The politics of cultural impact: "Michael Kohlhaas" at the Deutsches Theater

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)

Abstract / Description of output

This article traces the impact of Wolf Biermann’s expatriation on the Deutsches Theater and its production of "Michael Kohlhaas", adapted by the director Adolf Dresen. It aims to establish a differentiated picture of the political positions and responses within East Berlin’s theatre community, to explore context-specific readings of "Kohlhaas", and to show how the Deutsches Theater dealt with an unexpectedly controversial text under the institutional pressures of state censorship.

The rehearsals for "Kohlhaas" ran in parallel with the SED’s disciplinary procedures against Dresen, who refused to withdraw his protest against Biermann’s expatriation. Yet whilst he and his production team discussed the text’s new topical relevance in rehearsals, they kept their disagreements backstage. This resulted in a production predicated on non-communication: "Kohlhaas" was presented as a blank canvas onto which spectators could project their own interpretations. While local SED officials cautiously welcomed the production, the Stasi denounced it; and Western reviewers argued over whether it marked a success or failure for critical GDR theatre. The GDR authorities, like Western critics, focused on the question of whether Kohlhaas represented Biermann, but Dresen’s papers reveal another possible reading: he himself had come to identify with Kohlhaas. Quoting Kohlhaas’s defiant words to Luther, Dresen voted for his exclusion from the SED and applied to leave the GDR. Yet unlike Kohlhaas and Biermann, he strove to minimize the public impact of his political stand.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCultural Impact in the German Context
Subtitle of host publication Studies in Transmission, Reception and Influence
EditorsRebecca Braun, Lyn Marven
Place of PublicationRochester, NY
PublisherCamden House
Number of pages17
ISBN (Print)978-1-57113-430-1
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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