by her artistic individuality and her love for a socialist future, and she could not survive the conflict. 

After the building of the Berlin Wall (1961), pantomime, entirely in the clown paradigm, proliferated in East Germany during the 1960s through the work of amateurs and students. Harald Seime (b. 1936) formed in 1958 the most durable of the East German pantomime ensembles, the Pantomime-Studio an der Friedrich-Schiller-Universität, Jena, which consisted of students at the university, where Seime was himself a student of physical education and music education. Marceau, whom he had seen on television, was his great inspiration, and he met with the Soubeyrans when they toured Leipzig in 1957. The same year, he presented a solo pantomime, Marsch nach Moscou, at a youth festival in Moscow, where he also met with Tomaszewski and Enrique Noisvander, the leader of the Chilean pantomime ensemble El Teatro de Mimos. The Pantomime Studio presented its first public performance in 1960, Die sieben Schwaben, an adaptation of a tiny 1857 Grimm tale made into a slapstick parody of Third Reich mentalities. Subsequent programs in the 1960s consisted of mime sketches developed by the student performers. The ensemble traveled to different festivals in the East bloc, and by 1964 Seime had received a prize from the state for “artistic folk creativity,” although in 1962, the State Secret Service (STASI) urged him, for reasons of his “personal safety,” not to board a ship for Helsinki, where he was the East German delegate to the World Festival in that city, and he did not (Berndt 1964). In 1967, Seime began to combine pantomime performances with jazz music by collaborating with the Jena-based Die Old-Time Memory Jazz Band, formed by university students in 1962 and specializing in Dixieland renditions of 1920s popular tunes. The ensemble continued to attend East bloc festivals in the 1970s, and in 1977, Seime, who by this time knew so many of the East bloc pantomime artists, obtained grants from the university, the education ministry, the city of Jena, and the Gera administrative district to produce the first of the International Pantomime Days festivals in Jena. In the 1980s, the Pantomime Studio began to perform comic pantomime adaptations of literary works, such as, in 1981, Leonce and Lena (1836), by Georg Büchner (1813-1837), in 1983, the Baron Münchhausen stories (1785), by Rudolf Raspe (1736-1794), in 1986, Mario and the Magician (1929), by Thomas Mann (1875-1955), in 1988, a comic play by Moliere, and in 1989, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The ensemble received a gold medal at a 1988 Worker’s Festival for its pantomimic adaptation of a section from the enormous novel The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975-1981), by Peter Weiss (1916-1982). According to Andreas Ittner, who worked on the Weiss adaptation, by 1988, the ensemble had come to the realization that it was no longer doing pantomime, which he defined as solo comic sketches, and had moved into what he called “a new form of theater, movement theater” (Ebert 2007: 1104-1106). But Seime, who had started his own school in 1979, remained dedicated to the clown paradigm, which sustained his popularity in the Thuringia region and, despite the woes that befell Jena’s small theater community in the early 1990s, allowed Jena to retain a reputation as a “city of clowns.” His clown persona, an unusually pale or faded whiteface with red jacket and white pants, survived the turmoil of the reunification process, and for his eightieth birthday in 2016 he gave a performance of his pantomime sketches in the Jena Theaterhaus. 

Other East German pantomime ensembles did not last nearly so long as the Pantomime Studio. The first professional pantomime company was the Theater ohne Worte, attached to the Volkstheater in Rostock, established in 1969 by Dagmar Dark, Gerd Glanze, Jürgen Just (b. 1941), and Joachim Lemke (b. 1942), but this group lasted only a few years, because the members separated to follow work opportunities, only sometimes related to pantomime, in other cities. In Berlin, Eberhard Kube (b. 1936), along with four others, formed the Pantomime Ensemble vom Prenzlauer Berg in 1961, which eventually included as many as thirty members, and he guided the group until it disbanded in 1987. He began his career as a physical education teacher, until, in 1956, he saw the DEFA film about Marcel Marceau. He received pantomime instruction from Brigitte Soubeyran, and eventually he became friends with Marceau, Jacques Lecoq, and Henryk Tomaszewski. He performed his first solo program in 1962, and continued to perform solo programs in the ensuing decades; he won a state cultural prize in 1987 and toured with his solo programs as far as Pakistan, India, and Nepal (Rothenberg 2010: 33). A chronicler of the “underground” East Berlin cultural scene in the 1980s, Wilfried Bergholz (b. 1953), has described Kube’s charismatic skill in organizing midnight dance parties in nightclubs, where people danced “as never before seen. Pantomimes in ecstasy” (Bergholz 2015: 326). Yet here as elsewhere in the East German pantomime scene, information about Kube’s solos or the Ensemble’s productions remains frustratingly obscure beyond the assertion that they specialized in clown sketches and acrobatic gags. In 1987, the Pantomime Ensemble produced an adaptation of Brecht’s “school play” Die Horatier und Kuriatier (1934), for which Hanns Eisler was supposed to write the music until the collaboration became untenable. Brecht’s text is primarily a dialogue between two choruses, the Horatians and the Curiatians, with individuals occasionally speaking lines. It is not a comic piece, for it dramatizes, without even satiric irony, the battle between the Alban clan (the Curiatians) and the victorious Roman clan (the Horatians). Did the Ensemble adapt this speech-intense one-act as a pantomime, and if so, how did they do it? If not, why did the pantomime ensemble perform it as a drama? Answers to such questions might deepen the history of pantomime in East Germany. In 1974, ten actors formed the Pantomimen Ensemble des Deutschen Theaters in Berlin to produce comic ensemble pieces from scenarios devised by Volkmar Otte (1940-2011) and Burkhart Seidemann (1944-2016). 

Figure 160: Scene from Zwischen Tür und Engel, directed by Volkmar Otte, Pantomime Ensemble of the Deutsches Theater, Berlin, 1975. Photo: Abraham Pisarek, from Deutsche Fotothek.

The Ensemble produced one or two shows a year until 1990, when the company ceased to operate, and many of the shows caricatured well-known figures from literature: Don Quixote, Bluebeard, Turandot, Faust, Little Red Riding Hood, Hanswurst [Figure 160]. Neither Otte nor Seidemann published any pantomime scenarios, although Otte published several plays toward the end of the Communist era. Before joining the Ensemble, Otte had worked with Kurt Eisenblätter (1929-2017), the director of a theater for the deaf in East Berlin. Eisenblätter had become fascinated with deaf theater after seeing a deaf performance in Berlin in the 1930s that featured Pierrot and Falstaff scenes, and he diligently studied the history of German deaf theater since its introduction in 1881. After the war, he found work with the deaf theater in Dortmund from 1950 to 1959, when the theater folded. With the deaf theater in Dortmund, he had performed numerous serious roles in pantomime, including Othello, Hamlet, and Faust, although these performances involved the use of sign language to translate the texts into coded gestures. He returned to East Berlin to live with his parents and accept an offer to direct the Berlin theater for the deaf, which he did until 1973, when Otte assumed the directorship but could not save the theater from extinction when he tried for a more strictly pantomimic approach to reach a larger audience. Eisenblätter then worked with Otte at the newly formed Pantomime Ensemble at the Deutschen Theater (Meyendorf 2008: 1-5). A member of the original Ensemble, Christoph Posselt, explained the obsession with developing clown personas: working without texts freed the performers from the feeling of being observed by “organs of the state.” “We began to test subversive subjects, to ask questions, and to seek answers other than the official ones” (Posselt 2015: 105). He listed fifteen reasons why playing clowns conferred special powers on the performer, including, “[The clown] is an outsider. He is courageous. He needs courage […] He knows that our communication shatters because we pay too little attention to others and take ourselves too seriously […] He shows us our borders […] and knows that creativity exceeds borders […] He battles the world, he battles himself, he loses and yet keeps going […] He knows that whoever does not fight has already lost” (107). Yet another pantomime clown troupe was Salto Vitale, based in Dresden and founded, in 1983, by Rainer König (b. 1953), an electronics worker who had studied pantomime in the Dresden studio of Ralf Herzog (b. 1952), a theater machinery technician who had taken a pantomime course with the Berlin Pantomime Ensemble in 1975. The group contained Kristina Busch (b. 1964), Constance Debus (b. 1960), Alf Mahlo (b. 1960), and Matthias Krahnert; Debus and Busch had studied dance, and Mahlo had studied for a diploma in information technology. The group toured widely in Germany and several East bloc cities until 1990, when the members followed separate paths as actors and cabaret performers but remained devoted apparently entirely to comic performance and occasionally to teaching. Even in the small city of Gera, Gerrit Junghans (b. 1952) established a pantomime studio in 1982 while pursuing a solo career as a clown in the Marceau mold (“Clown Gerrit”), and, after the fall of the Communist regime, continuing to do so with evidently much greater success. Compared with other countries in the East bloc and in Western Europe, the German Democratic Republic nurtured an abundance of clowns largely modeled after Marceau. Moreover, the pantomime ensembles placed a heavy emphasis on the collective creation of programs, which prevented the emergence of a dominant artistic personality that infused any ensemble with a distinctive aesthetic “vision” or style. With the end of the Communist state, the ensembles disappeared, but the clowns continued, becoming integrated either into the international mime culture, with its schools, festivals, and street “circuses,” or into the reorganizing mainstream theater culture, with its musicals, cabarets, corporate entertainments, and televised variety shows. 

But the pantomime situation in West Germany was not much different during the Cold War, at least in its embrace of the French idea of mime. When Jean Soubeyran returned to West Germany in 1961, he became the leading advocate for pantomime in the country. He received invitations to choreograph or direct at theaters in Hannover, Hamburg, Bonn, and Berlin, while supervising his own pantomime troupe based in Essen, where he organized the third International Pantomime Festival (1966). He published his popular, slender mime textbook, Die wortlose Sprache (1963), with schematic illustrations by Angelika Morkel Lülsdorf (1934-2006) that depicted a faceless male figure demonstrating Decroux’s counterweight positions. By 1968, he was the choreographer for the Wuppertal Theaters, a position given in 1973 to Pina Bausch, the greatest creator of German Tanztheater, and by 1972 he was a professor of acting at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover, where he taught numerous actors and directors in the West German theater scene. Yet the French mime aesthetic did not really gather much momentum in West Germany after the 1960s, nor did clowns seem to have quite as much appeal as they did elsewhere, perhaps because of a deeply ingrained identification of clownery with degradation, as embodied so well in the sordidly masochistic transformation of Professor Unrath into a grotesque, cuckolded, and humiliated nightclub clown in the film Der blaue Engel (1930). In contrast to East Germany, pantomime in West Germany appealed almost entirely to men. Ellen Dorn, Soubeyran’s second wife and translator of his book into German, was possibly (and only briefly) the only female pantomime in the country. The 1970s saw the rise of Tanztheater through the powerful, innovative, and revelatory productions of Pina Bausch (1940-2009), the director from 1973 of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet, which soon after her appointment became the Wuppertal Tanztheater. Bausch developed a monumentally serious performance style by introducing ballet, modern dance, and social dance movement tropes derived from observing underlying social, psychological, and political tensions between men and women, between bodies of both sexes and their social environments, and between performers and audiences. Her Tanztheater became synonymous with an intense, sometimes witty, visually stirring, and often harrowing critique of repressive social structures and patriarchal assumptions about sexual difference. Unlike in most modern dance ensembles, Bausch was able to attract numerous men to perform in her projects, which above all critiqued the institutionalization of dance and dance movements. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Tanztheater completely dominated the West German audience for speechless theater, as Bausch’s success encouraged other important practioners of Tanztheater, such as Susanne Linke (b. 1944), Reinhild Hoffmann (b. 1943), Johann Kresnik (b. 1939), Rosamond Gilmore (b. 1955), Kristina Horvath (b. 1947), and Anna Vita (b. 1964) (cf. Schmidt 1992). But Tanztheater only occasionally introduced pantomimic actions, for the point of Tanztheater was to show in an innovative way how social environments, conventional structures of “beauty,” and emblems of power regulated the movements, the steps, and the positions by which persons of both sexes interacted within and toward a society. Pantomime, still clinging to French ideas from the 1950s, offered nothing nearly as compelling. Soubeyran apparently sensed the need for a more serious mood in pantomime. With his students at Hannover, he staged, in 1982, an adaptation of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, and after he retired (1986), he directed the mysterious pantomime Keltenvisionen, Ein Maskenspiel (1989) for the outdoor Scharniertheater in Hannover, a collaboration with the composer Willi Vogl (b. 1961) and the expressionist graphic artist Hans Ulrich Buchwald (1925-2009), who designed the large, rather menacing “Celtic” masks worn by the performers. Buchwald, who had worked as a theatrical scene designer in the 1950s, had initiated the Scharniertheater performances in 1969: he wanted to design large masks that were expressive on all sides of the head. Keltenvisionen, inspired by the enigmatic imagery on a silver bowl discovered in Denmark in 1892, enacted a primeval ritual invocation of supernatural spirits apparently both in a park space and on the stage of an indoor theater. An inscrutable image from the Danish bowl inspired each of the twelve scenes. Each scene depicted an aspect of the primeval Celtic world rather than built a story around a single protagonist or conflict: 1) Trinity of Gods; 2) Nature; 3) Woman; 4) Male Rivalry; 5) Dream; 6) Unity (of Man and Woman); 7) Anxiety; 8) Druids; 9) Sacrifice; 10) Technology; 11) War and Apocalypse; 12) New Beginning. A narrator, like the interpellator in ancient Roman pantomime, prefaced each scene with a brief description of its significance, for example, “Woman”: “Woman, with her knowledge of the secrets of nature, gathers roots, fruits, and seeds. She builds barns. Feminine patience tames wild animals into pets”; “Sacrifice”: “The people have pushed the gods away. Forces of nature create fears. The priests try to reconcile with the gods through blood sacrifice”; “Technology”: “The wheel is a gift to the intelligent human. The visionary machine era announces itself.” The performers, seven in all, pantomimed these statements wearing extraordinarily imaginative, large masks, some of which represented horses, bulls, fish, or the huge hands of gods, although the performers mostly wore white body stockings underneath the masks. Even the human masks were stunningly expressionistic in their evocation of the “alien” sense of identity with which primeval humans seemed to see each other. The narrator’s brief, intertitle statements contain the action words that motivate the pantomimic action, which adopts a style that appears both somewhat ritualistic and yet utterly alien to “our” world, as if the performance had contradictory purposes: to “explain” the Celtic “vision” carved onto the bowl and why the audience can never really “understand” it. Günther Kappler and Ahmed Ezzat (b. 1964) assisted Soubeyran with the choreography of two scenes, and the small book published about the production mentions many others persons involved in what was evidently an intense community experience, with, however, Soubeyran and Buchwald involved in much conflict over the development of the piece [Figures 161 and 162]. The book presents numerous testimonies from performers, spectators, and critics about the powerful emotional impact of Keltenvisionen, and the numerous photographs of the production convey some of the fascination provoked by this mysterious piece (Buchwald 1992). But Soubeyran worked only on this one production for the theater; Buchwald continued producing fantastic masks for annual summer performances in the park, and the three-person, 30-minute “walking theater” performances have continued since his death, with new, young artists involved in the creation of the huge, grotesque heads, although none of these subsequent productions has apparently approached Keltenvisionen in pantomimic audacity. It was an astonishingly innovative kind of pantomime devised by an artist who was completely outside of the mime culture, and thus Soubeyran concluded his career by working on a pantomime that owed almost nothing to a French idea of it. 

Figure 161: Keltenvisionen, Scharniertheater, Hannover, 1989, directed by Jean Soubeyran.1) “Der Besiegte und Hinde Ailbe” (“The Vanquished and the Dog Ailbe”), with giant god hand as a character, 2) “Das geflügelte Pferd bringt den Unterlegenen ins Totenreich” (“The Flying Horse Brings the Defeated into the Realm of Death”), 3) “Krieg” (“War”). Photos: Buchwald (1992: 20, 21, 45).

Figure 162: Keltenvisionen, Scharniertheater, Hannover, 1989, directed by Jean Soubeyran. 1) “Vereinigung” (“Union”). 2) “Der Weise übergibt dem Suchendem den Torques” (“The Sage Hands the Seeker the Torques”). Photos: Buchwald (1992: 27, 35).  

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